Walsham in the Middle Ages

This intimate history of the Black Death is focused on the village of Walsham le Willows in west Suffolk. Walsham—it acquired the suffix “le Willows” only in the sixteenth century—lies some twelve miles northeast of what was the important monastic town of Bury St. Edmunds, and about the same distance from the market towns of Diss and Stowmarket. Walsham was chosen for a number of reasons for this experiment in combining history and fiction, the most important being the exceptional richness of the records that have survived from the fourteenth century, for both the village and its region. Moreover, Walsham’s prime records, the manor court rolls, run continuously through the Black Death, and they are available in print for all to consult in translation. The region around Walsham is also extraordinarily well documented. A number of the neighboring villages, most notably Rickinghall, Hinderclay, and Redgrave, have particularly fine records, and the archives of both the borough and the monastery of Bury St. Edmunds are relatively rich. Thus the potential for recreating the life and experiences of the people of Walsham and its region in the mid-fourteenth century is as great as for almost anywhere in England, or Europe for that matter.


Source: Patti Isaacs of Parrot Graphics.

Walsham lay, as it still does today, tucked between the main roads leading from Bury St. Edmunds northeastward to Diss and southeastward to Stowmarket. In the mid-fourteenth century it was a populous village with well over a thousand residents, possibly even fifteen hundred, as many as it was to have again before the nineteenth century. The village was coterminous with the parish of Walsham but was divided into two separate manors owned by different lords, who farmed part of the land directly and rented the rest out to free and unfree tenants. Walsham manor, by far the larger and more valuable of the two, was the property of Lady Rose de Valognes, who was born just before her father’s death in 1282 and lived until 1353. Rose had been the lady of the manor since at least 1307, and in the 1340s she held Walsham jointly with her second husband, Sir Hugh de Saxham, until he died in the Black Death. The couple, who held other manors and properties, did not live in Walsham, but the owners of the small manor of High Hall did. Sir Nicholas Walsham, the lord of High Hall until he died in 1347, resided in a moated manor house in the center of his demesne farm of around 150 acres. He was succeeded as lord of the manor by Edmund de Welles, who lived in the manor house with his sister Margery, who was almost certainly Sir Nicholas’s widow.

This part of England was among the richest and most populous in the country, and it had been growing and developing since late Saxon times. Walsham parish shared fully in this expansion. Over the centuries, as the old village center around the church filled up and then become crowded, new satellite settlements were planted around the edges.

Village of Walsham at the time of the Black Death


Based on topographical feature mentioned in the court rolls of 1303-1350.Source Ray Lock (ed.), The Court Rolls of Walsbam le Willows, 1303-1350 (Suffolk Records Society, 1998), p. 16.

These new settlements, which consisted initially of scattered farm-houses, subsequently evolved into small clusters of dwellings and then into hamlets. As yet more land was brought into cultivation and existing farmland was used more intensively, these hamlets expanded further in size, and then in turn threw out their own new shoots consisting of cottages, fields, and closes.

By the 1340s Walsham contained well over two thousand acres of farmland, but with well over a thousand inhabitants to support, land was scarce. Naturally, the great bulk of residents relied on cultivating crops and raising animals to provide their essential subsistence and employment. As their numbers rose, the average amount of land per head fell. It was the custom of the manor to split inheritances equally among surviving male heirs, and as generations came and went, the strips on the great open fields were divided among ever more people, and the innumerable odd parcels of land which lay hither and thither around the parish were shared among groups of brothers who farmed them cooperatively or sliced them into ever tinier parcels. By the mid-fourteenth century few villagers held sufficient acres to provide a complete subsistence for their families.

