Post-classical history

Chapter 8


Before the Norman Conquest the native speech of the Anglo-Saxons was high status enough for legal and government documents to use it alongside the universal language of Western Christendom – Latin. The technical name for this Anglo-Saxon language is Old English. It is found in sources as varied as charters, government writs and translations of the Bible. The particular dialect that had become dominant by the eleventh century was that of central southern England – the Old English of Wessex.

For two centuries after 1066 the English language went into social decline. Norman-French and Latin (the educated language of the Church) replaced Old English for the elite and the upwardly mobile. William I gave up his early attempts to learn English and England would not have a ruler whose first language was English until Henry IV in 1399. This linguistic social divide is fossilized in the modern English language. We eat beef, mutton and pork (derived from Norman-French boef, moton, porc); but those who care for them in the fields and barns labour with cows, sheep andpigs/swine (derived from Old English cu, sceap and Middle English pigge/Old English swin). The language of the worker and the language of the one who enjoyed the product of their labour was not the same. It is a post-1066 linguistic and social separation.

However, English remained the language of the majority of the population even if the more upwardly mobile and economically active needed to learn Norman-French as well. Norman-French itself began to develop into a rather provincial form of French and this increased as English rulers lost land in France in the early thirteenth century. This left the French language of England increasingly isolated, although it took another 150 years and the growing patriotism which accompanied the upsurge of wars against France in the fourteenth century for English to finally regain social acceptability in England. When Chaucer wrote Troilus and Criseyde in about 1380 and later went on to write the Canterbury Tales it was English that he used. And about this time a number of French books began to be translated into English.

But even during the period 1066–1380, English did not vanish as a literary language. It continued to be used in some areas of government: royal charters, for example. Even during the late eleventh to mid-twelfth centuries Old English texts (especially saints’ lives and grammar books) continued to be copied and adapted. From the later twelfth and thirteenth centuries there survive many examples of written material in English: song lyrics, saints’ lives, devotional manuals, histories and poems. Early-fourteenth-century romances, such as Havelok the Dane, illustrate the influence of English among educated members of the urban merchant class. During this period the English that was emerging was different from the Wessex-based Old English of late Anglo-Saxon government and literature. What was emerging was Middle English.

Middle English is the name given to the forms of the English language spoken between the Norman invasion and the late fifteenth century. After this period Chancery Standard, a form of London-based English, began to become widespread. This later process was aided by the introduction of the printing press into England by William Caxton in the 1470s. The language of England spoken after this time, up to 1650, is known as Early Modern English. In the north other changes occurred, as the Northumbrian dialect of Middle English spoken in south-east Scotland developed into a dialect known as Scots.

By the time Middle English emerged as a high-status language in the literature of the late fourteenth century it had gained a great deal of vocabulary from French. This was not surprising. Ranulph Higden, in his Latin work of history, the Polychronicon of 1330, commented that educated children were ‘compelled to abandon their own language and to construe their lessons and their tasks in French’ and the ambitious learnt French ‘in order to be more highly thought of.’ It is therefore no surprise that many of the French words which entered regular English usage are from relatively high on the social scale: abbey, beauty, fashion, government, music, nation, parliament, prince. Others had a more immediate impact: colour, parish, prayer, saint. By 1350, though, French was losing the battle with Middle English.

The Middle English of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was an amalgamation of the dialects and vocabularies of the literary cultures of the West Midlands, London and East Anglia. It was not the language of southern and western England, whose dialects were already sounding parochial and rural and would later feature in the way ‘rustics’ talk in Shakespearean plays. If English was on the way up, it was not the direct descendant of the kings of Wessex. But it was this new kind of English which appeared in the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, William Langland, Thomas Occleve, Thomas Malory and William Caxton. English had once again become the respectable language of literature and culture. This coincided with increasing literacy. The early fifteenth century witnessedthe first attempt by ordinary laypeople to write their own history, in the so-called London Chronicles. The earliest of these chronicles represents the first generation of historical writing to be undertaken in English since the writing of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle stopped in the mid-twelfth century.1

The exception to this progress in the use of English was the Bible. Bibles in English had existed in Anglo-Saxon times and, as early as the late seventh century, the Northumbrian monk Bede started to translate the Bible into Old English. In a similar way, the West Saxon scholar Aldhelm (640–709) translated the Book of Psalms and large parts of other books of the Bible into Old English. Then in the eleventh century, Elfric translated most of the Old Testament into Old English. In short, the English Bible was not an invention of Wyclif in the late fourteenth century, as is often assumed. There was, in fact, no prohibition on non-Latin Bibles, and Bibles in French as well as selections of the Bible in English were used by some aristocrats before the fourteenth century. But the problem was twofold. Firstly, the earliest complete translation of the Bible in the late fourteenth century was associated with the Lollards and so the whole enterprise became suspect. Secondly, even as late as 1400 English had not yet achieved the status which made it acceptable amongst the most educated of the elite. As a result, in 1409 strict controls were placed on translating the Bible into English. Possession of English Bibles had become associated with heresy and the link would not be broken until the English Great Bibleof 1539 was ordered to be placed in every parish church.

