There are thousands of surviving records of the proceedings of late medieval English manor courts written on parchment rolls, each of which contains masses of information. Although much of this information is selective and partial, and suffers from the many obvious drawbacks of legal proceedings, it does provide a unique window into the lives led by ordinary people. The proceedings of the courts of the large manor of Walsham, held by Sir Hugh and Lady Rose de Saxham, and the small integral manor of High Hall, held by Nicholas de Walsham until his death in 1347 and then by Edmund de Welles and his sister, Margery, survive almost continuously through the 1340s and early 1350s, and they can be used to recall something of the individuals who inhabited this part of rural Suffolk more than 650 years ago.
Details of the yields and prices of all types of grain grown on the demesne farms of landlords are recorded in manor account rolls, which survive in their thousands. They show that the harvest of 1346 was disastrous and prices rose sharply. According to national statistics, only once in the previous twenty-five years had yields been lower, and the shortage of food forced the price of wheat up by more than 70 percent. As a consequence poverty worsened and many smallholders who had borrowed money to tide them over, expecting to be able to repay their debts by selling grain, had little left over when the harvest failed, and they were forced instead to sell their land to survive. Hardship was compounded the next year when the harvest was again significantly below average.
More happily, 1346-1347 marked some notable English successes against the French and their Scottish allies. On August 26, 1346, Edward III and his son, the Black Prince, won a decisive victory over a much larger French army at Crécy, and in October David Bruce’s invading forces were confronted in Durham by a superior army raised by the lords of northern England and routed at Neville’s Cross. Spurred by these successes, Edward III raised a huge army and laid siege to the leading northern French port of Calais, which fell in the summer of 1347.
Although the precise origins of the Black Death are disputed by historians and medical scientists, there is fairly common agreement that it must have originated among the rodents in the high steppe of the central Asiatic plateau, centered on present-day Mongolia. The eruption of the disease may well have been connected to the long series of major ecological disasters, including earthquakes, floods, and famines, which are recorded in a variety of Latin and Arabic sources as occurring in the East during the 1330s and early 1340s. More definite is the manner and timing of the spread of the pestilence west toward Europe, which is attested by numerous contemporaries. During 1346, we are told, it was raging around the northwestern shores of the Caspian Sea and the estuary of the River Don, and in the latter part of the year it reached out southward to the Caucasus and westward to the Black Sea. In the succeeding months the epidemic launched multi-pronged assaults to the west and south, striking Constantinople in late spring 1347 and spreading into what is modern Turkey, Macedonia, and Greece, and down into Syria, Iran, and Iraq. By late autumn, it was raging in Alexandria and along the southern coast of the Mediterranean.
Naturally, western chroniclers were primarily concerned with the progress of the pestilence toward their own lands, and by popular agreement the first outbreak occurred in Sicily, where signs of the infection showed themselves in early October 1347. According to one of the most famous accounts, written by Gabriele de’ Mussi of Piacenza, the pestilence was carried to Sicily on a fleet of Genoese galleys fleeing from the port of Caffa, now Feodosia, on the Crimean coast of the Black Sea. The pestilence had been brought to Caffa by a Mongol army that laid siege to the city. When large numbers of the besiegers began to die of the fatal disease, the bodies of the dead were lobbed over the walls, thereby infecting the city and its colony of Genoese merchants.