The dwellings which peppered the landscape were of varying size and condition, and the majority sat in garden plots along the roads and tracks which crisscrossed the village. On the land around these houses, cottages, and hovels, vegetables and sometimes fruit were grown, and ubiquitous chickens, ducks, goats, and the odd pig or two scraped a subsistence. While the homes of the richer tenants were substantially built and generally well maintained, those of the poorer villagers were cramped and dilapidated, at worst little more than temporary structures erected from whatever materials came to hand (see figure 1). As smallholdings descending by inheritance often had to be shared between brothers or sisters, and their wives and husbands too, it was not uncommon for two or more families to live in a single dwelling, although an additional cottage might be erected in the gardens. Household furnishings and utensils tended to be few and rudimentary. Bronze cooking pots, iron hearth equipment, earthenware or wooden tableware, a minimum of clothing and bed linen, and a few pieces of rough furniture—a bed, a chair or two, a cupboard, and a trestle table—were all that were found in most households, while the more affluent villagers would possess a wider range of such items and notably more metal ware and textiles, and perhaps a bronze jug and basin, and a silver spoon or two.

In a region where large farms were rare, a relatively small number of families, like the Cranmers, Wodebites, and Syres, sat at the top of Walsham’s peasant hierarchy because they possessed twenty or more acres of good farmland. These elite villagers primarily owed their wealth to being fortunate enough to enjoy secure hereditary possession of their sizable landholdings, which they held from their lords in return for low or even negligible rents. Though some of these privileged villagers were freeholders, others were unfree. One of the paradoxes of the Middle Ages was that men and women of the lowest legal status, the villeins and serfs, could enjoy the benefits of secure tenure for themselves and their heirs in return for relatively cheap money rents and an obligation to provide labor on the lord’s demesne farm. These larger landholders had the choice of either farming their land or leasing it out in small plots at high rents to less fortunate villagers. If they decided to farm it, like their lords, they would grow wheat, barley, oats, peas and beans, and a little rye, and raise flocks of sheep and herds of cattle.

With an excess of people seeking food, land, and employment, life was very harsh for the majority of villagers in the 1340s. At the other end of the spectrum from the village elite lay a major part of the three hundred or so Walsham families who either had no land at all or possessed only garden-size plots or closes which they held on short leases at high rents from other villagers. If such poorly endowed folk did not possess any exceptional handicraft or commercial skills, they had to get by as best they could, buying most of their food at high prices and hiring themselves out for manual work in a labor market where they competed with each other for intermittent low-paid employment in the fields or the homes of their richer neighbors. The village common lands provided a little welcome assistance by offering pasture for a horse, a cow or two, or a few sheep for those fortunate enough to own them; the village woodlands, as well as backyards, allowed pigs and poultry to be reared. But the pressure on such valuable resources was so great that access had to be strictly regulated by the village community. Times had been worse, especially from 1315 to 1322, when incessant torrential rains had brought appalling famines and livestock epidemics, but the 1340s were also punctuated by poor harvests that could cause perennial hardship to turn rapidly into acute distress.

A few villagers found more constant employment working for the lords of the manor. Robert Lene served Lady Rose and Sir Hugh de Saxham as shepherd, though we learn from the court rolls that they accused him of failing to apply sufficient ointment to the sheep in 1346, when many of the flock he was tending died. John the dairyman ran their dairy, and he was heavily fined in the same year for wasting firewood “beyond measure,” an act of profligacy for which Matthew Tailor, who was employed as “custodian of the lord’s firewood,” was also held responsible. Some young, unmarried villagers secured annual contracts as live-in servants for their lords or more affluent peasant neighbors, with the men working largely on agricultural tasks and the women as housemaids and dairymaids. Somewhat more lucrative employment could be gained by those who had acquired special skills enabling them to undertake work for local customers as blacksmiths, carpenters, thatchers, tilers, weavers, tailors, cobblers and leatherworkers, and such like.

Opportunities for subsidiary incomes also came from providing services. Walsham, like most villages and towns, had a large number of alehouses and hostelries which operated on a temporary or permanent basis. A considerable number of Walsham women brewed ale, baked bread, and made pies for sale, and some hawked a range of cheap useful and decorative items around the roads and markets. More specialized, and much better rewarded, were the few literate persons who could charge for writing documents, or the cunning folk with high reputations who successfully dispensed medicines and prophecies.

