WITHIN THE VILLAGE COMMUNITY, THE BASIC social and economic unit was the family household. The number of its members fluctuated through the generational cycle: young couple, couple with children, with grandparents, with brother or sister (or aunt or uncle), solitary widow or widower. Information about the composition of the average household is scarce and unreliable, but the consensus among scholars is that it was small, with no more than five members, and most commonly nuclear—that is, husband and wife with or without children. Size of household tended to reflect economic status, rich households supporting more children, other relatives, and a servant or two.1

One important characteristic of the thirteenth-century peasant household was its autonomy. The larger kinship groupings (clan, sippe, kindred) that had played an important role in Anglo-Saxon England and early medieval France and Germany had lost their powers of protection and supervision, along with the need for such powers. Their functions had been taken over by new police and judicial agencies of the community and state.

The two great fundamentals of family history are marriage and inheritance, always closely linked. In open field country, impartible (undivided) inheritance was the general rule, holdings passing to a single heir, usually the eldest son. A study of seventy-five cases of succession in the Midland village of Wakefield showed that a single son inherited from a father in fortyseven cases; in nine, in the absence of a son, a daughter or daughters did so. In the remaining nineteen cases, a son or daughter succeeded a mother, a brother or sisters succeeded a brother, an uncle succeeded a nephew or niece, a cousin succeeded a cousin, and in one case a (presumably second) husband succeeded a wife. If there was no son but two or more daughters, land was divided among the daughters.2

Widows had inferior but definite rights that varied from place to place. Under common (feudal) law, a widow’s portion of an estate was from one third to one half, but a widow often automatically succeeded a husband in a peasant holding, not as the heiress, but as the surviving co-tenant. This arrangement allowed her to support the family and hold it together. A widow might be pressured by the lord to remarry, to insure that the holding had a man to perform its labor services, but she might preserve her freedom by hiring workers. Most widows eventually married, or turned over the holding to an adult son, but some, like Cecilia Benyt of Cuxham (Oxfordshire), remained in possession of the family holding, never remarrying, although her son was an adult and in fact reeve.3 Widows’ rights, says Rosamond Faith, “seem to have been by far the most durable and firmly established of all inheritance customs.”4 Widows’ rights, and inheritance customs in general, were influenced by the long-term fluctuations in availability of land. The scarcer land became, the more attractive a widow became.

A grand principle of inheritance had come to be very widely accepted: “An established holding ought to descend in the blood of the men who…held it of old,” sometimes expressed as “keeping the name on the land.”5 No one yet disputed the lord’s title to his entry fee and even his heriot [death duty], but by now, legal doctrine notwithstanding, the land was felt to belong to the tenant, villein or free, who plowed, harrowed, and planted it. Tradition was even strong enough to inhibit the lord from raising the rent on a holding when a normal succession took place (alert lords and stewards made sure to raise it when a tenant died without heir and a new tenant was found).

The entry fee was substantial, arbitrary, and proportional to the size of the holding: in Elton in 1313, “four shillings from Henry Reed to have one cottage formerly his father’s”; “13 shillings 4 pence from Ralph son of Gilbert Shepherd to have one cottage and eight acres of land formerly his father’s”; and “60 shillings from John son of Henry Reeve to have one virgate of land formerly his father’s.” Sometimes the connection between heir and dead tenant is not clear; while Gilbert Shepherd’s son Ralph inherited his father’s holding, another son, John, paid an entry fee of 2 shillings “to have one cottage formerly belonging to Margery Carter.”6

Manorial courts sometimes had to rule on complicated inheritance questions. In the Bedfordshire village of Chalgrave in 1279, Richard son of Thomas Ballard presented himself and “demanded the land which was his father’s.” Investigation showed that Richard had had an elder brother named Walter, who had died, leaving sons. These sons “would have been the next heirs if Walter had held the land while he lived, but he did not have possession of the land, therefore [the jurors] say that Richard himself is the next heir.” The custom of the manor, however, was that “no customary tenant can enter such land after the death of his father while his mother is alive, unless the mother shall agree, and…his mother will hold the land all her life if she shall wish.” Richard therefore agreed to pay his mother, Avice, a yearly ration of winter wheat (frumentum), beans, and spring wheat (tramesium). Richard paid 12 pence entry fee and promised to do the services “due and accustomed” for the holding, as well as to “maintain the houses of the same tenement.”7