Personal names

The decline of English after 1066 revealed itself in many ways. Anglo-Saxon personal names were very varied, from complex two-element names such as Ethelred, Wulfstan, Ethelthryth and Elfgifu to simpler forms such as Cutha, Hwituc, Duduc and Tuma, which had themselves been created as pet forms of more complex names. Into this situation the Norman Conquest brought a raft of new names (often Germanic but influenced by French): William, Henry, Geoffrey, Robert, Odo, Matilda, Rosamund. Accompanying this was a trend to name from the Bible (which was a fashion being seen across western Europe): Andrew, Matthew, Stephen. The growing cult of the Virgin increased the giving of the name Mary from the mid-twelfth century. A similar process, but focused on John the Baptist, encouraged the use of the names John and Joan from the 1160s.

Anglo-Saxon and Danish names continued to be given into the twelfth century but then went into a steep decline in favour of the new personal names which had a higher social cachet since they were the names favoured by the new elite. In Lincolnshire, around Louth, by the 1220s only 6 per cent of tenants listed in a survey of 624 people had pre-Conquest names of any kind, but 14 per cent were called William, 9.5 per cent were called Robert and 6.5 per cent were named John. These three ‘new’ names alone made up 30 per cent of the total name stock! The trend continued to accelerate. By 1300 male names were dominated by John, Peter, Thomas and William; female names by Elizabeth, Mary and Anne.2 Analysis of the Poll Tax returns for Sheffield in 1379 shows that of the 715 men assessed for tax, 33 per cent were named John and 19 per cent William; a total of 52 per cent of males carrying just these two names. The only Anglo-Saxon name used was Edward and it was not found among the top eight names, which were, in descending order: John, William, Thomas, Richard, Robert, Adam, Henry and Roger.3 It is little wonder that manorial court records from the thirteenth century have clerks wearily noting ‘another William . . .’ as they record those paying fines and taking part in the proceedings.

One spin-off from this implosion of names from the great variety which had existed before 1066 was the rise of the hereditary surname. This was a development accelerated by an increase in government taxation bureaucracy and a rise in population, which meant it was becoming difficult to differentiate people by given (Christian) name alone. The Anglo-Norman aristocracy first experimented with surnames, or bynames. The fashion rippled out to better-off Londoners by about 1150 and across society during the thirteenth century. By the Lay Subsidy Roll taxation return of 1327 surnaming was well established, though not absolute. These early surnames, though, were highly flexible and not yet necessarily hereditary. Such names might vary across a person’s lifetime and change from one generation to another, but the hereditary principle was growing – assisted by the permanence encouraged by official record keeping. Consequently, by 1400 almost everyone had a hereditary surname.

Of all surnames the largest number were ‘local surnames’, named from local places. Of these, some indicated foreign origins – such as Fleming and Bremner (from Barbant) – but most were named from English towns, villages and farmsteads such as Wiltshire, Ashley and Bristow (from Bristol). Others were more local still and referred to intimate details of the local landscape. Examples include: Uppehulle (up hill), atte Forde, atte Crosse, West, atte Tonesend (town’s end) and atte Bakhouse (Bakehouse), all found in one Somerset village (Keynsham) in the Lay Subsidy tax returns for 1327 (the last one being as much an occupational as a locational name). Many of these, as these examples show, were originally preceded by a preposition such as de, at, by, in. Examples include Richard de Hadestoke, a London alderman in 1240 and named from Hadstock (Essex), or William Attebroc, recorded in 1199. These prepositions began to be dropped after 1400 though some, such as atte Wode and by Field, survived into modern surnames such as Atwood and Byfield.

Another large group of names indicated a person’s relationship to another. Many were patronymics of the type which would eventually give us Jackson, Hodgson, Richardson. Others referred to different relationships, such as the examples Hannebrothir andIbbotdoghter recorded in 1324 in the Manor of Wakefield, or Spenserdoghter and Jacksonwyf recorded in the 1379 Poll Tax for Lancashire. Few of these survived to become modern surnames, the exceptions being those few containing the relationship word magh(brother-in-law), such as Hitchmough and Hickmott.

Many surnames were occupational names: such as Webster, Weaver, Fletcher, Smith. Some survive in modern surnames long after their specialist medieval craft terms have been forgotten: Billeter (bell founder), Chaucer (shoe maker) and Harbisher (maker of knight’s mail hauberks). A small number of these might have been given in jest, such as in the cases of Roger le Mounk, recorded in Norwich in 1318, who was actually a baker, or the Londoner, William called le Clerk, who was in reality a butcher in 1336.

Others surnames were nicknames. William catface is found in at least one manorial record! It has not survived as a modern surname and neither did the names of William Two yer old, from the estate of Ronton Priory in Staffordshire in 1311, or MargaretTenwynter, in Suffolk in 1476 (what these meant as adult surnames is unknown). But Vidler (wolf-face) has, and so has Gulliver (glutton). There are many such modern surnames which derive from the observations of medieval neighbours and workmates. Some probably reveal characteristics well known to neighbours, such as Henry Nevereafered (never afraid), recorded in 1334 at Keynsham (Somerset). Then there was William Standupryght, recorded at Ricknall (County Durham) in 1355, whose bad behaviour was causing his neighbours to leave the manor. So, was his surname ironic, or a reference to a man who aggressively defended his own interests? Or was he named this for another reason entirely? The name is intriguing but we cannot now say why it was conferred.

