FOR THE MEDIEVAL VILLAGER, WORK WAS THE ruling fact of life. By sunup animals were harnessed and plows hitched, forming a cavalcade that to the modern eye would appear to be leaving the village to work outside it. Medieval people felt otherwise. They were as much in their village tramping the furrowed strips as they were on the dusty streets and sunken lanes of the village center. If anything, the land which literally provided their daily bread was more truly the village. The geography was a sort of reverse analogue of the modern city with its downtown office towers where people work and its suburban bedroom communities where they eat and sleep.
Whether Elton had two or three fields in the late thirteenth century is unknown. Whatever the number, they were twice subdivided, first into furlongs (more or less rectangular plots “a furrow long”), then into selions, or strips, long and narrow sets of furrows. Depending on the terrain, a village’s strips might be several hundred yards long; the fewer turns with a large plow team the better. The strip as a unit of cultivation went far back, probably antedating the open field system itself. Representing the amount of land that could conveniently be plowed in a
Aerial view of the deserted village of Newbold Grounds (Northamptonshire), showing house plots, sunken paths and roads, and the ridge-and-furrow of the surrounding fields. British Crown Copyright/RAF Photograph.
day—roughly half a modern acre—it probably originated in the parcellation of land forced by a growing population. By the late thirteenth century the distribution of a village’s strips was haphazard, some villagers holding many, some few, and all scattered and intermingled. The one certainty was that everyone who held land held strips in both or all three fields, in order to guarantee a crop every year regardless of which field lay fallow.
The furlong, or bundle of strips, was the sowing unit, all the strips in a given furlong being planted to the same crop. Many furlongs appear by name in the Elton court records: “Henry in the Lane [is fined] for bad plowing in Hollewell furlong, sixpence,” indicating, incidentally, that the lord’s demesne land was scattered, like the peasants’.1 Within each furlong the strips ran parallel, but the furlongs themselves, plotted to follow the ambient pattern of drainage, lay at odd angles to each other, with patches of rough scattered throughout. A double furrow or a balk of unplowed turf might separate strips, while between some furlongs headlands were left for turning the plow. Wedges of land (gores) created by the asymmetry of the furlongs and the character of the terrain were sometimes cultivated by hoe.2 The total appearance of an open field village, visible in aerial photographs of many surviving sites, is a striking combination of the geometric and the anarchic.
Beyond the crazy-quilt pattern of arable land stretched meadow, waste, and woodland, hundreds of acres that were also part of the village and were exploited for the villagers’ two fundamental purposes: to support themselves and to supply their lord. But the most significant component of the open field village was always its two or three great fields of cultivated land. The difference between a two- and a three-field system was slighter than might appear at first glance. Where three fields were used, one lay fallow all year, a second was planted in the fall to winter wheat or other grain, the third was planted in the spring to barley, oats, peas, beans, and other spring crops. The next year the plantings were rotated.
In the two-field system one field was left fallow and the other divided in two, one half devoted to autumn and the other to spring crops. In effect, the two-field system was a three-field system with more fallow, and offered no apparent disadvantage as long as enough total arable was available. If, however, a growing village population pressed on the food supply, or if market demand created an opportunity hard to resist, a two-field system could be converted to three-field. Many two-field systems were so converted in the twelfth and especially the thirteenth century, with a gain of one-third in arable.3
Multifield systems, which could accommodate crop rotation, were also common, especially in the north of England. In some places, the ancient infield-outfield system survived, the small infield being worked steadily with the aid of fertilizer, and the large outfield treated as a land reserve, part of which could be cultivated for several successive years (making plowing easier) and then left fallow for several.4
But in the English Midlands, and much of northwest Europe, the classic two- or three-field system of open field husbandry prevailed. It involved three essentials: unfenced arable divided into furlongs and strips; concerted agreement about crops and cultivation; and common use of meadow, fallow, waste, and stubble.
