The time frame of the Middle Ages is traditionally built around two apparent watersheds. In England the boundaries have frequently been set at 1066 and 1485. This time frame is therefore formed from two political events: the first date being the Norman Conquest and the second being the battle of Bosworth and the start of the Tudor dynasty.
These were highly significant events but their role as ‘boundary points’ can be challenged from a number of angles. While 1066 can be demonstrated to have been a political watershed, ending the Anglo-Saxon political era and bringing in a new Norman dynasty which had an immense impact on England and its political culture, in social terms the date has far less meaning. Many aspects of society continued relatively uninterrupted from the middle and late Saxon periods into and beyond the Norman period. Developments in the Church, while accelerated by the arrival of new leadership, built on long-established trends; the language of the majority of the population remained English (albeit with a large infusion of Norman-French terms and social downgrading of English); trends in urbanization and taxation continued under ‘new management’ without major dislocation; industrial production of key consumer items, such as pottery, did not reflect the seismic changes happening at the top of the social hierarchy; the penny in the pocket of the average consumer in 1070 not only looked the same as under King Harold (and was minted by exactly the same moneyer within the same system of coinage) but it also bought pretty much the same products as it had done in the 1050s and 1060s. In addition, many of the key features which we associate with the ‘Norman period’ (such as manorialization, the feudal system and nucleated villages) can be seen as part of a process of development which straddles the mid-eleventh century and which has roots going back at least a hundred years before William the Conqueror took the throne.
Therefore the Middle Ages in England should really be considered to start around the year 900 with the start of the West Saxon re-conquest of the Danelaw (the area of the East Midlands, East Anglia and northern England conquered by the Vikings), following the first great phase of Viking invasions and conquest in the mid-ninth century. In fact, key features of society at this point have roots that could push the boundary back another century. And even this would be late for many historians and archaeologists: the British Museum’s Anglo-Saxon collection being placed in its ‘Early Medieval Room’. If the Sutton Hoo treasures (dating from c.625) are ‘Early Medieval’ then the events of 1066 are in the middle of ‘the Middle Ages’, not at its start! However, in the overview of events which form the focus of this book the boundary will not be pushed back this far – but it is clear that 1066 comes too late in the process to be the starting point of the exploration.
At the other end of the period, the year 1485 offers even less of a social watershed and, even politically, its usefulness as a defining moment has been questioned. Alternative political watershed dates have been persuasively suggested: One is 1461, since there seems to be significant continuity between the rule of Edward IV and Richard III and that of Henry VII. Or perhaps 1483 is the political watershed? In this case Richard III’s royal coup in that year created the real break with the past and set in motion forces which would soon lead to the downfall of the Yorkist dynasty. However, whatever the merits of these political watershed dates, in social terms the date 1485 is without meaning since it led to no significant changes in the lives of ordinary people. A much stronger case can be made that it is with the rigorous Protestant Reformation of Edward VI’s reign (and the destruction of the Catholic ‘ritual year’) that the old medieval world came to an end for many ordinary people. It was this – accompanied by the spread of new ideas made possible by the accelerating pace of printing – which fundamentally changed the texture of life for most people. As we shall see, this was accompanied by demographic and other changes which made the experience of life significantly different from what it had been for much of the fifteenth century and the early sixteenth century. For this reason the social-history focus of this book will be from about 900 to about 1553.
The range of evidence which can be used to piece together the lives of men and women from the English Middle Ages are many and varied. Archaeological evidence is giving us an increasingly intimate picture of the layout of rural houses and their relationship to the farmed landscape. Excavations, such as those at Wharram Percy (Yorkshire) and more recently at St Mary Spital, in London, are providing us with a large set of data regarding health and nutrition, as well as changing fashions in burial practice. Excavations on urban sites have given us greater insights into the relationship between living, producing and consuming in the growing towns; evidence for regional and international trade broadens our understanding of the variety of human experiences.