The folk of Walsham did not lack for reminders of how their actions in this world would determine their life in the next. Sin, Hell, and Purgatory loomed large in their thoughts, and the fate of souls which departed this world stained with unpurged transgressions and wickedness featured prominently in the teachings of the clergy. For those who might forget, the brightly painted scene of the day of doom emblazoned across the chancel arch of St. Mary’s served as a perpetual ghastly vision of the wages of unpurged sin to all who entered the church. At the apex of the arch, astride a world crowded with people and fine buildings, sat God in all his majesty on a magnificent throne, with the twelve apostles at his feet. Larger than life-size, God held his arms outstretched, signifying his awesome power over the world, with Heaven to his right hand and Hell to his left. The artist ’s vision of Heaven was portrayed by green fields, blue sky, sun, water, and flowers. To this idyllic land, angels with trumpets summoned souls that had served their time in Purgatory to reside in perpetual bliss, and they were seen all around emerging, naked, cleansed, and smiling, from dark holes in the earth into bright sunlight. By horrific contrast, the scene of the gateway to Hell on God’s left was dreadful to behold. Demons gathered tormented and abandoned souls into despairing bands, then chained them together and dragged them toward the gigantic gaping mouths of hideous dragons, or cast them into everlasting sulfurous fires (see figure 7).
Yet powerful as they were, the forces of faith and fear were not sufficient to cow the villagers into leading blameless lives. Walsham’s inhabitants, like people everywhere and in all ages, argued, lied, cheated, stole, and fornicated; they reneged on debts, charged exorbitant rates of interest, misrepresented the quality and quantity of goods they sold and falsely denigrated those they bought, repeatedly cut their lords’ and their neighbors’ hedges for firewood, encroached on the property of others, and carelessly or maliciously allowed their cows, sheep, pigs, and geese to stray. Some of these multitudinous crimes and misdemeanors were recorded in the manor rolls. That of the Walsham court held in November 1345 contained a hundred and more items of business, including Walter Fuller’s wandering cow, which had caused extensive damage to banks of earth in various parts of the manor, and Robert and John, the sons of Robert Farmer from Ashfield, who had been caught in the lord’s rabbit warren, using dogs and setting nets and other traps.
Much to Master John’s frustration, villagers often failed to behave charitably toward each other, and quarrels, deceits, and injustices, real and imagined, continued to flourish despite his best efforts to mediate between them. Acrimony between Walter Cooper and Thomas Bec, close neighbors and former friends, had been brewing for months before William Wodebite’s death. The main cause of their quarrel was the damage they each alleged had been done to their land by animals owned by the other. Their relations deteriorated further when Walter went to the court of July 25, 1345, to sue Thomas for trespass and damages. The court duly awarded Walter an interim judgment, and fined Thomas 3d. But Thomas was determined not to let the matter rest there and counterclaimed against Walter; the court reluctantly set up an inquiry to examine their trivial dispute. When the members of the inquiry, who all knew Thomas and Walter well, reported back to the court in November, they attempted to apportion blame equally by fining each litigant 4d—Thomas for letting his sheep trespass onto Walter’s pasture, causing Walter 9d worth of damage, and Walter for letting his animals stray onto Thomas’s cornfield where they did 15d worth of damage. Thomas was outraged that he had been fined the same amount as Walter, although Walter had caused him greater loss. So he immediately accused Walter of refusing to return two old barrels he had lent him some time ago and succeeded in getting Walter fined another 2d. However, at that point, the hayward and Master John decided that enough was enough, and, under pain of further fines, the combatants were forced to reach a binding agreement with each other to end their litigation before the court adjourned.
Few quarrels, however, were as remorselessly bitter as that carried on between William Wodebite’s surviving children over the division of their father’s property. Since William was unfree, the villein of Sir Nicholas de Walsham, the transfer of his sizable landholdings to his heirs had to receive the formal approval of the lord and be recorded in his court. Therefore, it was duly read out to those assembled at the court of September 24, 1345, that at his death William had held from the lord of the manor three separate blocks of land, amounting in total to sixteen acres, together with two houses and their garden plots. Since a death duty of a draft horse had already been collected, all these lands were allowed to pass in equal shares to William’s three sons, John, Walter, and John Jr., in accordance with local custom. The brothers were then summoned by the steward to swear fealty to their lord, and the two Johns, on bended knees, pledged allegiance and subservience to Sir Nicholas. As Walter was living some distance away from Walsham and had not yet returned to take up his inheritance, the steward ordered that for the time being his share should be managed by the manor reeve with any profits going to the lord.