Implied was a fourth essential: a set of rules governing details, and a means of enforcing them. Such rules were developed independently in thousands of villages in Britain and on the Continent, at first orally, but by the late thirteenth century in written form as village bylaws. The means of enforcement was provided by the manorial court. Surviving court records include many bylaw enactments and show the existence of many more by citation. For stewards, bailiffs, reeves, free tenants, and villeins, they spelled out a set of restrictions and constraints on plowing, planting, harvesting, gleaning, and carrying. They gave emphatic attention to theft and chicanery, from stealing a neighbor’s grain to “stealing his furrow” by edging one’s plow into his strip, “a major sin in rural society”5(Maurice Beresford). “Reginald Benyt appropriated to himself three furrows under Westereston to his one rod from all the strips abutting upon that rod and elsewhere at Arnewassebroc three furrows to his one headland from all the strips abutting upon that headland,” for which Reginald was fined 12 pence by the Elton manorial court of 1279.6
Bylaws stipulated the time the harvested crop could be taken from the fields (in daylight hours only), who was allowed to carry it (strangers not welcome), and who was allowed to glean. All able-bodied adults were conscripted for reaping. “And [the jurors] say that Parnel was a gleaner in the autumn contrary to the statutes. Therefore she is in mercy [fined] sixpence.”7 “The wife of Peter Wrau gleaned…contrary to the prohibition of autumn.”8 Bylaws ruled the period when the harvest stubble should be opened to grazing, and for which kind of animals, when sheep were barred from the meadows, and when tenants must repair ditches and erect, remove, and mend fences. (Only the lord’s land could be permanently fenced, and only if it lay in a compact plot.) Repeatedly, through the year, the village animals were herded into or driven off the open fields as crop, stubble, and fallow succeeded each other.
The regulation of grazing rights was fundamental to the operation of open field farming. The lord’s land was especially inviolate to beastly trespass: “Robert atte Cross for his draft-beasts doing damage in the lord’s furlong sown with barley, [fined] sixpence.”9On some manors grazing rights were related to the size of the holding. A Glastonbury survey of 1243 found the holder of a virgate endowed with pasture enough for four oxen, two cows, one horse, three pigs, and twelve sheep, calculated as the amount of stock required to keep a virgate of land fertile.10
The open field system was thus not one of free enterprise. Its practitioners were strictly governed in their actions and made to conform to a rigid pattern agreed on by the community, acting collectively.
Neither was it socialism. The strips of plowed land were held individually, and unequally. A few villagers held many strips, most held a few, some held none. Animals, tools, and other movable property were likewise divided unequally. The poor cotters eked out a living by working for the lord and for their better-off neighbors who held more land than their families could cultivate, whereas these latter, by marketing their surplus produce, were able to turn a profit and perhaps use it to buy more land.
How much of his time a villager could devote to cultivating his own tenement depended partly on his status as free or unfree, partly on the size of his holding (the larger the villein holding, the larger the obligation), and partly on his geographical location. In England “the area of heavy villein labor dues—say two or more days each week—was relatively small,” consisting mostly of several counties and parts of counties in the east.11 In the rest of the country, though rules varied from manor to manor, the level of villein obligations tended to be lower. In several counties in the north and northwest they were very light or nonexistent.
Huntingdonshire, containing Ramsey Abbey and Elton, was in the very heart of the heavy-labor region, where the obligation was basically two days’ work a week. In Elton, the dozen free tenants owed very modest, virtually token service. The cotters owed little service because they held little or no land. Only the two score villein virgaters owed heavy week-work, amounting to 117 days a year (the nine half-virgaters owed fifty-eight and a half days).12 In addition, the Elton virgater owed a special service, the cultivation of half an acre of demesne land summer and winter, including sowing it with his own wheat seed, reaping, binding, and carrying to the lord’s barn.13
Some question exists about the length of the work day required of tenants. A Ramsey custumal for the manor of Abbot’s Ripton stipulates “the whole day” in summer “from Hokeday until after harvest,” and “the whole day in winter,” but during Lent only “until after none (mid-afternoon).”14 In some places a work day lasted until none if no food was supplied, and if the lord wanted a longer day, he was obliged to provide dinner. Another determinant of the length of the working day may have been the endurance of the ox (less than that of the horse).15
The annual schedule of week-work at Elton divided the year into three parts:
From September 29 (Michaelmas) of one year to August 1 (Gules of August) of the following year, two days’ work per week (for a virgater).
From August 1 to September 8 (the Nativity of the Blessed Mary), three days’ work per week, with a day and a half of work for the odd three days. This stretch of increased labor on the demesne was the “autumn works.”
From September 8 to September 29, five days’ work a week, known as the “after autumn works.”16
Thus the autumn and post-autumn works for the Elton virgater totaled thirty-one and a half days, half of the two critical months of August and September, when he had to harvest, thresh, and winnow his own crop.