If the inheriting son was a minor and an orphan and no other relative could be found, the lord might exercise his right of “wardship.” Thus at Elton in 1297 John Ketel was “in the custody of the lord,” slept and ate in the manor house, and was apparently clothed; at least he was bought a pair of shoes which had to be repaired at the manor’s expense.8 John Daye, who “tore up and carried away” the house on his father’s holding “which had come into the hand of the lord through the minority of John son and heir of…Richard Daye,” was undoubtedly also in wardship.9

Where no heir could be found, the lord provided a tenant. “One cottage which John Stabler formerly held in bondage for 12 pence a year is in the hand of the lord,” reported the Elton court record in 1342. “Therefore it is commanded to make provision of one tenant. Afterward, they say, Alexander Cook came and paid entry fee.”10

The Elton accounts also record several cases in which the land of a deceased tenant was rented out by the lord, sometimes to several villagers, in small parcels: “three rods,” “an acre,” “four acres of land and an acre of meadow.” Usually the rent was substantially raised, and the lease made “for the term of life.”11

Heriot passes unmentioned in Elton documents except for the comment that a widow succeeding to a holding did not pay it (implying that a son succeeding did).12 Most manors exacted heriot from the widow. A custumal of Brancaster, a Norfolk manor belonging to Ramsey Abbey, states: “If [the villein] virgater dies, the lord has his best beast of the house, if he has a beast. If there is no beast, she gives 32 pence and she holds her husband’s land for the service which pertains to it.”13 Usually a person inheriting a virgate gave a cow or horse, one inheriting a half-virgate a sheep. On some Ramsey Abbey manors, the village rector rather than the lord received the best beast, under the name of “mortuary.”14 Sometimes the fine was simply levied in money: at Abbot’s Ripton, Hemmingford, and Wistow the widow of a virgater gave five shillings as heriot, half the price of a horse, ox, or cow.15

At Chalgrave in 1279, a jury weighed the question of the rival claims of lord and church on the estate of a man who had no animal. The jury decided that the lord “should have the best cloth or grain whichever shall please him the more, before holy church may have anything of the dead person.” They cited the precedent of “a certain Ascelina who was the wife of Roger the reeve,” and who had held eight acres of land in the time of the grandfather of the present lord, “and had no animal.” The lord took in heriot “the best cloth which she had, to wit, one tunic of blanket [cloth], before holy church took away anything. Afterwards a certain Nigel the Knight, holding the same land, died as tenant, and had no animal. Therefore the lord by custom took one tabard [tunic] of gray in the name of heriot, and he can rightly do so from all his customary tenants in the manor of Chalgrave.”16 One study shows that of eighty-six heriots exacted at Langley, St. Albans, Hertfordshire, in 1348, twenty-two were horses, seventeen cows, eight bulls, five sheep, and the remaining thirty-two insignificant chattels such as a mattock or a pitcher, or “nothing because they are poor.”17

Among the villagers as among the nobility, primogeniture created some problems while solving others. It kept holdings intact, but as land grew scarce, older sons of both nobility and peasantry had to wait until their fathers died or retired before marrying. Younger sons of the nobility traditionally had to leave the family estate to seek their fortunes in war, or embark on careers in the Church. Younger sons of the peasantry might enlist as common soldiers, or (on payment of a fee to the lord) undertake training for the lower ranks of the clergy. Among the better-off peasants, many fathers gave younger sons small grants of land, often purchased in the growing peasant land market. Edward Britton found that in Broughton 44 percent of the elite families had two or more sons established simultaneously in the village. Younger sons of the poor peasants were not so lucky, generally having to choose between staying home, celibate, and taking their chances as day laborers, perhaps slipping into vagabondage and crime.18

A few peasants made wills, an increasingly popular measure in the fourteenth century, often recorded in the manorial court rolls. In King’s Ripton in 1309, Nicholas Newman bequeathed a rod of land to his daughter Agnes, and Roger Dike an acre to his sister Margaret; in 1322 Nicholas son of Hugh left his sister a house and yard “lying next to the manor of the lord abbot,” to be held by her for life and then to pass to Joan daughter of Thomas Cooper, and half an acre of land on the Ramsey road to Ivo son of Henry. Alternatively, land might be transferred to a daughter or sister or younger son on the deathbed, evading the inheritance custom. In the period before the Black Death, such transfers were usually not of land handed down in the family, but of acquisitions that the peasant had made during his own lifetime. In the fifteenth century, peasant wills became common.19