The next arrangement made by the court was more controversial and concerned a messuage and five acres of land that William had leased from Richard Gothelarde for the term of his life. William’s death meant that the lease terminated. But since Gothelarde had not come to the manor to repossess his land, the lord gave his approval, on payment of a fee of 2s, that the land should be granted to John Sr. and Walter Wodebite, thereby excluding their younger brother.
It was widely known in the village that all had not been well between the Woodbite children in the days before their father’s death, and their enmity had grown more bitter since. But the ears of those attending the court pricked up when it was reported that just after William’s death, Agnes, his sole daughter, had gone to her father’s house with a cart and taken away a great deal of valuable property which should have passed to her brothers. Furthermore, it was alleged, Agnes had subsequently transported this property outside Walsham against the express orders of the lord’s bailiff. After hearing the evidence, the court decreed that her elder brother John was entitled to retain the corn and livestock belonging to Agnes that he had seized in retaliation and to take more of her goods if necessary, until she replied to the charges and the matter was settled.
The reason for Agnes’s behavior became clearer later in the proceedings that day, when the court learned that she had been upset that all her father’s property and land had gone to her brothers. Her grievance was transformed into rage when she learned from the bailiff that he had witnessed a gift her father had made a few days before his death of an acre and a rod of land to the two daughters of her eldest brother, John.
Early in the new year, Walter Wodebite finally arrived back in Walsham to take up the land he had inherited from his father. When he found that the door of the cottage in which he wished to live had been sealed by the lord’s bailiff, he broke it and moved in without approval. For this he was duly fined 18d for contempt in the next manor court. Perhaps because the three Wodebite brothers were preoccupied with the death of their father and sorting out their inheritance, none of them turned up to work for the lord on his demesne farm, despite being repeatedly ordered to do so, and they were heavily fined for their misbehavior.
Over the ensuing months the Wodebite family was rent by further quarrels as the brothers wrestled without success to share their sizable inheritance in an amicable manner. By April, young John had decided that he no longer wished to carry on farming alongside his brothers, and he agreed to lease Walter his share of his father’s lands in return for 5s a year. Family arrangements were rarely formally recorded, but because John did not trust his brother, he insisted not only that their agreement be registered in court but that it should contain the explicit requirement that Walter follow all normal practices of good husbandry, including spreading dung, and keep the land in as good a heart as when he received it.
Any hopes that Master John might have had about reconciliation between the Wodebite brothers were spectacularly dispelled at the obit feast after the special Mass held in St. Mary’s church on the anniversary of the death of their father in late August. All present at the memorial were scandalized when a bitter row flared up between the brothers on the top table, to the great shame of the family. The community placed the blame for the incident squarely on the shoulders of young John, whose misbehavior was deemed to be so serious that he was hauled before the next High Hall court session and fined for making false accusations against his brothers.
Further months of wrangling produced yet another attempt at a settlement between the three brothers. This time they decided to split their father’s lands in such a way that they would not have to cooperate in farming them. Once again, the breakdown of trust between the brothers had gone so far, and the amount of money and land at stake was so great, that the brothers decided to have their agreement registered in the manor court. At the session held on April 21, 1347, at a cost of 18d in legal fees, it was recorded that John the elder had taken the croft called Chesinees, Walter the one called Aprilles, and John the younger, Alwynes. These lands obviously had an abundance of cottages on them, for the lord took this opportunity of extracting a pledge from each of the brothers that they would keep all of them in a good state of repair. However, it soon became apparent that Walter had no intention of farming all of his lands himself, and he set about leasing small parcels at high rents to villagers desperate for land; his elder brother John took a couple of acres of pasture.
