Early Medieval England

Early Medieval England

During the reign of Edward ‘the Confessor’ (1042-66), the last Anglo-Saxon king of England but one, the country was prosperous, even wealthy. It has been described as one of the richest countries in Europe, with a population that has been estimated at about two and a half million including the Celts, Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians. That was smaller than the supposed population of Roman Britain and may be presumed to reflect a decline in the amenities of civilization. But it was a comparatively large population, as so much of the land was still forest and waste; certainly in a bad year, such as 1044, when a terrible famine is recorded, corn was so scarce that the price rose to unparalleled heights. In general, however, the weather was temperate, with warm summers and dry winters, and famines were rare.

English society was then dominated by a small group of leading landowners plus a much bigger group who had only one or two smaller estates. Within these estates tenant farmers and agricultural labourers lived together as neighbours and often as fellow members of the same village church. Most of the villages that existed before the eighteenth century were already to be found on the map. Thus England could be considered as an old country fairly fully settled. As Professor Postan put it, ‘the occupation of England by the English had gone far enough to have brought into cultivation and covered with agricultural settlement most of the area known to have been occupied in later stages of English history’.

The kingdom could afford to pay out substantial sums of geld to maintain armies and fleets and to buy off the Vikings. Seventy mints were at work in the country and the English silver coinage was the wonder of the world. In 1051 the country was sufficiently flourishing for the collection of geld to be temporarily suspended and the weight of the coins to be increased from eighteen to twenty-seven grains. Besides the coinage, hoards of unminted silver were accumulated during the eleventh century. King Edward had spent his youth in Normandy and while it is an exaggeration to say that during his reign the ‘normanization’ of England had already begun, he had many friends and acquaintances, including the German Emperor and the King of France, a fact which helped to stimulate international trade, bringing the offshore island into a closer relationship with the rest of Europe.

Although in the main England was a country of large estates, clustered villages and small hamlets, it was also starting to be urbanized again for the first time since the Romans left. One-tenth of its people now lived in towns. The population of London rose to about 30,000 by the eleventh century. Other sizeable towns included York, Oxford and Lincoln. The affluence of East Anglia and the commercial contacts of the Danish settlers there were reflected in the fact that both Norwich and Ipswich were particularly busy towns. In East Anglia sheep farming as well as arable was becoming important. Already wool was beginning to be a valuable export, especially to Flanders, where cloth was manufactured. The sale of raw wool to Flanders and elsewhere helps to explain the growing wealth of silver in England during the eleventh century. Most English towns depended on commerce and internal trade rather than industry for their development. The only industry of any significance was the mining of minerals such as tin and iron ore.

During this century the village rather than the shire remained the centre of social and economic life. Villagers (villani) might be freeholders or tenants of a landlord to whom they paid rents or for whom they provided services. In addition were cottagers (bordarii or cottarii), who did not have enough land to feed their families and had to work for others. The average villager, however, possessed a holding large enough for his essential needs (fifteen to thirty acres) and could grow rye or wheat for bread and barley and oats to make ale and porridge and to provide fodder for his sheep, goats and cows, though the cows were few in number, much milk and cheese coming from ewes and goats.

Partly because of the disruption of country life brought about by the redistribution of estates after the Norman Conquest and partly owing to bad harvests, epidemics or other periodic misfortunes, the ordinary villager became increasingly dependent on his landlord for help and protection. Consequently, as the years rolled by, the medieval ‘villein’, as he was known, developed into a kind of serf, while slaves, previously the lowest class in the community, numbering at least 5,000 in the middle of the eleventh century, disappeared, chiefly because their economic value was considered doubtful. In much of the country small farmers worked in their own fields and also had to provide labour for their landlords if asked. They could not leave the landlord’s estate or manor, as it came to be called, without his permission and then might have to pay him a fine (chevage) for receiving it. They also had to accept financial obligations, such as payments at the time of their sons’ marriages (merchets), at deaths (heriots), when their daughters misbehaved (leyrwite) and on other occasions in accordance with the custom of the manor (tallage).

In the uplands – in Northumbria, for example – where husbandmen were principally shepherds, hamlets or isolated farms were the centres of life: here the landlord was a chieftain to whom the hamlets paid food rents, but their inhabitants rarely had to work on his home farm, for where it existed it was devoted to animal husbandry. In Wales village lands were divided into ‘in-fields’, intensely cultivated, and ‘out-fields’, used to feed cattle or on which to grow occasional crops. Kent was an exceptional shire, for here too were hamlets, but the arable land consisted of single fields where groups of kinsmen worked together, and parts of the shire were purely pastoral. East Anglia was also unusual, for it was dominated by mixed farming without any regular rotation of crops, and the villagers tried to concentrate their arable strips in one corner of the open fields.