The principal form of week-work was plowing. Despite employment of eight full-time plowmen and drivers on the Elton demesne, the customary tenants, with their own plows and animals, were needed to complete the fall and spring plowing and the summer fallowing to keep the weeds down. Default of the plowing obligation brought punishment in the manor court: “Geoffrey of Brington withheld from the lord the plow work of half an acre of land. [Fined] sixpence.”17 “John Page withholds a plowing work of the lord between Easter and Whitsuntide for seven days, to wit each Friday half an acre. Mercy [fine] pardoned because afterwards he paid the plowing work.”18
By the same token, the main kind of work the villein did on his own land was plowing. Stage by stage through the agricultural year he worked alternately for the lord and for himself.
His plow (not every villein owned one) was iron-shared, equipped with coulter and mouldboard, and probably wheeled, an improvement that allowed the plowman to control the depth of furrow by adjusting the wheels, saving much labor. He might own an all-wooden harrow, made by himself from unfinished tree branches, or possibly a better one fashioned by the carpenter. Only the demesne was likely to own a harrow with iron teeth, jointly fabricated by the smith and the carpenter. The villein’s collection of tools might include a spade, a hoe, a fork, a sickle, a scythe, a flail, a knife, and a whetstone. Most virgaters probably owned a few other implements, drawn from a secondary array scattered through the village’s toolsheds: mallets, weeding hooks, sieves, querns, mortars and pestles, billhooks, buckets, augers, saws, hammers, chisels, ladders, and wheelbarrows. A number of villagers had two-wheeled carts. Those who owned sheep had broad, flat shears, which were also used for cutting cloth.19
Heavy plow, with coulter and mouldboard, drawn by four oxen. British Library, Luttrell Psalter, Ms. Add. 42130, f. 170.
Plows and plow animals were shared to make up plow teams. Agreements for such joint plowing appear in court records. At one time scholars debated the discrepancy between Domesday Book’s repeated references to the eight-ox plow team and iconographic evidence insistently showing smaller teams, but a modern consensus agrees that teams varied in size, up to eight animals and occasionally more. The largest teams were required to break new ground, the next largest for first plowing after Michaelmas or in spring. Medieval cattle were smaller than their modern descendants and by the time of spring plowing were probably weakened by poor winter diet.20 Domesday Book refers to smaller teams in non-demesne plowing: “three freemen” plowing with two oxen; freemen plowing with three oxen; “two freewomen” plowing with two oxen. “The Domesday plow team…was quite certainly not always an eight-ox team on the villein lands,” says R. Trow-Smith; neither was the post-Domesday team.21
Horses and oxen were often harnessed together for village as for demesne plowing, not because Walter of Henley recommended it but because availability dictated. Cows were even pressed into service, though modern experiments indicate a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the cows. Cows were kept mainly to breed oxen. An ox took two years to train to the plow, and averaged only four years in service. Thus a four-ox team required complete replacement every four years without allowing for sickness or accident.22When horses and oxen were harnessed jointly, it was done in pairs, the horses together, the oxen together, to accommodate the two quite different styles of harness, horse collar and ox yoke. Such teaming, common in England up to modern times, in itself implies large teams.
The first plowing in spring, to turn under the residue of crop and the weeds and grasses, was done early enough to allow time for decomposition of the organic material.23 A second, shallower plowing aerated the soil, preparing it for seeding. The plowman began just to one side of the center line of the strip to be plowed, effected the laborious turn at the end, and returned on the other side of the center.24 Peas and beans were planted in the furrow, grain on the ridge. Spring, or Lenten, sowing was done as soon as the soil was warm and frost no longer a danger.25 Patterns of ridge-and-furrow from the Middle Ages are still visible in aerial photographs, sometimes with the boundaries between neighboring selions indicated by balks or rows of stones.
Demesne plowing might cease at none or at vespers, but a man working his own land might keep his hand to the plow longer, under pressure of time or weather. The first winter wheat plowing, in April after the spring crops were sown in other fields, was shallow. A second, in June, went deeper, as did a third in midsummer. The field was then harrowed and the last clods crumbled with a mattock or long-handled clodding beetle.26 Grain seed was sown from a straw basket, two bushels (or more) to the acre.27 Seed was not sown casually. In 1320 four Elton villagers were fined threepence apiece for carelessness in planting, in one case on the part of a servant who allowed “four or five beans” to fall into a single hole “to the damage of the lord.”28 Besides scarce manure, the peasant cultivator might supply equally scarce marl, a clay containing carbonate of lime.29
Walter of Henley warned that spring plowing done too deep too early might make fields muddy at sowing time.30 Spring crops—barley, oats, peas, beans, vetch—were usually planted
Man and woman breaking up clods, following the plow. British Library, Luttrell Psalter, Ms. Add. 42130, f. 171v.
