Over the 13th century, economic growth continued. For the Peasantry, this gave some opportunities; more chance to sell their produce and get involved in a wider range of money making ventures. It meant that population growth continued, since cottagers and wage earners were able to make enough to get by on small plots of land; and so the density of landholding grew. During the 13th century all of this is fine – but there could be trouble ahead.
By the way, I have a page with some basic data from medieval times – so click here if you want to look at population, prices and other economic data.
Now it just so happens that my place of holidaying was just frighteningly hot. So, if I moved more than I nanometre I disappeared in a pool of sweat like the wicked witch of the west. So I wrote podcast instead. So the History of England is saved.
So, Last time we’d got to the revolution in halls of Westminster, and the radical events that led to the expulsions of the Lusignans and the issuing of the Provisions of Oxford.
One thing I forgot to mention last time was that the Provisions were the first official document to be issued in the despised and reviled English language since the conquest. This reflects the nature of the revolution, the involvement of a much wider cross section of society. And it also reflects the whiff, and indeed genuine odour of social radicalism; there is a genuine strand of opinion that is pushing the line that this is not just about how the king treats his magnates, its also about the common man even, gasp, down to the level of the peasant. The Provisions of Oxford were reforming the realm for the benefit of the full commonwealth of the realm – even the oiks. And so it should be written in the language of the oik as well.
Radical stuff, clearly. But before we follow the journey towards the death squads on the field of Evesham, I thought we should take a breather. Because so far we’ve treated the Provisions of Oxford as an entirely politically driven set of measures and movement. Yes, we’ve pointed to a few things about Henry’s tyranny that reached down to all levels of society, but the political story has felt very like a struggle of the magnates. But to a very large degree the whole movement reflected the realities of changes happening in the country. So let’s take a pause for a while, and catch up on how the country has changed – after all, it’s been 30 episodes or so since we looked at the more general picture of life in medieval times. And although change is much slower than it maybe is in modern times, change there still is, make no mistake
I shall make brave efforts not to repeat episodes 37-39 too much, though, gentle listeners I have to suspect that there will be some duplication, hate it or loathe it. Hopefully a bit of repetition isn’t too awful, and you will learn to forgive me. Over the next few episodes we’ll talk about the economic and social history of the 13th century, and include something of the changes in the church to boot.
One of the things I do remember covering then was the stuff about the climate. There is some debate about when the medieval warm period ends, and even it’s existence, but if evidence there is, then it points to the change beginning to happen or become relevant at the end of the 13th century. So the general big picture of the 13th century is a continuation of the 12th Century stuff we talked about; generally good harvests, with no really bad harvest between 1260 and 1290; a steady growth in population, to the point where the population of England is as high in 1300 as it will be in the 18th century; price inflation, increasing pressure on land, the growth of towns.
I guess normally we’d start top down, but hey, let’s do a bit of yolo-ing as my daughter would say, though I think that’s the kind of thing you’re meant to shout when sky diving or bungee jumping or something like that. But, whateve’s, let’s start with the life of the rural peasants.
There are a few broad themes here we are going to follow, focusing on their role in the economy. There are the patterns of landholding, family and inheritance, and how they change through the century as the pressure on land grows; there is the increasing commercialisation of the peasantry, and their increasing integration into the economy; and then there’s the many and various ways that you could make a buck in the middle ages if you were a peasant.
Let’s start with a bit of revision, and visualise a typical village; let’s call it Anywhereton. Now, I know what you are thinking – surely it depends what part of England we are visualising. Customs vary so much from place to place. Well, no one likes a smart ass, so shush. But yes, I take the point, and where relevant I’ll try to mention variations. We are going to concentrate though on the customs that predominate in the massive swath of central and north-eastern England, with a nucleated village and an open field system.
In our village of Anywhereton, there is a substantial group of freemen, sometimes called Franklins, who own significant amounts of land, maybe from 40 to 100 acres of land – i.e. more than the basic unit of land. The basic, 30 acre unit of land is called a virgate, or yardland or Oxgang depending on where you are. The Franklin has enough land to feed a family and create a comfortable surplus for sale, and some of these Freemen are successful villeins, who have managed to get enough land together to become comfortable, and to buy themselves out of service to the lord. They might even be on their way to qualifying for knightly status. This is perfectly possible, though probably not common – one example is of the Kniveton family in Derbyshire, who do this very thing. Now I remember one of you contacting me and telling me you are descended from the Kniveton – well congratulations, you are one of a line of self made men.