Other parts of England contained no lord’s land at all, or no freeholds or no serfs; but the Midlands came to consist chiefly of manors, which included a lord’s home farm or ‘demesne’ and a large amount of land ploughed and tilled by villagers who were at best half free. In eastern England more free tenants were to be found. The unfree villager’s obligations were determined by the customs of the manor where he happened to be. In a good season he might manage to subsist in reasonable comfort. In many areas the food and drink that he obtained from grain was supplemented by fish and eggs. Flour was ground in local water-mills, belonging not to the community but to the landlord, who had to be paid for their use. The villages and hamlets were surrounded by huge amounts of wasteland and woodland. This was a kind of bonus for husbandmen, since it provided them with game, food for their sheep and pigs and also with firewood. Even marshes could be utilized as sheep walks.

As Edward the Confessor had no son Duke William of Normandy, an ambitious and masterful man in the prime of life, who doubtfully claimed that the succession to the throne of England had been promised him, invaded the country, tempted, like the Anglo-Saxons, the Danes and the Vikings before him, by the wealth of a land five times the size of Normandy. Whether he really hoped to subdue it or not, his crushing victory over his rival claimant, Harold Godwineson, at the battle of Hastings enabled him to be crowned at Westminster. The Normans introduced not only a new dynasty but a new aristocracy, a new language, French, and a reorganized Church. Unlike previous conquerors, the Normans did not consist of a horde of hungry peasants eager to colonize a land with an agreeable climate and a fertile soil. The Conquest was ‘the establishment of foreign landlords over an indigenous population’.1

A typical family that came over with the Conqueror were the Fitz Gilberts, cousins of Duke William. Richard Fitz Gilbert was granted the lordship of Clare in Suffolk, which gave its name to the English branch of the family; but Richard also obtained holdings of land in various shires and by marrying into another wealthy family acquired further estates. By the thirteenth century the Clares were Earls of Hereford and Gloucester and Lords of Glamorgan and Gwynlewg and reputedly the second richest peers in the realm.2 The destruction of King Harold’s army along with his brothers and kinsfolk, together with the defeat later of rebel English nobles, gave the new King the opportunity to confiscate large English estates and transfer them to his followers. By the end of his reign in 1087 King William himself held one-fifth of the cultivated land in the country, his earls and lay tenants-in-chief one-half and the Church one-quarter. By that time also only two English barons (south of the Tees) were tenants-in-chief, that is to say, held their lands directly of the King. All other lay tenants-in-chief, fewer than 300 in number, were Normans, Frenchmen, Bretons or Flemings. Only two bishops were Englishmen.

Apart from the transformation of the tenants-in-chief the most significant change introduced by the Normans was the concept of the manor. That is not to say that manorial estates and routine labour services had not existed before. But the Normans assumed that the whole country was divided into landed estates, each containing lords of the manor, with tenants under an obligation to pay their geld or taxes at the lord’s hall of residence (mansio, manerium or manoir). These manorial estates varied considerably in extent: sometimes they might cover several villages; at other times they could be coincidental with only one village community; and a number of villages were shared between more than one manorial lord. Broadly, manors were composed of peasant communities with the lord’s rights superimposed. On the whole, the trend was for the manor and village to grow together. The concept of a landed estate, owned by a powerful lord and consisting of free tenants, half-free husbandrnen, cottagers and serfs or slaves was characteristic of England in the tenth and eleventh centuries, but as an institution with manorial courts, where local questions of a civil and criminal nature could be settled, it was established and made uniform in the reign of William I.

The Norman concept of the manor was part and parcel of a legal view of landholding. What the Normans insisted upon was that all land was owned by the king and that landlords held their properties directly or indirectly from him. In Frank Barlow’s words, ‘every holder of land was a link in a chain which led ultimately to the king and the links were forged as finely as medieval man could contrive’.3 At the top of the social pyramid the king enfeoffed, that is to say, vested control of estates in, his Norman baronage, while at the base the villagers commended themselves to the protection of barons and knights who, in return for rent paid in money, kind or services on their demesne land, undertook to care for their dependants against all corners. The act of commendation was common throughout Europe in the tenth and eleventh centuries and the process had begun in England well before the arrival of the Normans. The accumulation of estates by comparatively small numbers of landlords had indeed been characteristic of the reign of Edward the Confessor. Most of the really large estates or ‘honors’, as they were called, were scattered throughout different parts of England. Whether this was because similar patterns had existed in Normandy, or whether Norman tenants-in-chief were vested with estates that had already been dispersed by their previous Anglo-Saxon owners, is not clear; but what is known is that King William enfeoffed the men whom he trusted most with the lands that lay on the borders of Wales and Scotland and on the eastern and western coastlines, because he relied on them to secure peace on the frontiers.

All the king’s tenants-in-chief were required to maintain forts and bridges, to provide castle guards and to perform other military services if called upon to do so. The tenants-in-chief in turn vested household knights with land and used them to maintain law and order in their honors; they also relied on them as escorts when they made their progresses through their estates. But the Norman kings retained the Anglo-Saxon militia or fyrd and normally employed professional soldiers or mercenaries, who were hired for prolonged campaigns in England or France. The idea that mounted and armoured knights were essential to warfare in the early Middle Ages is mistaken. Horses were expensive and therefore not to be put at risk if avoidable. Moreover most military operations consisted of sieges, where cavalry was not needed. Gradually the baronage was allowed to pay money to the monarchy instead of providing military services; this was known as shield money or ‘scutage’ and was employed by the king to hire mercenaries. Both William I’s Sons raised scutage and by the time the Angevin dynasty ruled it was done regularly, notably during the reign of King John (1199-12J6). The host of knights and horses, familiar to later generations from the pictures in the Bayeux tapestry, that William 1 carried over as his army to win England by the battle of Hastings, soon became obsolete.