A relatively small number of modern surnames have their origins in pre-1066 personal names. These names (about 560 in total) make up about 4.6 per cent of modern British surnames and derive from names which had already become hereditary by the time they appear in fourteenth-century taxation returns4 – when other, emerging, surnames were still in a state of flux. Clearly, after 1066 some families (for reasons that are now unrecoverable) persisted in giving Anglo-Saxon, or Anglo-Scandinavian, personal names until these names became so associated with their family that they developed into hereditary medieval surnames. Names such as Whittock (recorded in the Lay Subsidy Roll for Somerset in 1327, in the form Wyttok but ultimately derived from the Old English, Hwituc) are a thread connecting the ‘medieval invention’ of surnames with the Anglo-Saxon past. They were like fossils embedded in the shifting matrix of changing medieval naming fashions, which had otherwise abandoned the forms and conventions of pre-1066 name giving.


Many people in the Middle Ages were illiterate, but amongst elite families and the upwardly mobile there was greater emphasis on education. However, in the earlier Middle Ages many within the elite (despite the very early attempts of Alfred of Wessex in the ninth century to force the governing classes to learn to read and write) would have relied on the clerks in their households to provide the necessary literacy. Where there was education among such families it would have been based on home tutoring. From the later fourteenth century, grammar schools provided instruction in Latin grammar for the upwardly mobile in towns. Parish priests at times offered assistance to those lower down the social scale. This was sometimes provided by priests in chantries. At Rothwell (Yorkshire, West Riding) a priest ran a small school in 1408 and nunneries often provided elementary education for both girls and boys. Some elementary education may have been provided outside the oversight of the Church, but the evidence for this is slight. During the fifteenth century evidence increases for the provision of grammar schools in a number of towns. By the later fifteenth century most middle- and upper-class males were literate, as were many women in these classes. Even lower down the social scale there was a surprising degree of literacy, if measured by the ability to read, rather than to write.

To be educated beyond the grammar school involved attendance at one of the two universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Evidence for organization of colleges at these two towns dates from 1214, in the case of Oxford, and 1225, in the case of Cambridge. In this earlier period the education was controlled by the friars, although Benedictines were also active at Oxford. From the 1450s the Cistercians and Augustinians also became involved in running colleges.

Around 1380 there may have been as many as 2,000 students at Oxford and Cambridge (most were at Oxford). By 1450 it had risen to about 3,000. Many of these students would have been young men hoping to follow a career in the Church; others would have been existing clergy working to improve the level of their learning. Many of the former would have been in their mid-teens. Lodging privately gave way, over time, to living communally in halls. From the mid-fourteenth century these were replaced by the emerging colleges, which provided lecturers and lodging for students. The process began earlier at Cambridge than at Oxford. Early colleges at Cambridge included Peterhouse (1284), Clare (1326), Pembroke (1347), Gonville (1348, refounded 1351), Trinity Hall (1350) and Corpus Christi (1352); early Oxford colleges included New College (1379), All Souls (1438) and Magdalene (1448). A statute of 1406 ordered that any family could send its children for education. This overturned earlier customs which stopped villeins from doing this and their sons from being ordained into the Church. By 1500 about 66 per cent of students at New College were from upwardly mobile farming families.

At these universities the majority of students studied arts degrees. These were comprised of the trivium of grammar, rhetoric and dialectic (resolving disagreements through rational discussion) and the quadrivium of arithmetic, music, astronomy and geometry. Only about 33 per cent of fifteenth-century Oxford students completed the degree course to bachelor graduation after up to six years. Others stayed much shorter times and covered only part of the available course. For those wishing to study the Common Law (seeChapter 7), alternative establishments existed in the Inns of Court in London. From about 1250 collections of students receiving instruction from lawyers grew up there in the same process which lay behind the creation of the university halls and colleges. These colleges were Inner Temple, New Temple, Gray’s Inn and Lincoln’s Inn. Nearby, another tier of colleges grew up – the Inns of Chancery – at which many students started to study before progressing to the Inns of Court.

The written word

This restricted access to education in the era before the printing press exalted the status of the handwritten word. The most famous examples of the Latin script of the Middle Ages are those found in the handwritten documents produced in monastic scriptoria. These were often elaborately ornamented, giving us the term illuminated writing. The whole process was time consuming: from scraping and stretching the finest calfskin to make the vellum, to ruling the guide lines, to writing and illustrating the text. The ink used varied from the fading oak apple gall to the messy lampblack. Any errors might be carefully incorporated into the design by a skilled scribe but would be a major problem for a less accomplished writer. As one scribe apologetically commented on a spoiled page: ‘Bad vellum, new ink’.

