The Late Middle Ages

The Late Middle Ages

Although the population of England had been increasing rapidly during the thirteenth century, reaching a level of over three and a half million, by the middle of the fourteenth century it was slowing down or even diminishing. At that time most English peasants were living a meagre existence, often cultivating an acreage which yielded insufficient grain to feed their families satisfactorily. This was partly because the land had been over-cropped or even exhausted in consequence of the scarcity of manure needed to restore its fecundity. Owing to the growing demand for food and drink from a larger population and the decline in fertility of much of the soil, agricultural prices were rising and so were rents. Thus the wealthier landowners benefited. So did such peasants as were able to feed their families on rye, barley, oats and beans, supplemented by cheese from their ewes and cows, while growing enough wheat for sale to pay their rents to their landlords. But many smallholders and customary tenants, who lived on the margin of subsistence, were severely hit, especially in a bad year. Those who had no surplus of corn to take to the market found it difficult to pay their rents or buy the smallest luxuries. It is generally accepted that rural tenants needed to cultivate at least fifteen acres to support a family of five, but it has been estimated that fewer than half the population had fifteen-acres in the early years of the fourteenth century: the majority of the tenants on the manor of Taunton, for example, had under fifteen acres on which to grow their crops.1

The cottagers, who constituted the lowest level of agricultural society, also had their difficulties. They relied for their livelihood on being hired out as farm labourers; but once the big landlords gave up cultivating their own demesnes, as they were already beginning to do towards the end of the thirteenth century, it was less easy for such labourers to obtain regular remunerative work. Moreover while the wealthy were content to let their land to tenants, the position of the smaller farmers, who also normally hired labour, deteriorated, many of them having to borrow at a high rate of interest or selling out to survive. Another factor that must have injured the corn-growing peasant was that a halt to the reclamation of arable land took place because of the profitability of wool; nearly 30,000 sacks of wool were being exported annually: thus sheep, it could be said, were already devouring men. Farming methods were relatively primitive. Rents were steep and real wages low. One piece of evidence that has been discovered, showing that the economic position of the peasantry was worsening towards the end of the thirteenth century, is that in many instances fines imposed in the manorial courts were being waived because of the abject poverty of the persons involved.

If then, as seems clear, most peasants were hard pressed to maintain themselves and their families whenever the crops were poor, as was the case in 1290, 1314, 1315, 1316 and 1321, they faced a real danger of starvation. The harvest of 1315 was particularly disastrous. Not only was grain scarce, but the resulting search for food of every sort, whether poultry, meat, game or eggs, sent prices rocketing and a terrible famine set in. Moreover the crisis was not confined to England, so relief was hard to procure by importing food. During the famine, according to a contemporary chronicler, the lay and ecclesiastical magnates both cut down the alms they customarily gave to the deserving poor and vagabondage multiplied. The famine was accompanied by the spread of epidemics and a great murrain (or scab) among sheep; it also extended to cattle, causing in some places horses, which were immune to such disease, to be substituted for oxen to draw the ploughs.

The mortality engendered by the famine was underlined by a subsequent rise in agricultural wages, though the famine created poverty and stress for many farmers whether they were free or unfree. Taxation levied on the population and the requisitioning of food to meet the cost of the unsuccessful wars of King Edward II (1307-27) in Scotland were last straws. The English people as a whole were outgrowing their resources, a situation that was to recur in the twentieth century.

A generation after these famines, which killed about a tenth of the population, the plague, which came to be known as the Black Death, reached England in the summer of 1348. It was a bubonic pestilence, coming from the Near East and Middle East, and was spread by black rats. It was also pneumonic and transmitted by direct contagion. Its violence varied from place to place. All English towns were injured by it, but some villages escaped. A conservative estimate that has been generally accepted is that it wiped out a third of the population. The clergy, both monks and parish priests, were the worst sufferers: half of them died in some parts of the land.