In essence the Norman regime was administratively tidy. That is why British historians used to write of’the manorial system’, ‘the feudal system’, the ‘open-field system’ and so on, even though these systems have at times been too precisely defined. The greatest triumph of William I’s reign was not the introduction of these systems, but the official record compiled by a fact-finding inquiry into the lands and wealth to be found in the royal domain and in the hands of the tenants-in-chief. The survey was carried out hundred by hundred. Twelve questions were asked in each case so as to elucidate in every manor or estate the names of the landholders at the time of Edward the Confessor and in the reign of William 1, the size of the holdings, their present and potential value, their liability for taxation, the number of their inhabitants – freemen, sokemen, villagers, cottagers, slaves – and the amount of woods, meadows, pasture, mills and fisheries. The exact purpose of the inquiry has been the subject of debate, but broadly the aim was to ascertain the real wealth of the country the Norman Duke had conquered. The survey is of fundamental importance to the economic historian, because the information was supplied either by the tenants-in-chief themselves or by local juries summoned from the hundreds to the shire courts. The compilation of the King’s Book (it was not until ninety years afterwards that it received the name of Domesday Book, ‘because its decisions, like those of the Last Judgement, were unalterable’)4 was a unique achievement, for it painted a convincing picture of how men lived in a land ruled chiefly by the plough.

The economic structure of England set out in Domesday Book is of manorial estates consisting of fiefs. The king enfeoffed his honorial barons, the barons enfeoffed their knights and so on along the feudal chain. But the landholders developed their properties in different ways. First, they might cultivate their own home farms or demesnes through stewards and bailiffs, who reported to them regularly on the value of the crops and herds, which could either be assigned to their own use or be sold at fairs and markets. Secondly, they could, and generally did, lease most of their land to tenants, who paid rent in money, kind or services. Thirdly, the landholder could let his land to a middle man or ‘farmer’ (firmarius) for a fixed sum over a fixed period of time during which the farmer would enjoy all the rights belonging to the lord, including, for instance, the profits of jurisdiction and the customary services of the sub-tenants in return for agreed annual payments. The disadvantage of such contracts from the landholder’s point of view was that the farmer naturally exploited the estate to its maximum yield and thereby impoverished it. Nonetheless the latest view is that almost all the Domesday estates were ‘farmed’.

The Norman Conquest made a bigger impact on the social than on the economic character of the community. In the first place, French became the spoken language of the ruling classes and the Normans, by bridging the Channel to the European mainland, opened the way to the acquisition of French culture. By the twelfth century heraldry became fashionable and tournaments were introduced into England – five tilting grounds were to be licensed by King Richard I (1189-99). The castle was a Norman innovation, although with the exception of the Tower of London, reconstructed during William I’s reign, castles were initially built of wood rather than stone. To begin with, castles were erected chiefly in towns, but by 11oo thousands of them had sprung up throughout the country, being intended as baronial strongholds. In many places houses were knocked down to make room for them. Chain mail was worn by knights and expensive breeds of horses were ridden by them.

Not only did the newcomers control the shire courts, but they also had honorial courts over which their sway was almost as absolute as was the king’s in his own peripatetic court (the curia regis). The manorial courts (halimotes or courts leet) also reflected the authority, sometimes exercised with mercy and sometimes with harshness, of the lord’s representatives, usually his stewards, who presided over them. Often these courts ordered the hanging of thieves, whether they were caught in the act and whether they were arrested in the manor or in its neighbourhood. But by and large rough justice was done, and the average peasant could understand clearly enough what was reckoned fair and lawful, especially as he was often called upon to perform as judge or juryman in determining the minor affairs of the manor.

In England hunting was of course no novelty, but it was a passion with William the Conqueror, who introduced the idea of royal chases protected by special laws. The most unpopular of these hunting preserves was the New Forest in Hampshire; by widening the boundaries of the forest several villages and hamlets on the outskirts were completely destroyed. Heraldry, ‘courtly love’ and chivalry, which have been called the ethics of a military aristocracy or a closed caste of knights, can all be assigned to Norman times. King Henry I hung a shield painted with golden lions – precursor of the royal arms – around the neck of his son-in-law, Geoffrey Plantagenet, upon his marriage in 1127. But these ceremonial aspects of the life of the ruling classes did not attain their apogee until the reign of Richard I. None of it can have meant much to ordinary Englishmen, for whom the manorial court, the baronial castle and the village church were the symbols of authority they had to respect. Otherwise they were set apart from their Norman conquerors, who, in Professor Barlow’s words, represented ‘a restless, drunken and emotional society gorged after 1o66 with unaccustomed wealth’.