The land market also facilitated acquisition of dowries for daughters of the richer villagers, who might seek alliance with another village family of their own class or even with the lesser gentry without sacrificing any of the family holding. The dowry of a middling peasant’s daughter might also include an acre or two of land, but more often would consist of money, chattels, or both. A poor peasant’s daughter might marry with nothing at all. Substantial dowries came into play mainly in the increasing negotiations for upwardly mobile marriages.20

Dowries aside, peasant women inherited, held, bought, sold, and leased land. The Elton records disclose many land transactions carried out by women: “And they say that the wife of Geoffrey in Angulo let one acre of land to Richard of Thorpe Waterville, chaplain.”21 “And they say that Muriel atte Gate demised [sold] one acre of her land to Nicholas Miller.”22

In all transfers of property held by villeins, the lord had an interest. The tangible sign of his interest in peasant marriage was merchet, the fee or fine usually paid by the bride or her father. The origin of merchet (along with its etymology) is lost in the earlier Middle Ages, but by the late thirteenth century it was so long established that it had become a legal test for villein status. In the Elton manorial court of 1279, Reginald son of Benedict tried to escape jury service by claiming that he was free, but lost his case because his sisters had paid merchet. Elias Freeman also was adjudged unfree (in spite of his name) because his ancestor John Freeman had paid merchet for his daughters.23

Merchets were once regarded as taxes on persons, but Eleanor Searle has argued persuasively that the dowry granted to a daughter was a form of inheritance, and that merchet may better be seen as an inheritance tax on property: “Girls were given land, chattels, or coin…as their part of the inheritance.” Searle observes that merchet was paid only where a substantial dowry was being given the bride. “A foolish girl or a poor one might marry as she liked.” Only if she received part of the family inheritance was she obligated.

Significantly, the size of the merchet evidently related to the value of the dowry. A St. Albans formulary for holding a manorial court included the instruction to inquire “whether any bondman’s daughter has married without leave, and what her father has given her by way of goods.” When the dowry was in the form of land, it was often transferred at the same time that the merchet was paid. Searle sees an analogue to merchet in the fine paid by a villein for having his sons licensed to be educated for the clergy.24

Whatever the relationship of merchet to dowry, the Elton records supply evidence of its close relationship to landholding. When Margery daughter of John atte Gate paid two shillings for “giving herself in marriage,” the transaction was recorded by the clerk in the accounts of 1286—1287 as an entry fee (gersum),25 and in the 1307 accounts, entry fees and merchets are mixed together as if they were interchangeable terms.26 The Ramsey Abbey register known as the Liber Gersumarum includes not only gersums but 426 merchets.27

Merchet has traditionally been thought of as paid by the bride’s father, yet in many cases the daughter paid the fee, and sometimes the prospective bridegroom, or occasionally the mother, or a collateral relative. In the surviving Elton records between 1279 and 1342, eight fathers, eight daughters, and one mother are recorded as paying. A recent study of the Liber Gersumarum showed that payments were made as frequently by daughters as by fathers—each in 33 percent of the cases. The bridegroom paid in 26 percent, and some other relative in the remaining 8 percent.28 Who paid seems to have depended on circumstance. A bride who paid her own merchet was probably marrying late, and may well have earned the money herself, working as a servant or dairymaid, or even at such masculinesounding tasks as road repair, manuring, thatching, weeding, mowing, sheep-shearing, carrying, and plowing.29

When a widow remarried, on the other hand, the merchet was usually paid by the prospective husband, who would benefit from taking possession of her first husband’s lands. An unfree woman marrying a free man, however, was the one who benefited, and she or her father paid the fee, never the bridegroom.30

In short, the decision as to who paid merchet was part of the marriage negotiations, usually depending on who gained the most from the marriage. The amount was subject to haggling with the lord’s steward—the villein must “make the best bargain he can,” in the words of a Ramsey Abbey custumal.31 Several circumstances influenced the price: whether the woman was marrying a villein in the same village, or a freeman, or a man from outside the village, or “whomever she wished.” It was more expensive to marry a freeman or an outsider, or to marry at will, since the lord risked losing the woman’s services, chattels, and future children.32

Another important factor was the family’s ability to pay. Merchet was highest when the bride was an heiress or a widow, generally ranging from five shillings to four pounds. Where no land was involved but only chattels, the range was far lower, sometimes as little as six pence. Muriel daughter of Richard Smith, an Elton cotter, paid three shillings, while Alexander atte Cross and Hugh in Angulo, both virgaters from the elite families, gave five for their daughters, and Emma wife of Richard Reeve six shillings eight pence for hers.33 Many daughters of Elton villeins too poor to be taxed evidently married without paying merchet.

