BEING A PEASANT DURING THE MIDDLE AGES must qualify as one of the worst jobs in history – but then we’re only guessing because the peasants didn’t leave much record of their lives. Except once, in the summer of 1381, when they left an indelible mark on the history of England.
It was quite astonishing. From out of nowhere, it seemed, tens of thousands of ‘peasants’ converged on London. Two large armed bodies of ‘commoners and persons of the lowest grade from Kent and Essex’*1 burst through the gates of the City of London and wreaked havoc. They demolished the home of John of Gaunt and some buildings around the priory of the Hospital of St John. The next day, the rebels in London burst into the fortress-palace of the Tower. They dragged out the prior of the hospital, who was the Royal Treasurer, along with the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Chancellor and a couple of other notables and beheaded them on Tower Hill.
It was the first and last large-scale popular uprising in English history.
By the end of that day there had been quite a massacre. In one place about forty decapitated bodies were lying in a heap, ‘and hardly was there a street in the City in which there were not bodies lying of those who had been slain’. The Archbishop’s head was displayed on a pike on London Bridge, with his mitre nailed to his skull.
This was, of course, the so-called ‘Peasants’ Revolt’. The poet-chronicler Jean Froissart, writing shortly afterwards for a readership in the courts of northern France and the Low Countries, felt he needed to explain who the English peasantry were, and what they were complaining about:
It is customary in England, as in several other countries, for the nobility to have great power over the common people, who they keep in bondage. That is to say, they have a duty to plough their lord’s lands, to harvest his grain and bring it in, to thresh and winnow it. They also have to harvest his hay and cut his wood and bring it in. They are obliged to perform all these duties for their lords, and there are more of them in England than in other countries. That is how they serve the prelates and nobles. These services are more oppressive in the counties of Kent, Essex, Sussex and Bedford, than anywhere else in the kingdom.
Disaffected people in these districts became restless, saying they were too severely oppressed; that at the beginning of the world there were no slaves, and that no one ought to be treated like one unless he had committed treason against his lord, as Lucifer had done against God: but they were not like that, for they were neither angels nor spirits, but men like their lords, who treated them as beasts. They would no longer put up with this. They had determined to be free, and if they did any work for their lords, they wanted to be paid for it.
The Chronicles of Froissart, Bk. II, ch. 73
Froissart had no sympathy with the insurrection, and did not think peasants had anything to complain about. In fact, he said their lives had become too easy – the trouble was ‘all because of the ease and riches of the common people’. Nonetheless, his description helps to reinforce the stereotype of peasant life as being nasty, brutish and short.
A ‘village’ was where the lord of the manor kept his villeins – men who were bound either to the land itself or to his personal service, and who lived with their wives and children in wretched cottage hovels. They worked partly for themselves but for up to three days a week for their lord (and gave him a share of their produce) and also had to give a tenth of their crop – a tithe – to the Church.
Illiterate, uncouth, little more than an animal, the medieval peasant cuts a wretched figure in our imagination. Froissart’s belief that it was dangerous to allow this savage, servile underclass too much scope for troublemaking makes a grotesque kind of sense.
But much of what used to be assumed about ‘peasants’ is completely untrue. So untrue, in fact, that even the title ‘Peasants’ Revolt’ is now no longer used by professional historians, who have lost confidence in Froissart’s description. Froissart, it turns out, was not a very reliable social commentator.
ORDER IN CHAOS
The rising was not the mindless insurrection of brutalized semi-slaves. It was highly organized and carefully prepared. For a start, many areas of the country rose virtually simultaneously, which indicates that peasants had the capacity for organization on a much larger scale than the purely local. Then there is the interesting chronicle report that, in order to maintain coastal defences against the French, the rebels in Kent decreed that: ‘none who dwelt near the sea in any place for the space of twelve leagues, should come out with them, but should remain to defend the coasts of the sea from public enemies . . .’
