THE VILLAGERS: HOW THEY LIVED

ALL THE VILLAGERS OF ELTON, FREE, VILLEIN, AND of indeterminate status, virgaters, half-virgaters, cotters, servants, and craftsmen, lived in houses that shared the common characteristic of impermanence. Poorly built, of fragile materials, they had to be completely renewed nearly every generation. At Wharram Percy, nine successive transformations of one house can be traced over a span of little more than three centuries. The heir’s succession to a holding probably often supplied an occasion for rebuilding. For reasons not very clear, the new house was often erected adjacent to the old site, with the alignment changed and new foundations planted either in postholes or in continuous foundation trenches.1

Renewal was not always left to the tenant’s discretion. The peasant taking over a holding might be bound by a contract to build a new house, of a certain size, to be completed within a certain time span. Sometimes the lord agreed to supply timber or other assistance.2 The lord’s interest in the proper maintenance of the houses and outbuildings of his village was sustained

image 32

Fourteenth-century peasant house, St. Mary’s Grove cottage, Tilmanstone, Kent. Originally of one story, the house has retained the studs of the medieval partition that divided it into two rooms, and the framing of the window wall. Upper story and chimney were added in the seventeenth century, and the walls have been largely rebuilt. Royal Commission on the Historic Monuments of England.

by the manorial court. In Elton in 1306, Aldusa Chapleyn had to find pledges to guarantee that she would “before the next court repair her dwelling house in as good a condition as she received it.”3 Two years later, William Rouvehed was similarly enjoined to “repair and rebuild his dwelling house in as good a condition as that in which he received it for a gersum [entry fee],”4 and in 1331 three villagers were fined 12 pence each because they did not “maintain [their] buildings.”5

All the village houses belonged to the basic type of medieval building, the “hall,” as did the manor house, the barns, and even the church: a single high-ceilinged room, varying in size depending on the number of bays or framed sections. In peasants’ houses, bays were usually about fifteen feet square.6

The house of a rich villager such as John of Elton might

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Outline of foundation of house at Wharram Percy, with entry in middle of long side.

consist of four or even five bays, with entry in the middle of a long side. Small service rooms were probably partitioned off at one end: a buttery, where drink was kept, and a pantry, for bread, dishes, and utensils, with a passage between leading to a kitchen outside. A “solar,” a second story either above the service rooms or at the other end, may have housed a sleeping chamber. A large hall might retain the ancient central hearth, or be heated by a fireplace with a chimney fitted into the wall. Early halls were aisled like churches, with the floor space obstructed by two rows of posts supporting the roof. Cruck construction had partially solved the problem, and by the end of the thirteenth century, carpenters had rediscovered the roof truss, known to the Greeks and Romans. Based on the inherent strength of the triangle, which resists distortion, the truss can support substantial weight.7

A middle-level peasant, a virgater such as Alexander atte Cross, probably lived in a three-bay house, the commonest type. A cotter like Richard Trune might have a small one- or two-bay house. Dwellings commonly still lodged animals as well as human beings, but the byre was more often partitioned off and sometimes positioned at right angles to the living quarters, a configuration that pointed to the European farm complex of the future, with house and outbuildings ringing a central court.8

Interiors were lighted by a few windows, shuttered but unglazed, and by doors, often open during the daytime, through which children and animals wandered freely. Floors were of beaten earth covered with straw or rushes. In the center, a fire of wood, or of peat, commonly used in Elton,9 burned on a raised stone hearth, vented through a hole in the roof. Some hearths were crowned by hoods or funnels to channel the smoke to the makeshift chimney, which might be capped by a barrel with its ends knocked out. The atmosphere of the house was perpetually smoky from the fire burning all day as water, milk, or porridge simmered in pots on a trivet or in footed brass or iron kettles. At night a fire-cover, a large round ceramic lid with holes, could be put over the blaze.10

A thirteenth-century writer, contrasting the joys of a nun’s life with the trials of marriage, pictured the domestic crisis of a

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Woman stirs footed pot on central hearth while holding baby. Trinity College, Cambridge, Ms. B 11.22, f. 25v.