From Norman times onwards the village church was the hub of social life. Over 8,000 churches were to be found in England by the end of the thirteenth century. The bells rang out to remind the people not only that it was a holy day or that Mass was being celebrated, as it was every day, that a wedding was in progress, or a funeral service was being conducted, but even to tell them that it was the right time of year to plant peas and beans. The congregations of parishioners were made more conscious of the character of Christian beliefs through staring at mural paintings and sculptured images of saints than by listening to prayers recited in Latin. But, as in Anglo-Saxon times, the church was also employed as a market-place or as the scene of dancing and merry-making, though such uses were deprecated by the bishops. The churchyard, too, was often the habitation of the living as well as of the dead: there fairs were held and sporting events took place and some priests kept their cattle.

But the Normans, though they reorganized the bishoprics, were more concerned with promoting monasticism than with the duties and behaviour of the village clergy. Hitherto only Benedictine monasteries had been established in England. In 1077 the first priory belonging to the celebrated reformist order of Cluny was set up at Lewes in Sussex and in the twelfth century the Cistercian and Carthusian orders, both promising austerity and simplicity, began opening houses in different parts of the country. The late Professor David Knowles entitled the century and a half that lasted from 1070 to 1216 ‘the monastic period of English spirituality’. In 11oo over half the seventeen cathedrals were monastic. Generous gifts of land were conferred on these new orders by kings and noblemen for the salvation of their own and their wives’ souls. Whole churches were granted to foreign monks, who not only kept their endowments but also the tithes and merely paid vicars a pittance. The rectories, which received church dues in full, were usually in the hands of junior members of wealthy families, who might or might not attend to their ecclesiastical duties; their earnings amounted to about twice those of a tenant farmer and they were supplemented by charges for baptisms, marriages and funerals.

The gulf between foreign monks and the native clergy grew wide. The principal way in which the monks benefited the kingdom was by setting up hospitals and expanding the wool industry with large flocks of sheep kept in their fields. But the monks led a life apart, dedicating their souls to the service of the Almighty, while the ordinary English parochial clergy were for the most part simply leading members of the village community, who cultivated their glebe (the land belonging to the local church) like any other villagers owning a few acres. Although during the twelfth century Church Councils forbade the marriage of the clergy (except those in minor orders), the majority had wives and families. Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis) wrote of a typical clergyman who ‘kept a hearth girl in his house who kindled his fire, but extinguished his virtue’. Life was short. Fathers often handed over their tenements to their sons before they died, since without the possession of land a man could not marry. If the father died young his widow might be allotted a third of his goods and chattels, but his eldest son could inherit the tenement when he became fifteen. Because they had to wait for a home of their own, men and women generally plighted their troth and were bedded long before they married, even though fines could be imposed by the manorial courts for acts of fornication. As was usual in later English history, once a woman was with child, a wedding followed with all due ceremony.

So naturally the village clergy must have known what was going on, and can scarcely have been strict about the sexual behaviour of their parishioners. Few of these clergy were educated men; in origin they might have been bright village children who were apprenticed, as it were, to the vicar of the parish. If they were the sons of villeins, their fathers had as a rule to buy permission from their landlords to send their children to school, for some slight knowledge of Latin was the stock-in-trade of the village clergy. John Pecham, Archbishop of Canterbury, asserted in 1281 that ‘the ignorance of the priests casts the people into the ditch of error’. Generally speaking, they contented themselves with the familiar ritual of the church services, which except on Sundays were little attended by ordinary folk; for the landlord and his henchmen preferred them to get on with their work in the fields. It was not until the Franciscan Greyfriars and the Dominican blackfriars came to England in the first half of the thirteenth century that eloquent and persuasive preaching reached the mass of the people.

Strangely enough (to quote the words of Professor Cams Wilson), ‘the widespread establishment of monasteries’ was ‘a potent influence on the growth of English towns and trade’.’ For the monks bought food, drink, clothing and building materials for themselves and their servants and sold the produce of their estates to raise ready money with which to pay their papal taxes. The towns of St Albans and Bury St Edmunds, both containing shrines, were visited by pilgrims who needed to be entertained and looked after as in a hotel, and developed in that way. New towns, as has been noted, grew up during the reign of Alfred the Great and his successors, partly at least out of the defensive burhs built to resist the Danish invasions. But the coming of the Vikings in the tenth century had destroyed a number of infant English towns (such as Ely), while the Norman Conquest initially proved a setback to town life because King William I laid waste and depopulated many of them when he devastated the Midlands and northern England in the process of suppressing rebellions against his government during the early part of his reign. Furthermore, in a number of towns houses were demolished to make room for the Norman castles.

It was only a temporary setback, however. In the long run the presence of Frenchmen in England opened up trade with the European mainland and induced foreign merchants to settle in London and elsewhere. One of the leading characteristics of town life was the holding in them of weekly or twice-weekly markets, a practice widely carried on until the present day. Even before 1o66 it has been said that ‘every borough had a market and every borough had a port, a place of trade, 16 where fishermen sold their herrings, butchers their meat and countrywomen their eggs and cheese.