It is a mistake to underestimate the effects of the Black Death, even though it came upon a rural society that was already changing its character. During the first half of the fourteenth century the era of ‘high farming’ or ‘demesne farming’ by manorial landlords was, as has been observed, nearing its end. The commutation of labour services for money rents had been taking place in much of the north and west of the country, though it had still not happened everywhere in the south and east except in Kent. It has been calculated that in the second half of the thirteenth century money rents represented a higher proportion of rents than did labour services. For the conclusion had been reached by many landowners that it was more profitable to hire agricultural labourers by the week to till their fields for them, or to employ famuli, than to depend on customary labour, demanded from tenants, which was resented, scamped and therefore uneconomic. Lastly, other landlords had by then abandoned the cultivation of their home farms, preferring to let their land to free tenants, thus becoming rentiers instead of large-scale farmers.

All these trends were accentuated by the Black Death, which unquestionably benefited such smallholders and labourers as survived it. First, the peasantry who could afford it were able to buy land cheaply; secondly, labour could exact higher wages; thirdly, villeins could commute their labour services for modest rents. Free tenants could also obtain longer leases. The rise in wages was prohibited by a royal ordinance of Edward III in June 1349 ordering that both wages and prices must be stabilized. The ordinance was later confirmed by Parliament, which passed a Statute of Labourers in 1351. Similar attempts to hold down prices and wages have been made by twentieth-century governments, hitherto without conspicuous success.

In the Middle Ages these restrictions had to be administered by justices of labourers (afterwards by justices of the peace) who in the long run found themselves thwarted by the laws of supply and demand. Few landlords were able to avoid the payment of higher wages by requiring services from their manorial tenants which had already been wholly or partly commuted, but where they had not been commuted before the plague they did attempt to exercise their rights. When they did so, it was common for villeins to flee from their homes either to another manor or into towns where labour was greatly needed. The fugitives were welcomed and had little difficulty in finding work. It was in fact not the magnates but the smaller farmers, the men who owned a hundred acres or so and employed half a dozen men, who were most eager to prevent wage increases;2 for they could not transform themselves into rentiers as the wealthy were doing. Rises in wages (some were doubled), stable prices, lower rents and the opportunity to buy land cheaply meant that the second half of the fourteenth century was a marvellous time for the mass of the English people who had stayed alive. Furthermore the abolition of week work and even of boon work in their landlords’ fields enabled peasants, hitherto only half free, to devote themselves entirely to cultivating their own farmland or to tending their own flocks, actually increasing productivity. The magic of property turned sand into gold .3

The commutation of labour services for money rents, as has been noticed, had gone a long way before the Black Death. Landlords were aware, as Walter of Henley observed in his book on husbandry (a treatise written in the thirteenth century), that ‘customary servants neglect their work’, and that hiring full-time labour from men who had no fields of their own was more satisfactory. But the situation was still fluid after the Black Death. Since the recession continued for many years with prices stationary and wages high, the impulse for landowners to break up and sell or rent their home farms was accentuated. At the same time customary tenants, finding land cheap and wages rising, became increasingly discontented over the remaining feudal obligations and ready to abandon their homes if such obligations continued to be exacted. But it was another hundred years or more before the manorial system completely disappeared.

Meanwhile social unrest gathered momentum. To start with, the justices of the peace did succeed for a time in checking the rise in wages by imposing penalties, though occasionally they met with forcible resistance. On manors where commutation had not yet taken place the tenants often failed to do the work that was demanded of them, even at harvest time, when they were normally feasted by their masters as a reward for their efforts. Cases are known where bailiffs were defied or a manorial lord’s hay crops were damaged by sabotage. Repair work was neglected, trespassing became common, rents were withheld, and jealousy was expressed of the well-to-do who sat back to indulge themselves on ample food and wine while serfdom lingered on. William Langland, a minor cleric, was to write during the thirteen-sixties in his celebrated poem Piers Plowman how men ‘laboured at ploughing and sowing with no time for pleasures, sweating to produce food for the glutton to waste’. The Black Death was succeeded by further, if less virulent, epidemics in 1361 and 1369, the first becoming known as ‘the mortality of children’; gales ruined harvests and frequent pestilences struck the growing city of London.

