37 12th Century Life – Village, Town and Trade

12th Century England was envied for it's fertility and yes it's climate. Any during the 12th century, the population of England and its towns and villages expand. But by and large, this is expansion without growth, and for many average income falls. 


37 12th C Life – Village Town and Trade

Population growth

…is difficult to calculate. But let's take the higher end estimates: 

  • 1086: 2.25 million
  • 1215: 5.7m 
  • 1348: 7m 

And you know what happens next !

The 12th Century society and village

What defined your status in medieval England was whether you were free or unfree, and how much land you had. 

Some rough proportions: About - 

  • 15% of people were free
  • 40% of people were Villani (villeins) – they had substantial land (c. 30 acres) but owed service
  • 35% were cottars or bordars – unfree, less land
  • 10% were slaves or as near as darn it

Not all villages were the nucleated village that we think of today – but it's far and away the most common model. Each village was composed of a number of tofts (or crofts) – areas of 1/4 – 1 Acre, rented from the lord. each croft held the medieval house – typically 24 x 12 feet, 2 rooms, 5+ people and not a lot else. 

An original source – The Manor of Elton

Somewhere between 1154 and 1189, the Abbot of Ramsey had a survey completed of the Manor of Elton in East Anglia. Attached, is the porigianl text, which compared the people, income and service of the people in time of Henry 1 and present day (i.e. HenryII). I though you might be interested to see it, so I have retyped it, with some notes. 

Download Survey of the Manor of Elton

Towns and Trade

The wealth of England was based on wool – something that's not going to change for a number of centuries. During the 12th century the number of  towns grows – possibly doubles in fact, as every Norman lord tries to make a bit of cash. Other key trades included the wine trade from Rouen and increasingly Gascony in South West France, and the export of Tin from Cornwall. 

8 thoughts on “37 12th Century Life – Village, Town and Trade

  1. I just wanted to say that I love your podcast. British history has always been an interest of mine and your podcast helps to make my workday more interesting. Keep up the good work. 🙂

  2. I’m slowly catching up with the podcast episodes, and am listening to this episode as I type. You do a fantastic job, and I’m looking forward to finally being current. I did want to let you know that I particularly appreciate the mention of Robbie Savage & Derby County FC. I’m sure Robbie never imagined he’d somehow be connected to medieval English history! He’s a fine footballer.
    Keep up the good work!

  3. I am fascinated with the history of the British. I read more about them because I am interested with their works especially the sculpture. Thanks for sharing this.

  4. This is English history, not British. Life was very different in medieval Wales, Ireland and Scotland.
    The terms toft and croft were applied to two different areas: houses and any outbuildings occupied a toft, usually surrounded by a low bank and ditch to keep out livestock, while at the rear of this was a larger rectangle of land called the croft (again surrounded by a low bank and ditch). The croft was equivalent to a garden plot or allotment, used for growing crops, planting fruit trees, raising livestock or any other purpose. Many peasants also had strips of land in the surrounding area, mixed in with those of their neighbours and also demesne land belonging to the lord of the manor. They worked both on their own land and on the demesne as part of their feudal obligations.
    A typical village would normally consist of about 40 peasant houses, a manor house, a church, a small cottage for the priest and a mill. In my own village in Kent in the 12th century there were two water-mills – everyone had to pay to have their crop ground into flour.

  5. Hello David. I’ve just started listening to your podcasts, so I am >11 years behind. I greatly enjoy the content and your self-deprecating delivery style and humour. I’m in the midst of writing my second historical fiction novel (which, like the first, may never see the light of day) about Simon de Pateshull, who was an itinerant judge under Henry II, Richard, and John as well as High Sheriff of a few counties. I’m fabricating the genesis of his career as a deputy sheriff and keeping the stories local, not wading into the weeds of royal intrigue and battles. I have a character in Northampton whom I refer to as a respected leather merchant. He’s kind of pivotal to the story, which is set in 1173 during the revolt. You mention at the end of this podcast and I have subsequently read elsewhere that merchants at the time were looked down upon. But then in your episode about Thomas Becket, you mention that his father, Gilbert, was a powerful merchant in 1120. I realize that this detail would be ignored by most [possible] readers, but wondered if you think it feasible that in a city like Northampton, a leather merchant could rise to be influential.

    1. Hi Janice and that sounds like an excellent idea for a series of novels; an itinerant judge and Sheriff is a great set up. Don’t let this one die in the gestation! And yes, in the context of an urban environment a successful leather merchant could without doubt become influential, and indeed could buy some land and see their family become part of the lower gentry. That’s a process that tended to take 1-3 generations typically in medieval times, but is entirely possible. Good luck – I am in awe of anyone with the creativity to create a novel, characters, plot! That’s why I love history – it gives me the stories I don’t have the ability to make up.

      1. Hi David; I was so excited to see your reply. I do have a tanner mention that the merchant was good to him, “he and his father before him.” It is one thing to relate history, it is another to bring in various aspects to weave an interesting tale (with lots of digressions), which you do so well. Like you, I find the research fascinating and can easily get sidetracked into all kinds of interesting aspects of life in those days. I have begun sending the book out to agents and independent publishers. My husband and I will be visiting the UK next summer, and I am tempted to visit Pateshull, though I suspect it is just a suburb of Northampton now. Thanks so much for the reassurance that my character is not an anachronism.

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