In our village we also have Freemen who are descendants of the original soldiers of the conquest. And then you’ll notice some who give themselves airs and graces – these are the younger sons or daughters of a local lord, who couldn’t inherit the main estate and whose father wasn’t rich enough to give them a manor.
Let’s say our village has 50 families and 200 souls; it has 7 rich Freeman families, which is pretty typical. Whatever their family background, they occupy a special place in the village hierarchy, and have a lot of social status, and not just because they own land, have a bit of money and employ a couple of people. They don’t owe service to the lord and therefore have access to royal justice rather than being forced to go to the baronial court. Plus they are integral to the running of the place. Every three weeks there is a meeting of the hundred court, and they give judgements. When the royal justices comes round on one of his circuits or eyres they give evidence, and there are normally a lot more of them than the local lords.
Then we generally have a range of unfree peasants, with a wide range of landholdings, but potentially quite substantial landholdings. These are villeins. They owe service to the lord, such as 2 days a week’s work on the lord’s demesne land, and maybe 3 days a week at harvest time. And then at the bottom of the tree are the landless or small holders – cottagers, domestic servants, local labourers. These are the guys who are at the mercy of the economic winds. Basically the rule of thumb is that if you have less than ½ a virgate, or say less than 15 acres, you are going to have to supplement your income somehow – though again, with that caveat that it really does depend on where you live.
Before we go on, a question: What is the commodity that everyone, and I mean everyone, prizes above all other? Is it freedom, gold and sliver, livestock, status? Well all of these things are important, but in the end and until and indeed until well after the industrial revolution land is the thing. Land gives the medieval man so much of what they want – status, security, a way of making money, something to hand on to – future generations. There’s a famous quote that sprung to my mind – which isn’t obviously connected with this point, but I’ll try to make it relevant. There is a famous Foreign Minister in the 19th century when Britain is at the height of their world power called Lord Palmerston, the absolute incarnation of gunboat diplomacy. He was asked by some polite foreign diplomat, who asked him, if we wasn’t an Englishman what nationality would be like to be? The answer came back with re-assuring English arrogance ‘If I wasn’t an Englishman, sir, I should want to be an Englishman’
Now during this period there is an increasing number of people without land, though slavery is completely gone. My rather laboured attempt to link to the anecdote is that there may be people who survive happily in the 13th C without significant amounts of land, but their main motivation beyond survival is to acquire land – so ask a medieval man what he’d want if he didn’t have land, and he’d tell you that he’d want land. Is that laboured enough for you? Nice anecdote though, isn’t it! The point is that land – lack of it or the need to preserve it drove many decisions people made. And they’d all want to avoid becoming a smallholder. But by the late 13th c an underclass had grown of workers without land. They could account for up to 20% of the village population. Often working for as little as 1d a day, their existence oiled the economic wheels through the availability of cheap labour, but they lived on the edge of disaster.
There were of course other people rolling around the village. The village priest was basically usually a member of the peasantry, supported by a bit of land attached to the church called the glebe, and the tithe – 10% of everyone’s income. Then there would be the lord’s Reeves and Bailiffs. And whole more specialist trades would be provided by the towns there were key jobs that every village needed to be able to provide – the smith being one, but also leather workers, tailors and builders such as carpenters and thatchers. Generally speaking these guys would have some land as well as their trade, though. The number of tailors, incidentally, suggests that by this time a significant number of peasants must have had their clothing made by a professional. The likelihood is that the householder wove the cloth, and the tailor made up the clothing.
Let us assume that we have some families in Anywhereton who are contemplating a marriage, and let’s base them on a real example – so let me introduce the Maud and the Wade families. By 13th C, the church has definitely established the rules around marriage, and all that was needed was the consent of the happy couple. So in principle, young John Wade and Avicia Maud’s eyes could have met over the threshing floor, and things could have gone on from there. But in the real world it didn’t happen like that. Marriages were a family decision. They were careful weighed up and agreed by the parents. Marriage was approached with a lot of caution – this wasn’t an easy decision, it had implications, particularly because in the long term, the marriage would determine the descent of the land. So it’s more likely that the father, Richard Maud, told young Avicia that that John Wade looked to be a likely lad. Avicia replied that John looked like the south end of a north facing cart, but when being told he had a nice plot of land suddenly Avicia decided that he looked pretty good.