The actual ceremony of rural marriage, or more precisely the lack of ceremony, was a long-standing problem for the Church. Many village couples saw no need for more than a kiss and a promise, which left room for debate over the nature of the alleged promise. The great twelfth-century legal authorities, Gratian and Peter Lombard, had wrestled with the question of what constituted a legal marriage, and Pope Alexander III (1159—1181) had laid down rules: a valid marriage could be accomplished either by “words of the present” (I take thee, John…) or by “words of the future,” a more indefinite promise, if it was followed by consummation. Consent of the two parties alone was indispensable. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) stipulated that the wedding must be public and the bride must receive a dowry, but made no provision for witnesses, and did not even insist on Church participation.34

Most marriages were arranged between families, and sometimes property considerations resulted in mismatches, such as those described by William Langland:

It is an uncomely couple . by Christ, so me thinketh To give a young wench . to an old feeble, Or wed any widow . for wealth of her goods, That never shall bairn bear . but if it be in [her] arms.35

Robert Manning’s Handlyng Synne had much to say about the evils of such marriages. When couples were married for property and not love, it was “no right wedding.” A man who married a woman “for love of her cattle” would have regrets:

When it is gone and is all bare
Then is the wedding sorrow and care.
Love and cattle then are away,
And “wellaway,” they cry and say.36

Even worse was for a man to “wed any woman against her will,”37 strictly forbidden by the Church, and improbable in the village, where, unlike the castle, most marriages involved some courtship and even sexual contact.

Peasant couples usually spoke their vows at the church door, the most public place in the village. Here the priest inquired whether there were any impediments, meaning kinship in a degree forbidden by the Church. The bridegroom named the dower which he would provide for his wife, giving her as a token a ring and a small sum of money to be distributed to the poor. The ring, according to a fourteenth-century preacher, must be “put and set by the husband upon the fourth finger of the woman, to show that a true love and cordial affection be between them, because, as doctors say, there is a vein coming from the heart of a woman to the fourth finger, and therefore the ring is put on the same finger, so that she should keep unity and love with him, and he with her.”38

Vows were then exchanged, and the bridal party might proceed into the church, where a nuptial Mass was celebrated. At one such Mass a fourteenth-century priest addressed the wedding party: “Most worshipful friends, we are come here at this time in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,…to join, unite, and combine these two persons by the holy sacrament of matrimony, granted to the holy dignity and order of priesthood. Which sacrament of matrimony is of this virtue and strength that these two persons who now are two bodies and two souls, during their lives together shall be…one flesh and two souls.”39

The ceremony was usually followed by a feast, a “bride ale,” in a private house or a tavern. In Warboys and some other villages, the groom was obligated to treat the manorial servants to a dinner with “bread, beer, meat or fish” on “the day on which he takes a wife.”40

Enough couples in the village, however, continued to speak their vows elsewhere—in the woods, in a tavern, in bed—to make “clandestine marriage” a universal vexation for the Church courts. Typically, a girl sued a man who disclaimed his promise, though sometimes the shoe was on the other foot. Not until the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Church’s Council of Trent in the sixteenth century was clandestine marriage effectively abolished by requiring witnesses.41

“Clandestine marriage” obviously shaded off into seduction. Robert Manning condemned men who

…beguile a woman with words;
To give her troth but lightly
For nothing but to lie by her;
With that guile thou makest her assent,
And bringest you both to cumberment.42

Court records contain numerous instances of women leaving their villages in company of men without any mention of marriage. They contain even more frequent instances of “leirwite” or “legerwite” (lecher-wite), a fine for premarital sex, literally for lying down. On some manors a separate fine called “childwite” was levied for bearing a child out of wedlock, but in Elton premarital sex and pregnancy were lumped together. Twentytwo cases of leirwite are listed in surviving Elton records between 1279 and 1342, with fines of either sixpence or twelve pence, in a single case three pence. In all but one, only the woman is named, and she paid the fine; in the single exception, in 1286, Maggie Carter and Richard Miller were fined sixpence each.43

Daughters of the elite families figure prominently among those convicted. Despite the fine, little social stigma seems to have been attached to premarital sex. One theory is that peasant women may have become pregnant as a prelude to marriage in order to prove their fertility. In Elton in 1307, Athelina Blakeman paid a leirwite of twelve pence; in the same year’s accounts her father paid two shillings merchet “for giving his daughter Athelina in marriage.”44 Premarital sex was thus followed by marriage. The village community seems to have taken a liberal attitude toward young people’s sexual activities; in 1316 an Elton jury was fined “because they had concealed all these [five] leirwites.”45