It was a makeshift economy for many in late medieval England, but it was far from primitive. Life was unpredictable because income, employment, and expenses were critically dependent on the vagaries of the weather. Harvests fluctuated widely in quality, and along with them the yields of fields and the price of food; in addition, the health of livestock was often very uncertain as diseases came and went. Yet people generally made rational decisions about their lives and farmed efficiently within the constraints of custom, market conditions, and resources. The mix of arable and pastoral husbandry practiced in Walsham was closely geared to local soil and climate as well as to the needs and opportunities of the community. It was an overstretched society in which the majority often led a hand-to-mouth existence and frequently went hungry, but it was far from being a truly subsistence economy. Money and markets were essential and everywhere in evidence, and the folk of Walsham habitually lent and borrowed money and bought and sold a wide range of goods on credit.

Though most villagers grew at least part of the food they ate, all depended to some extent on sales and purchases. Those with larger farms produced surpluses and sold them for cash, which they used to buy a wide range of necessary and desirable goods that they could not produce for themselves, while those who needed to buy their subsistence sold their labor to get the money to do so. Although tucked away off the main roads of the region, Walsham received visitors and goods from far and wide. Exotic produce—wine, fruits, spices, foreign cloth—was brought from Bury St. Edmunds, and sometimes directly from London or Ipswich or another large port or market town, for the lords of the manor and the village elite. Walsham was well served with markets. The weekly market in the village supplied a range of mundane goods, and a somewhat greater variety was available just down the road at Ixworth, a settlement with some of the characteristics of a small market town. For those who chose to travel six or so miles to trade, there was a wider selection and keener prices at the thriving market of Botesdale. Such commerce also provided a number of residents with welcome subsidiary incomes from carting goods or driving animals to market.

Commercial and cultural links with nearby Bury St. Edmunds were constant and strong. Bury was a sizable town with a population of around seven thousand, and an abundance of large stone buildings. Country folk were impressed by the host of commercial and industrial occupations practiced by its citizens, and the bewildering miscellany of goods and services for sale in its streets and markets. In addition it housed one of the richest and greatest Benedictine monasteries in England. Among its eighty or so monks were scholars renowned for theology, astronomy, medicine, and a host of other disciplines, as well as chroniclers of historical and current events. Bury abbey generated a substantial demand for goods and services, and even closer to Walsham lay the small Augustinian priory of Ixworth, with its handful of resident monks.

Medieval communities were much less introspective and sedentary than they have often been portrayed. In addition to the multiple and frequent contacts that Walsham had with the wider world, many of its residents traveled far afield, either on a regular or occasional basis, and the village received a flow of visitors, temporary migrants, and settlers. While some of its long-term residents eventually left to seek their fortune elsewhere, those who stayed saw themselves as members of a wider community with rights as well as obligations. Above all, despite their parochial pressures, the ordinary folk of the village thirsted for news of the king and his nobility, of the local gentry, of goings-on in Parliament, of the levying of taxation, and, of course, of the progress of the war against the French, which had begun in 1337 when Philip VI confiscated Gascony and Edward III laid claim to the French throne.

Though life in Walsham was far less sophisticated and varied than it was in the city of Bury St. Edmunds, it was a civilized, complex, and generally well-ordered community, girded about with numerous laws, rules, codes, customs, and practices. Across England the universality of Christian teaching promoted a strict code of moral behavior and religious belief, the king and Parliament governed the realm, royal justice intervened in local affairs when it was deemed necessary and expedient, lords managed their estates and their tenants, and villages and manors were regulated by their local courts and the bylaws of the communities themselves. All in all, a good measure of order and justice was successfully imposed, and this applied to the regulation of business and commerce as well as to misdemeanors and crimes. Trade and contracts were regulated and enforced by numerous local and national tribunals, and in Walsham the manor court rolls reveal that the quality of ale and bread, as well as the measures by which they were sold, were closely specified, the numbers of animals that villagers might pasture on the commons or forage in woods were strictly regulated, the ownership and possession of land meticulously recorded, the boundaries of holdings precisely defined, and trespass by people or livestock on the lands and crops of others was prohibited and punished. People who broke contracts or failed to pay their debts were fined or suffered the loss of goods when they were distrained by bailiffs. Serious crime was subject to justice imposed by the leet and hundred courts that rested in the hands of the abbot of St. Edmunds and, at a higher level still, by the king’s justices.