Man sowing grain, using a seed basket, while one crow raids seed bag and dog drives away another. British Library, Luttrell Psalter, Ms. Add. 42130, f. 170v.
more thickly than winter, about four bushels to the acre.31 For autumn sowing, Walter recommended small furrows with narrow ridges, and planting early enough to allow the seed to take root before the frost.32 Heavy rain within a week after sowing, followed by a sharp frost, could destroy a winter wheat crop.
It is probable that Elton villagers had their own meadowland. If so, it was doubtless allocated, in accordance with an ancient tradition, by a lottery among all the holders of arable, both free and unfree.33 Hay was always in short supply because of the lack of artificial meadow, for want of suitable irrigation, and was precious because it was by far the best winter feed available.
Mowing required care and skill. The grass had to be thoroughly dried (tedded) for storage, and if rained on had to be retedded.34 Demesne mowing at Elton was assigned entirely to the villeins, among whom it was not notably popular; many fines are recorded for failing to do the job properly. They may well have resented being kept from their own mowing. Some lords sweetened the mowing chore with a bonus in the form of a sheep for the mowers to roast, or as on some Ramsey manors, by the game of “sporting chance.” At the end of the haymaking, each man was permitted to carry off as large a bundle of hay as he could lift and keep on his scythe; if the scythe broke or touched the ground, he lost his hay and had to buy an obol’s worth of ale for his comrades. In Elton, at least by 1311, mowers were being paid a cash bonus.35
After haying, the meadow had to be left alone for three or four weeks to allow the grass to grow; consequently another communal agreement was needed about reopening the meadow for grazing. A good hay crop could take the animals through the winter; a good grain crop could do the same for the human beings. The tension of June, relieved by the drudgery of weeding in July, was redoubled in August and September as the fields reached maturity. First in order of priority came the lord’s harvest boon. Not only villeins ad opus but free tenants, censuarii, cotters, and craftsmen, women and children as well as men, turned out—all save those “so old or so weak [that they] could not work”—reaping, gathering, binding, stacking, carrying, and gleaning.36 Even a villein rich enough to employ labor was not exempt, though he was usually not asked to wield the scythe himself, only to “hold the rod over his workers,” as the custumals phrased it.37
The word “boon” or “bene” in “harvest boon” or “boon works” literally meant gift, something freely bestowed, but the usage savored of irony, as the court records indicate: “Geoffrey Gamel…made default at the boon works of the autumn. Sixpence.”38“Richard in Angulo, late in his carrying boon works. Sixpence.”39 On the other hand, a dinner of rare abundance was served in the field to the harvest army. For the 329
Women reaping while man binds. British Library, Luttrell Psalter, Ms. Add. 42130, f. 172v.
persons who turned out for the Elton harvest boon of 1298, the reeve, Alexander atte Cross, listed the victuals consumed: eight rings (thirty-two bushels) of wheat, an almost equal quantity of other grains, a bull, a cow, a calf, eighteen doves, and seven cheeses. The second day’s work required only 250 hands, who however ate bread made from eleven rings, along with eight hundred herrings, seven pence worth of salt cod, and five cheeses. A partial third day’s boon was exacted from sixty villeins, who were fed on three cheeses and “the residue from the expenses of the [manor] house.”40 Of nineteen recorded harvest boons at Elton, this was the only one to last three days. Seven others lasted two days, eleven only one.
The food supplied at boon-works was an important article of the ancient compact between lord and tenants. Size and composition of the loaves of bread made from the grain were commonly stipulated in writing. At Holywell boons, two men were to share three loaves “such that the quantity of one loaf would suffice for a meal for two men,” and the bread was to be of wheat and rye, but mainly wheat.41’ At the Ramsey manor of Broughton in 1291 the tenants actually struck over what they deemed an insufficient quantity of bread supplied them, and only returned to work when appeal to the abbey cartulary proved them mistaken. Reapers liked to wash down their wheat bread with plenty of ale, typically a gallon a day per man, according to one calculation, and “some harvesters consumed twice as much.”42
Wheat was cut with a sickle, halfway or more up the stalk, and laid on the ground. Binders followed to tie the spears in sheaves and set them in shocks to dry. In demesne harvesting, one binder followed every four reapers, advancing in echelon at a rate of two acres a day.43 That similar teamwork was applied in village harvesting is a reasonable supposition. Oats and barley were mown with scythes, close to the ground.44 Harvesting of all three crops left much residue, making gleaning an important function. It was too important, according to Warren Ault, to support a famous assertion by Blackstone in the eighteenth century that “by the common law and custom of England the poor are allowed to enter and glean upon another’s ground after
Stacking the sheaves. British Library, Luttrell Psalter, Ms. Add. 42130, f. 173.
the harvest without being guilty of trespass.”45 In the medieval village, gleaning was strictly limited to the old, the infirm, and the very young, less out of charity than to conserve labor, all able-bodied adults of both sexes being needed for the heavier harvest work. Bylaws generally forbade gleaning by anyone offered a fair wage for harvesting, usually meaning “a penny a day and food” or twopence without food (Walter of Henley recommended paying twopence for a man, one penny for a woman).46 Bylaws welcomed strangers to the village as harvesters while barring them as gleaners.