In the 1250s most manuscripts contained theological, liturgical and academic material. However, this changed over the next 250 years. By the fifteenth century the variety increased dramatically to include romances, chronicles, medical texts, rolls of coats-of-arms and aristocratic family trees (such as the Rous Roll and the Beauchamp Pageant), guild records from towns, texts of plays and musical scores. Some, such as the Confessio Amantis (The Lover’s Confession), combined themes of Christian confession with Classical mythology and the exploration of courtly love. This particular work is a 33,000-line Middle English poem by John Gower. In it a lover complains first to Venus and later confesses to her priest, Genius. The Confessio, probably completed by about 1390, is an important addition to courtly love literature in English. This shift of emphasis in subject matter is explained by a number of different factors such as increasing literacy, rising living standards and intellectual expectations of urban groups, the appearance of paper during the fourteenth century (cheaper than vellum) and the development of printing after the middle of the fifteenth century. All of this greatly expanded the number of lay consumers of books. It is significant that when, in 1476, William Caxton established the first printing press in England (at Westminster), the first books he printed included Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Gower’s Confessio Amantis and Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. This was a little light reading for the new class of lay readers. There is something surprisingly modern in Caxton’s choice of genre – gossip, ‘kiss and tell’ and high drama among the rich and famous.

As noted above, the invention of printing had a great impact on medieval libraries, as handwritten texts were replaced by printed ones. The arrival of these early printed books, or incunabula, as they are termed, meant that many handwritten manuscripts were discarded long before the Reformation. This was accelerated by manuscripts passing out of the protective ownership of the great monastic libraries. For example, the library of Christ Church, Canterbury lost about half of its manuscripts to Oxford before the Reformation. This was because as individual monks went to study in Oxford they took manuscripts with them which they then treated as their own personal property. These were often then sold or pawned in Oxford. By the sixteenth century Oxford bookbinders often used leaves from old manuscripts to strengthen the covers of printed books, which clearly suggests that the market had been flooded with these handwritten manuscripts.5

Later, during the Reformation, many monastic libraries were devastated. The Act against Superstitious Books and Images (1550) ordered that service books which did not comply with the latest liturgy should be destroyed. This resulted in a huge loss of books. For example, only six books are known to survive from the 350 held by Meaux Abbey in Yorkshire. The only medieval libraries which survived intact were those belonging to the cathedrals of Durham, Exeter, Hereford, Salisbury and Worcester. In these cases monastic collections were protected because they were passed on to secular communities. Some monks attempted to preserve collections by taking books with them when monasteries were dissolved. At Monk Bretton (in Yorkshire), the last prior had possession of 142 former monastic books as late as 1558. John Bale, a collector of medieval manuscripts, wrote with sorrow in 1549 how collections of manuscripts were taken ‘some to serue (serve) theyr iakes (privies as toilet paper), some to scoure theyr candelstyckes, and some to rubbe their bootes.’6 The seventeenth-century writer John Aubrey wrote of how medieval manuscripts were treated in Malmesbury (Wiltshire). Here the destruction was that of the library of Malmesbury Abbey – a religious community whose roots went back to the eighth century or earlier. But this was no barrier to those who used its manuscripts as dustcovers for school books, stoppers for barrels of ale and scourers for cleaning the barrels of guns. When one considers this treatment of the accumulated libraries of the Middle Ages, the sheer shock and extent of this cultural vandalism is difficult to express. The work of scriptoria over the centuries went to toilet paper and cleaning kitchen utensils.

Of course this was not the fate of all such books. Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury (died 1575), was one of many collectors who protected great numbers of books. His collection included many priceless Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, including the oldest version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and copies of translations of Latin texts made at the ninth-century court of Alfred of Wessex. Sir Robert Cotton (died 1631) attempted to create a national library, and his collection included manuscripts of such astonishing value as the Lindisfarne Gospels, two original copies ofMagna Carta, Beowulf and versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Some account books and registers passed to the new owners of monastic land. Some were taken abroad, such as the Psalter of Christina of Markyate (made at St Albans Abbey in the 1130s), which now belongs to the church at Hildesheim in Germany. These are today some of the intellectual treasures of the English language. But they are only a tiny fraction of what had once existed but were destroyed.

Despite the fact that access to written forms of expression was limited to the literate minority, aspects of literate culture were sometimes seized on by non-literate members of society in order to express their own individuality. This is clearly seen in the use of wax seals, with which important written documents in the Middle Ages were frequently completed. Most were made and used in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, with their use declining in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In the later period, as literacy increased, the seal gave way to the signature. However, in the earlier period even many nobles could not write and the seal offered a combination of personal flourish and official statement. These often consisted of two parts – a central symbol representing the person and a text running round the edge. The word seal can be applied to both the wax impression and the die, or matrix, used to make it. The most famous of these are those associated with royalty and nobles. Royal seals, called Seals of Majesty (showing the seated ruler) first appear in the eleventh century. That of Edward the Confessor (1042–66) survives and shows the king enthroned, holding sceptre and sword. These were used on the writs (administrative commands) of later Anglo-Saxon England. William the Conqueror’s seal, like that of Edward the Confessor, was a double-sided one and showed him on horseback on one side and enthroned on the other. Knights’ seals also usually showed them armed and on horseback. Some showed them hunting. However, seals were not just associated with government and the powerful.

