Life at the bottom of the heap in medieval England

Let’s visit the England of the middle ages. 

Why should we do that? Because making the occasional visit to the past is good for us. Finish your spinach and we’ll be ready to go. 

Medieval England was shamelessly hierarchical and society was generally thought of as being divided into three parts. We’ll start at the top, since they would have: The clergy were in charge of people’s spiritual wellbeing. This probably meant telling them all the ways and reasons they could end up in hell, but I don’t have a source for that, I’m just guessing. The clergy also prayed, which was considered a contribution to society.

Irrelevant photo: a rose

The warriors–for which you can read the aristocracy, upper and lower–fought when they were called on. Or at least they were expected to. If you rummage around in all the loose bits of history that no one bothered to file, you’ll find times when they were called on and said, “Sorry, I’m washing my hair right now.” That belongs in a different tale, but it explains why “at least they were expected to” snuck in at the top of the paragraph. 

Finally, at the bottom of society, the peasants, the laborers, and the and-so-forths kept everyone fed and housed to and and-so-forth’d, and they did whatever the other two groups told them to, because who were they to ask questions or have ideas of their own? 

And these divisions were sanctified by religion, which permeated every aspect of life. They would have been almost as self-evident as the knowledge that if you drop things they fall.

Hang onto the almost from that last sentence. This is a two-post visit and we’ll need it when we get to next week’s section.

In English Society in the Later Middle Ages, Maurice Keen—. 

But I need to interrupt myself here so I can apologize. We’ll be short on links today; I’m working largely from books. You remember books? They’re what came before pixels. 

Keen quotes the fifteenth-century Order of Chivalry, which said, “To the knight it sufficeth not that he be given the best arms and the best beast, but also that he be given seignory,” which Keen translates as lordship over lesser men. 

That includes women, of course. Look inside any medieval man and you’ll notice flocks of tiny, unacknowledged, and unquestioning women, cooking the food and washing someone else’s dirty linen. Not to mention sewing, spinning, planting, winnowing, weeding, brewing the ale, and looking after the chickens and cows. And if the family was high enough up on the social scale, embroidering.

Funny how they could do all that and still not be noticeable. I’m delighted that in our happy time we’ve left injustice, hierarchy, and inequality in the past. 

Giving us a wider glimpse of society, Master Ralph Acton wrote, “When God could have made all men strong, wise and rich, he was unwilling to do so. . . . He willed these men to be strong and healthy, wise or rich, that they might save their own souls by helping others through love of them: those others he willed to be weak or foolish or in want, that they might save their souls by enduring hardship in patience. Hence God says, the poor ye shall always have with you.”

Who was Master Ralph Acton? Possibly a fourteenth-century scribe. Also possibly somebody who didn’t exist, in which case we don’t know who wrote that. But the writings themselves do exist, and for our purposes that’s good enough. They reminded the reader that society’s divisions were created by god, so all its inequalities were for the best. 

Occasionally somebody would notice that the three-part division was a little rough and would work out a more detailed picture. The twelfth-century John of Salisbury structured society as a human body. The priesthood was the soul, the king was the head, the warriors were the hands, the laborers and craftspeople were the feet.

And the people who collected taxes? They were the intestines. 

Did he notice the implications of that? Your guess is as good as mine, and mine is that he did. Throughout history, tax collectors haven’t managed to collect much love.

John’s system included a few more body parts, but by now we have enough.

In the countryside, most people were villeins–peasants bound to the lord. And now that we’ve introduced them, to hell with the hierarchy, they’re the people we’re going to spend our time with. In 1290, they made up 60% of the rural population–or to be more accurate, of the rural population living on arable land. They weren’t just bonded to a lord, they were also bound to the land itself. Some definitions draw a line between a serf and a villein. Others count them as the same thing. Let’s not split hairs. We’re using the terms interchangeably here.