After cutting, gathering, binding, and stacking their sheaves, the villagers carted them to their barns and sheds to be threshed with the ancient jointed flail and winnowed by tossing in the air from the winnowing cloth or basket, and if necessary supplying breeze with the winnowing fan.
Besides the grain crops, harvest included “pulling the peas,” the vegetable crops that matured in late September and whose harvest also required careful policing against theft.
Yields for the villagers could scarcely have exceeded those of the demesne, which enjoyed so many advantages. Three and a half to one was generally a very acceptable figure for wheat, with barley a bit higher and oats lower, and bad crops always threatening. R. H. Hilton has calculated that an average peasant on a manor of the bishop of Worcester might feed a family of three, pay a tithe to the church, and have enough grain left to sell for twelve or thirteen shillings, out of which his rent and other cash
Carting. British Library, Luttrell Psalter, Ms. Add. 42130, f. 173v.
obligations would have to come.47 If he was required to pay cash in place of his labor obligation, he would need to make up the difference by sale of poultry or wool, or through earnings of wife or sons. As Fernand Braudel observes, “The peasants were slaves to the crops as much as to the nobility.”48
Harvest time was subject to more bylaws than all the rest of the year together. “The rolls of the manor courts are peppered with fines levied for sheaf stealing in the field, and a close watch had to be kept in the barn as well,” says Ault.49 The small size of the medieval sheaf, twenty to a bushel, contributed to temptation, Seneschaucie mentioning as familiar places of secreting stolen grain “bosom, tunic, or boots, or pockets or sacklets hidden near the grange.”50
Another communal agreement was needed for post-harvest grazing of the stubble. Sometimes a common date was set, such as Michaelmas, for having everybody’s harvest in. Bylaws might specify that a man could pasture his animals on his own land as soon as his neighbors’ lands were harvested to the depth of an acre. This was easy to do with cows, which could be restrained within a limited space. Sheep and hogs, on the other hand, had to wait until the end of autumn.51
The lord’s threshing and winnowing were followed by the villagers’, with whole families again joining in. Winter was the slack season, at least in a relative sense. Animals still had to be looked after, and harness, plows, and tools mended. Fences, hurdles, hedges, and ditches, both the lord’s and those of the villagers, had to be repaired to provide barriers wherever arable land abutted on a road or animal droveway. Houses, byres, pens, and sheds needed maintenance. So did equipment: “The good husbandman made some at least of his own tools and implements.”52
The true odd-job men of the village were the cotters. They rarely took part in plowing, having neither plows nor plow beasts, but turned to “hand-work” with spade or fork, sheep-shearing, wattle-weaving, bean-planting, ditch-digging, thatching, brewing, even guarding prisoners held for trial. They were commonly hired by wealthier villagers at harvest time, getting paid with an
Threshing, using jointed flail. British Library, Luttrell Psalter, Ms. Add. 42130, f. 74v.
eleventh, a fifteenth, or a twentieth sheaf. Cotters’ wives and daughters were in demand for weeding and other chores.53
Yet though they occupied the lowest rung on the village ladder, even cotters were capable of asserting their rights, as a remarkable entry in the Elton court rolls of 1300 testifies. Among the few service obligations of the Elton cotters was that of assisting in the demesne haymaking. A score of cotters, including three women, were prosecuted
because they did not come to load the carts of the lord with hay to be carried from the meadow into the manor as formerly they were wont to do in past times, as is testified by Hugh the claviger. They come and allege that they ought not to perform such a custom save only out of love (amor), at the request of the serjeant or reeve. And they pray that this be inquired into by the free tenants and others. And the inquest [a special panel of the court] comes and says that the abovesaid cotters ought to make the lord’s hay into cocks in the meadows and similarly in the courtyard of the lord abbot, but they are not bound to load the carts in the meadows unless it be out of special love at the request of the lord.