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Central hearth of house in reconstruction of Anglo-Saxon settlement at West ow.

wife who hears her child scream and hastens into the house to find “the cat at the bacon and the dog at the hide. Her cake is burning on the [hearth] stone, and her calf is licking up the milk. The pot is boiling over into the fire, and the churl her husband is scolding.”11

Medieval sermons, too, yield a glimpse of peasant interiors: the hall “black with smoke,” the cat sitting by the fire and often singeing her fur, the floor strewn with green rushes and sweet flowers at Easter, or straw in winter. They picture the housewife at her cleaning: “She takes a broom and drives all the dirt of the house together; and, lest the dust rise…she casts it with great violence out of the door.” But the work is never done: “For, on Saturday afternoon, the servants shall sweep the house and cast all the dung and the filth behind the door in a heap. But what then? Come the capons and the hens and scrape it around and make it as ill as it was before.” We see the woman doing laundry, soaking the clothes in lye (homemade with ashes and water), beating and scrubbing them, and hanging them up to dry. The dog, driven out of the kitchen with a basinful of hot water, fights over a bone, lies stretched in the sun with flies settling on him, or eagerly watches people eating until they throw him a morsel, “whereupon he turns his back.”12

The family ate seated on benches or stools at a trestle table, disassembled at night. Chairs were rarities. A cupboard or hutch held wooden and earthenware bowls, jugs, and wooden spoons. Hams, bags, and baskets hung from the rafters, away from rats and mice. Clothing, bedding, towels, and table linen were stored in chests. A well-to-do peasant might own silver spoons, brass pots, and pewter dishes.13

When they bathed, which was not often, medieval villagers used a barrel with the top removed. To lighten the task of carrying and heating water, a family probably bathed serially in the same water.14

At night, the family slept on straw pallets, either on the floor of the hall or in a loft at one end, gained by a ladder. Husband and wife shared a bed, sometimes with the baby, who alternatively might sleep in a cradle by the fire.

Manorial accounts yield ample information about what the abbot of Ramsey ate, especially his feast-day diet, which included larks, ducks, salmon, kid, chickens at Easter, a boar at Christmas, and capons and geese on other occasions.15 The monks ate less luxuriously. For their table, Elton (and other manors) supplied the cellarer at Ramsey with bacon, beef, lambs, herring, butter, cheese, beans, geese, hens, and eggs, as well as flour and meal. The inhabitants of the curia, including the reeve, the beadle, some of the servants, and “divers workmen and visitors from time to time,” also ate comparatively well, consuming large quantities of grain in various forms as well as peas, beans, bacon, chickens, ducks, cheese, and butter. Food was no small part of the remuneration of servants and staff of a manor. Georges Duby cites the carters of Battle Abbey, who demanded rye bread, ale, and cheese in the morning, and meat or fish at midday.’16

Less evidence exists for the diet of the average peasant. The thirteenth-century villager was a cultivator rather than a herdsman because his basic need was subsistence, which meant food and drink produced from grain. His aim was not exactly selfsufficiency, but self-supply of the main necessities of life.17 These were bread, pottage or porridge, and ale. Because his wheat went almost exclusively to the market, his food and drink crops were barley and oats. Most peasant bread was made from “maslin,”

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Netting small birds. British Library, Luttrell Psalter, Ms. Add. 42130, f. 63.

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The abbot’s kitchen at Glastonbury Abbey contained four fireplaces for cooking.

a mixture of wheat and rye or barley and rye, baked into a coarse dark loaf weighing four pounds or more, and consumed in great quantities by men, women, and children.18

For the poorer peasant families, such as the Trunes or the Saladins of Elton, pottage was favored over bread as more economical, since it required no milling and therefore escaped both the miller’s exaction and the natural loss of quantity in the process. Barley grains destined for pottage were allowed to sprout in a damp, warm place, then were boiled in the pot. Water could be drawn off, sweetened with honey, and drunk as barley water, or allowed to ferment into beer. Peas and beans supplied scarce protein and amino acids to both pottage and bread. A little fat bacon or salt pork might be added to the pottage along with onion and garlic from the garden. In spring and summer a variety of vegetables was available: cabbage, lettuce, leeks, spinach, and parsley. Some crofts grew fruit trees, supplying apples, pears, or cherries. Nuts, berries, and roots were gathered in the woods. Fruit was usually cooked; raw fruit was thought unhealthy. Except for poisonous or very bitter plants, “anything that grew went into the pot, even primrose and strawberry leaves.”19 The pinch came in the winter and early spring, when the grain supply ran low and wild supplements were not available.