And by we, of course, I mean I

Villein, for all you word hounds out there, is the origin of the modern word villain. Not because the villeins were evil but because they were thought of (not by themselves, of course, but by the people who counted themselves as their betters) as uncouth in “mind and manners.” From there, it’s a short distance to being no good at all–a complete villain. 

The key to villeinage was the land. If the lord sold the land, the villeins went with it. But from about 1200 on, he (and lords had a habit of being he’s, although they could also be churches, monasteries, convents, or the very occasional she)–. Let’s start that over: After roughly 1200, he couldn’t just pick them up and sell them separately from the land. The kind of slavery that saw people bought and sold outright was common in Anglo-Saxon England–that’s before 1066, when the Normans stomped in and conquered the place–but became less common afterward. You can mark the shift as starting when William the Conqueror (the big, bad Head Norman himself) imposed a ban on selling slaves to other countries. 

It’s not clear why the shift took place. Morality might have driven it, but it wouldn’t have hurt that serfdom accomplished pretty much the same thing as slavery. And riding herd on villeins might have been easier than riding herd on slaves. 

So villeins weren’t free, but they weren’t exactly slaves either.

At the heart of the feudal system was the manor, which was run by the lord. Each manor had its own rules governing the relationship between lord and villein, and some were harsher than others. The tenants knew the rules as well as the lords did, since although the rules favored the lords heavily, they kept him from having complete, arbitrary control over their lives, leaving him only partial, semi-arbitrary control. 

Now let’s toss in another source, A Brief History of Life in the Middle Ages, by Martyn Whittock. 

The manor was made up of (1) desmesne land, which was farmed for the lord’s benefit; (2) land farmed by villeins, who paid for it by, among other things, farming the demesne; (3) land farmed by free tenants, who paid their rent in cash; and (4) common land, used by tenants in carefully defined ways. 

Villeins owed the lord a set amount of service, and the lord had the right to decide what services he wanted from them during that time. On one estate in the twelfth century, villeins owed five days a week. They might also owe a portion of their crops and animals, and they might owe cash on top of that. 

Villeins couldn’t marry or sell their property without the lord’s permission. They might owe tallages (unpredictable amounts of money that the lord could claim), wood silver (a fee for access to the lord’s woods), boon work (extra services at plowing and harvest times, just when the tenant’s own land needed the most work but who cared about that?), and heriot (the family’s best animal being owed to the lord when the tenant died). They might have to grind their grain at the lord’s mill, at the lord’s price. They might have to pay a fine for having taken part in some forbidden sexual activity–and any imaginative sexual activity was forbidden, along with a lot of activities that didn’t take much imagination. (The link there is to an earlier post on the subject.)

Surprise, surprise, this particular fine fell on women more often than on men. Suddenly they were noticeable.

The list goes on, but you get the picture. 

Villeins could and often did pay a cash rent as a substitute for service. Basically, they were buying back their time. But that didn’t make them free. They were still villeins.

Most serfs could also make wills and buy and sell land if they paid for the privilege. They could be evicted, but until the enclosure movement came along that was rare. (Again, the link’s to an earlier post. The enclosure movement wanders in about halfway down.) The tendency was for tenancies to be passed from one generation to the next–for a fee. If you think of anything a villein might want to do as involving the lord’s permission and a fee, you won’t go far wrong. 

I said serfs couldn’t leave the land. I should have said they couldn’t leave it legally. If they ran away and managed to live in a town for a year and a day, they became free. It’s an odd loophole in the system, and I don’t know its origin. But if they were caught and returned, they were subject to the lord’s justice. There are records of serfs bound in chains to keep them from taking off again. 

The lord ran the manor court, which had the right to impose physical punishments or fines for any act that broke the rules of the manor. And, conveniently enough, any fines the court imposed went to the lord.

Yes, of course the manor courts were impartial and justice was served. I hate it when you get cynical.