Life was habitually harsh for the majority of Walsham’s villagers in the 1340s as the overcrowded land struggled each year to feed all the mouths that depended on it. Harvests needed to be good to avoid distress, but that of 1346 was exceptionally poor. The growing season had been extremely dry, and the lack of rain meant that grain did not swell in the husk. In late August and early September the baleful shadow of a hard and hungry winter loomed ominously ahead as the meager sheaves were gathered in. Farmer after farmer reported yields around a quarter to a third lower than normal, and by October the price of wheat, which for many years had averaged little more than 4s a quarter in the local markets, had reached 6s. Villagers sought to make their pennies go further by baking their bread and making their pottage from cheaper, coarser, and less appetizing grains such as rye, barley, oats, and peas, but the prices of these rapidly followed suit. Since few in Walsham had landholdings sufficient to grow all they needed to eat, low yields meant that the majority were forced to buy more of their food and pay more for it. Making matters worse, people sought to save money by putting off nonessential expenditures. Consequently those who offered themselves for hire in order to supplement their meager incomes suffered reduced earnings, while the cost of bread, beans, pottage, and ale soared. Those wretched folk with only tiny amounts of land or none at all, who had only the labor of their hands to live off, were driven deep into poverty and wracked with hunger, and those who were too old or sick to work had to rely on the charity of neighbors, many of whom were themselves suffering hardship and deprivation.
Harvest was normally a time when substantial bonuses could be earned, but this year the depleted crops in the fields required less labor to gather in and to thresh and winnow over the winter. More insidiously, low yields and high food prices ate into the disposable income of even the more affluent villagers. More money spent on food, which was essential, meant less to be spent on cloth, pottery, wooden and leather goods, building work, repairs and maintenance, and suchlike, which could be put off until later. As villagers deferred many purchases until better times, the drop in expenditure made it more difficult for their poorer neighbors to find casual employment as carders, spinners, weavers, potters, turners and woodcarvers, carpenters, leatherworkers, tilers, thatchers, carters, carriers, and, of course, common farm laborers.
As the price of bread rose still higher over the winter of 1347, the smallholders and landless of Walsham often went hungry. Many of those who possessed animals were forced to sell them to raise money or slaughter them in order to feed themselves, and many of those who had goods to pledge, however meager, were forced to borrow against them and seek charity from their richer neighbors. Particularly badly hit were poor villagers who had previously pledged their smallholdings as security for loans, on the expectation that they would be able to repay their debts from the proceeds of the harvest which had now failed. As they now had little or no grain to sell, they were forced instead to dispose of land, their main source of livelihood.
However, even when facing a cold and hungry winter, the villagers enjoyed some welcome diversions, none more so than the news which reached Walsham in late autumn of a glorious victory in the war against the king of France at Crécy. Sturdy English longbowmen, rustics like themselves, had slaughtered a host of mounted and armored nobility and knights, the flower of French chivalry (see figure 8). Amid much rejoicing, the valiant King Edward and his son, the Black Prince, were toasted by rich and poor alike. Englishmen and women were delighted to hear that God had been on their side, not just by bringing the victory but by sending heavy rain, thunder, and a terrible eclipse of the sun just before the battle, which both frightened the French and their Genoese allies and hampered them in their preparations. And then God had sent the most brilliant sun, which shone directly in the eyes of the enemy while warming the backs of the English.
Tales of the battle, its tactics, its feats of heroism, the manner in which the enemy was dispatched, were told and retold in the parlors of cottages, the bars of alehouses, the halls of manor houses, and the refectories of the local monasteries. Villagers listened intently as they were told how the English archers shot their arrows with such force and speed that it seemed to be snowing, and how those arrows struck down first the Genoese crossbowmen and then pierced through the armor of the mounted French earls, barons, knights, and esquires and brought them crashing to the ground, where they had their throats slit by the knives of Cornishmen and Welshmen.