That left the lord’s hay sitting in haycocks in his meadow and the cotters in the manor courtyard waiting for it to be brought to them. The steward confessed himself unable to resolve the dispute without reference to the rule and precedent given in the register at Ramsey, and so ordered “that the said cotters should have parley and treaty with the lord abbot upon the said demand.” The ultimate issue is not recorded.54
The pathetic picture in Piers Plowman of the peasant husband and wife plowing together, his hand guiding the plow, hers goading the team, their baby and small children nearby, illustrates the fact that the wife of a poor peasant had to turn her hand to every kind of labor in sight.55 For most of the time, however, in most peasant households, the tasks of men and women were differentiated along the traditional lines of “outside” and “inside” work. The woman’s “inside” jobs were by no means always performed indoors. Besides spinning, weaving, sewing, cheese-making, cooking, and cleaning, women did foraging, gardening, weeding, haymaking, carrying, and animal-tending. They joined in the lord’s harvest boon unless excused, and helped bring in the family’s own harvest. Often women served as paid labor, receiving at least some of the time wages equal to men’s.56 R. H. Hilton believes that peasant women in general enjoyed more freedom and “a better situation in their own class than was enjoyed by women of the aristocracy, or the bourgeoisie, a better situation perhaps than that of the women of early modern capitalist England.”57 The statement does not mean that peasant women were better off than wealthier women, only that they were less constricted within the confines of their class. “The most important general feature of their existence to bear in mind,” Hilton adds, “[is] that they belonged to a working class and participated in manual agricultural labor.”58
For many village women one of the most important parts of the daily labor was the care of livestock. Poultry was virtually the
Woman milking cow. Bodleian Library, Ms. Bodl. 764, f. 41v.
Woman feeding chickens, holding a distaff under her arm. British Library, Luttrell Psalter, Ms. Add. 42130, f. 166v.
Woman on the left is spinning, using the thirteenth-century invention, the spinning wheel. Woman on the right is carding (combing) wool. British Library, Luttrell Psalter, Us. Add. 42130, f. 103.
woman’s domain, but feeding, milking, washing, and shearing the larger livestock often fell to her also.
The biggest problem with livestock was winter feed, the shortage of which was once thought to have provoked an annual “Michaelmas slaughter.” Given the high rate of loss to natural causes, an annual slaughter would have threatened the survival of a small flock or herd.59 The feed shortage certainly played a role in keeping numbers of animals down, but some successful peasants just as certainly overcame the problem. At Bowerchalk in Wiltshire, twenty-three tenants are known to have owned 885 sheep, or 41 per owner; at Merton, eighty-five tenants owned 2,563 sheep, and one is known to have owned 158.60 Individual ownership within a combined flock was kept straight by branding or by marking with reddle (red ochre), many purchases of which are recorded.61
Among peasants as among lords, sheep were esteemed as the “cash crop” animals. Though worth at best only one or two shillings, compared with two and a half shillings for a pig, they had unique fivefold value: fleece, meat, milk, manure, and skin (whose special character made it a writing material of incomparable durability). Lambing time was in early spring, between winter and spring sowing, so that the lambs, weaned at twelve weeks, could accompany their mothers to graze the harvest stubble of last year’s wheatfield.62 The sheep were sheared in mid-June and the fleeces carted to market, probably, in the case of Elton, to Peterborough, about eight miles away. Medieval fleeces weighed from a pound to two and a half pounds, much below the modern average of four and a half pounds.63
Pigs were the best candidates for a Michaelmas slaughter, since their principal value was as food and since their meat
Weeding, using long-handled tools. British Library, Luttrell Psalter, Ms. Add. 42130, f. 17s.
preserved well. A sow farrowed twice a year, and according to Hosbonderie was expected to produce seven piglets per litter.64 Records at Stevenage, Hertfordshire, for the late thirteenth century show sows producing up to nineteen offspring a year, “a good enough figure even by modern standards.”65 They could be eaten “profitably” in their second year, and supplied scarce fat to the medieval diet.66 Pigs foraged for themselves on the acorns, beechnuts, crab apples, hazelnuts, and leaves of the forest floor. For the privilege, exercised mainly in the autumn, their owners paid the lord pannage, in Elton on a sliding scale of a quarter penny to twopence, depending on the pig’s size.67 Probably pannage was originally a fine for overuse of the limited forest mast, which might deprive the wild boar, favored lordly hunting quarry. Feed for pigs was more of a problem in winter, but might be supplemented by whey, a by-product of the cheese-making process.68
Unlike sheep, pigs could take care of themselves against predators and so could be allowed to run free. This led to the problem of their rooting in somebody’s garden, especially in winter, leading in turn to numerous bylaws requiring rings—bits of curved wire—in their noses beginning at Michaelmas or another autumn date.69
Men knocking acorns from oak trees to feed pigs. British Library, St. Mary’s Psalter, Ms. Royal 2B VII, f. 81v.