A more serious matter was adultery, a threat to the family. It lay in the province of the Church courts, but the lord exacted a fine too, usually under a curious legal rationale: the parties had “wasted the lord’s chattels in chapter.” G. G. Coulton once interpreted this recurring phrase as reflecting the lord’s control over the marriage of peasant women.46 The lord, however, had little to do with arranging peasant marriages. The same words are used in regard to men convicted of adultery, and a reasonable explanation is that the lord used the pretext of loss of village resources as an opportunity to collect a fine of his own in a province that was normally the Church’s. The Church court identified the guilty parties in a way that neighbors might be reluctant to do in the manorial court.47 In the Elton records between 1279 and 1342, six cases of adultery are cited, in three of which only the women are mentioned, in two only the men, in one both parties. Edward Britton, studying the Broughton court rolls between 1294 and 1323, found twenty-four adultery cases, ten citing both the guilty parties, eight only the man, six only the woman.48

Divorce (divortium—synonymous with annulment) was a recurring problem for the Church among the aristocracy, who searched for ways to dissolve a barren or disappointing marriage, but among the peasants it was a rarity. When it did occur among villagers, the commonest ground was bigamy. Couples sometimes separated, however, either informally or under terms arranged by a Church court, though the latter expedient was expensive and therefore not normally undertaken by villagers.

In the village as in castle and city, babies were born at home, their birth attended by midwives. Men were excluded from the lying-in chamber. Literary evidence suggests that the woman in labor assumed a sitting or crouching position.49 Childbirth was dangerous for both mother and child. The newborn infant was immediately prepared for baptism, lest it die in a state of original sin. If a priest could not be located in time, someone else must perform the ceremony, a contingency for which water must be kept ready. If the baptizer did not know the formula in Latin, he must say it in English or French: “I christen thee in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.”50

The words must be said in the right order. If the baptizer said, “In the name of the Son and the Father and the Holy Ghost,” the sacrament was invalid. Robert Manning told the story of a midwife who said the wrong words:

She held it on her lap before,
And when she saw that it would die,
She began loud for to cry,
And said, “God and Saint John,
Christen the child both flesh and bone.”

When the priest heard the formula she had used, he cried, “God and Saint John give thee both sorrow and shame…for in default a soul is lost,” and he commanded her no longer to deliver babies. Robert Manning concluded,

Being a midwife is a perilous thing Unless she knows the points of christening.51

John Myrc in his Instructions for Parish Priests (early fifteenth century) advised that if the baby seemed likely to die, “though the child but half be born/ Head and neck and no more,” the midwife should “christen it and cast on water.” If the mother died before the child could be born, the midwife must free the child with a knife, to save its life, or at least to assure baptism.52

Under normal circumstances the child was washed and sometimes (though not universally) swaddled, the godparents were summoned, and godmother or midwife carried the baby to the church, where the font was kept ever ready. The mother was not present, and in fact was not permitted to enter the church until several weeks later, when she had undergone the ritual of “churching,” purification after childbirth.

Preliminary baptismal rites were performed, as in marriage, at the church door. The priest blessed the child, put salt in its mouth to symbolize wisdom and exorcise demons, read a Bible text, and ascertained the child’s name and the godparents’ qualifications. The party then moved into the church to the baptismal font. The child was immersed, the godmother dried it and dressed it in a christening garment, and the priest anointed it with holy oil. The ceremony was completed at the altar with the godparents making the profession of faith for the child. The christening party then repaired to the parents’ house for feasting and gift-giving.53

Children were usually named for their principal godparents. Variety of Christian names was limited in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, usually Norman rather than Anglo-Saxon, the most popular in Elton being John, Robert, Henry, Richard, William, Geoffrey, Thomas, Reginald, Gilbert, Margaret, Matilda, Alice, Agnes, and Emma. Less common were Nicholas, Philip, Roger, Ralph, Stephen, Alexander, Michael, Adam, and Andrew, Sarah, Letitia, Edith, and Beatrice. There were as yet no Josephs or Marys.