A number of lower-class people signalled their individual identities with the use of seals and these are interesting insights into both medieval individualism and humour. Some, such as the scissors of Geoffrey Le Barbur, found in Berkshire, showed their trade. Many were mass produced and contained no name or personal identification. Instead, they were chosen by the purchaser from a range of options. They might carry legends which were supposed to be humorous, such as: ‘Bi the rood Wimen are wode’ (‘By the Cross, women are mad’).7 In these ways some rather quirky aspects of medieval individuality survive.

Dining and table etiquette

Lords ate in public as part of their social status and relationship with retainers and clients. Paying for great feasts – such as the Duke of Buckingham’s Christmas Day dinner for 294 people in 1507 – was a clear statement of power and influence. Kings and archbishops dined in state every day, and access to them was blocked for all but the most powerful. Lesser lords might be more accessible, but etiquette was still strictly adhered to. Raised up on a dais in the Great Hall a lord and his family were literally above those who were socially beneath them. The table nearest the dais, on the lord’s right, was called the Rewarde, from the fact that it received food from the dishes used on the lord’s own table. The table opposite was called the Second Messe and the other tables were ranked as they fell further away from the high table. Even the trenchers (the bread used instead of plates) were ranked according to quality and freshness and provided in a strict hierarchy amongst the tables. In a similar way the different tables did not enjoy the same choice of dishes.

Children, it was thought, needed a lot of milk but no red meat and – more surprisingly – no fruit. Different food would also be provided for clerics in the lord’s household. Church ordinances decreed that no meat should be eaten on Wednesdays, Fridays or Saturdays, or during Lent. These became ‘fish days’. However, some communities would eat barnacle goose as it was considered to be more fish than fowl. Each course served consisted of mixed meat, fish, poultry and sweet dishes. These were served to those on the lord’s table but on other tables people helped themselves; on these tables cups might be held in common too. Between courses in a high-status household soteltes would be served. These consisted of items sculpted in hard sugar, such as swans or peacocks. At the end of a meal the lord and guests were served with sweet wine, wafers and spices. Finally, grace concluded the meal and a toast was drunk to close the proceedings.

Serving the food was a large team of servants: sewer (head waiter), pantler (head of the pantry), butler (drinks), ewerer (hand washing and linen), chief cook, carver and lord’s cupbearer. Out of sight were waiters who brought food no further than the entrance of the hall, scullions, spit boys, pot boys and bottle washers. The laying of table was also complex. The ewerer laid cloths on the tables along with wash basins; the pantler laid out the lord’s trencher, rolls wrapped in a napkin, the salt cellar and knives and spoons. It should be noted that forks did not appear in elite households until the fifteenth century.

Eating the meal took place according to strict rules. Hands were washed, the lord’s food and drink were tasted, and cooked meats were carved according to exacting standards and formalized rules. Individual behaviour was also the subject of elaborate books of etiquette. These became more common from the thirteenth century but are particularly noticeable by the fifteenth century. Examples include the Book of the Order of Chivalry, translated from the French and published by Caxton in 1494, and The Book of Good Manners, by Jacques Legrand, along with the Book of Nurture, by John Russell, also published in the late fifteenth century. Sometimes the very fact they had to instruct guests not to do certain things suggests that these practices were all too common! Fingernails should be clean; drinking from a shared cup should be avoided so that bits of food did not end up floating in the drink; teeth should not be picked with a knife at table; hot food should not be blown on to cool it; bread should not be crumbled into the common dish; bones should not be gnawed; scratching the head should be avoided, as should spitting and belching.8 All of which raises the question of how genteel such feasts really were the further one got away from the high table. Among the thirteenth-century table manners one book tells diners to ‘refrain from falling upon the dish like a swine while eating, snorting disgustingly and smacking the lips’.

The food eaten at a wealthy feast was from a wider choice than would be acceptable to a modern table: starlings, gulls, herons, cormorants, swans, cranes, peacocks, capons, chickens, dogfish, porpoises, seals, whale, haddock, cod, salmon, sardines, lamprey eels, crayfish and oysters. Turnips, parsnips, carrots, peas and fava beans were common vegetables and the use of onions and garlic was common. Some of these are familiar, while others (seagull for instance) would not be acceptable to modern tastes. Inventories prepared for the 6,000 guests invited to the installation ceremonies of the archbishop of York in 1467 indicate that the guests consumed 300 caskets of ale, 100 caskets of wine, 1 large bottle of wine sweetened with sugar, nutmeg and ginger, 104 oxen, 6 wild bulls, 1,000 sheep, 304 calves, 400 swans, 2,000 geese, 1,000 capons, 2,000 pigs, 104 peacocks, over 13,500 other birds, 500 stags, bucks and roes, 1,500 venison pies, 608 pike and bream, 12 porpoises and seals, 13,000 dishes of jelly, cold baked tarts, custards and spices, sugared delicacies and wafers.

Such foodstuffs would have been beyond the wildest dreams of the vast majority of the population. Poorer peasants survived on broths thickened with barley, or other grains and oatcakes cooked in the ashes of fires or on heated stones. It was common to leave a stockpot on the fire embers during the day into which greens or other foods were added, which was then thickened before eating. However, as wages rose after 1350 larger amounts of meat entered the lower-class diet.