Now let’s complicate the picture. Free tenants lived among villeins, in the same villages. Keen paints a picture of village life in which two hierarchies intertwined and people’s social status depended not just on whether they were free or bonded but also on their prosperity. And the two didn’t necessarily line up neatly. A free cottager could be desperately poor. A villein could be prosperous, although most weren’t. It all depended on how much land a person had. A small minority might have upwards of thirty acres. The poorest free cottagers might have no more than a garden and depend on working for others to keep themselves and their families fed.

Telling a free man (which may also mean a woman; I’m not sure) from one who wasn’t free was a complicated business, and it came up in court cases, since only free men could use the royal courts. Villeins were stuck in the (utterly impartial) manor courts. It also came up because people looked for all possible loopholes to so they could be ruled free.

And here you need a warning about health and safety. Or truth in advertising. Or something along those lines. I’m compressing a long time period into a short space. When you compress time, sometimes you get wine, sometimes you get spontaneous combustion, and sometimes you get inaccuracies. So keep in mind that the royal courts weren’t in existence for the whole medieval period, and that even once they sprouted out of the damp ground of medieval politics, they didn’t sit there unchanged until the country rang a huge bell and the medieval period ended. Like any mushroom or bit of government, the courts grew and changed. As did the conditions of rural life.

Now go have a glass of wine and try not to set anything on fire.

To establish whether a person was free, the courts looked at all the things a villein might owe his lord. Did he have a pay a fee to give his daughter in marriage? Did he have to show up a fixed number of days to work for the lord with no clue what work he was going to be doing? Did he pay tallage? If the answer was yes, a serf he was and a serf he remained.

An assortment of people challenged their status as bondsmen, but what they were challenging was their individual status, not the system of bondage itself. Still, when a fair number of individuals pop up and say, “I don’t belong in this category,” you can take that as a sign that the system’s beginning to crack: The old categories don’t fit the realities of life.

Which is probably a good place to tell you that next week we’ll watch the system sprout a big honkin’ crack. In other words, we’ll look at the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. 

I do love a good revolt.

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Anyone missing Brexit news should check out the Brexit Blog. It’s clearly written and to the point.

Medieval sexuality and the Catholic Church

What’s known about sexuality in medieval England is limited enough that I’m not going to mess with the rest of Britain. The picture’s already murky without asking extra figures to wander through the fog. And to complicate the picture, a few bits of information that I found seem to apply generally to Europe, although presumably also to England. 

I’ll focus on Christian England, since religion is central to the discussion, but not everyone in medieval England was Christian. In 1290, when the Jews were banished from England, 16,000 left (they were counted out automatically as they went through the turnstile), so let’s use 16,000 as a rough estimate of the size of the medieval Jewish community. They lived by their own rules, not the Catholic Church’s.

Muslims can first be spotted in England in the sixteenth century, so in the era we’re talking about they were sitting in the sun somewhere and not part of the picture we’re trying to make out in the fog.

Most of what’s known about medieval attitudes toward sex comes from–where else?–written sources: church writers, court records, and literature, all of which had their biases.

Irrelevant photo: apple blossoms.

Source One, the Catholic Church, had bet its chips against sex. Or not quite against sex, since in its core document god tells his creations to go forth and multiply, and (spoiler alert) that involves sex. But they had bet, at least, against anyone having fun while doing what they’d been told to do.

Either all or many of the monks and priests who wrote about sex had taken vows of chastity, so at least in theory they had either no first-hand knowledge or only a distant memory to draw on. We can’t know how much their attitudes coincided with what people outside the church thought–or more to the point, did. We can know that they weren’t your average medieval person.

Did you notice how weaselly I was about monks and priests having taken vows of chastity? That’s because it’s hard to date set a date to when that was became an issue. You can find discussions of it in the eleventh century and also the fifth. And the ninth. And if I looked further, I’m sure I could find a few more centuries. Let’s just say that it took hold gradually and didn’t win without a fight.