Cattle were the most expensive animals to keep through the winter but were rarely slaughtered. Cows gave about 120 to 150 gallons of milk a year, far below modern yields, but at a half penny per gallon not a negligible contribution to a peasant income. Calving percentages were high, somewhat contradicting the theory that cows were seriously underfed in winter.70 Such better-off Elton villagers as John of Elton, Nicholas Blundel, Richard of Barton, and Richer Chapelyn bought grass from the demesne pasture or from the millpond. Other resources included mistletoe and ivy from the forest.71
Goats, from the point of view of husbandry a sort of inferior sheep, were seldom kept in the lowlands (though the Ramsey manor of Abbot’s Ripton kept a herd), but in mountainous regions could thrive better than any other stock.72 Nearly all the villagers kept poultry. Geese were a favorite, producing, according to Hosbonderie, five goslings apiece per year.73
The marketing of animals was done mainly before Christmas, before Lent, and at Whitsuntide.
Villeins, cotters, and free tenants alike, nearly all the villagers spent their days in the fields, manhandling the plow, swinging the scythe or sickle, loading the cart. Not quite all, however. There were also the two bakers at either end of the village, the smith, the carpenter, and the millers and fullers who operated the three mills astride the Nene. Using water power to grind grain was an old story, using it to finish cloth a new one. For centuries fullers, or walkers (whence both English surnames), had done their job with their feet, trampling the rough wool fabric in a trough of water after rubbing it with fuller’s earth, an absorbent clay that helped get rid of the grease. The water wheel now drove a set of beaters that took the place of the fullers’ feet. After the cloth had been partially dried, it was finished by teasing the nap and shearing it with huge flat shears, preparing it for the final step in the process, dyeing.74
For the gristmill, either the same or another mill wheel was geared to rotate the upper of a pair of millstones, which was pierced to allow the grain to be fed in. Millstones were expensive, sometimes imported from abroad. When a mill was farmed, the steward might cause the millstones to be measured before and after the farm, and the farmer charged for the wear.
All three mills were under the supervision of the bailiff, who rendered an annual accounting (in 1297 he recorded the fullers as finishing 22 ells of wool blanket cloth for the abbot).75 He sold the multure, the flour taken in payment from the grist mills’ captive customers, who were kept ever in line by the manor court: “Andrew Saladin [fined] because he keeps a handmill to the lord’s damage” and Andrew’s handmill confiscated (1331).76 The customary tenants were permitted to grind their own grain only if the mill was flooded, in which case they were obligated to come and repair it.77 The millers were responsible for incidental income from the tolls paid by those using the mill as a bridge, from the sale of eels from the millpond, from flax grown on its shores, and from the rental of boats and the sale of grass.78
The bakers’ monopoly was also guarded by the court. Three villagers were fined in 1300 for “withdrawing themselves from the lord’s common oven,” and in 1306 eight, one of whom was excused “because she is poor.”79 Later three villagers were fined for going into the baking business: Walter Abbot, Robert son of the chaplain, and Athelina of Nassington were found to be “common bakers” and had to pay twelve pence apiece.80
The smith and the carpenter turn up in the Elton accounts
Mill with eel trap in the stream. British Library, Luttrell Psalter, Ms. Add. 42130, f. 181.
in connection with repairs to the mills as well as work on the demesne plows and carts. The smith made horseshoes either from “the lord’s iron” or from “his own iron,” and also ox shoes, since oxen were often shod (but neither horses nor oxen necessarily on all four feet). The smith fabricated blades, tanged or socketed, to be fitted with wooden knife handles; and also cauldrons, kettles, cups, sickles, billhooks, saws, and fasteners.81’ His shop in the middle of the village was equipped with tools that dated from prehistory: anvil, hammer, and the tongs with which he endlessly returned the workpiece to the fire. He probably also had the more recently invented bellows. Recorded payments to him from the manor ran from a few pence for shoeing horses of the abbot to four shillings sixpence for repairing the demesne plows.82 Often he collaborated on a job with the carpenter, fashioning a wood-and-iron plow or harrow, wheelbarrow, fork, or spade. The carpenter also appears in the manorial accounts, building a dovecote for the manor house, and repairing the manor’s chapel and granary, the porch of the barn, the mill machinery, and the abbey’s boats used to transport produce on the Nene.83
A product of collaboration of carpenter and smith, the wheelbarrow, here used to transport a crippled beggar. British Library, Luttrell Psalter, Ms. Add. 42130, f. 186v.