Fashion is an important way in which identity, values and status can be displayed within society. Amongst the aristocracy this could reach astonishing proportions, as when Thomas de Berkeley spent over 10 per cent of his total income on clothes in 1345–6. While leather shoes have been found in waterlogged archaeological deposits, very little else has survived of the fabrics of the Middle Ages. As a result, we have to rely on illustrations and insights into fashion from carvings. And what does survive in these illustrations tells us what the elite minority were wearing – or were expected to wear. We know much less about fashion lower down the social scale. When we learn that shoes with their pointed toes stuffed with moss were fashionable in the 1380s and again in the 1480s we can be sure that we are touching on a matter which affected only a tiny proportion of the total population.

So closely was fashion associated with status that the sumptuary laws of the mid-fourteenth century attempted to prescribe exactly who could wear what! There is no reason to think that it ever succeeded, but it gives a top-down view of how things should be. Before the 1320s status was mostly signalled by the amount and quality of clothes worn. After this period there appears to have been an acceleration in fashionable concerns with style and tailoring. This was greatly assisted by the innovation of buttons from around 1350 onwards. These made it easier to wear closer-fitting garments and greater differentiation appears between male and female fashion from this point onwards. This change was assisted by an increased range of imported dyes and fabrics for the elite who could afford the latest trends. The same elaboration shows itself in the greater use of fur and embroidery and the increased complexity of women’s headgear as the fifteenth century progressed.

Lower down the social scale there is evidence for a greater impact of fashion after the 1350s, albeit on a much-reduced scale compared with the fashion leaders of society. This revealed itself in increased incidence of linen undergarments, tailored tunics and dyed hoods, hose and cloaks. By 1400 shorter and closer-fitting styles had descended the social ladder from the aristocracy, who had enjoyed these as the height of elite fashion in the 1350s. Cheap mass-produced jewellery also appears in greater quantities in urban sites and reveals a developing mass-production industry designed to meet increased lower-class consumer demand.

The origins of drama

The roots of modern drama lie in the more dramatic areas of Church liturgy in the Middle Ages and in other expressions of Christian faith such as the Mystery Plays. These plays were popular from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century. Only four complete cycles of these plays survive from York, Chester, Wakefield (also called the Towneley Cycle) and from an unidentified East Midlands town (the Ludus Coventriae). We know that such plays were also performed at the English towns of Bath, Beverley, Bristol, Canterbury, Chester, Coventry, Ipswich, Leicester, Norwich, Northampton, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Wakefield and Worcester. Mystery Plays are also recorded as taking place at Brome in Suffolk. They provided popular medieval theatre with strong Christian themes. Experts are divided as to the exact origins of these plays but there seem to have been two ‘currents’ flowing into them. The first was that of liturgical drama. These were dramatic reenactments of Biblical events which were added to the celebration of the Mass on major feast days. These started as brief explanations, or tropes, and developed into dramatic dialogues. On Easter Day, for example, there is evidence that some services included dramatic re-enactments of Mary Magdalene discovering the empty tomb of Christ. At the very least these set a precedent for more free-standing Christian drama and influenced the content of later Mystery Plays. The second ‘current’ was probably that of processions and folk plays associated with Plough Monday, May Day, Midsummer Day and Christmas. They were characterized by being performed in English, in public places, by amateurs.

The first Mystery Plays were based around the celebration of Corpus Christi, a feast which was initiated in 1264 but which became particularly popular from the early fourteenth century. Falling on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, this was an early summer event and focused on Christ’s saving power revealed in the host (bread) of the Mass. The groups of plays which were performed around this date made up a cycle which told the story of God’s saving purposes from the Creation, through the life of Christ, to the Last Judgement. The plays were coordinated and run by a religious guild within the town, but the different parts were contributed to by craft guilds. It was these which gave the plays their names, since these guilds all had a specialist mestier (trade) which has given rise to the word mystery in the name of these plays. Incidentally this latter word also came to mean something ‘hidden’ because the trade secrets of such guilds were closely guarded.

The earliest examples of these plays – those in the York cycle – date from the 1370s. While there are similarities between component parts of the cycles from different towns (such as some in the Wakefield and York cycles), others reflect the particular characteristics of areas and composers. Most in the York cycle are very urban, while rural issues such as sheep stealing appear in the Wakefield cycle. This theme is used to both humorous and dramatic effect and highlights the skills of the original composer of the play. In some towns the plays were performed in one place. In most they took place from wagons sited at different places in the town, and people moved from wagon to wagon as the cycle of plays unfolded. Special effects made the performances even more engaging. In Coventry 4 pence was paid to the man keeping the fire burning in hell’s mouth.