Source Two, the courts–and there were both church and secular courts–only dealt with people who’d broken a restriction or had been accused of it, so there’s a bias built into the sample. But they leave a good record of–well, not necessarily of what people did, but at least of what someone thought they did. And what the authorities thought they shouldn’t be doing.

Source Three, literature, hadn’t caught the idea that it should reflect real life. A lot of it still hasn’t. I wouldn’t want to base a study of modern sexual practices on a quick troll through a bookstore and far less on a survey of movies.

But there’s a fourth source, medical books, and some were concerned only with the practicalities of medicine, not with the shoulds and shouldn’ts of people’s behavior, although others did a good bit of finger wagging and not all medical writers were good observers of the real world.

A major problem with all these sources is that peasants were illiterate. They not only didn’t read, they didn’t write, so they didn’t leave a record. Their lives went largely undocumented and what documentation we do have came from other people–literate people from the upper classes.

A fifth source is illustrations–tapestries and book illustrations–but they’re hard to interpret. The Bayeux tapestry shows a man with an erection running toward a woman. Is he threatening some random stranger? Is she glad to see him home? We don’t know how to interpret the image and we don’t know how someone of the time would have interpreted it.

We’ll work with what we’ve got. Don’t mistake any of it for the definitive truth.

The going assumption was that women were either either chaste or sexually ravenous–the old virgin / whore thing, but more so. Women were thought of as sexually disruptive. I’ve seen the word predatory used, and men’s fear of women’s sexuality fueled their fear of witchcraft. Hell, a woman could turn a man on by looking at him, because the eye didn’t just take in, it sent out seeing-rays that affected what they saw. 

That last link is the only source I could find for that, but I think it’s legit.

So sex was a danger and the church dealt with it by restricting it–less so at the beginning of the medieval period and more so by the end. Keep that in mind, because I haven’t been able to date any of this.

According to church rules, you weren’t supposed to have sex either before you were married or outside of marriage, but even inside of marriage, you had to be careful. The only approved way to have sex was in the missionary position. Anything else might lead to a deformed child and was a sin anyway. (These restrictions also come from the link above and I haven’t been able to back them up with a second source.)

You also couldn’t have sex on a Sunday. Or a Thursday or Friday. Or during Lent. Or before Christmas. (So what do you want for Christmas, dear?) Or on assorted saints’ days and feast days.

Or during your lifetime or anyone else’s.

Having sex when a woman had her period would produce a child with epilepsy or (or possibly and) leprosy, according to one medical treatise.

In case you weren’t inclined to take all this seriously, a child could be considered a bastard if a couple conceived it when they shouldn’t have had sex. 

How would anyone know what they did in the privacy of their bedroom? Two ways.

Way one, confession was part of the culture. People told their sins to a priest–either all of them or enough to keep up appearances. So everyone had an informer built into their lives.

Did I say their lives? Into their very selves.

Way two, people didn’t have bedrooms. If they had any privacy at all, they didn’t have much. Entire families slept in one room, making sex something people were necessarily open about. 

Partway through the medieval period, the rich began building solars–separate rooms where they slept and could withdraw from the public mayhem of the hall. But even in the houses of the rich, everyone else slept in public spaces. (If you google solars, make sure you ask about the medieval kind, otherwise you’ll be sent weeks’ worth of ads for solar panels.)

One source I found speculates that empty churches might have functioned as the medieval equivalent of the back seat of a car. Two people who weren’t married would want a bit of privacy, not because sex was private but because sin was. Breaking the rules was. A person wanting to masturbate might also want a bit of privacy. And I’m willing to bet that anyone seen to be enjoying a bit of privacy for anything other than prayer and penitence was suspect. 

In all of this, keep in mind that marriage among the upper classes wasn’t about love or attraction, it was about land and money and power. If married people were tempted to look outside their marriages for a bit of joy, it was hardly surprising.