Because marriage could only go ahead if the couple could be provided with some land. This might not be inherited land – it could be that the parents managed to buy a plot; and it might be as little as a cottage and garden. But something was needed. And of course a dowry would be needed from the woman’s father. In this case, the Wades and the Maud’s sat down and came to an agreement. The Wades would provide a plot of land, the Maud’s would send Avicia over with a cow worth 10 shillings, and clothing worth 13 shillings; and they’d build a house for the couple worth 40 shillings. The Mauds and Wades would have weighed a few other things in mind when hammering out their deal; they’d consider whether they’d get this past the local lord, because since they were villeins and therefore not free they’d have to buy a licence from him to marry and transfer the land, so he’d have to approve; and they’d have considered the general view the community would take. In this case, the Wade’s may not had simply taken part of their land and transferred to tenancy to their son; they may have been able to buy a plot, for example. It’s not the case that peasants always had to wait for their parents to die to acquire land.
All of this meant that there was in practice a relationship between the economy and population growth. In general, teenage marriage was not a social problem and their cause for furrowed brows and social legislation, it was a matter for celebration because the sands of time were running out. But if times were bad, couples had to wait until their mid or late twenties before getting married, because they couldn’t afford the children. So they would of course have fewer children. And by and large children just weren’t born out of wedlock. So for example, single serf women who had sex were liable to a tax from their lord called a leirwite, literally a tax for lying down, and a childweite if they had children.
If you took a wander around Anywherton, by the way, you might notice that the size of families varied. The better off families seemed to have about 5 children; while the poorer cottagers only had a couple. In the 13th century, the average number of children tends to be higher than in the 12th, with more peasant families having 3 rather than 2 children. You would notice that the family structure remained very much as it was in the 12th century, and will be for evermore – i.e. a nuclear family, with parents and children. Though if you got into deeper conversations, you would realise that the extended family was not an irrelevance; people knew who was doing what, and would look to the extended family to help out with specific crises; or maybe provide a start to someone looking to move to the local town, that sort of thing.
And while we are taking this wander, by the way, you’d notice that one important change from the 12th C is the adoption of stone foundations. Builders would use local materials, and just set the timber frame on padstones where stone was hard to come by, but of course despite the increased cost it enormously prolonged the life of the timbers. The arrangements of the buildings in the village hasn’t changed from the 12th century, and still reflect attitudes to privacy. What I mean by this is that your average Englishmen has always and possibly will always be a bit of an unfriendly SOB. So medieval man very often lived in close communities which were based on a collective identity with shared assets and activities. But they surrounded themselves with hedges, ditches or walls, secured outer doors with locks, and protected windows with shutters. Inside, clothing and valuables were locked in stout chests. No evidence of big signs saying welcome, come in, don’t hesitate to ask or anything like that.
While we are on it, one of the books I read by an eminent chap called Michael Prestwich made me laugh. He starts by quoting a contemporary source who says that ordinary Englishmen, given food and drink, were as handsome as the nobility, with excellent, fair complexions and an attractive smell. He then goes on to say:
It would be wrong to idealise them. For the most part, the records suggest that they were ungenerous, suspicious, highly litigious as well as downtrodden. There’s was a miserable existence.
So, that’s making it clear then. I suspect that this reflects on of the issues, that the life of the Peasantry isn’t written down; we can gather bits from archaeology, but a lot of it comes from court records, which are much more numerous in 13th century, but which hardly reflect the finer side of human nature. But I suspect it’s perfectly correct to say that life for most would be pretty hard, and it’s as well to remember that as well.
In the end, even more than today, Peasant families were eager to set their children up. Because the pension policy industry in the 13th century was an opportunity waiting to happen. Medieval man would have dreamt of the opportunity to have a slick salesman mis-sell a pension on them. In the 13th century you made your own arrangements, and to your average peasant family this meant the children; though of course its worth noting that the problem is not like these days with our long life expectancy; the market of the silver surfer is some way off. Retirement in the 13th century basically usually meant a short and terminal illness. But of course it was possible that you could live to an age where working the land effectively and making a living would be a problem, so some provision had to be made.