Written records are as varied. The rolls of manor courts, for example, show us the rural community in all its complexity: cooperation on the yearly round of agricultural practices; the financial demands on villagers for brewing, baking, marrying and even dying; the emergence of hereditary surnames in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries; traditional customs and changing times. When we read about Richard Rawdon, fined 40 pence at Yeadon (Yorkshire) in 1452 for having a dog reputed to be a ‘sheep worrier’, or his neighbour, John Wryght, fined 2 pence because he ‘allowed oxen to run amok’1 we are privileged to gain a glimpse into the intimate world of the Middle Ages.
While so much documentation is lost, remarkable survivals such as the Paston Letters open up a window into the ambitions and conflicts of family and neighbours. Court records and coroners’ accounts provide information about crime and deviance, as well as about community policing and values. When analysis of legal records shows us that fourteenth century East Anglia had a homicide rate greater than modern New York we can be sure that this will not be the only evidence which challenges our expectations. Sometimes the evidence is highly revealing but sparse, such as that providing information about the actual wealth of individuals within the population. After the 1334 tax subsidy, the next comprehensive assessment of actual wealth has to wait until that of Henry VIII in 1524–5. On the other hand it is often possible to combine information from different classes of evidence in order to build a bigger picture of an aspect of life. For example, complementary evidence from both changing church architecture expressed in chantries and the literary evidence provided by the fifteenth-century Books of Hours gives us insights into the personal spirituality of the fifteenth century.
And sometimes, even when records are lost, we occasionally catch a glimpse of how the loss occurred and at times we can link the events in one small location with events happening on a national scale. In this way the manor court roll at Great Bromley (Essex), in 1382, records why earlier records were no longer in existence, because in the previous year the unfree tenants of the manor had: ‘assaulted Lady Anna in her hall and threatened her, and illegally took all court rolls . . . pertaining to this manor . . . against the peace of the lord king and against the will of the said Anna, and carried them away in contempt of this lordship, and burned all the said rolls feloniously’.2 In this way the Peasants’ Revolt affected one Essex community.
However, there is a caveat. As with all periods of the past the rich, powerful and famous leave more evidence behind than the poor and powerless. This is almost a truism but needs stating. The semi-free villager of the late eleventh century left no more to his or her heirs than the struggling peasant farmer of a modern LEDC (less economically developed country) today. And the handful of cooking utensils and agricultural tools which formed such a vital legacy to the next generation are often not even mentioned in the surviving documentation. With less to leave, these people had less to be remembered by and were more easily forgotten. Yet to those inheriting these few valuables they represented the careful accumulation of a lifetime. When such evidence does survive it is as vital as the more abundant and varied evidence for the life and values of wealthier neighbours. This is because, if we are to attempt a real understanding of life in the Middle Ages, we must take account of those untold millions who left so little information about the beliefs, work and worries of their lives. Such a person was Joan Symkynwoman in Yorkshire in 1366, whose court statement records that she owned ‘almost nothing in goods save her clothing for body and bed, and a small brass pot.’ She would not have been alone in her poverty.
Finally, it may be helpful to explain something of the approach of this book. Social history must put us firmly in touch with the lives of people in the past and the issues they faced. The examination of the evidence available to us makes the personal experiences of those in the past more accessible, as well as outlining the wider processes and developments which acted on individuals. In order to assist in this balance each chapter makes frequent references to the experiences of individuals as wider issues are explored.
A key point that should be remembered while reading this book is that the Middle Ages were not a static period but rather were a time of dynamic change and development. This involved both progress and regression. The pace of change was faster in some areas than in others. Some processes were stimulated ‘from below’ while others were the result of the decisions and ambitions of elites. Some changes were largely caused by activities and actions within Britain; others were triggered by events which were played out on a European, or even a global scale. Some changes affected the mundane aspects of life, while others changed the spiritual and mental outlook of those affected.
What is clear is that, in this complex mosaic of events (from the local to the regional and the national), the lives of men and women reflected and responded to a wide range of issues, processes and developments. Whether it was a Northumbrian tenant of a great monastic estate dying, in 1349, from a disease which had its origins in central Asia, or a Jew abandoned to drown on a sandbar of the river Thames by an unscrupulous ship owner during the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290, members of English medieval society lived their lives in the context of issues linking them to a wider world. These issues also linked them to questions which are very real and engaging to a reader in the twenty-first century. The common issues of our shared humanity across the ages are at least as striking as the great differences in outlook and experience.