Moreover, the rebels’ selection of targets in London demonstrates that the violence there was deliberate and specific. The first target, John of Gaunt, had thwarted the Commons’ impeachments of unpopular members of the court, and was suspected of trying to make himself king. The first demands made by the Kentish rebels did not even mention serfdom or villeinage. They demanded allegiance to the king and the Commons; that there should be no king named John (i.e. John of Gaunt); that there should be no tax but the traditional levy of one-fifteenth of movable wealth; and that everyone should be ready to revolt when called upon.
On 14 June the rebels met Richard II at Mile End just outside the city of London. There they presented demands which included the handing over of ‘traitors’; the end of serfdom; the right to hire themselves out at fair wages; and the right to rent land at a cheap rate. Peasant issues had become part of the matter, but they were not there to begin with.
By the third day the agenda had developed further, and was now revolutionary. To the end of serfdom their leader, Wat Tyler, now added the abolition of outlawry; the repeal of all laws except the ‘law of Winchester’ (traditional common law); the complete abolition of nobility in Church and state but for one king and one archbishop; and the confiscation and division of Church land.
The targets of the rebels’ destruction were places where records were stored: abbeys, priories, lawyers’ houses and the like. Thomas Walsingham, whose chronicle contains much malice and invention, describes what happened in a way that brings to mind the ‘Year Zero’ of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and which must have contained at least a kernel of truth:
They strove to burn all old records; and they butchered anyone who might know or be able to commit to memory the contents of old or new documents. It was dangerous enough to be known as a clerk, but especially dangerous if an ink-pot should be found at one’s elbow: such men scarcely or ever escaped from the hands of the rebels.
But this was not a general attack on literacy. It was specifically legal records that were destroyed and others, in many places, were left intact. Some, at least, of the rebels could read.
So if peasants were not illiterate members of a dirty, uncouth, barbarous, rural ‘lumpen proletariat’, who were they?
AT HOME WITH THE PEASANT
The word ‘peasant’ was not used in English in medieval times. It comes from the French paysan, which simply means a country man or woman. At the time, men who worked on the land were either free or were in some degree of serfdom as cottagers, smallholders or villeins. It was the last group, villeins, that Froissart was describing – men who were not free to leave their land and who owed labour duties to their lords. Probably 30 per cent of men in England were villeins in 1381.
It is often said that peasants lived in primitive one-room ‘hovels’, but in all the excavations of medieval villages there seems to be little sign of these horrible dwellings. According to the historian Christopher Dyer, ‘Most villages that have been excavated seem to consist mainly of substantial houses’. In fact, according to Dyer, ‘We should not be looking for tiny buildings, but for structures of standard size, but distinguished from the houses of the better-off by the quality and quantity of the materials used, or the standard of carpentry.’
But even if the lowest semi-slave lived in a substantial house, presumably he and his miserable extended family were crammed in there in a half-starved, overcrowded huddle – grandparents, uncles, aunts, nieces and nephews jumbled promiscuously together?
Well, maybe not.
Where we do have evidence, it tends to show that peasants lived in nuclear families like our own, and that they liked their privacy. From as early as the twelfth century there were upper rooms in quite small rural buildings, and certainly this is how many people were living by the early fourteenth century. This suggests that some houses, at any rate, had private rooms and their occupants did not have to live their lives under the whole family’s gaze. The same inference – that peasants liked their privacy – can be drawn from archaeological evidence that, in the thirteenth century at least, houses were surrounded by ditches (and presumably also hedges and fences) and had locked doors, and that goods were kept in locked chests.
What kind of peasants were these? What did they have that was worth protecting? Excavations show pewter tableware, glazed pots, dice, cards, chessmen, footballs, musical instruments and ‘ninemen’s morris’ boards in these hovels. And people seem to have eaten rather better than one might suppose. The evidence is that they didn’t simply live on bread and cheese, but ate pork, lamb and beef, fruit and vegetables, and that even in inland villages they ate fish (archaeologists have found fish bones at the deserted village of Wharram Percy in Yorkshire).