So let me introduce you to another family in Anywhereton, again based on reality, the de Bretendons. Elyas and Christine de Bretendon are getting on a bit and are finding it difficult to keep things going on the farm. They are not a rich family but have just enough to get by – they have a half yardland or 15 acres, which is basically enough to feed the family and create a small surplus in better times. So Elyas and Christine sit down with their son John and agree that they will give the land to him, and in return John will provide them with a place to live and suitable food and drink for the rest of their lives. It just so happens that John has been mewling and puking for a couple of years about getting his hands on the lands, so Elyas and Christine don’t entirely trust their own flesh and blood not to turf them out the moment the transfer is completed – so in this case they have a formal contract drawn up in the lord’s court.
Now, I have to admit that most of this is not particularly 13th Century, and probably applies just as much to the 12th; It’s just that in 13th century we have so many more surviving records. This in itself, by the way, is some evidence of an increasingly complex society and the greater availability educated people with the ability to write.
But there are differences in the 13th century. The big one is the increasing commercialisation of the economy, and the increasingly direct participation of peasants in it. Or put another way, peasants find more ways of making a buck. Smallholders and Cottagers had to find wage-earning jobs to survive. There were opportunities to get into a retail trade with relatively low entry costs – Ale making is the best example. The woman of the household would make money from spinning yarn, or gathering and selling rushes, or gathering fuel from the common, or grazing a cow on the common. And by so doing in good times they’d get by.
Population growth continues, but isn’t evenly throughout the country – some places don’t grow at all; so for example Compton Verney in Warwickshire had 48 households in 1086 and had 45 in 1280. This could be for a number of reasons; the lord may have simply decided that he wasn’t having his tenants sub divide their plots, and therefore confusing the dues he was owed. Or more likely it could be that there simply wasn’t room for expansion. We covered assarting last time didn’t we, and I’m sure you all remember what this is; but just on the off chance some of you have forgotten, assarting is the process by which more land is brought into cultivation; often the deal is that Peasant converts a parcel of wood or heath into arable or pasture, and gets a period free from rent in return. So the villages that could grow most easily would be those where the opportunity existed for expansion. It’s worth noting by the way that medieval man was well aware of the trade offs involved. If woodland was converted to Arable, the rest of the village would have fewer resources for grazing the pigs or gathering fuel. So the decisions were taken carefully, and sometimes assarting by the local lord was actively resisted – there’s an example in Worcestershire where the peasants agreed to pay a fine of 6s to stop the lord enclosing some common pasture land. Often what happens is that land is advanced at the margins – for example, in hilly country a extra slice might be cultivated a bit high up the hill. This of course was again OK when times were good, but had the potential to suck when the weather closed in.
A lot of this assarting was done individually by peasants; projects like the Somerset Levels and reclamation of the fens needed community action or investment by the lord. But it all adds up to more than a hill of beans. In the early 13th century, in Rockingham Forest in the Midlands, 1,286 acres are brought into production.
However, even where assarting was possible, the long and short is that in the 13th century the unit of landholding by Peasants becomes increasingly small. Plots and tenancies are subdivided over the years to set up new families. So in Anywhereton, by 1279 only about 15 of our 50 families, or about 25% of Peasants would hold a full yardland, or the double Oxgang that was the norm in the north. About 20 families, or 40%, had half or quarter yardlands. Any one with a quarter yardland, lets say 8 acres, would need another way of making money to pay the rent and get enough food to feed the family. The remaining 15 families were cottagers of some kind.
This situation would have been more extreme in other areas. In place like Kent in the southeast or east anglia, there was no tradition of handing down all the land to the eldest son, i.e. primogeniture. So land was divided into even smaller plots. And of course you have to take the quality of land into account – you could survive on a much smaller amount of land in the agriculturally rich lands of Norfolk than you could in the hills of the Pennines for example, and sub divisions reflected this.
All of which begs the question; if the amount of land you have isn’t enough, how, in the middle ages, do you get by? What happens between 1100 and 1300 is a much greater integration of the peasantry into the general economy. They move away from the simple self sufficiency of 1100, and by 1300 are producing directly for sale at a considerable scale. Partly because they had to; partly because the demand from towns increased; and partly because they just saw the opportunity to do so.
A typical, basic sum from a place like Anywhereton could look something like this. A yardlander could produce 23 quarters of grain, given a yield just below 1:4. From those 23 quarters they’d have to keep back 6 quarters for next year’s grain, and 10 quarters to feed the family and other animals. Which leaves him with 7 quarters, which could fetch anything up to £2. Obviously this is pretty much the best it gets; villeins would have to be paying rent or service dues, and of course there are tithes to pay, but at the top end of the scale there is considerable leeway.