But possibly the heaviest burden that was felt among the mass of the people was the taxation levied on everyone in the kingdom to pay for the interminable war against France after King Edward III laid claim to be the rightful heir to the throne in Paris. His income from taxation and his estates amounted to about £3o,000 a year, and this was supplemented by subsidies voted by Parliament and a tax on wool granted by the leading wool merchants. On the security of such taxes the King was able to borrow from Italian bankers. But while Edward was away fighting in France there was a general refusal to pay taxes, as a result of which the King dismissed his Lord Treasurer, ordered the arrest of merchants and defaulted on his loans from the Italians. ‘The Song against the King’s Taxes’, dating from before his return to England, averred that ‘people are reduced to such ill plight they can give no more. I fear if they had a leader they would rebel.’ Later the ‘Song of the Husbandman’ attacked oppression both by tax gatherers and manorial officials .4 However, a series of victories over the French excited national pride and the Treaty of Brétigny, ratified at Calais in October 1360, gained Edward III a large sum as the ransom of the titular King of France, whom he had captured in battle.

After the war was resumed later in the thirteen-sixties, the English army was less successful. The duchy of Gascony, which the English monarchs had inherited from Henry II, was reoccupied by French forces. Thus the profitable wine trade was lost. Only Calais, captured in 1347, was retained, where the wool staple was established to the advantage of exporters. Edward III’s death in 1377 and the succession of his grandson, Richard II, who was a minor, was a grave blow, for once a strong hand was withdrawn the French started raiding the English coasts and attacking the herring fisheries.

Though individual noblemen benefited from the war, no one else did. At the outset of the new reign the regency obtained from Parliament the right to levy a poll tax of a groat (fourpence) from the whole population over the age of twelve and another one, this time graded according to rank, was imposed in 1379, the yield from which proved disappointing. In 1381 a poll tax of 3 groats (1 shilling), which was equivalent to a normal week’s wages, was demanded of every person over the age of fifteen; so that a man and his wife, however poor, might be mulcted, provided no wealthy households were to be found in a village or a district willing to contribute generously to the assessment.

This, the third such tax in four years, transformed grumbling into wrath and sparked off a rebellion, generally known as the Peasants’ Revolt, though others than peasants took part in it, including some knights, minor clergy and London artisans. The rebellion broke out in Essex during May 1381, when tax collectors provoked the outburst by their intrusions into everyone’s affairs: it quickly spread to Kent and East Anglia and culminated in an assault on London by a mob armed with knives, cudgels and axes. Savoy Palace, the home of the King’s uncle, John of Gaunt, was burnt to the ground, prisons were broken open and the Archbishop of Canterbury and the King’s Treasurer were dragged from the Tower of London to be hacked to death. The underlying discontents of the mass of the people were thus brought to light. What happened was that the comparative well-being that villagers and agricultural labourers had begun to enjoy when, after the Black Death, land grew cheaper and real wages rose higher made men and women the more conscious of lingering grievances. The revolt was a demonstration that they were now so advanced on the roads to freedom and prosperity as to feel rancour at even the vestiges of past oppressions.5 The main centres of the revolt were in fact the most affluent and flourishing parts of the kingdom. The complete abolition of serfdom was demanded by the leaders of the rebels, together with the ending of poll taxes and the institution of a statutory limitation on rents.

Another deeply felt vexation was over the Statute of Labourers, even though it had by then become a dead letter. Anger with the justices who had tried to enforce it was coupled with hatred of the collectors of the poll tax. Abbeys and priories were attacked and court rolls, which specified the rights of manorial lords over villeins, were set aflame. A withered old woman in Cambridge cried ‘Down with the learning of clerks!’6 Monasteries and churches were broken into because the imposition on. Villeins by the ecclesiastical hierarchy both of customary services and tithes was particularly detested. Lawyers, Members of Parliament and foreigners (such as Flemings) were also the targets of the insurgents’ indignation. The King’s Ministers were thought to be corrupt, but not the young King himself, whose sympathies were wrongly believed to lie with the rebels.

Though for a time the upper classes were paralysed by the unexpectedness and ferocity of the revolt, the rising was repressed within a month. It did not, in fact, contribute much to the final abolition of serfdom, but it was the first time that the common people of England had spoken and expounded their grievances. What was even more significant was the resentment shown over restraints on wages and over the burdens of direct taxation, a resentment that has been manifested throughout modern as well as medieval history.