Something seems to be not quite right about the traditional picture of peasant life.
The excavations at Wharram Percy are full of surprises. It looks like a neat, planned village, and archaeologists expected to find traces of earlier villages going back to early Anglo-Saxon times. Those traces are missing. Even though Wharram Percy is listed inDomesday Book, the village itself seems to have come into being around the end of the twelfth century. The farmers in the area had previously lived in scattered farms and hamlets.
It now seems as though there were very few, if any, villages in that area of England before the eleventh century. While it is impossible to show a connection between this curious fact and the Norman Conquest, it does look as though the creation of villages was linked to the manorial system. In other words – villages may have been built for the local lord’s villeins.
THE PEASANT’S STATUS
At the time of the Norman Conquest many in the rural population were slaves in the full meaning of the word (and the Domesday Book shows that this still applied to about 10 per cent of people in 1086). This was not a satisfactory economic arrangement for the Norman overlords whom the king had installed as landholders. These lords of the manor were military men, expected to provide military service to the king as the price for their landholdings. They wanted the English to work their land, but did not want the responsibility of feeding and caring for them – which is, of course, one of the drawbacks of having slaves. So it seems they preferred to group working families in ‘vills’ (villages) and treat them as tenants, who had to support themselves from small parcels of land worked when they were not doing labour service for their lord. This labour service was their rent.
These people were villeins. Villeinage had begun to develop before 1066, but the Normans promoted it mightily and slavery disappeared in a couple of generations. Froissart was probably right in saying that the system was more widespread in England than in the rest of western Europe.
Many manorial lords held several manors and spent much of their time away fighting. They needed the manor to look after itself – or rather, they needed their villeins to organize its care for them. This was done through the manor court, which determined how fields were to be farmed and (since villeins held strips of land in large open fields) the days for planting and harvesting, the boundaries of each person’s land and the dates on which animals were allowed to graze in different fields. Although the court was presided over by the lord’s steward, its officials were villeins elected by the village, and its decisions were made by a jury of villagers. There was the reeve, who acted as a general overseer, the hayward, who watched over the crops and brought offenders to court, and so on. The steward’s job was to look after his lord’s interests (payments and work that was due to him) not to tell the court how to manage its business.
In fact, the manor court had the power to fine the lord, and would do so. The records of one in Laxton in Nottinghamshire show it fined the lord for leaving soil on the common land. The peasants of Albury in Hertfordshire went so far as to petition parliament in 1321 over oppression by their lord, Sir John Patemore, who had imprisoned them and seized their cattle.
Some villages came close to being totally self-governing political entities run by the peasants for the peasants. Villeins resisted authority by quietly ignoring regulations, and manipulated the system by exploiting their influence as officials and bending laws in their own favour. Take the village of Gotham in Nottinghamshire, afforded legendary status by the exploits of its inhabitants.
In about 1200 King John proposed building a hunting lodge near the city of Nottingham. The residents of Gotham realized the implications of this – he would pass through the village on the way to his lodge, making it a king’s highway and thus making them liable to new taxes.
So what did they do? The entire village pretended to be mad. It is said that the villagers built a fence around a cuckoo bush to prevent the cuckoo escaping, tried to drown an eel, set about pulling the moon out of a pond with a rake and rolled cheeses down a hill to make them round. Since madness was considered contagious the idea of a whole village of lunatics was perfectly feasible, and apparently the ploy worked.
Villeins were not mindless and helpless, but actually ran the country. The barons who were their masters had to respect their traditions and ways of doing things, and it was normal for the lord of the manor to demonstrate this respect by laying on feasts for them twice a year – wet and dry boon. Does anyone’s landlord now treat them to a slap-up dinner twice a year?
At Wharram Percy the lord accommodated the peasants in neat rows of houses beside the church, and the land was recast into regularly planned fields. A manor house belonging to either the Percy or the Chamberlain family (both had some power over the village) was built in splendid style in the twelfth century, but this was soon abandoned and demolished, and its site turned over to peasant houses.