But as we walk round Anywhereton, what you’d see is a classic cottage economy, with Peasants producing a whole load of agricultural produce that supplements their income. Cottagers in particular would be unlikely to concentrate on grain; in that market, they were competing with much large scale competitors – the demesne land of the lords as well as wealthy peasants. So they tended to go for niche markets – poultry, eggs, fruit and vegetables, honey and wax. The production of legumes increased, given the additional benefits to the land; sometimes it would be industrial type crops like flax that the local market needed. Peasant gardens and yards were usually tended by women, so it would often be the woman who took their produce to markets and towns to sell.
One of the myths to dispel, then, is any suggestion that Peasants were stuck in a traditional production pattern; they were stimulated by rising prices for particular commodities and local demand from towns. They changed their farming practices as they could – in ways that I think we covered the last time – the adoption of windmills and water mills, the increasing use of the horse, moving, if sensible, to a three crop rotation from a two crop rotation. It’s very clear that methods of farming were widely different in different parts of the country, which reflected local circumstances.
The market, then, increased the intensity of land use, and a rising population increased the density of landholding. The extreme example could be found in North East Norfolk. So in the manor of Martham in 1292, 60% of the tenants had 2 acres or less; only 3% had 10 acres or more. Compare that to our standard model of 30 acres.
Because they had such small holdings, they had no period of fallow, and cropped thickly, and hoed and weeded as the corn grew. They planted large quantities of legumes to refresh the land. Partly they are responding to demand; partly they are taking advantage of the exceptional fertility of the area.
However to add to all of this were all the things Peasants could do outside of agriculture to improve their incomes. Some of this depended on where you lived; so, in the fens they caught wildfowl and fish, and collected rushes, reeds and sedge and dug peat for fuel. In woodlands they might burn charcoal, or work at a number of crafts such as wood turning or glass making. Alternatively there we some industries that employed full time wage earners – such as tin mining in Devon and Cornwall, or coal and iron mining. Coal mining could be done pretty cheaply by the peasants themselves, since they simply sunk bell pits into the coal seam where it was close to the surface. And we’ve talked already about leather working, Smiths, ale brewing and tailoring being an established part of rural industry.
A number of crafts which had been the preserve of the towns in 1100 spread into the country side. It made sense for example to make pottery close to the source of clay. Cloth making happened on manors in lots of parts of the country, helped from 1180 with the invention of the fulling mill. By the way, if you are a Webb, someone in you past was probably a weaver; and if you are a Walker one of your ancestors was probably involved in fulling. The traditional process before the fulling mills came along with their mechanical hammers, was to have people walk on the wool until it broke down; hence the name Walker. There are just a few signs of villages appearing that are so focussed on a particular occupation that it’s reflected in their names – so, Potters Marston, for example and Crockerton reflect the local focus on pottery.
Meanwhile, a more active commercial land market is developing; with a more lively commercial market. This could be driven by the desire to get more rent, or expand a particular money making venture, or provide for children; in some parts of the country, as much as 90% of the land transfers were between people who were not related, though that couldn’t be described as typical.
So far so good; what we are building up is a picture of a Peasantry who are increasingly commercialised, contributing to a more sophisticated economy. But there are limits. Peasants by and large still didn’t have the confidence to specialise in a cash crop and they buy their food. They would make their decisions based on what they needed, rather than what would yield them the best profit. They were still very much held back by the traditional rules of the village. For example, a yardlander could not extend the sheep flock beyond the customary limit of 40 animals. They competed against Lords who had many advantages in terms of marketing, and who made them pay entry fines for new building or equipment. There might be a growing commercial land market, but it’s very notable that we don’t get a big growth of large land units, of successful peasant dynasties – those Kniveton are the exception rather than the rule. If one generation build up a large plot, they are generally not driven by creating a commercial empire, they are usually being opportunistic, and then divided the lands up between their families.
In summary, peasants were partly integrated into the economy. A traditional view of downtrodden and rather helpless Peasants doing things the way they always did is highly inaccurate, but they certainly work within a very structured and restricted framework that is only showing the very smallest signs of breaking down, and the very beginnings of greater commercialisation and specialisation. They have some buying power, but again it’s limited. Many peasants did profit from the growth of the 13th century economy, but often it simply allowed a larger population of cottagers and smallholders who could survive when times were good, but could be blown away by unfriendly economic winds.