For a time, all who came into Walsham found themselves the center of attention and treated to generous hospitality of drinks, meals, and even lodgings, as they were encouraged to disclose every scrap of information about Crécy, so that it could be assiduously added to that which had already been heard. In the alehouses and at markets and fairs, much pleasure was derived from recreating the chaotic battle scenes in which the French knights, and those who rode with them, had trampled down the fleeing Genoese crossbowmen in a series of mad charges at the thin but unyielding lines of brave English longbowmen and pikemen. Time and again the enemy had been repulsed and routed and finally killed in the thousands. The flower of French knighthood had been slaughtered, including many of the very highest nobility: the king’s brother, the count of Flanders, the duke of Lorraine, the king of Majorca, and, most renowned of all, the blind king John of Bohemia. In the weeks that followed, the practicing of archery at the butts on Walsham village green became very popular, and a number of competitions were hastily arranged for holidays and festivals.
Walsham was also brought in touch with the wider community when Lady Margery called Master John to High Hall and insisted, against his protestations, that her private confessor, a Franciscan friar, should preach the first of the series of Lenten sermons, which was due to be given on Sunday, March 5, the first Sunday in Lent and the festival of Quadragesima. Rumors had been circulating in the village for some time about the sway this friar held over Lady Margery’s life and how he lorded over the household staff. Master John was distraught, for he considered the sermon at the beginning of Lent to be one of the most important of the year, when he explained the meaning of Lent to his flock and set the spiritual tone for the forty-day period of fasting and confession. As far as John knew, this vital sermon had always been given by the parish priest, and furthermore the friar was no friend of his. In fact, he deeply resented his presence in the parish. For the friar preached coarse sermons full of demons, torments, and carnal sins, and he also frequented the taverns and told bawdy tales, gave easy penance to sinners for money, and bartered with his flock by offering them cheap deals on all his services, from burying loved ones to blessing marriages and barren cows. By undercutting the fees on which the poor assistant clergy of the parish relied to scratch a living, the friar was taking food out of their mouths. More important yet, the Franciscan was depriving his parishioners of spiritual sustenance. It was the sacred duty of Master John and his carefully chosen and schooled chaplains to hear the confessions of his flock, to make them feel genuinely ashamed for their transgressions, and to heal them by exacting an appropriately painful penance. Yet many of the sinners in the parish avoided this pain and shame by fleeing to the friar, who imperiled their souls by selling them easy forgiveness for a penny or two.
There was no denying the friar’s popularity among parishioners, who were excited when they heard that the theme of his sermon was to be games rather than Lenten abstinence. More than that, it was rumored that Lady Margery, who was particularly fond of playing chess, had chosen the central message of the sermon: the similarity of the world to a game of chess. Then, during Mass performed before a packed congregation, when the time came for the friar to give his sermon, he theatrically leaped up from behind the rood screen where he had been crouching. The congregation gasped and some laughed nervously. But they fell silent as the friar approached the pulpit and, cupping his hand to his ear, said with heavy sarcasm in his voice, “Listen how quiet the church now is, how lacking in idle chatter and gossip. See how devotedly you all concentrate on my every word and movement and on every stone, every colored window, saint’s image, brass ornament and fine cloth in this church. Yet when your own priest appears before you he can scarcely hear himself speak for the babble you make, though he offers you the route to eternal heavenly bliss. Devils and demons are with us always, and Tutivillus, prince among demons, is delighted to note down all your misdeeds and evil thoughts on his roll of sins, to be read out one by one on the day of doom. Should it take many a day to do so. You must go to the great church of Ely, just a few miles away, and see there the pew seat, which was carved a little while ago as a warning to those who like you keep up a constant babbling of voices during services in the cathedral. On it the master woodcarver has depicted Tutivillus in the shape of a pig, hugging with pleasure two women who are gossiping during Mass. This devil can also be seen stretching his long roll with his teeth and noting down their every word, which will be used against them later when the women are dispatched to be tormented by devils for their careless sins. See there too, how one of the women plays with her rosary, as if that will save her from the boiling cauldron and the venomous worms that will gnaw her body without ceasing. Ah! See how quiet you have all become, and how attentive to my every word. Ha! See how my words are already turning you from sin! Are you believing the tales you are hearing of the coming of the end of the world?”