At Cosmeston in Wales there is further evidence of peasants enjoying a reasonable standard of living. Most families lived in two-room houses surrounded by a fence or ditch for privacy. Excavation of the home of the reeve – the villein who acted as general overseer for the manor court – revealed oil lamps and glazed French pottery, and the discovery of a particular kind of jug shows that, far from living in dirt and squalor, he washed his hands between courses when eating. His house had a wardrobe, at least one chair and a timber floor. There was a tablecloth and candle-holders.
The reeve slept on a raised bed with a surprisingly comfortable wooden pillow, and the discovery of a casket key indicates he had possessions that were worth locking up. A herb – fleabane – kept his bed free of insects and a bowl of honey was used as an insect trap. There was an outdoor privy and excrement was collected regularly to be used, with animal manure, as fertilizer.
Coins found on the site are evidence that money was circulating, and so this was not entirely a subsistence economy. In fact, from the thirteenth century labour service began to be replaced by cash rents, indicating that villeins had surplus crops for sale. And when they had paid their rents they had money left over to spend at stalls in the village run by merchants.
They also had money to spend at the tavern, which was in an ordinary house. Ale was essential to life as many villages lacked clean water and it was drunk from leather mugs lined with pitch. Brewing was often viewed as an appropriate activity for widows, who found it hard to farm land. But some villeins had more high-faluting tastes. The excavations at Cosmeston have revealed the remains of wine jugs from France – peasants were drinking imported French wine.
This all seems so fundamentally at odds with our picture of the life of a medieval peasant that some explanation is needed – which involves recognizing that the Middle Ages was not a static and unchanging period, but a time of change and development.
DAYS OF SURVIVAL
In the eleventh century peasant farmers lived pretty close to subsistence level. The year’s work began in October, ploughing and harrowing what had been the fallow field with wheat and rye. The aim was to have done this by All Saints’ Day, 1 November. A reasonably substantial peasant farmer with 30 acres scattered over three village fields would have ten acres in his fallow field. An acre was in theory the amount of land that could be ploughed in a day – typically, four lands (strips), each of which was covered with five long furrowlengths (furlongs), turning the plough at the end of each furrow. A strip was therefore a quarter-acre.
The farmer would need to prepare these in five weeks, covering 84 miles with the plough and the same again with the harrow. And with one day a week given over to God, and up to three days to the lord of the manor, he had 15 days to do it in. This sounds fine, except that in practice it was not uncommon to cover only half an acre in a day (problems with the plough, problems with the animals drawing it, soil that was sodden with rain or ground that was frozen too hard to be worked).
At Candelmas, 2 February, ploughing would resume. This time, last year’s rye-and-wheat field would be ploughed for oats, barley, peas and beans, and the third field ploughed for fallow. The work was supposed to be finished by Easter – ideally by 25 March, but it could go on until the end of April. A long, hard frost could be a serious problem.
In the eleventh century it is likely that the best yield to be hoped for, on good land, was eight bushels of corn per acre. The net harvest, after losses during harvesting and to animals, and after the farmer had handed over his tithe to the Church and produce to his lord, was half that or less – and two bushels would have to be kept back as seed corn. Overall, the farmer would have enough to feed a family of five and there would be a small surplus, but only so long as nothing went wrong with the ploughing, ripening and harvesting of the crops. And so long as no marauding armies came along.
But things did go horribly wrong at times, and there were marauding armies. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the end of the eleventh century is a list of things going awry:
This year was the dry summer; and wildfire came upon many shires, and burned many towns; and also many cities were ruined thereby.
. . . and this year also was a great famine.
And the same year there was a very heavy season, and a swinkful and sorrowful year in England, in murrain of cattle, and corn and fruits were at a stand, and so much untowardness in the weather, as a man may not easily think; so tremendous was the thunder and lightning, that it killed many men; and it continually grew worse and worse with men.