The religious teaching that was communicated through the Mystery Plays was often embedded in earthy humour and slapstick comedy. Noah’s domestic conflicts with his fiery wife are a key feature of the Wakefield, or Towneley, Cycle of plays. The fifteenth-century additions to an earlier structure included raucous and violent comedy. Mrs Noah nags her husband; he calls her a ramskyt (‘ram shit’) and hits her; she thumps him back; later they complain about each other directly to the audience; they fight again. This bickering and domestic disharmony was encouraged by apocryphal stories of Noah and even in their own day were as controversial as they were popular. The Wakefield plays also include shepherds who moan about taxes, robbers, their wives and the weather. Chaucer, in The Miller’s Tale, complained that such plays did more entertaining than educating. But their popularity clearly lay in more than their comedy – it surely lay in the attempt to make the Biblical accounts accessible and immediate. The Flood and the birth of Christ become events which are set in a world the audience would instantly recognize. When the shepherds, in the Wakefield Cycle, give baby Jesus a pet bird, some cherries, a ball to play with . . . there is no mockery intended. Instead, we see the gifts of poor men to the Son of God who has come amongst them in deepest poverty Himself. The message is simple: to such as us He has come! And when, within the York Cycle’s portrayal of the crucifixion, the soldiers appear as everyday workmen amorally carrying out their brutal task, the audience is once more drawn into the drama. But this time the dramatic device is to confront them with the common guilt of Mankind which took Christ to the cross. This is drama with a profound meaning. It is more than entertainment. Those Church leaders who condemned it had not seen through its outer layers to its inner radicalism, which was profoundly Christian.

In the sixteenth century extreme Protestant distrust of Catholic pageantry led first to the censoring of these plays (removing such Catholic themes as the Assumption and coronation of the Virgin Mary) and eventually to their abandonment altogether. This trend was probably further accelerated by the rising costs of the plays at a time when many towns faced both financial difficulties and competition from travelling players offering secular plays. The year 1576 is the last year for which there is any record of performances of the Wakefield Cycle.9

The English at play: alcohol

The commonest drink for much of the Middle Ages was ale. Usually it was made from barley, oats, or a combination of the two known as dredge; wheat was occasionally mixed in but was expensive. The process involved malting the grain to stimulate germination, then drying it to stop the process. It was then threshed. The malted grain was then rough-milled and hot water was added and kept hot for several hours, which allowed the starch to convert to sugar and enter the water. This made a liquid called wort, which was left to cool and yeast was added. After several days the mixture would be ready, although herbs were often added (and sometimes spices). The residue was used for a second mashing to produce small ale, or small beer (a much weaker alcoholic drink). Hops were not involved in the process until the early fifteenth century. Ale went off very quickly and there was a swift movement from brewing to selling.

Many households – and certainly large aristocratic ones – brewed their own ale. The finished products were measured in tuns and Winchester gallons. A tun was the equivalent of 216 gallons of ale, or 252 gallons of wine. A Winchester gallon was the same as a modern US gallon. This made a Winchester gallon the equivalent of 0.8 of an Imperial gallon, later established in 1824 (which itself is about 4.5 litres). As early as Magna Carta, 1215, there was a concern over the reliability of measures for ale (and wine and corn). The Assize of Bread and Ale of 1266 allowed local assize courts the power to regulate the prices of these two essential commodities. The Oxford assize of 1310, for example, decided that ale should cost 1¼ pence a gallon and strong ale 1½ pence per gallon. To give this some meaning, a labourer at the time earned about 1 penny a day and a skilled craftsperson about 6 pence. Ale was sold in quantities of a gallon, quart (2 pints/quarter gallon, or 1.13 litres), or a pottle (4 pints, or 2.27 litres). These were measured via jugs carrying seals to confirm their accuracy. In 1364 the alewife Alice de Caustone was found guilty of having 1½ inches of pitch at the bottom of her quart measuring jug – instead of holding 2 pints, the pot’s capacity was reduced by 25 per cent. Another issue concerned the strength of ale and it was this which caused the appointment of London’s first ale-conners in 1377.

As a safer drink than water, ale was seen as a staple foodstuff. Much of the production was the work of women, although men were also involved and it has been estimated that the Cistercian monks of Fountains Abbey (Yorkshire) may have produced as much as 2,200 gallons (10,000 litres) every two weeks; both for consumption within the abbey and for sale outside it. In towns a great deal of the ale was sold via fast-food outlets which also sold pies and other delicacies of questionable quality. At these outlets ale was often sold in the 4-pint quantities called pottles. Other sources, of course, were taverns and alehouses. Such alehouses ranged in size from those accommodated in a home to larger establishments such as the alehouse in Paternoster Row, London, which had 60 seats on two floors. Those in a private house were usually run by women termed ale-wives. The surname Brewster derives from this occupation and is the female version of Brewer. Inns were much larger establishments, offering rooms for travellers, often with large shared beds. Many were linked to monasteries. Some have become associated with famous events, such as The Tabard at Southwark, where Chaucer’s pilgrims gathered before setting out for Canterbury. Taverns, on the other hand, were establishments somewhere between private houses (operating as alehouses) and inns, and were often associated with bawdy behaviour and crime.

Despite the lower alcoholic content of small ale the impact of consuming large quantities of the full brew was as great then as now. The ale-wife Elynour Rummyng, in John Skelton’s poem of 1517 (The Tunning of Elynour Rummyng), recounts how she and her husband cavorted together following a drinking session:

Than swetely together we ly
As two pygges in a sty.10

Many communal activities involved consumption of large quantities of alcohol. These were often organized by the church, or the lord, such as Church Ales, Whitsun Ales and Bride Ales. Money raised at these events was often ploughed back into community projects.