Having gained the rapt attention of the packed congregation, the friar settled down to give one of his favorite sermons: “The world is like a chessboard, which is checkered white and black. The colors show the two conditions of life and death, or praise and blame. The chessmen are men of this world who occupy different stations and hold different titles in this life, although every one of us finally has a common fate which levels all ranks. You know the saying that you cannot tell a knight from a peasant in the charnel house, and I tell you that the king himself often lies under the pawns when the chess pieces are in the bag. In chess, the king’s move and powers of capture are in all directions. This is because the king’s will is law. The queen’s move, however, is aslant only, because women are so greedy that they will take nothing except by rapine and injustice. The rook stands for the itinerant justices who travel over the whole realm, and their move is always straight because the judge must deal justly. The knight’s move is compounded of a straight move and an oblique one; the former betokens his legal power of collecting rents and such rightful things, the latter his extortions and wrongdoings. The bishops are prelates wearing horns, and they move obliquely because every bishop misuses his office through cupidity. The pawns are poor men like you. Their move is straight, except where they take anything; so also the poor man does well so long as he keeps from ambition, because it is hard for a poor man to deal rightly when he is raised above his proper station.
“This game of chess is also like life because the devil says ‘Check!’ when a man or woman falls into sin; and unless the sinner quickly covers the check by turning to repentance, the devil says ‘Mate!’ and carries him off to Hell, from which there is no escape. The devil has as many kinds of temptation to catch different types of men as the hunter has dogs to catch different types of animals.”
Master John had absented himself from the sermon by announcing, somewhat ostentatiously, that it was a mere exemplum, and that he would be visiting the sick on foot in the farthest corners of the village. However, he was amused to learn a few days later that Lady Margery had taken offense during her confessor’s homily at the reference to women being rapacious and unjust, and then accused him outside the church, in the full view and hearing of others, of putting in this reference only because she had refused to buy him another fur-lined cape.
The harvest of autumn 1347 brought no respite to the poor of Walsham, for once again it was miserable (see figure 9). This time it was spoiled by torrential rain, which came just when the ripe corn was ready to be gathered in. The villagers had prayed while they scattered the seed that they would reap at least four times as much as they sowed. To this end Master John dispensed many gallons of holy water for sprinkling on the land and led numerous processions to bless the fields. Many villagers, in addition, sought the assistance of the powers of natural magic, as they had always done, by buying charms from wise old men and women who promised to boost the fertility of their soil and guard their livestock against pestilence. But the lack of sunshine in August led to dampness in the grain, and repeated heavy showers beat down the stalks so that they were difficult to cut, gather in, and dry. As a result the yield was not much better than the previous year, and far short of what was needed. Food shortages and high prices persisted, but now the problems of survival for poorer villagers, both financial and physical, were grievously aggravated because their scanty reserves had been twice depleted. Smallholders who earlier in the year had borrowed against the yield of their land in order to eat, now had their hopes dashed by the poor harvest and instead found themselves pressed for the repayment of loans at the same time as they struggled to find enough money to put food in the stomachs of their families. This rising inability to repay debts was reflected in the courts of Walsham, where the number of creditors seeking redress against defaulting debtors multiplied. With the heavy hand of the law behind them, bailiffs distrained the goods and livestock of those who could not pay what they owed, and many small but vital pieces of land were prised from their needy owners as creditors foreclosed and gobbled up their half acres, rods, and pightles.