In the one and twentieth year after William began to govern and direct England, as God granted him, was a very heavy and pestilent season in this land. Such a sickness came on men, that full nigh every other man was in the worst disorder, that is, in the diarrhoea; and that so dreadfully, that many men died in the disorder. Afterwards came, through the badness of the weather as before mentioned, so great a famine over all England, that many hundreds of men died a miserable death through hunger. Alas! how wretched and how rueful a time was there! When the poor wretches lay full nigh driven to death prematurely, and afterwards came sharp hunger, and dispatched them withal! Who will not be penetrated with grief at such a season? or who is so hardhearted as not to weep at such misfortune? Yet such things happen for folk’s sins, that they will not love God and righteousness.
Before Michaelmas the heaven was of such an hue, as if it were burning, nearly all the night. This was a very troublesome year through manifold impositions; and from the abundant rains, that ceased not all the year, nearly all the tilth in the marshlands perished.
Things would have been even worse without the strip system, which at least meant that a peasant’s lands were scattered and he did not have to put all his eggs in one basket. There was also a system of food-sharing in bad times. This was one beneficial result of tithes – the great tithe-barns of the Church could become charity food stores in times of need. It looks as though there was virtually no chance of starvation for a peasant farming more than 20 acres.*2 Unless, of course, there was widespread famine.
At the start of a famine people would eat bad bread, often made with rye that had developed a fungus (ergot) that produced a burning sensation in the body and LSD-type hallucinations. Then came starvation.
Starvation kills a healthy human in six to ten weeks. To begin with, a person can lose up to 10 per cent of their body weight without losing much strength or energy. At this stage they can still work and do other normal activities. Then they begin to weaken. When they have lost 15 to 20 per cent of their normal body weight they become depressed and apathetic, and can no longer participate in day-to-day life. As a person continues to lose weight the stomach accumulates abnormal amounts of watery fluids, and balloons outwards. Flesh wastes from the face and the eyes also appear to balloon outwards. The flesh increasingly sags away from the bones and permanent dark splotches from glandular disturbances may appear all over the body. Racked by the pain caused by these changes, a starving person becomes more susceptible to diarrhoea, cholera and dysentery.
The victim can see and feel their body withering away, and becomes obsessed with food. Indifference and apathy replace compassion for their starving neighbours, friends and family. Mothers have been known to snatch food from the hands of their children. Cannibalism is not uncommon. Eventually, when a person has lost about 40 per cent of their body mass, death is inevitable.*3
THINGS GET BETTER
The manorial system developed during a period when England was getting warmer and wetter. This meant many years of good harvests (which we can see today in the evidence of tree rings) interrupted by rain-driven famines, with all the horrors described above. This is the framework within which the medieval peasant saw his life, and the prospects of an afterlife.
But famine became rarer, and the economics of farming improved steadily in the centuries after the Conquest. In the thirteenth century the rise in temperature was reversed, and the tempests of the previous 200 years declined. Vineyards, an important part of the English economy for two centuries, disappeared completely by 1300 and the growing season shortened, but winters became milder and summers drier. From 1220 to 1315 there was no famine in England. This coincided with improvements in agricultural technology (primarily faster ploughing as horse teams replaced oxen in favourable areas) and the growth of markets and towns. The result was a golden age for the peasant, and a spectacular rise in the population, from 2.5 million to approaching 6 million by 1315. Wasteland was taken into cultivation, marginal land was converted into manorial farms and the standard of living rose.
There was also a significant broadening of people’s outlooks. Villein tenancies were inherited by the eldest son so younger brothers had to find livings elsewhere, which meant a considerable movement of people. The inevitable result was that a large number of peasant families had relatives in newly growing towns and so were probably quite well informed about politics and trade. They were also likely to have relatives in other parts of the country, as the pressure to bring more land under the plough meant people were moving to new manors in areas that had never been farmed before. Although peasants did not exactly go visiting much, they made pilgrimages to famous shrines and travelled to markets, and may not have had much reason to see themselves as country bumpkins.