In the early Middle Ages towns were built or rebuilt on the sites of former Roman cities (civitates); their walls and gates were repaired and the main roads to and from them reopened. The building of towns required a royal licence or ‘charter of liberties’, but this was freely granted because in return for a variety of privileges, such as the right to levy tolls and establish a municipal court, the burgesses undertook to pay a regular fixed sum into the royal treasury: this was known as the firma burgi or, if granted in perpetuity, the fee farm rent. King Richard 1 founded Portsmouth and King John founded Liverpool. Sometimes the right to build towns was delegated by the king to secular and ecclesiastical magnates. By the thirteenth century examples of town planning were to be found at St Albans, Bury St Edmunds, Salisbury and Oxford, but most new towns were expanded villages or reconstructed Roman cities, dominated by cathedrals or castles and often centring on market-places. Town houses were built of timber and merchants lived over them behind their shops. It is an oversimplification to attribute the growth of towns to any one cause. For example, cities that were capitals of shires had often been deliberately fortified centres of local government. But, in general, new medieval towns owed their existence to economic reasons. The wealth of many of them derived from the wool trade.

A good part of the Italian cloth industry and almost the whole of the cloth industry of Flanders became dependent in the early Middle Ages on the export of English wool. The bulk of the wool obtained from the sheep of western England, the Midlands and Yorkshire was exported. Flocks of twenty to thirty thousand sheep were not uncommon on a number of estates. The shepherd was a valuable and busy man. He was advised to ‘provide himself with a barkable dog’ and lie nightly with his sheep. During the lambing season he would arm himself with a stock of candles because he had to sit up with the sheep all night. The shepherd who owned his own sheep was generally excused from labour duties exacted from other villagers by their landlords. If, however, the shepherd was working for a manorial estate, he received perquisites such as a bowl of whey, the right to keep a number of his own sheep with his landlord’s flock, and to take some of the sheep’s urine as manure.

Though much of the English wool was bought by foreign merchants, coarser wool, such as that obtained in Devonshire and Cornwall, was prepared by carding, spinning, weaving, fulling, dyeing and finishing to make native cloth. English cloth was purchased by the royal household, but the export of such cloth was relatively small, though some coloured cloths found their way to Venice and Spain. In spite of attempts by the government to prohibit the export of wool during the thirteenth century so as to give encouragement to the manufacture of cloth at home, foreign sales continued virtually uninterrupted. Thus the export trade remained the most profitable side of the wool industry. Large landowners would make contracts with export merchants; middle men – sometimes burgesses in the towns – would move around collecting wool from local peasants and then sell it to big exporters.

The first assembly of wool merchants met in 1275 and granted the proceeds of an export tax on wool to King Edward I (1272-1307). Richard i’s ransom had been paid for largely in wool; and it was to prove a diplomatic weapon of high value to Edward III (1327-77) when he embarked on what was to be the Hundred Years War against France. The wool tax varied from 7 shillings to 40 shillings a sack (364 pounds in weight); forced loans were raised on wool from time to time, which came to be known as the ‘maltote’. To simplify the collection of wool taxes the staple system was introduced by the government. Staples – official markets – were set up in places abroad and at home where a monopoly of selling wool was imposed. The first compulsory foreign staple was created in 1313 and the first home staple in 1326. The English merchants who paid taxes on their sales were not unduly concerned because they could recoup themselves by raising the price or paying the growers less. Wool, it has well been said, ‘entered into every phase of English life in the Middle Ages’. By the first decade of the fourteenth century over 32,000 sacks were exported annually. The average price per sack was io marks or about £7. The wool dealers or ‘woolmen’ were ‘financial capitalists in a pre-capitalistic age’.7

Besides the foreign merchants who came to England to buy wool, Jews had likewise arrived at about the time of the Norman Conquest, but do not appear to have had much to do with commerce in the Middle Ages. They were chiefly financiers – or money-lenders – many of whose loans are known to have been to landowners, including one archbishop of Canterbury. They were confined to ghettos and were under the special protection of the king, who could tallage them, that is to say, tax them, as he wished. Edward I expelled them from his kingdom in 1290.

The wool industry and the domestic cloth industry were not the only factors in promoting town life. Commerce, which had been stimulated by the settlement of the Vikings in eastern England and had transformed such towns as York, Lincoln and, above all, Norwich, expanded rapidly in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Tin, lead and coal were exported as well as corn, butter, cheese and hides. In return wine was imported from France, fruit from Spain, Portugal and Italy and fish and whale oil from Scandinavia, which also supplied pitch and tar. Currants came from Greece, sweet wines from the Levant, and dyes, such as woad, were also brought from France. Foreign merchants, notably Germans and Italians, settled not only in London but also in a number of east-coast ports. Newcastle upon Tyne was founded by Henry I and exported coal and lead. Other east-coast towns which thrived on commerce were Ely, Yarmouth and Ipswich. In the west overseas trade, particularly with Norway, made Bristol into a growing port.