The rise in wages, the fall in land values and the reduced prices of grain that induced big landlords to give up arable farming during the fourteenth century are known to have stimulated sheep farming. Sheep were immune from plague, the labour needed to look after them was comparatively small and the demand for wool from export merchants considerable. Seven years after the Black Death 40,000 sacks of wool were exported annually, and the average output in the middle of the fourteenth century was 18 per cent higher than it had been at the beginning. It is impossible to estimate with any assurance what the total production of wool amounted to yearly, or how large the flocks of sheep in the country were, because of the difficulty of measuring the domestic demand for wool to make clothes; but it must have been growing fast, because between the end of the eleventh century, when fulling was introduced, and the year 1300 landlords had been building fulling mills all over the country since they thought that they would prove extremely profitable. Many cloth-workers were outraged at having to pay for the use of these mills, believing, as has invariably happened with all mechanical inventions throughout English history, that they were robbing men who worked with their hands of their rightful employment.

In fact the proliferation of these mills, which were operated by water power, signalled a change in the cloth-making process so important that it has been called an industrial revolution. Before these mills became available the fulling procedure, that is the beating and compressing of the woven cloth to clean it and thicken it, had been done by craftsmen and ‘trodden under foot in water’, as Langland wrote. This simple mechanization of fulling saved time and money. Now it was reckoned that a mill could full as much cloth in a day as eighty men. Before it was introduced fullers were usually townsmen. At first the merchant and craft gilds forbade taking unfinished cloth away from urban areas, such as Bristol and Leicester, to fulling mills outside. The mills required access to swiftly running water and were therefore usually to be found in the countryside. Consequently the cloth-making industry became dispersed. Instead of carding, combing, spinning and weaving being done in the big clothiers’ premises in towns, much of it was put out to craftsmen working in their own homes. Spinning was frequently done by women (hence the word ‘spinster’) working in their cottages, and weavers often combined their craft with agricultural work. Cloth for export needed the finest wool. So during the fourteenth century the export of wool declined and that of cloth increased. Whereas in the first half of the century wool exports averaged 30,000 sacks, in the second half they fell to 8,000 to 9,000 sacks. On the other hand, while in the middle of the fourteenth century only 8,000 cloths were exported, from 1366 to 1368 an average of 16,000 were exported; by 1392 the figure was 43,000 and in the first half of the fifteenth century it rose to 56,000.7

The reasons for this remarkable growth of the cloth industry and the reduction in the export of wool were various. First, the demand for cloth to be made into soldiers’ uniforms was considerable, as it was also for civilian clothing in the colder parts of northern Europe, such as Scandinavia. Secondly, it was cheaper to buy wool in England than abroad for manufacture into cloth because of the heavy export duties levied on raw wool, particularly by the Government of Edward III when he was at war with France. The recovery of Gascony after the war receded from southern France meant that cloth could be exported there and wine brought back. A new group of English merchants, known as the Merchant Adventurers, specialized in the cloth export trade, sometimes employing their own ships of 100 to 200 tonnage. But it was not only Englishmen who sold cloth abroad. Italian merchants, notably Genoese, exported cloth from London and Southampton, partly in exchange for luxury goods such as silks, sweet wines, spice and jewellery. German merchants belonging to the Hanseatic League, who had their own headquarters known as the Steelyard or Teutonic guildhall in London, doubled their exports of English cloth during the fifteenth century, though in return for their privileges they were ultimately compelled to agree to the right of English merchants to trade in their territories in northern Germany and in Danzig. Thirdly, the frequent changes in the location of the wool staples confused the export trade: at one time the only staple was at Antwerp, then at Bruges and then at Middelburg; finally it was at Calais, which remained in English hands until the middle of the sixteenth century. The Merchants of the Staple had a quasi-monopoly (except that the Italian merchants were allowed to carry the wool they bought directly to the Mediterranean and merchants in northern ports, such as Newcastle, were permitted to ship directly to the Netherlands). As the price for their exclusive rights the Merchants of the Staple had in effect ensured the pay of the garrison and the upkeep of the fortifications at Calais, usually by loans to the Crown secured by the Customs on wool. While the Merchants of the Staple and the Merchant Adventurers dominated the export trade, they were not monopolies: any merchant might join them provided he abided by their regulations