In fact, at this time the lot of a peasant farmer was in some ways comparable with that of a modern worker. Sundays, saint’s days and Church holidays like Easter and Christmas meant he had at least as much free time as a modern employee, and the amount of work required to pay rent and taxes was probably pretty similar to that needed now. Of course, provision for old age was a bit of a problem (as it is now for many people), but peasants didn’t often live so long. The truly poor probably made up about a third of the population, as they do today (in fact, one of the oddities of English society is that it has always had roughly the same percentage of the population living on the breadline).
By 1315 the countryside was full, busy and making money. Farming was becoming more sophisticated and trade-orientated; well-managed hay meadows produced a good flow of cash, and eight to ten million sheep supplied wool for the export trade alone. There were also more horses than ever before, both for riding and for draught. In the most advanced regions – eastern Norfolk (the most crowded county in England) and eastern Kent – the old system of common fields was already on its way out because it was inefficient. These areas would be particularly prominent in the ‘Peasants’ Revolt’.
People were not starving. In fact, their diet was pretty healthy. Today, we are urged to stop eating fast foods with all the nutrition of cardboard and to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. This is actually a return to the peasant diet – a diet that was despised by the nobility. They regarded fruit and veg as poor man’s food, believing that greens weren’t good for you and that fruit gave you dysentery – the bloody flux.
Peasant bread was much healthier than our white, steam-baked, sliced bread: it was brown, like a good wholemeal loaf. Peas and beans were sometimes added, which made it even more nutritious. In the fields people ate a kind of medieval pot noodle, a paste of dried vegetables, beans and bread to which they added ale to turn it into an instant meal. Eel pasties were another favourite, and preserved foods such as bacon, cheese and sausages were special treats.
Even for the poorest, the countryside was a larder teeming with wild life. Rivers were full of fish – there were even plenty of salmon in the Thames – and peasants had elaborate nets and traps to catch songbirds, eels and rabbits.
The countryside was healthier than the towns. When the graveyard at Wharram Percy was excavated archaeologists found 687 peasant skeletons, enough for them to draw some firm conclusions about health and ageing. It is clear that these country dwellers had suffered fewer illnesses than their urban relatives. A lower rate of infection showed in their bones, and fewer cases of anaemia suggested fewer parasites.
It is also clear, surprisingly, that they ate a reasonable amount of seafood. This is further evidence that trade networks penetrated deep into the countryside. And there was very little tooth decay – none in any of the children’s skeletons. In fact the medieval diet, with lots of coarse grains and grit in the bread, was much better for human teeth than our own. It meant they were worn down to a flat plane leaving no crevices for food to fester. But fossilized plaque in some skeletons’ teeth does suggest that many of the people at Wharram Percy had suffered from chronic bad breath. This was a bit of an issue in medieval times; in Wales a peasant woman could divorce her husband on the grounds of his halitosis.
In both countryside and towns, babies were breastfed until they were 18 months old, which protected both the child (helping its immune system and keeping its diet free of germs) and the mother (it was believed that breastfeeding can act as a natural contraceptive).
One further surprise at Wharram Percy was a skull with a big hole in it, the result of an injury caused by some kind of blunt instrument. This had clearly been operated on: the skin had been folded back, the wound was cleaned up and then the skin was stitched back again. The person had recovered from the injury. Even the inhabitants of a small village could hope for skilled and effective surgical help.
Of course, the picture was not entirely rosy. Animals were small (smaller than they had been in Roman times) and grains were tall, low-yielding varieties. Pastures were overused and easily degraded. Village life may have been healthier than life in a town, but nevertheless infant mortality was high, childbirth was dangerous, agricultural labourers were old at 40.
But the kind of peasant Froissart described – the servile villein obliged to work his lord’s land – was a diminishing class by the start of the fourteenth century. Most of the land newly taken into cultivation was farmed by freemen who paid rent for it, and they seem to have had larger families than serfs. There were now more of them than there were villeins. Villein duties had anyway often been replaced by money rents, so lords of the manor received nearly 90 per cent of their income in cash. The power of customary laws meant that a villein holding 15 to 30 acres for a fixed rent was often comparatively well off, especially as land was scarce, open-market rents were high, prices were rising and wages were low.