Domestic industry also thrived. As early as the twelfth century the establishment of craft gilds of weavers and fullers bore witness to the development of the cloth industry. It suffered a setback in the thirteenth century, when increased exports from Flanders swamped much of the home market, but recovered by the middle of the fourteenth century, when some 50,000 cloths were exported. The processing of salt for preserving meat gave employment in a large number of towns and ports. Iron was fashioned into spades, sickles and other agricultural tools. Lead was needed for plumbing and silver was extracted from mines in Derbyshire and sent to the mints.

Besides the regular town markets were fairs, which also required a royal licence. Annual fairs, some of them lasting as long as a fortnight, were generally associated with religious festivals: for example, that of St Giles at Winchester and that of St Ives in Huntingdonshire. They were often patronized by foreign as well as English buyers. Care was taken to prevent both markets and fairs clashing with one another. It is fascinating  to realize how much religion impinged on trade and industry. Markets were held in churches and graveyards. Until the reign of Henry III (1216-72) Sundays were the most popular days for town markets, because it was only then that working men and women found time to do their shopping.

Craft gilds, though they were comparatively few in number during the early Middle Ages, had religious functions and often religious origins. They selected a patron saint and made themselves responsible for maintaining lights on his altars. They also performed Mystery Plays. ‘It is easy to understand’, it has been observed, ‘how a religious fraternity when composed of most of the men of the town following a particular trade would come to interest themselves in purely trade affairs.8 But the gilds that flourished most in the era after the Norman Conquest were merchant gilds, which conferred on their members the exclusive right to buy and sell at the town markets without having to pay tolls. Normally the right to form a merchant gild was granted in town charters, and the town government often coincided with membership of the merchant gilds, of which at least a hundred are known to have existed in the thirteenth century. They had social as well as economic purposes, but these were less significant.

Although commerce and industry progressed, agriculture remained the occupation of most Englishmen. Even townsmen might own land outside the city walls which they paid to have cultivated. Whatever the size of the population was in 1066, it is believed to have more than doubled between the end of the eleventh and the end of the thirteenth centuries. Because of the need for bread and ale, villagers on the whole preferred arable farming to keeping sheep and cattle in the early Middle Ages. The number of sheep kept then is unknown. Obviously some parts of the country, such as Lincolnshire and the Cotswolds, which had rich grasslands, produced large sheep with long wool, while the chalk uplands in the south-east contained only small sheep with short wool which was not exported but made into native cloth. Although, unquestionably, large abbeys (particularly in the eastern counties) had impressively big flocks, it has been estimated that the number of sheep in the thirteenth century was no higher than in the eleventh century and the average villager is said to have kept only two cows and five or six sheep. It was the fourteenth century that witnessed the greatest period of sheep farming. Sheep were valued for their wool rather than for their mutton. Pressure of population on the supply of food became intense. Prices rose by as much as so per cent or more in the first half of the thirteenth century and real wages fell. The productivity of the land declined because of the constant scarcity of manure. When bad weather ruined the crops people actually starved.

The acute need for land which thus arose meant that an impulse was given to agricultural improvement and the taking of fresh soil into cultivation. Landlords either expanded the area of the home farm – the thirteenth century has been described as ‘the golden age of English demesne farming’9 – or aimed at increasing their output by a three-field instead of a two-field rotation of crops. They did not ‘farm’ their land so much because, as has been noticed, the ‘farmers’ were liable to reduce the value of their holdings through losses of stock or equipment. Moreover as prices rose, the value of fixed rents declined. So it became more profitable for landowners to recruit agricultural labourers to work for them full-time at a relatively modest cost. These estate labourers were known as famuli; they were often recruited from cottagers and received yearly wages. Undoubtedly the direct employment of labour was more productive than relying on customary services, which were reluctantly given in lieu of rent. Nevertheless several landlords reimposed labour services, which had been conditionally suspended earlier, as they were entitled to do. Thus the commutation of services into money rents slowed down, though villagers might only be required to undertake light seasonal work, such as mowing and haymaking in their landlord’s meadows. But by the end of the thirteenth-century village society was certainly moving away from full-scale villeinage and money rents were becoming commoner.

Husbandmen, who had thus been relieved of excessive obligations to their landlords, now finding their existing acreage insufficient to feed themselves and their families, began wherever they could to obtain new land by clearing waste of scrub and timber. For the villages of England that were built in Norman times or earlier were mostly surrounded by wasteland, woods, marshes and fens. As has been noticed, from Anglo-Saxon days onwards many village fields were divided into strips of various sizes, and it has been inferred that in some cases at least agreement must have been reached among the villagers about how their fields were ploughed, about the rotation of crops and about the grazing of animals when the fields lay fallow. What is certain is that with the growth of population in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries village after village began carving out fresh ploughland from the neighbouring wastes. This process, known as ‘assarting’, was arduous. It necessitated the sharing of plough teams (since the provision of eight oxen to draw a heavy plough was beyond the reach of most husbandmen) and led easily to co-operation in other matters. We know, for example, that in some Yorkshire villages at this time a group of farmers worked together in breaking the sod of a fresh tract of land year by year. A strip of ploughiand, the work of a day, was allotted to each farmer in turn in proportion to the land he already held in the village fields.