Stronger or weaker, more flavorful or blander, the pottage kettle supplied many village families with their chief sustenance. If possible, every meal including breakfast was washed down with weak ale, home-brewed or purchased from a neighbor, but water often had to serve. The most serious shortage was protein. Some supplement for the incomplete protein of beans and peas was available from eggs, little from meat or cheese, though the wealthier villagers fared better than the poor or middling. E. A.

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Gathering fruit. British Library, Luttrell Psalter, Ms. Add. 42130, f. 196v.

Kosminsky believed that the virgater and half-virgater could have “made ends meet without great difficulty, had it not been for the weight of feudal exploitation”—that is, the labor services and other villein obligations—but that a quarter virgate (five to eight acres) did not suffice even in the absence of servile dues.20 H. S. Bennett calculated the subsistence level as lying between five and ten acres, “probably nearer ten than five.” The most recent scholarly estimate, by H. E. Hallam (1988), is that twelve acres was needed for a statistical family of 4.75. J. Z. Titow pointed out that more acreage was needed per family in a two-field system than a three-field system, since more of each holding was lying fallow. Cicely Howell, studying data from the Midland village of Kibworth Harcourt, concluded that not until the mid-sixteenth century could the half-virgater provide his family with more than eight bushels of grain a year per person from his own land. Poor families survived only by their varied activities as day laborers.21

Besides the shortage of protein, medieval diets were often lacking in lipids, calcium, and vitamins A, C, and D.22 They were also often low in calories, making the inclusion of ale a benefit on grounds of health as well as recreation. Two positive aspects of the villagers’ austere regimen—its low protein and low fat content—gave it some of the virtues of the modern “heartsmart” diet, and its high fiber was a cancer preventative.

A middling family like that of Alexander atte Cross or Henry Abovebrook probably owned a cow or two or a few ewes, to provide an intermittent supply of milk, cheese, and butter. Most households kept chickens and pigs to furnish eggs and occasional meat, but animals, like wheat, were often needed for cash sales to pay the rent or other charges. Salted and dried fish were available for a price, as were eels, which also might be fished from the Nene or poached from the millpond.

Medieval literature voiced the popular hunger for protein and fat. A twelfth-century Irish poet describes a dream in which a coracle “built of lard/ Swam a sweet milk sea,” and out of a lake rose a castle reached by a bridge of butter and surrounded by a palisade of bacon, with doorposts of whey curds, columns of

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Men fishing with nets. British Library, Queen Mary’s Psalter, Ms. Royal 2B VII, f. 73.

aged cheese, and pillars of pork. Across a moat of spicy broth covered with fat, guards welcomed the dreamer to the castle with coils of fat sausages.23

It was a hungry world, made hungrier by intermittent crop failures, one series of which in the early fourteenth century brought widespread famine in England and northwest Europe. The later, even more devastating cataclysm of the Black Death so reduced the European population that food became comparatively plentiful and the peasants took to eating wheat. The poet John Gower (d. 1408) looked back on the earlier, hungrier period not in sorrow but rather with an indignant nostalgia that reflected the attitude of the elite toward the lower classes:

Laborers of olden times were not wont to eat wheaten bread; their bread was of common grain or of beans, and their drink was of the spring. Then cheese and milk were a feast to them; rarely had they any other feast than this. Their garment was of sober gray; then was the world of such folk well ordered in its estate.24

The peasant’s “garment” has often been pictured in the illuminations of manuscripts, but only occasionally in “sober gray”; the colors shown are more often bright blues, reds, and greens. Whether Gower’s memory was accurate is uncertain. Peasants did have access to dyestuffs, and Elton had a dyer.