VILLAGE AND CHURCH
Village life was centred not just on work and home, but also on the church. Churches had been few and far between in Anglo-Saxon times, but the Church was an important element in Norman domination, and a village without a church became almost inconceivable.
The building was the physical property of the manor, and the lord appointed the priest (who would be a commoner, but not a serf). The core of any church is the chancel with the altar, and this belonged to the lord. The nave and the tower belonged to the people of the parish, who stood in the nave to hear services. Each person was expected to give one-tenth of their earnings to support the Church. This tithe was evenly divided between the parish priest, the church maintenance fund, the poor and the local bishop.
Manor courts were often held in the nave, but the church and churchyard were also places for parties, plays, pageants and games such as football and tile- or stone-throwing. Many parish priests brewed their own ale and drinking was a big part of any festival.
The church was also the centre of education. By the mid-twelfth century literacy was a real, and not impossibly distant, ambition for large numbers of people in the countryside. This is shown by the fact that one in ten boys in peasant families advanced to at least the lowest levels of the clergy, which required the ability to read Latin. There were, inevitably, traditionalists who complained that the Church had become a meritocracy, employing ministers ‘raised from the dust’. It was, in fact, a sign that the age of the Conquest was over, and that the Church was no longer an implement of Norman power.
A common illusion about the medieval period is that society consisted of rigid feudal orders, and that if you were born a serf you would die a serf. This is not quite true. For ambitious women there was always the possibility of making a good marriage or becoming a rich man’s mistress, and there were many ways for men to change their status – living in a town as a guild member for a year and a day, joining the army or Church, or, of course, entering a life of crime. But it was also possible for a poor boy to rise in a secular profession.
The most astonishing example of this is the career of William of Wykeham, the child of a peasant family who took his name from the village where he was born in 1324. He was educated at the local cathedral school at the expense of the lord of the manor (a not uncommon arrangement), who then took him on as his own secretary. The lord, Uvedale, was governor of Winchester Castle and passed the young man on to the bishop of Winchester.
In the small world of English government William was noticed by Edward III, and when he was in his early twenties the king took him into service. He was obviously clever and careful, had an interest in and talent for construction and design, and could be trusted as a manager. In his early thirties he was clerk of the king’s works in two manors, and was made surveyor of Windsor Castle. It seems to have been his idea that Edward should express his Arthurian fantasies by rebuilding the castle, and from then on his rise was irresistible.
By 1364 William had been made keeper of the privy seal and was so powerful that, according to Froissart, he ‘reigned in England, and without him they did nothing’. He was the ultimate self-made man, and fully understood the significance of education. He founded a free school, to offer 70 boys from poorer, rural backgrounds – peasants – a proper education, and also a university college to which they could go when they were ready. Both have survived to this day: Winchester College and New College, Oxford. William’s own motto, ‘manners mayketh man’, became the motto of both institutions; ‘manners’ means not simply politeness, but being a capable and reliable member of society. This was a peasant attitude rather than an aristocratic one.
William of Wykeham would have been unique in any age. However, by the mid-fourteenth century most peasants knew their ABC, could sound out, and therefore recognize, their names and were familiar with the English equivalents of perhaps 10 or 20 Latin words. This allowed them to locate and recognize references to their land in court rolls, and to be aware of and talk about the contents of charters.
THE FOURTEENTH-CENTURY CATASTROPHE
The busy, prosperous and successful rural society of the start of the fourteenth century did not last. Within 15 years nature had dealt it a crushing blow:
In the year of our Lord 1315, apart from the other hardships with which England was afflicted, hunger grew in the land . . . Meat and eggs began to run out, capons and fowl could hardly be found, animals died of pest, swine could not be fed because of the excessive price of fodder. A quarter of wheat or beans or peas sold for twenty shillings [in 1313 a quarter of wheat sold for five shillings], barley for a mark, oats for ten shillings. A quarter of salt was commonly sold for thirty-five shillings, which informer times was quite unheard of. The land was so oppressed with want that when the king came to St. Albans on the feast of St. Laurence [10 August] it was hardly possible to find bread on sale to supply his immediate household . . .