Masturbation was a sin, but no more so than a thousand other things. It was also a sin for a man to have sex with an effeminate man or with another man. (In the source where I found this, these seem to be separate categories, although I’m not sure how much weight to give that.) But homosexuality as we think of it not only wasn’t a sin, it wasn’t a concept. Their categories were different than ours, and their thought patterns were different than ours. The best I can do by way of explaining it to myself is to say that it wasn’t about who you were but what you did.

Rape wasn’t much of a concern for the courts or the church. The assumption was that men took what they wanted. But it would’ve been a concern to the person who was raped and, if it was a woman, to her family, since a family’s honor depended on its women’s sexual–ahem–purity. And among the upper classes, a girl or young woman’s virginity was worth money: finding her a good marriage depended on it, and marriage, I repeat, was a financial arrangement, not just for her but for her family. So her virginity was her family’s concern at least as much as it was hers. That meant the sexual standards for women were stricter than for men. A man’s misbehavior dishonored only himself, and I’d at least consider the possibility that some misbehaviors didn’t dishonor him for long.

Prostitution was a sin but at the same time it was tolerated, and even considered necessary–so much so that brothels were often publicly owned. Yes indeedy, kids, it takes some work to bend our modern minds into the medieval mindset. In court cases where a man was claimed to be impotent–impotence being one of the few reasons a marriage could be dissolved–a prostitute might be brought in to a test the claim. If he wasn’t interested, it would’ve been hard for him to claim he was.

Presumably, if he wasn’t interested in one woman, he was assumed not to be interested in any.  

Although the clothes prostitutes wore marked them as prostitutes, they weren’t necessarily shunned by lower-class communities. Some women worked as part-time prostitutes, adding their earnings to whatever other income they had. The ways a single woman–whether she was unmarried, widowed, or abandoned–could make a living were limited and people did what they had to.

So on the one hand sex was highly restricted and on the other hand people were very open about it. Metal badges–the kind pilgrims brought back from holy sites–have been found with images of flying penises on them. What did they mean? It’s hard to know. Maybe people liked flying penises. Maybe the badges were supposed to restore a man’s ability to make his own penis feel like it was flying. It’s all guesswork after this many years. It seems like a safe bet, though, that a flying penis wasn’t considered offensive. 

Early in the middle ages, couples didn’t have to be married by a priest and marriages didn’t have to be recorded. In villages, I I doubt there’d have been much question about who was married to who–everyone knew everyone else’s story for generations back–but in less cohesive communities that could get messy and courts occasionally saw couples, or non-couples, or semi-couples, where A claimed to be married to B but B claimed not to be married to A.

Medicine, in the absence of anything approaching science, ranged from imaginative to hallucinatory. One writer claimed that if a woman ate sage that a cat had ejaculated on, she’d have kittens.

Don’t try this at home, kids. It might work and you’ll have a hell of a time explaining it to your family and friends and neighbors.

Some medical writers considered sex necessary to balance the humors, and everyone agreed that good health depended on balanced humors. They considered masturbation–or at least wet dreams–inevitable. Some even recommended it to celibate people. Galen (pre-medieval, but much admired in the period) suggested that physicians or midwives could “’place hot poultices on the . . . genitals’ of a celibate woman and ‘cause [her] to experience orgasm, which would release the retained seed.’“

What was in the poultices? Fairy dust, and if I can get a supply, I’m going into business.

So orgasm was okay but it was for medicinal purposes only. If you enjoyed it too much, that would be voluptuousness, and the church said voluptuousness was bad.

Since female virginity mattered so much, some medical writings listed ways to figure out if a woman was a virgin, including “observing a woman’s behavior, urine inspection, and sometimes actual intercourse. Other texts offer not only the tests, but also ways to restore a woman’s virginity.”  

And if that sounds bizarre–and it does–all you have to do is google secondary virginity to find that the idea of restoring virginity is still with us. Some fundamentalist Christians call it born-again virginity or second-generation virginity. You can even get re-hymenized. 

Assuming, of course, that you’re not male.