Over the period of the high Middle Ages, styles of clothing of nobles and townspeople changed from long, loose garments for both men and women to short, tight, full-skirted jackets and close-fitting hose for men and trailing gowns with voluminous sleeves, elaborate headdresses, and pointed shoes for women. Peasant dress, however, progressed little. For the men, it consisted of a short tunic, belted at the waist, and either short stockings that ended just below the knee or long hose fastened at the waist to a cloth belt. A hood or cloth cap, thick gloves or mittens, and leather shoes with heavy wooden soles completed the costume. The women wore long loose gowns belted at the waist, sometimes sleeveless tunics with a sleeved undergarment, their heads and necks covered by wimples. Underclothing, when it was worn, was usually of linen, outer garments were woolen.

The tunic of a prosperous peasant might be trimmed with fur, like the green one edged with squirrel found by three Elton boys in 1279 and turned over to the reeve.25 A poor peasant’s garb, on the other hand, might resemble that of the poor man in Langland’s fourteenth-century allegory, Piers Plowman, whose “coat was of a [coarse] cloth called cary,” whose hair stuck through the holes in his hood and whose toes stuck through those in his heavy shoes, whose hose hung loose, whose rough mittens had worn-out fingers covered with mud, and who was himself “all smeared with mud as he followed the plow,” while beside him walked his wife carrying the goad, in a tunic tucked up to her knees, wrapped in a winnowing sheet to keep out the cold, her bare feet bleeding from the icy furrows.26

The village world was a world of work, but villagers nevertheless found time for play. Every season was brightened by holiday intervals that punctuated the Christian calendar. Many of these were ancient pagan celebrations, appropriated by the Church, often with little alteration of their character. Each of the seasons of the long working year, from harvest to harvest, offered at least one holiday when work was suspended, games were played, and meat, cakes, and ale were served.

On November 1, bonfires marked All Hallows, an old pagan rite at which the spirits of the dead were propitiated, now renamed All Saints. Martinmas (St. Martin’s Day, November 11) was the feast of the plowman, in some places celebrated with seed cake, pasties, and a frumenty of boiled wheat grains with milk, currants, raisins, and spices.

The fortnight from Christmas Eve to Twelfth Day (Epiphany, January 6) was the longest holiday of the year, when, as in a description of twelfth-century London, “every man’s house, as also their parish churches, was decked with holly, ivy, bay, and whatsoever the season of the year afforded to be green.”27 Villagers owed extra rents, in the form of bread, eggs, and hens for the lord’s table, but were excused from work obligations for the fortnight and on some manors were treated to a Christmas dinner in the hall.

This Christmas bonus often reflected status. A manor of Wells Cathedral had the tradition of extending invitations to two peasants, one a large landholder, the other a small one. The first was treated to dinner for himself and two friends and served “as much beer as they will drink in the day,” beef and bacon with mustard, a chicken stew, and a cheese, and provided with two candles to burn one after the other “while they sit and drink.” The poorer peasant had to bring his own cloth, cup, and trencher, but could take away “all that is left on his cloth, and he shall have for himself and his neighbors one wastel [loaf] cut in three for the ancient Christmas game to be played with the said wastel.”28 The game was evidently a version of “king of the bean,” in which a bean was hidden in a cake or loaf, and the person who found it became king of the feast. On some Glastonbury Abbey manors, tenants brought firewood and their own dishes, mugs, and napkins; received bread, soup, beer, and two kinds of meat; and could sit drinking in the manor house after dinner.29 In Elton the manorial servants had special rations, which in 1311 amounted to four geese and three hens.30

In some villages, the first Monday after Epiphany was celebrated by the women as Rock (distaff) Monday and by the men as Plow Monday, sometimes featuring a plow race. In 1291 in the Nottinghamshire village of Carlton, a jury testified that it was an ancient custom for the lord and the rector and every free man of the village to report with his plow to a certain field that was common to “the whole community of the said village” after sunrise on “the morrow of Epiphany” and “as many ridges as he can cut with one furrow in each ridge, so many may he sow in the year, if he pleases, without asking for license.”31

Candlemas (February 2), commemorating Mary’s “churching,” the ceremony of purification after childbirth, was celebrated with a procession carrying candles. It was followed by Shrove Tuesday, the last day before Lent, an occasion for games and sports.