Clearly the rotation of crops in such newly acquired land had to be agreed upon. Other decisions that were required to be made concerned gleaning, the division of hay meadows, the pasturing of sheep and goats, the provision of mast with which to feed pigs and the maintenance of rights of way to the strip fields. Decisions on these important questions were reached either in the manor court when the estate coincided with the village, or else at a village assembly meeting in the church or the ale-house. This common-field system, which lasted until the eighteenth century, evolved gradually and was by no means rigid or universal, since much depended on the nature of the soil in each area; nor did it apply where sheep farming was the principal occupation. But unquestionably it reached maturity in the thirteenth century when the search for more land was imperative, prompted by a growing population and rising prices, and it became necessary to make the best possible use of the strip fields.

Nevertheless the problem that remains is whether Englishmen were better or worse off in the thirteenth century than they had been before. From 1218 to 1220 England suffered from a period of inflation which has even been compared with that of the sixteenth and twentieth centuries: 10 but a boom undoubtedly followed, as was shown by the rise of prices, higher capital investment, expanding markets and the building of Gothic churches. Commerce prospered. Besides raw wool and metals, corn was exported, notably to Norway, whence the well-to-do acquired among other things falcons in return. Wines from Bordeaux and Gascony were also luxury imports (English vineyards were already being abandoned during the previous century); fine coloured cloth was brought from Flanders and Italy and silks and spices from the Near East. Domestic demand was considerable. The towns needed food and pottery off which to eat it. Timber and stone were required for building, wood or coal for lighting fires, metals for plumbing.

As usually happens, it was the rich who profited most from this increasing economic demand. The estates of the bishops of Winchester, the bishops of Ely and the abbots of Peterborough all rose in value in the thirteenth century. Taxation was not excessive. Some monastic estates, particularly those of the Cistercians, became in effect great capitalist ventures, earning huge incomes from their sheep runs. Thus it is beyond doubt that the large landowners, lay as well as ecclesiastical, flourished during the thirteenth century. According to the anonymous author of a life of King Edward II 1307-27), ‘the earls and other magnates of the land, who could live according to their station or their inheritance, regard all their time as wasted unless they double or treble their patrimony’. They did so by exploiting their resources to the full, using manure and marl to augment their arable yields, improving their drainage, employing capable managers and full-time labourers such as ploughmen and dairymaids and by buying up the land of their poorer neighbours. The higher clergy all benefited from gifts, generously bestowed on them for pious purposes. The gentry or ‘knightly class’, who helped to run the country by serving as keepers or justices of the peace, as jurors or coroners or forest officials and by taking an active part in local government – heads of families who might have owned several manors or at least estates of 500 to óoo profitable acres – generally succeeded in maintaining, though not necessarily bettering, their material position; some of them in fact had to borrow or alienate part of their heritage and were reluctant actually to become belted knights, as this was proving expensive. Yet they liked to emulate the standard of living of the baronage and sometimes this cost them dearly.

But what of the bulk of the peasantry, who earned their living by working in the fields all day in order to feed and clothe themselves and their families, besides often having to help on their landlord’s farm and pay him rent or customary dues? They surely were no better off. Professor Edward Miller has written: ‘Wherever we look, the immediate impression conveyed by the records is that villages were very full of people, so full that the expansion of cultivation was failing to keep pace with the multiplication of mouths to be fed.11

A contrast can then be drawn between landowners great and small, who prospered because of their ability to sell corn and wool, and ordinary modest farmers, the yield from whose soil might have been deteriorating owing to the impoverishment of well worked fields caused by lack of fertilizers. Indeed, they may have been ignorant of the value of enriching their soil, for dung was used as fuel and straw was burnt. The increase in population, which dates from the eleven-eighties, was reflected in rising rents and prices, though wage rates remained fairly stable and thus real wages fell. This can be considered one of the greatest inflationary periods in the history of England, which reached its peak at the end of the twelfth century.

The second half of the thirteenth century has been described as a period ‘when the steady worsening of the ordinary peasants’ conditions of life was so widespread as to imply a general failure of agricultural and industrial development to keep pace with mounting numbers’. On the other hand, the fact that, owing in part to the steep rise in the price of corn, which doubled between the beginning and end of the thirteenth century, new land was being brought into cultivation and with it a fully matured common-field system, ensuring an agreed rotation of crops, meant that some real benefits were gained by tenant farmers. Not only were wasteland, woodland, moorland and marsh ploughed up, particularly in Cheshire and Warwickshire, but a hundred square miles of fenland were reclaimed in Lincolnshire. The overpopulation of the villages may also have been checked by driving some countrymen into the neighbouring towns. Fifty-two new towns were built in the twelfth and fifty-seven in the thirteenth century. Cloth manufacture came to villages, especially in Gloucestershire, Somerset and Hampshire. Fulling mills were erected throughout the country; weaving at any rate was not confined to the towns.