Unlike the lady of the castle or many city women, the peasant mother normally nursed her own children. Only if the mother had no milk, or if she died, was a wet nurse employed. The evidence of the coroners’ rolls indicates that during the first year of life, infants were frequently left alone in the house while their parents worked in the fields, looked after the animals, or did other chores. Older children were more likely to be left with a sitter, usually a neighbor or a young girl. Although neglect on the part of busy parents might lead to tragedy, little evidence exists of infanticide, a commonplace of the ancient world.54

Medieval parents have been accused by certain modern writers of a want of feeling toward their children, but even in the comparative poverty of the kind of literary expressions—correspondence and memoirs—that have recorded such sentiments for more recent times, the charge scarcely stands up. Between the lines in the accounts of the coroners may be read again and again the anguish of parents over a lost child: one father searching for his son, drowned in a ditch, “found him, lifted him from the water, could not save him, and he died”;55 another, whose son was struck by lightning in a field, “came running toward him, found him lying there, took him in his arms to the house…thinking to save him”;56 a mother dragged her son out of a ditch “because she believed she could save him”;57 a father whose son fell into the millpond “tried to save [him] and entered the water but could do nothing.”58 Sometimes peasants gave their lives for their children, as in one case when a father was killed defending his young daughter from rape.59

A fourteenth-century sermon pictures a mother and her child: “In winter, when the child’s hands are cold, the mother takes him a straw or a rush and bids him warm it, not for love of the straw, to warm it, but to warm the child’s hands [by pressing them together].” When the child falls ill, “the mother for her sick child takes a candle, and makes a vow in prayers.”60

The coroners’ rolls yield rare glimpses of children at work and play: the baby in the cradle by the fire; little girls following their mothers around, helping stir the pot, draw water, gather fruit; little boys following their fathers to the fields, to the mill, or fishing, or playing with bows and arrows. A sermon pictures a child using his imagination, playing “with flowers…with sticks, and with small bits of wood, to build a chamber, buttery, and hall, to make a white horse of a wand, a sailing ship of broken bread, a burly spear from a ragwort stalk, and of a sedge a sword of war, a comely lady of a cloth, and be right busy to deck it elegantly with flowers.”61

A child, said one preacher, did not bear malice, “nor rancor nor wrath toward those that beat him ever so sorely, as it happened for a child to have due chastising. But after thou hast beaten him, show him a fair flower or else a fair red apple; then hath he forgotten all that was done to him before, and then he will come to thee, running, with his embracing arms, to please thee and to kiss thee.”62

Small children played; older ones did chores. In their teens, both boys and girls moved into the adult work world, the girls in and around the house, the boys in the fields. Contrary to what was formerly believed, in this period village children were not ordinarily sent away to become servants in other people’s households or to be apprenticed at a craft. Most remained at home.63

The Middle Ages produced the world’s first hospitals and medical schools, but these important advances hardly affected life in the village. Doctors practiced in city and in court. Villagers were left to their own medical devices. Even the barbers who combined shaving with bloodletting (a principal form of therapy) and tooth-pulling (the sole form of dentistry) were rarely seen in villages. Most manorial custumals provided for a period of sick leave, commonly up to a year and a day. “If [the villein] is ill, so that he cannot leave his house,” states a Holywell custumal, “he is quit of all work and heusire before the autumn, except plowing [which presumably he would have to pay someone else to do]. In the autumn he is quit of half his work if he is ill, and he will have relaxation for the whole time he is ill, up to a year and a day. And if his illness lasts more than a year and a day, or if he falls ill again, from that time he will do all works which pertain to his land.”64

Life was short. Even if a peasant survived infancy and childhood to reach the age of twenty, he could not expect to live much beyond forty-five, when old age (senectus) began.65 The manorial records make no mention of diseases, though to the well-known afflictions of tuberculosis, pneumonia, typhoid, violence, and accident may probably be added circulatory disorders: stroke and heart attack. The coroners’ rolls list several cases of fatal accidents from “falling sickness”—epilepsy. Invalids flocked on pilgrimage to Canterbury and other shrines: spastics, cripples, paralytics, the mentally ill, and the scrofulous (skin disease was especially prevalent in a not very well washed society).