Other craftsmen probably served the village on a part-time basis. The cotters, jacks-of-all-trades, doubtless developed specializations. The important trade of tanning was apparently not practiced in Elton, at least not on a full-time basis, but an Elton man, son of Richard Dunning, is known to have gone to Hayham to become John Tanner, “a man of means [who] has many goods.”84 Elton villagers probably did some of their own tanning and harnessmaking at home, along with other craft functions. Among the stream of itinerant tradespeople who passed through the village were slaters, tilers, and thatchers, a tinker (“a man to repair brass jars and brass pans”), carters (“two men with dung carts at mowing time” and “two carters carrying stone”), men to “brand animals” and to “geld suckling pigs,” “a woman milking sheep,” “three grooms driving animals into the marsh,” “a girl drying malt,” “a certain excommunicated clerk helping the swineherd in the wood,” and “divers other workmen.”85 Plying trades in the abbey village of Ramsey and in Peterborough, Stamford, and other nearby towns were shoemakers, saddlers, chandlers, coopers, glaziers, tanners, tailors, and other merchant craftsmen.
The countryside profited in quality of life from the growth of city crafts. As Henri Pirenne observed, the old manorial workshops, with their serf labor, turned out tools and textiles “not half as well as they were now made by the artisan of the neighboring town.”86 At the same time, the flight of craftsmen tended to restrict the village to the uninspiring toil of plow and sickle. To the variety of life of the town was added the lure of freedom. On the Continent the rule had long been accepted that “free air makes free men” and residence in a town for a year and a day erased serfdom. In England servile disabilities were canceled by similar residence in a borough with a royal charter or on royal demesne land. What a man needed in order to take advantage of the opportunity was a skill, not easy but not impossible to obtain in the village. According to J. A. Raftis, emigration of villeins from the Ramsey estate “was a regular feature of manorial life from the time of the earliest extant court rolls.”87
One village craft was so widely practiced that it hardly belonged to craftsmen. Every village not only had its brewers, but had them all up and down the street. Many if not most of them were craftswomen (virtually all in Elton). Ale was as necessary to life in an English medieval village as bread, but where flourgrinding and bread-baking were strictly guarded seigneurial monopolies, brewing was everywhere freely permitted and freely practiced. How the lords came to overlook this active branch of industry is a mystery (though they found a way to profit from it by fining the brewers for weak ale or faulty measure). Not only barley (etymologically related to beer) but oats and wheat were used, along with malt, as principal ingredients. The procedure was to make a batch of ale, display a sign, and turn one’s house into a temporary tavern. Some equipment was needed, principally a large cauldron, but this did not prevent poor women from brewing. All twenty-three persons indicted by the Elton ale tasters in 1279 were women. Seven were pardoned because they were poor.88
Life in a village in the late thirteenth century was not one of abundance for anybody. “Given the productive powers of their soil, their technical knowledge, their capital resources and the burden of their rents and taxes, the numbers of peasants on the land were greater than its produce could support,” conclude M. M. Postan and J. Z. Titow, perhaps pessimistically.89 Certainly ordinary men and women, whether free or unfree, could not escape occasions or degrees of want. What the village offered, at least to its landed tenants, free or unfree, was a measure of relative security in return for a life of unremitting labor. Not surprisingly, many longed for something a little easier and a little better. The fabled land of Cockaigne of popular literature was a place “where the more you sleep the more you earn,” and where people “can eat and drink/ All they want without danger.”90
From the perspective of modern times, the daily drudgery and scant returns of the medieval village appear less the product of the social system than of the state of technology. And even though, like all the social structures that had preceded it, the manorial system was heavily weighted in favor of the ruling class, it was not wholly one-sided. “The manor does not exist for the exclusive use of the lord any more than it exists for the exclusive benefit of the peasantry,” concluded Paul Vinogradoff, one of the earliest of its modern historians.91
Yet dissatisfaction was inevitable. Protests and minor riots are recorded at numerous places, over labor service, tallage, merchet, the right to buy and sell land, mowing service, and other villein burdens.92 Similar incidents occurred on the Continent throughout the thirteenth century. For the time being, no large-scale movements developed, but the smoldering potential was there. Piers Plowman endorsed the existing order but insisted that it should be based on justice on the part of the lord, a philosophical solution with only limited practical merit. The villein was bound to resent not only his obligations but his status, and the lord could not forever hold him to either.