In spite of mitigating factors, however, the standard of life of the ordinary villagers, whether they were ploughmen or shepherds, appears to have declined to mere subsistence level before the Black Death, the plague which shattered the whole country in 1348. Even the villager who kept sheep was hit by scarcity of pasture, which landlords tried (usually with success) to retain for their own use. The condition of the peasantry in general during the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries has been pictured as ‘one of growing impoverishment’. 12

What did Englishmen and women look like at this time and how did they occupy themselves when they were not working? Well-to-do landlords did not of course toil in the fields: they left the running of their estates to their stewards and bailiffs. The Normans who settled in England, according to William of Malmesbury, were ‘so elegantly attired as to arouse envy’. At the table they were epicures, ‘but not to excess’. 13 They wore tunics with short sleeves, fastened by a belt, and mantles secured to their throats and shoulders, banded stockings and low shoes. Their ladies wore long gowns of dull hues with jewelled belts. By the thirteenth century brighter-coloured dresses, made from imported cloth, became fashionable. Peasants wore breeches with their shirts tucked into the waistbands. They wore no hat or cap and generally worked bare-legged. Peasants’ coats were worn to the knee, those of the knightly class to the calf, and the nobility’s to the ankle. Norman residences, often built of stone, were more sophisticated than the glorified barns of the Anglo-Saxons. They had upper floors with a vaulted undercroft and stairs leading to the halls, which were arched, tiled and ornamented and furnished with trestle tables and benches.

Villagers continued to live in wooden cottages with thatched roofs and usually two rooms, one of them a kitchen, where food was boiled or baked and served on spits. Chimneys were uncommon and windows had shutters but no glass. Stone castles and houses began to be built in larger numbers in the twelfth century. Carpets and baths were introduced by Henry u’s queen, a Frenchwoman from Aquitaine. Manor houses might have walled-in gardens and fish ponds, nut trees, flower beds and, above all, fruit trees and vegetable patches. The typical pleasure garden was an orchard. Entertainment was sometimes provided by wandering minstrels and jugglers, but villagers amused themselves with country songs and danced in the ale-house or churchyard. The famous song ‘Sumer Is Icumen In’ dates from the thirteenth century. Violent sports, such as wrestling, cock-fighting and bull-baiting, took place on village greens. No taverns were yet in existence, but there were cook-shops as well as ale-houses, where the ale cost a halfpenny a gallon. Besides hunting, the wealthy played chess and backgammon, ladies did needlework, and jousting tournaments were arranged, which ladies enjoyed as spectators.

Norman patronage of monasteries brought with it the establishment of song schools and grammar schools. Great cathedrals were built which required the services of choirboys. The universities of Oxford and Cambridge, which were principally concerned with instructing future clerics in Latin grammar and theology and where the teachers were chiefly foreign scholars, came into being in the thirteenth century, and since Latin was a universal language, education and learning were international. The distinguished English scholar, John of Salisbury, who was a master of logical and scientific methods, became Bishop of Chartres.

The so-called twelfth-century Renaissance occurred during a period in English history that was relatively prosperous and peaceful. The thirteenth-century witnessed political struggles throughout the British Isles, beginning with the rebellion against King John, which resulted in the sealing of Magna Carta, and culminating at the end of the long reign of Henry III in the first meetings of parliaments. But it was practically free of foreign wars, since King John had lost most of his ancestors’ conquered territories in France.

In sum, during these centuries (at any rate up to the last quarter of the thirteenth century) the population of England was certainly increasing, town life was being extended, London was growing fast – it received its first charter from William I and the right to appoint its own sheriff and justiciar from Henry I – agriculture and industrial production were growing, hitherto uncultivated land was being farmed, prices were rising, as was capital investment, new markets were opening, particularly for the sale of wool, and a native textile industry had its beginnings. Even those historians who assert that these changes did not amount to a ‘boom’ but ‘an impending doom’ do not deny that the overall picture was one of social and economic progress. 14 That was to be temporarily halted by plague and famine during the first half of the fourteenth century.



  1. Frank Barlow, William l and the Norman Conquest (1965), p. 100
  2. See Michael Altschul, A Baronial Family in Medieval England: The Clares 1217-1314 (1965)
  3. Frank Barlow, The Feudal Kingdom of England 1042-1216 (1972), p. 109
  4. V. H. Galbraith, The Making of Domesday (1961), p. 200
  5. Medieval England, i (1958), p. 212
  6. J. Tait, The Medieval English Borough (1936), p. 130
  7. Eileen Power, The Wool Trade in English Medieval History (1955), passim
  8. Sir William Ashley, The Economic Organization of England (1939), p. 30
  9. Cf. J. Z. Titow, English Rural Society 1200-1350 (1969), pp. 44 seq.
  10. P.D.A. Harvey, ‘The English Inflation of 1180-1220′,Past and Present, 61 (1973), p. 30
  11. Past and Present, 28 (1964), p. 33
  12. See the introduction to H. Rothwell (ed.), English Historical Documents 1189-1327 (1975)
  13. Cit. Barlow, William I and the Norman Conquest, p. 194
  14. H. Rothwell, loc. cit. ‘Whereas Professor Postan, Dr J.Z. Titow and Ian Kershaw have taken a pessimistic view of English economic life before 1348, Professor J. C. Russell has maintained that England was a prosperous country in all but the worst years of the fourteenth century.