As winter approached in late 1347, times were as bad as most villagers could remember they had been since 1339. But old men and women with longer memories, sometimes aided by overfertile imaginations, recounted how the present scarcities were as nothing compared with the horrendous famines that had struck England and Walsham three decades before. Then, they claimed, it had rained almost nonstop for two years and the land had flooded until there were lakes the size of seas all around Walsham. The village fields were so wet that it was scarcely possible to plow and sow them, for the seeds they scattered were washed away in the mud and water; if any sprouted, the shoots were beaten down by the rain and the cold. And when it came to harvest time, lucky indeed was the farmer who gathered in as much grain as he had sown. In those days of dearth, the old folk recalled, the price of all types of corn had soared fivefold, and it was said that a quarter of wheat had sold in London for more than 40s. Starving people had been forced to eat dogs and cats, not merely the roots and berries that some of the poor were eating these days. And, they whispered, in those evil days some had been driven to such madness by the pangs of hunger that they had devoured their own children. Then, the old folk recalled while their young audience listened in horror, as if crop failures and starvation on an unimaginable scale were not enough to bear, the famines were followed by a series of devastating murrains and plagues of their sheep and cattle. In the end it was difficult to say which had been the greater number: the death of livestock from plagues or of their owners from starvation and disease.
The people of Walsham, like everyone else, had a great love of stories and a vast appetite for news about important events and the doings of important people, which circulated in the humblest of places. And when there was little of note to talk about, even the most trite and trivial of tittle-tattle would find a ready audience, at least for a short while. It was always worth listening to the gossip of the servants who overheard conversations in the manor houses of their lords, and the reports of the monks who regularly shared company with visitors to the abbeys at Ixworth and Bury, and sometimes journeyed to London or even Rome. The carters who carried goods from place to place were an additional source of copious, if not always reliable, information, and news spread rapidly whenever people gathered in markets and fairs. Even those who did not travel far could hear in the alehouses and lodging houses of Walsham something worth listening to from the most lowly of wayfarers.
The progress of the war with France, the actions of the king, lords, knights, and parliament, the behavior of bishops and archdeacons, the price of wool, pigs, and barley, all were reported and recounted time and again. So too were exotic travelers’ fables of sea monsters and dragons, man-eating half-human savages, and cities made of gold in far distant lands. These and more besides had long been a source of amusement and amazement, even in the quiet lanes of rural Suffolk. But from the early 1340s such long-lived tales were joined, and eventually surpassed, by even more fantastic stories that came from the edge of the world in the East—from the lands of the Great Khan, hard by India, and from Persia and Cathay. Thence came stories of torrential rains that turned vast plains into lakes or even seas, of massive earthquakes that consumed cities, mountains that rained down fire falling in flakes like snow and burning up the land and all who dwelled on it. Passed on by successions of travelers to places near and far, these fabulous stories crossed Europe and then England, and finally arrived in Walsham. Soon they had been brought to the village many times and in many different forms.
It may have been the harsh routine of daily life and the exhausting struggle that many faced daily for mere survival that stifled villagers’ interest in wondrous happenings in the East, on the edges of the world. At first the reports were merely added to the feast of tall stories and legends that came from remote places, which fed the appetites of those who hungered after mystery, wonder, and entertainment. Eventually, however, the more curious and thoughtful residents of Walsham, assisted by their scholarly priest who was always willing to discuss and interpret, began to note how the mixture of myth and miracles, which on first hearing could so easily be dismissed as entertaining fantasy, was gaining a measure of credibility through the persistence and repetition of key elements.
As time passed, the provenance of these tales was becoming ever firmer. At first they had no known authors, but now they were confidently ascribed to Italians who, sailing the Mediterranean and venturing beyond the Black Sea, had heard them from the Arabs, Persians, and Tartars with whom they met and traded. By the early spring of 1347, men from Lynn, Ipswich, Cambridge, and London could be encountered in Bury, Thetford, and occasionally even in markets close to Walsham, who insisted they had spoken to the very merchants or seamen who had heard these tales from the infidels who had actually witnessed these fantastic events, or at least had told them that they had.