The most pathetic of the medieval sick, however, were excluded from the benefits of the shrine. Leprosy, mysteriously widespread, inspired a vague terror that outlasted the Middle Ages. Its victims were isolated, either singly or in colonies, and were permitted to emerge in public only when clothed in a shroud and clacking a pair of castanets in warning. The isolation of lepers represented a remarkable advance in medical theory, the recognition of contagion, but at the same time a sad irony, since leprosy (Hansen’s disease) is only slightly contagious. The Elton court rolls record a single possible mention of the disease in the fine in 1342 of “Hugh le Lepere” for carrying away the lord’s stubble.66

As in all societies, the old and infirm depended on the younger generation for help when they were no longer able to work their land. The commonest form such help took in the thirteenth century was an arrangement between tenant and heir, in essence an exchange of the older person’s land for the younger person’s work. The holding was transferred to the heir, who promised in return to maintain the parents, widowed father or mother, or other aged relative, either in a separate dwelling or as free boarders. Typically the son accepted the holding’s obligations of work service, rent, and fees, and pledged himself to support his parent or parents, stipulating that he would provide them with a separate house or “a room at the end of the house” that had been theirs, food, fuel, clothing, and again and again “a place by the fire.” Most such arrangements must have been informal, leaving no trace in the records, but they were also spelled out in written contracts, entered in the manorial court rolls.67

Both sermons and moral treatises warned parents against handing over their land to their sons without such safeguards. Men gave their children land, said Robert Manning, to provide sustenance in their old age; better for them to keep it “than beg

image 40

Man warming himself at the fire. Corpus Christi College, Oxford, Ms. 385, f. 6v.

it at another’s hand.” In illustration he told a version of the already old story of the “Divided Horsecloth”: a man gave his son “all his land and house and all his cattle in village and field, so that he should keep him well in his old age.” The young man married and at first bade his wife “to serve his father well at his will.” But soon he had a change of heart, and began to be “tenderer of his wife and child than of his father,” and it seemed to him that his father had lived too long. As time passed, the son served him worse and worse, and the father began to rue the day he “gave so much to his son.” One day the old man was so cold that he begged his son to give him a blanket. The son called his little boy and told him to take a sack and fold it double and put it over his grandfather. The child took the sack and tore it in two. “Why have you torn the sack?” asked the father. The child replied:

This deed have I done for thee.
Good example givest thou me
How I shall serve thee in thine age.
…This half sack shall lie above thy father,
And keep the other part to thy behalf.68

Most peasants were more careful. In Upwood in 1311 Nicholas son of Adam turned over his virgate to his son John, stipulating that he should have “a reasonable maintenance in that land until the end of his life,” and that John should give him “every year for the rest of his life” specified amounts of grain.69 At Cranfield in 1294, Elias de Bretendon made a more complicated agreement with his son John; John was to take over his house, yard, and half virgate for the services and money rent owed the lord. “And…the above John will provide suitable food and drink for Elias and his wife Christine while they are alive, and they will have residence with John [in his house].” The contract left nothing to chance:

And if it should happen, though may it not, that trouble and discord should in the future arise between the parties so that they are unable to live together, the above John will provide for Elias and Christine, or whichever of them should outlive the other, a house and curtilage [yard] where they can decently reside. And he will give each year to the same Elias and Christine or whichever of them is alive, six quarters of hard grain at Michaelmas, namely three quarters of wheat, one and one-half quarters of barley, one and one-half quarters of peas and beans, and one quarter of oats. [The addition evidently gave trouble, since the total is not six but seven quarters.]70

If the retiring tenant was childless, the pension was contracted for outside the family, an arrangement that became frequent after the Black Death. In 1332 John in the Hale of Barnet, Hertfordshire, agreed with another peasant, John atte Barre, to turn over his house and land in return for a yearly contribution of “one new garment with a hood, worth 3 shillings 4 pence, two pairs of linen sheets, three pairs of new shoes, one pair of new hose, worth 12 pence, and victuals in food and drink decently as is proper.” An unusual feature of the contract was that the retiring tenant agreed to work for his replacement “to the best of his ability,” and that the new tenant not only paid an entry fee, as was customary, but “satisfied the lord for the heriot of the said John in the Hale by [the payment of] one mare,” although the retiree was not yet dead.71

Pension contracts were enforceable in the manor court, a sign of one of their most striking aspects: the community’s interest in enforcement. “Dereliction of duty to the old [was] a matter of public concern,” observes Elaine Clark.72 A son undertaking to support his aged parents commonly requested the manorial court to witness his oath, or enlisted as guarantors pledges whose names he reported to the steward. For the court’s participation the pensioners paid a fee.73

In Ellington in 1278, William Koc acknowledged that he was in arrears for the contributions he owed his father, in wheat, barley, beans, and peas, and promised to make amends.74 The jurors in Warboys in 1334 reported: “And since Stephen the Smith did not keep his mother according to their agreement he is [fined] sixpence. And afterwards the above jurors ordered that the said land be given back to his mother and that she should hold it for the rest of her life. And the above Stephen may not have anything of that land while his mother is alive.”75