At Easter, the villagers gave the lord eggs, and he gave the manorial servants and sometimes some of the tenants dinner. Like Christmas, Easter provided villeins a respite—one week—from work on the demesne. Celebrated with games, Easter week ended with Hocktide, marked in a later day, and perhaps in the thirteenth century, by the young women of the village holding the young men prisoner until they paid a fine, and the men retaliating on the second day.32

On May Day the young people “brought in the May,” scouring the woods for boughs from flowering trees to decorate their houses. Sometimes they spent the night in the woods.

Summertime Rogation Days, when the peasants walked the boundaries of the village, were followed by Whitsunday (Pentecost), bringing another week’s vacation for most villeins. St. John’s Day (June 24) saw bonfires lit on the hilltops and boys flourishing brands to drive away dragons. A fiery wheel was rolled downhill, symbolizing the sun’s attaining the solstice.33

Lammas (August 1) marked the end of the hay harvest and the beginning of grain harvest, with its “boons” or precarias, when all the villagers came to reap the lord’s grain and were treated to a feast that in Elton in 1286 included an ox and a bullock, a calf, eighteen doves, seven cheeses, and a quantity of grain made into bread and pottage.34 On one Oxfordshire manor it was customary for the villagers to gather at the hall for a songfest—“to sing harvest home.”35 Elton records mention an occasional “repegos,” a celebration at which the harvesters feasted on roast goose.36

One holiday, Wake Day, the feast of the local parish saint, varied from place to place. Probably in the thirteenth century, as later, the villagers kept vigil all night, in the morning heard Mass in honor of their patron saint, then spent the day in sports. Often the churchyard was turned into a sports arena, a usage deplored by the clergy. Robert Manning wrote in his Handlyng Synne (1303), a verse translation of a thirteenth-century French Manuel des Pechiez (Manual of Sins):

Carols, wrestling, or summer games
Whosoever haunteth any such shames
In church, or in churchyard
Of sacrilege he may be afraid;
Or interludes, or singing,
Or tambour beat, or other piping,
All such thing forbidden is
While the priest standeth at Mass.*37

A preacher condemned the common people’s enjoyment of “idle plays and japes, carolings, making of fool countenances…[giving] gifts to jongleurs to hear idle tales…smiting…wrestling, in other doing deeds of strength.”38

Many of the games enjoyed by the villagers were played alike by children, adolescents, and adults, and endured into modern times: blind man’s buff, prisoner’s base, bowling. Young and old played checkers, chess, backgammon, and most popular of all, dice. Sports included football, wrestling, swimming, fishing, archery, and a form of tennis played with hand coverings instead of rackets. The Luttrell Psalter (c. 1340) portrays a number of mysterious games involving sticks and balls and apparatus of various kinds, remote ancestors of modern team sports. Bullbaiting and cockfighting were popular spectator sports.

Yet the favorite adult recreation of the villagers was undoubtedly drinking. Both men and women gathered in the “tavern,” usually meaning the house of a neighbor who had recently brewed a batch of ale, cheap at the established price of three gallons for a penny. There they passed the evening like modern villagers visiting the local pub. Accidents, quarrels, and acts of violence sometimes followed a session of drinking, in the thirteenth century as in subsequent ones. Some misadventures may be deduced from the terse manorial court records. The rolls of the royal coroners, reporting fatal accidents, spell many out in graphic detail: In 1276 in Elstow, Osbert le Wuayl, son of William Cristmasse, coming home at about midnight “drunk and disgustingly over-fed,” after an evening in Bedford, fell and struck his head fatally on a stone “breaking the whole of his head.”39 One man tumbled off his horse riding home from the tavern; another fell into a well in the marketplace and drowned; a third, relieving himself in a pond, fell in; still another, carrying a pot of ale down the village street, was bitten by a dog, tripped while picking up a stone to throw, and struck his head against a wall; a child slipped from her drunken mother’s lap into a pan of hot milk on the hearth.40