On the other hand, as always, order came at a price. The freedom of the common villagers was constrained in many ways by the judgment of their peers and the layers of social hierarchy above them. Costs as well as benefits flowed from the need to adhere to communal agreements and abide by collective decisions. This was evidenced in the farming of the irregular open fields of Walsham. Although individuals had more independence in how they cultivated their strips of land than in many other parts of the country, they were subjected to oversight of the standards of husbandry they practiced, the folding of sheep on the fallows, the protection of property against trespass, and so on. Custom and precedent rather than the letter of the law generally governed relations between lords and their men, and strictly limited the scale of the rent that was paid in money and labor each year for their landholdings. The unfree, of whom there were many in Walsham, were legally the chattels of their lords, who had the right in law to control many aspects of their lives, although most of these rights were rarely if ever exercised to the full. But the unfree in particular were subjected to a range of extra charges on a variety of occasions, some of which could be irksome and others expensive, including fines when they married or when they were discovered giving birth out of wedlock. The latter was frowned on, not merely because it was believed that marriage was a desirable state and fornication was sinful, but because it was thought there were enough poor to support in the parish of Walsham without single mothers and their children adding to the burdens.

Walsham was an ecclesiastical as well as a secular community, a parish as well as a manor, and the church and religion held a central place in the life of the residents. The lay community assumed obligations to help keep St. Mary’s church in good repair, and to provide a long list of objects to enable the church and its priests to carry out the conduct of worship and the cure of souls. In the fourteenth century the list of necessary objects for churches in the diocese of Norwich, within which lay the parish of Walsham, could include bells for the steeple and ropes for the bells, various books for the conduct of services, including a psalter, an ordinal, a manual, a lesson book, and books of music, elaborate vestments for the priest, cloths and surplices of various sorts, a set of banners for processions, a censer, a vat and a sprinkler for holy water, a lantern and a hand-bell, candlesticks, a font with a lockable cover, and, of course, a chalice for Communion wine and a pyx of silver or ivory to hold the Sacrament. In addition to gifts of money and objects, parishioners were expected to pay tithes to the church comprising a tenth of their corn and other crops, and on the increase of their livestock. On death they paid a mortuary fee, their second best beast.

Moral discipline was enforced primarily by the parish priest and his assistant clergy, but some miscreants found themselves appearing before church courts presided over by archdeacons and rural deans. The relationship of parishioners to their church and its priests, however, was more often one of piety and devotion than of payments and discipline. Though services were in Latin and almost all peasants were illiterate, lessons were learned by ear and by eye, from sermons, conversations and instructions with priests, from wall paintings, stained glass windows and images, from music, performance, and ceremony, and through the great mime that was the celebration of the Mass. A cycle of ecclesiastical feasts fitted well with the cycle of traditional popular celebrations, which in turn fitted well with the seasons and the turning points of the farming year. Michaelmas (September 29) marked the end of one farming year and the beginning of a new, when the harvest was complete and the autumn work in the fields began, especially the plowing and sowing of the winter corn. All Saints (November 1) was the start of the winter, when cattle were brought into the byre, as well as the time when the evil spirits abroad on Halloween had to be propitiated. The twelve days of Christmas were a welcome holiday after the autumn exertions, and they ended with Plow Monday (the Monday after January 6), when, if the land was not frozen or too sodden, the spring plowing was begun. With luck and good weather the spring plowing would be over by Easter, when another holiday led into the time for fallow plowing, weeding, lambing, and sheep shearing. Midsummer (June 24), the feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist saw haymaking begin, and the feast of St. Peter in Chains (Lammas Day, August 1) marked the time when, in good years, harvesting might commence. The twin perpetual cycles of agricultural tasks and religious festivals framed each year at Walsham and gave the momentum that helped provide the community’s material and spiritual sustenance.

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