Pensions were sometimes negotiated between the parties, sometimes mandated as deathbed settlements—mainly by husbands in favor of their widows—and sometimes ordered by the manorial court. When a tenant’s disability rendered him unfit to discharge the obligations of his holding, it was in the interest of the lord to make a change, but the change served the interest of the elderly tenant as well.76

A pension contract that dated back to the early Middle Ages was originally developed in the monasteries to provide for the retirement of monks. The corrody consisted of a daily ration of bread and ale, usually two loaves and two gallons, plus one or two “cooked dishes” from the monastic kitchen. In the later Middle Ages, corrodies became available to lay pensioners, who purchased them like life insurance annuities. The purchaser might stipulate for a certain amount of firewood every year, a room in the monastery, sometimes with a servant, clothing, candles, and fodder for horses. A wealthy peasant might buy a corrody that even included a house and garden, pasture, and cash; a poor one might buy only a ration of dark bread, ale, and pottage.77

Still other arrangements might be made. A widow and her young son leased their holding at Stoke Pryor to a fellow villager for twelve years in return for an annual supply of mixed grain; presumably in twelve years the son would be old enough to take over the holding.78

The pension agreement implied bargaining power on the part of the aging tenant, nearly always meaning landholding. In its absence, an old man or woman might end like those whose deaths are recorded in the coroners’ rolls: Sabinia, who in January of 1267 went into Colmworth, Bedfordshire, to beg bread and “fell into a stream and drowned,”79 or Arnulf Argent of Ravensden, “poor, weak, and infirm,” who was going “from door to door to seek bread,” when he fell down in a field and “died of weakness.”80

When death was imminent, the priest was sent for, and arrived wearing surplice and stole, carrying the blessed sacrament, preceded by a server carrying a lantern and ringing a hand bell. If the case was urgent and no server could be found, the priest might hang the lamp and bell on his arm, or around the neck of his horse. According to Robert Manning, sick men were often reluctant to accept the sacrament because of a belief that if they recovered they must abstain from sex:

Many a one thus hopes and says,
“Anoint them not save they should die,
For if he turns again to life
He should lie no more by his wife.”

Manning counseled against the superstition and recommended more trust in God:

In every sickness ask for [the sacrament] always;
God almighty is right courteous.81

John Myrc advised that if death was imminent, the priest should not make the sick man confess all his sins, but only counsel him to ask God’s mercy with a humble heart. If the dying man could not speak but indicated by signs that he wished the sacraments, the priest should administer them. If, however, the dying man was able to speak, Myrc advised that he should be asked “the seven interrogations”: if he believed in the articles of the faith and the Holy Scriptures; if he recognized that he had offended God; if he was sorry for his sins; if he wished to amend and would do so if God gave him more time; if he forgave his enemies; if he would atone for his sins if he lived; and finally, “Do you believe fully that Christ died for you and that you may never be saved but by the merit of Christ’s passion, and do you think of God with your heart as much as you may?” The sick man should answer yes and be instructed to say, “with a good steadfast mind, if he can…‘Into thy hands I commend my soul.’” If he could not, the priest should say it for him, anoint him, and administer Communion.82

Wakes commonly turned into occasions of drinking and merriment, condemned by the Church. Robert Grosseteste warned that a dead man’s house should be one of “sorrow and remembrance,” and should not be made a house of “laughter and play,” and a fourteenth-century preacher complained that people “finally like madmen make…merry at our death, and take our burying for a bride ale.”83 In the Ramsey Abbey village of Great Raveley in 1301, ten Wistow men were fined after coming “to watch the body of Simon of Sutbyr through the night,” because returning home they “threw stones at the neighbors’ doors and behaved themselves badly.”84

Village funerals were usually starkly simple. The body, sewed in a shroud, was carried into the church on a bier, draped with a black pall. Mass was said, and occasionally a funeral sermon was delivered. One in John Myrc’s collection, Festiall, ends: “Good men, as ye all see, here is a mirror to us all: a corpse brought to the church. God have mercy on him, and bring him

image 41

Fanciful funeral: animals carrying a bier draped with a pall. Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, Psalter and Book of Hours, Ms. 102, f. 76v-77.

into his bliss that shall last for ever…Wherefore each man and woman that is wise, make him ready thereto; for we all shall die, and we know not how soon.”85

A villager was buried in a plain wooden casket or none at all, in the churchyard, called the “cemetery,” from coemeterium (dormitory), the sleeping place of the Christian dead. Here men and women could slumber peacefully, their toil finished, until the day of resurrection.

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