So often in the past, news that at first had seemed amazing had eventually become more prosaic, as more convincing testimonies successively stripped away the wonders and bizarre trappings. But this news was different. By the summer of 1347, the sources of the tales from the East were both multiplying and increasing in authority, and as this happened their contents were becoming more, not less, fantastic. Further, the tellers of the tales were becoming ever more deeply troubled by what they had to report. Now the center of the stage was not floods, eruptions, and earthquakes, but a pestilence of unprecedented ferocity and mysterious form, whose coming had been preceded by a series of awful omens, including rains of frogs, serpents, lizards, scorpions, and venomous beasts. This pestilence, it was said, was borne by the wind in clouds of poison, and was contaminating all those it touched, bringing sudden death to thousands upon thousands of Tartars and Saracens. The pestilence was moving hither and thither without warning, and as it did so broad regions were destroyed and far-spreading provinces, magnificent kingdoms, cities, towns, and settlements swiftly stripped of their inhabitants, who were ground down by sickness and devoured by dreadful death.
Yet even these latest reports caused little deep concern, except perhaps among a few devout parishioners who eagerly drew attention to parallels they found in the Bible, which included the floods of the time of Noah, as well as the hails of fire and blood, swarms of locusts and pestilences which God had visited in ancient times on grievous sinners. But Master John calmed the zealots, telling them that the sins in their community, though hurtful to God, were not sufficiently heinous to drive him, in his mercy, to smite them as he smote the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah. “Why do you have so little faith in God’s mercy? Do you not see that he is striking down infidels and not Christians?”
Then in late autumn, a London merchant visiting Bury to buy cloth to export across the North Sea claimed to have heard from a frightened Genoese trader, while on a recent voyage to Bruges, not only the familiar stories of a mysterious sickness destroying numerous provinces in distant parts of the world and leaving them covered with unburied dead bodies, but that the sickness had been carried westward by the Tartars and had reached the shores of the Black Sea. The London merchant explained that many of the fine silk cloths and rare spices that were sold for high prices in London, and were from time to time bought by the richest citizens of Bury, had been traded through ports on the Black Sea. But to the countryfolk of Walsham, such a sickness, if it could be believed at all, was occurring in strange places at the very ends of the earth, where no Englishman had ever been. There had never been rains of fire or serpents in Walsham, in Suffolk, or in England. And the wisest people in their village were certain that not even the most learned of monks and doctors, with all their books containing wisdom from the beginning of time, had any knowledge of pestilence striking England or Europe which bore even the slightest resemblance to the disease raging in the East.
So they turned instead with relish to the latest gossip circulating in their community about the doings of Idonea Isabel, a young single woman who had been waging a remarkably feisty struggle against her lord, Nicholas de Walsham, and his wife, Margery. The year before, Idonea had made a fuss by publicly refusing to turn up at harvest time to reap on Sir Nicholas’s land, as required by her tenancy obligations, and had instead accepted higher wages from Robert Hovel to cut his corn. For this Idonea had been fined 3d, and her father was forced to act as a pledge for her future good behavior. But the young woman persisted in her rebelliousness and, although unmarried, had then become pregnant. What is more, Idonea, a skillful weaver, repeatedly refused to weave cloth for Lady Margery. And, as if that was not enough, she openly told all who would listen that she refused to weave the cloth because Lady Margery was a cheat who had failed to pay her mother, Olivia, for the linen cloth she made six years before. Then, to compound her contempt for her lord and lady, at harvest time she once again failed to turn up at their demesne farm to reap. But this time Idonea had an excuse, for she had recently given birth. However, Sir Nicholas decided that he had to make an example of Idonea, and at the manor court held after the harvest he fined her 3d for failing to reap for him, 2s 8d for producing a bastard, and 3d for not fulfilling his wife’s order to weave cloth. Still Idonea was not cowed, and she boasted in open court that she had no intention of paying the fines or working for the de Walshams for nothing, either in their fields or at her loom.
The spread of the Black Death from 1346 to early 1348
Source: Ole J. Benedictow, The Black Death, 1346-53; The Complete History (Woodbridge, 2004), map 1.