In the Middle Ages a clear distinction was drawn between ale and beer. In the Anglo-Saxon period the word ‘beer’ had been applied to the drink which was later termed ale. However, after 1066 the word fell out of general use and when it reappeared, in the early fifteenth century, it was used to describe a significantly different beverage. The new term ‘beer’ was applied to an alcoholic drink made from hops. This drink had a long history of popularity on the continent, but its introduction into England was resisted as a foreign intrusion. As late as 1512 the town authorities in Shrewsbury banned the use of hops in brewing. An interesting illustration of the fondness for the more traditional ale is revealed in the fact that Henry VIII gave his courtiers beer – but reserved ale for himself.

However, there was no resisting the new drink. Beer was more economical to produce since more could be made from the same amount of malt. Furthermore it was safer. Beer mash required boiling and this killed off bacteria. Andrew Boorde’s The Fyrste Boke of the Introduction of Knowlegde(1540) reflected on health problems caused by bad ale in the lines:

Ich am a Cornishman, ale I can brew
It will make one cacke, also to spew.10

This boiling of beer mash also added to the economy of scale in producing beer, since this gave it a much greater shelf life than that of ale. If ale was often a cottage industry, beer was big business. The shift from home production to larger commercial enterprises in the second half of the fifteenth century is seen in the fact that at Havering (Essex) between 1465 and 1505, the 21 ale brewers fell to 15, of which only one was a woman. This growth in fewer – larger – breweries was a process accelerated by the closure of monastic breweries in the 1530s.10

The English at play: board games

A number of board games were played in the Middle Ages in England and have been the subject of specialist study.11 In the twelfth century the card called nard was brought to England by crusaders returning from the Middle East. This game was played on a flat board, divided in two with a pair of dice determining moves. It is likely it was played in a similar way to backgammon and it may have been one of the ancestors of this game, via the game known as tables. An alternative possible ancestor for backgammon is the Roman game tabula, or alea, which was probably played in England before the introduction of nard.

Another popular board game was Nine Men’s Morris, in which players have nine pieces, or ‘men’, each. These are moved about the board’s 24 intersections. Similar to draughts, the aim of the game is to leave the opposing players with no pieces, or no legal moves open to them. Nine Men’s Morris boards have been found carved into the cloister seats at Canterbury, Gloucester, Norwich and Salisbury cathedrals and in Westminster Abbey. These boards used holes, not lines, to represent the nine spaces on the board. Another board is carved into the bottom of a church pillar in Chester.

Chess had reached Spain by the eleventh century and was probably being played in England soon after this date. There were a number of differences between the medieval and modern games but in southern Europe at least, by about 1475, the two games were virtually the same.

The English at play: sport

Football has its origins in the Middle Ages, both as an informal game and as a village-wide game, such as that recorded as occurring at Wistow (Yorkshire, East Riding) on the eve of Lent 1422. In many areas of the country there was a strong association of mass games of football with this time of the year. The ball may have been carried, as well as kicked, and there appear to have been few rules. At Gloucester Cathedral an engraving from the early fourteenth century shows two boys playing football and may suggest that hands, as well as feet, were used. Another medieval image suggests the ball was made from stitched leather, although it is often assumed (on the basis of little evidence) that it was made from an inflated pig’s bladder. The same image that shows this stitching also seems to show a man with a broken arm, and this link between football and violence appears in many records. In 1314 football was banned in London, with little effect. In 1333 at Newton Aycliffe (County Durham), the manor court summoned William Colson, John de Redworth and five others to explain why they had not provided the names of those continuing to stage football games despite a warning of a fine of 20 shillings for those who kept on doing so. After heckling by Alicia de Redworth, the wife of John, the names of 18 men were finally given.12 English football in the Middle Ages was clearly associated with popular enthusiasm and with disorder – two characteristics which still resonate with modern experiences.

After war broke out again with France in 1337, archery at local targets (butts) was increasingly encouraged for men. So important was this that attempts were made to ban football, and it is interesting that the illustrations in the Luttrell Psalter in about 1340 show archery but no football.

The English at play: a nation of pet lovers?

Keeping small animals as pets was a common practice in the Middle Ages, as has been revealed by recent work by Kathleen Walker-Meikle.13 The animals involved included dogs, red squirrels, rabbits, cats and tame birds such as larks and starlings. Some were very exotic indeed. Eleanor, the wife of Edward I, owned a pair of parrots. Social status of owners could be displayed through fancy accessories such as collars, embroidered cushions and bells. Pets frequently appear in portraits and other works of art and seem to have been particularly associated with women, though men could be attached to more functional animals such as hunting dogs. However, this was not a hard-and-fast rule. Robert, Bishop of Durham in the late thirteenth century, owned two pet monkeys and was noted for the attention he gave them, feeding them peeled almonds (according to the chronicler Richard of Durham). A fourteenth-century priest, John Bromyard, complained that many priests cared more for their pets than for the human beings in their care. This may have simply been said because the idea of men keeping pets was frowned on and provided an easy target for someone looking to criticize worldly clerics. Nevertheless, the choice of pets as a means of making this attack does suggest that a lot of priests were keeping them. Whether pets were kept in peasant homes is difficult to say from the scant evidence.

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