The consumption of cloth at home must also certainly have risen. The guess is that at the end of the fourteenth century it might have amounted to about 10,000 cloths a year,8 the domestic manufacturers gaining at the expense of cloth imported from Flanders that had been valued so highly by well-dressed Englishmen in the early Middle Ages. As cloth was comparatively dear, half the cost of production consisting of the quantity of labour put into it, the larger market which opened up for it at home suggests that the smaller population was reasonably prosperous. In the fifteenth century the industry had its ups and downs. During the first quarter a depression prevailed, but in the second quarter cloth exports, mainly undyed and unfinished, reached their peak; the third quarter saw a decline, partly because the Hundred Years War with France was renewed during the turbulent reign of King Henry VI (1422-61) and partly on account of the long-drawn-out quarrel between English merchants and the Hanseatic League. After Edward IV became King he reached an agreement with the King of France in 1475 and in the same year concluded a treaty with the Hanseatic League. Consequently the export of cloths attained the level of 50,000 a year, which furnished employment for at least 20,000 men and women.

Besides cloth and a diminished trade in wool, chiefly bought and sold in Calais, English exports in the fifteenth century included corn (whenever a surplus arose), metals, especially tin and lead, some coal and hides. Wine was one of the principal imports, coming not only from France, but also from Germany, Italy and the Near East. Twelve thousand tuns (casks) of wine came from the Bordeaux area (the number was much higher before the war, when Gascony belonged to the English Crown), being paid for in grain, fish, cheese and cloth. Wine was cheap, though the cost of carriage was considerable and heavy duties were levied upon it dating back to the middle of the twelfth century. Millions of gallons were drunk by the better off, including gentry and townsmen. It was also sold in taverns, Langland writing of how innkeepers bawled out ‘White wine! Red wine! Gascon and Spanish! Wash down your meat with the finest Rhenish!’ One fancies however that, as today, labourers stuck to ale, which cost about 3 shillings a barrel, while a bottle of wine could cost eightpence.

During the fifteenth century the population, which had been declining or static since the plagues of the previous century, began slowly to rise again. Young men married earlier and wages were higher. With the abandonment of their home farms by the big landowners, serfdom was vanishing. Arable land was cultivated by smallholders, and free tenants and cottagers were employed as agricultural labourers. Declining productivity of the soil, brought about by the intense needs of the population in the thirteenth century and a shortage of manure, meant that many fields relapsed into waste and hundreds of villages disappeared completely. But because of the amount of land that came on to the market land values still fell and vacant holdings existed. Much arable land was turned over to sheep farming. The bishops of Winchester, for instance, reduced their acreage under the plough and increased their flocks and herds, and several landlords directly managed their pastureland instead of being content with their income as rentiers. A few landlords experimented with new crops and others were able to benefit from industry, notably cloth manufacture, but also from minerals such as coal outcrops in Yorkshire and the tin mines in Cornwall.

The structure of society remained hierarchic, as it had been in Anglo-Saxon times. At the top were the ruling classes, dukes, earls and barons. Dukes’ incomes averaged £4,000 a year and those of the other nobility around £3,000. Their landed properties assured them such comfortable incomes, even if the services of their retinues and employees became more expensive because of staff shortages after the pestilences of the fourteenth century. For a time the demand for land slackened; it became more difficult to exact manorial dues, such as heriots; the profits from arable farming were hit by rising wages and falling or stagnant prices. But, as at later stages of English history, the aristocracy could stand a great deal of ruin. They could obtain money rents by commuting the remaining labour services; they could raise entry fines; they could turn over to sheep farming; they could profit from ransoms when fighting under Edward III; they could invest in wardships; they could exploit their judicial rights at courts leet; they could let out their meadows; they could marry their children advantageously into the mercantile class; they could even sell fruit grown in their orchards. It has been estimated that the higher nobility was not materially worse off in the later part of the fourteenth century. In fact the ostentatious living and lavish hospitality of fourteenth-century magnates has been seen ‘not to suggest straitened resources’.9 The class below the higher nobility, the bannerets, knights, esquires and vavassors, though sometimes falling into the hands of money-lenders, were able to profit, if on a smaller scale, from the same means as were open to the nobility. They could invest shrewdly in land, obtain profitable windfalls in war time, acquire offices and fees. They could marry advantageously.