JOHANNES DE TROKELOWE, Annales
This dearth had begun in May. Then came heavy summer rains and the corn did not ripen – the start of a series of agricultural disasters. Villages built on dried-out marshlands sank back into the mud and there was not enough food for the greatly swollen populace. The annals are full of misery. Then, when the famines had run their course, the Black Death came.
Having spread across Europe from the east, it arrived at Weymouth in June 1348. In less than a year the whole country was stricken. No-one could have understood what was happening. Once a person was infected large, foul-smelling swellings developed in their groin, neck and armpits. Death followed within two or three days. The disease killed more than a third of the people and by 1350 the population of England was half what it had been in 1315. Villages shrank in size or were simply abandoned. The land was covered in images of death. Church walls were painted with depictions of the ‘Three Living and the Three Dead’ and scenes of the ‘Dance of Death’.
The effect of the Black Death was immediately catastrophic for everyone; curiously, those peasants who survived it found their lives immeasurably improved. Labour became scarce and more valuable than abundant land. Landless people were able to take over abandoned holdings, and those who could handle more land simply took it. Wages roughly doubled, while the fall in the population led to something like a halving of the price of wheat.
Villeinage seemed seriously out of date. The whole basis of economic power in England had shifted. The Statute of Labourers in 1351 complained that existing laws were ineffective:
. . . servants having no regard to the said ordinance, but to their ease and singular covetise, do withdraw themselves to serve great men and other, unless they have livery and wages to the double or treble of that they were wont to take . . . to the great damage of the great men, and impoverishing of all the said commonalty.
As the country recovered in the decades following the Black Death landowners tried to restore the old systems, rediscovering old laws of compulsory service that had been forgotten in the good times when England was increasingly moving to a money economy.
It was this growing pressure to turn back the clock that eventually produced the so-called ‘Peasants’ Revolt’ – an uprising of people who were well used to running their own affairs, in manorial courts and militias and in minor public office, and who had stopped believing in the entire structure of feudal authority.
‘When Adam delved and Eve span/Who was then the Gentleman?’ demanded John Ball, one of the leaders of the rebellion. A question to which, after the insurrection had been put down, there came the firm reply: ‘Villeins ye are, and villeins ye shall remain.’
But, of course, they did not.
Although Wharram Percy, like many deserted medieval villages, was believed to have lost its population at the time of the Black Death, excavations have shown this was not the case. It remained inhabited until the fifteenth century, and it was human beings, not bacteria, that determined its fate.
The old feudal consensus had broken down, and the lords realized that if the peasants were now free from any obligation to them, they were equally free from any obligations to care for the peasants. Thus it was that the peasants came face to face with their greatest natural enemy – sheep.
Labour had become expensive and your average lord could now make more money out of sheep than he could out of his peasants. There was more wool on sheep, for a start, and you could also eat them – which is possible with peasants but socially taboo – so the lords started to throw the expensive, troublesome and uneatable peasants off their land and replace them with sheep.
The few remaining villeins, at Wharram Percy and in much of the rest of the country, were made redundant. They were doubtless given encouraging talks about the fact that it was time to move on, that they should view this challenge as an exciting opportunity, and that a gentleman from the Cistercians would be coming round to see them individually to discuss openings in the lead mines.
Being a peasant in the middle ages wasn’t necessarily a terrible life, but it deteriorated when the lords fenced the land off for sheep. It got even worse in the Industrial Revolution, and nowadays small farmers are still going to the wall.
The life of the peasant depends on the sort of society he lives in – and compared with a lot of people’s lives today, there were times when the medieval peasant had it pretty good.