Many violent quarrels followed drinking bouts, as the Bedfordshire coroners’ rolls attest. In 1266, “about bedtime,” three men who had been drinking in a Bedford tavern fell to quarreling on the king’s highway, two attacking the third and stabbing him in the heart with a sickle.41 In 1272 in Bromham, four men who had been drinking in a tavern accosted a passerby, Ralph, son of the vicar of Bromham, and demanded to know who he was. Ralph replied defiantly, “A man, who are you?” Whereupon one of the men, Robert Barnard of Wooton, “because he was drunk,” struck Ralph over the head with an axe. Ralph’s widow testified that all four men had assaulted her husband with axes and staves, and accused the tavern keeper and his wife of having instigated the attack.42 In another case, an innocent bystander was killed. Four villagers of Wooton who had been drinking in Bedford were returning home when one of them suddenly “and with no ulterior motive” turned, drew his bow, and took aim at a man who was following them. The only woman in the party, Margery le Wyte, threw herself between the two men and received the arrow in her throat “so that she immediately died.”43

Not all village violence was drink-related. The subject of the numerous altercations recorded in the Elton court records is not usually given, but the coroners’ rolls report quarrels about debt, in one case a halfpenny one brother lent another, thefts (a bushel of flour, a basket, a hen), trespass, and once simply “an old hatred.” Occasionally the subject was a woman: two brothers in Radwell, Bedfordshire, found their sister Juliana “lying under a haystack” with a young man who “immediately arose and struck [one of the brothers] on the top of the head, to the brain, apparently with an axe, so that he immediately died.” The lovers fled.44 Domestic quarrels got out of hand, as when Robert Haring of Aston, Bedfordshire, and his wife Sybil fell to quarreling, and a friend eating lunch with them tried to intervene as peacemaker and was slain by an axe blow.45

Occasionally violence came on a larger scale. The Bedfordshire coroner reported homicides resulting from a melee between the men of a knight’s household and those of the prior of Lanthony; from the siege of a church in a dispute over the right to a piece of land, involving large numbers of attackers and besiegers; and from a pitched battle between the villages of St. Neots and Little Barford.46

Besides such amateur lawbreakers, bands of professional criminals roamed the countryside. Bedfordshire coroners recorded the depredations of one gang of thieves who in 1267 came to the village of Honeydon at about vespers, armed with swords and axes, seized a boy named Philip “who was coming from his father’s fold,” “beat, ill-treated, and wounded him,” and forced him to accompany them to the house of Ralph son of Geoffrey. Recognizing the boy’s voice, Ralph opened the door, the thieves fell upon him, wounded him, and tied him up, killed his mother and a servant, and ransacked the house. They then broke into and burglarized seven more houses, killing and wounding several more people. The boy Philip at last managed to escape and give the alarm, but the gang fled and apparently was never apprehended.47

Another band of “felons and thieves” committed a similar assault on the village of Roxton in 1269, breaking through the wall of a house and carrying away “all the goods,” breaking into the house next door and murdering a woman in her bed, finally invading the house of John the Cobbler by breaking a door and windows, dragging John out and killing him, and wounding his wife, daughter, and a servant. A second daughter hid “between a basket and a chest” and escaped to give the alarm. In this case the thieves were identified by the dying wife of John the Cobbler, one as a former servant of the prior of Newnham, the others as men who had collected the tithes for the prior of Cauldwell and as “glovers of Bedford.” They were arrested and brought to justice.48

One thief became a victim of his own crime when he entered a house by a ladder to purloin a ham hanging from a roof beam. When the householder, Matilda Bolle, saw him leaving and gave the alarm, he panicked, tumbled from the ladder, and died of a broken neck.49

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