Knights varied in character: few of them were any longer the heavily mounted, armed cavalrymen who fought for the Norman kings. The number of such high-class knights had fallen by the reign of Edward I from 5,000 to 500. The knight described in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is ‘a true, perfect gentleman’ who had fought in the Crusades, possessed fine horses, whose bearing was modest and ‘never a boorish thing he said in all his life to any, come what might’. Such knights were men of good families who had served as professional soldiers and were known as knights banneret. In addition there were household knights, who were retainers either of the king or the nobility and acted as courtiers or soldiers as required. Their fortunes were bound up with those of their masters. Some knights were functionaries of abbots, others were petty followers of magnates, a few were lawyers or had been educated in baronial households and then became merchants. By a proclamation of 1278 Edward I laid down that all freeholders with an estate worth £20 a year must accept knighthoods, but the expense involved in becoming a belted knight meant that the honour was often evaded, as it was to be when King Charles i’s Ministers revived the distraint of knighthood in the seventeenth century. Some merchants and lawyers welcomed the chance of becoming knights, for they could afford it. Thus wealthy men were able to climb the social ladder. But equally, as Professor Postan wrote, ‘the income of the average knight who stayed on his land and did not hire himself out as a soldier did not rise to anything like the same extent as professional officers and may not have risen at all’. The ‘knights of the shire’, who were first summoned to Parliament at the end of the thirteenth century, were in fact sometimes not knights at all. Whether Edward I by creating an enlarged knightly class and introducing its representatives into Parliament did so because they were a rising class or a falling class has been a matter for argument.

Below the rank of knights came the squires or esquires (often sons of knights), who when serving in the army were paid 1 shilling a day compared with the 2 shillings received by the knights. In peace time this group of knights and esquires comprised the gentry, who managed their own estates, acted as justices of the peace, occupied manor houses or built themselves houses of stone, lived amicably with their neighbours and employed servants and labourers whom they generally, but not always, treated well. Some of the gentry emerged from the yeoman class. The word ‘yeoman’ is confusing: it has been employed to describe both farmers who owned sixty to a hundred acres of land which they cultivated themselves with the aid of their families and one or two servants; and also ‘journeymen’ (literally day workers), who hired themselves out to master craftsmen in the towns, qualified men usually hoping to become masters themselves. Such yeomen often had gilds or fraternities of their own which negotiated with the craftsmen’s gilds. This was the case, for instance, with the weavers in Coventry and the saddlers in London.

Outside the hierarchy of the landed classes stood the freemen or burgesses of the towns that had proliferated during the early Middle Ages. They were often monopolists laying down strict rules about buying and selling and about who had the right to be elected to the town councils. Such freemen had to fulfil qualifications and pay entrance fees before they were enfranchised. Villeins who had fled from their manors to the towns in the fourteenth century might find work and receive protection from their former masters, but were merely lesser members of the urban communities. Normally an apprenticeship in trade lasting seven years was required before a journeyman could become a full citizen, though this rule might be waived for the sons of existing burgesses. During the fifteenth century more freemen were admitted in most towns, yet the population as a whole remained lower than it had been in the thirteenth century when many towns were growing up. Fullers and weavers, who had in some towns been barred from becoming freemen, were now allowed to do so, understandably enough, as the clothing industry had come to be the most important in the kingdom.

Coventry, Exeter and York were examples of cloth-making towns where burgesses were frequently fullers or weavers. York had a mayor who was a weaver as early as 1424. ‘Generally speaking,’ it has been said, ‘urban life was much easier in the late Middle Ages than it had been in earlier times.’10 Towns like London and Bristol, whose populations increased little during the later Middle Ages, nevertheless grew more prosperous, chiefly through foreign trade. Thus they contained a distinctive mercantile class which included wealthy citizens like Sir Richard Whittington (though without his famous cat) – he was described by an Italian contemporary as ‘that loadstar and chief chosen flower among English merchants’ – who could not only afford to be knighted but could aim to marry into the landed gentry. Bristol engaged in much overseas commerce, particularly with Spain and Portugal, exporting the cloth of the Cotswolds and west Midlands. London was the biggest port in the kingdom, had a population of about 40,000 and was rich enough to lend money to English kings.

The mayors and aldermen of the larger towns often had to resolve disputes between the numerous craft gilds, which fixed prices, wages and standards of workmanship, but which were often accused of charging too much for their work. The larger gilds were incorporated as livery companies, though only the older and more prominent members were allowed to wear liveries. In London the Mercers, Grocers, Drapers, Fishmongers, Goldsmiths, Skinners, Merchant Taylors, Haberdashers and Salters were the earliest companies to receive charters. Similar incorporations took place at York, Coventry and elsewhere during the fifteenth century. In London the companies had magnificent halls, made gifts of money to the king and elected masters, wardens and a court of assistants, who were generally self-perpetuating. Thus they were oligarchic and soon the members had only a faint connection with their crafts, as is the case today.

Merchants were for the most part educated men who sent their sons and daughters to good schools. Though they usually married late in life, they had large families. Their average expectation of life was about fifty years. They were charitable both to the parish clergy and to monks, though they evaded, if they could, payment of tithes. The wealthier London merchants bought themselves estates in Middlesex and Surrey and often married their daughters into the landed gentry. In fact they considered themselves to be squires and gentlemen on equal terms with the knights of the shires.

If one thinks of these merchants, the big cloth manufacturers, the exporters, the lawyers (the Inns of Court came into being in the fifteenth century), the landed gentry eligible for knighthood and the yeomen owning sixty to a hundred acres of arable land as well as livestock, who ‘could become gentlemen by getting into a lord’s household and spending large and plenty’,11 as all belonging to the middle classes – the upper and lower bourgeoisie, if one likes to call them that – one can say that the ‘rise’ of these classes took place in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries rather than the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as some historians have been arguing during the last forty years. Marxist historians have written of ‘kulaks’ instead of ‘yeomen’. But the truth surely is that the ‘middle classes’ were as elusive and hard to define then as they are today. It is easier to write of the nobility, the knights and the gentry; the merchants and manufacturers; the husbandmen and labourers, without trying to invent a model society. One thing is certain: that is that greater social mobility existed in the late Middle Ages than ever before. The growth of the textile industry was one factor; the extension of sheep farming was another; the demand for the building of churches was a third. The towns were full of opportunities for the enterprising, and relatively free of class barriers. Sons of merchants could enter the professions or set themselves up as country gentlemen. ‘Such restrictions on mobility as existed,’ it has been said by an expert on the fourteenth century, ‘were not absolute.’12 The army and the Church also offered openings to younger sons. William of Wykeham, the famous Bishop of Winchester, who founded New College, Oxford in 1379, was the son of a serf.

To sum up, the fifteenth century saw the end of the ‘manorial system’, under which a peasant could not give his daughter in marriage or move house without the permission of his landlord. The overpopulation of the thirteenth century, which had provided the wealthier classes with the whiphand over their tenants and employees, disappeared with the pestilences of the fourteenth century that produced scarcity of labour and consequently a rise in real wages. By 1400 landlords everywhere had ceased to engage in arable farming for a profit. Land values fell, rents declined, higher money wages had to be paid: all these were factors gradually changing the national economy. But it would be wrong to assume that the ruling classes were materially worse off. The nobility benefited from the Hundred Years War, which ended in the middle of the fifteenth century, by obtaining booty and ransoms. Many of the greater landlords deliberately turned over to sheep and cattle farming. Arable land they preferred to let out for rent; but because the population was smaller, around about three million, they had to lengthen their leases and lower their rents. Wages rose and countrymen as a whole were better off. This may be attributed to a release of energy and enterprise by modest farmers and their families, who worked harder once they owned their own property.

Undoubtedly the fifteenth century was a good time for the lower classes, whether they were tenant farmers, peasant proprietors, tradesmen or shopkeepers. Indeed, it has been claimed that ordinary men and women attained a standard of life that was never reached again until England became fully industrialized. 13 Output increased; rent strikes paid off; serfdom virtually vanished. Luxuries were imported in exchange for cloth. Wage-earners, including agricultural labourers, were better off. It is true that they had to work long hours and were not paid for holidays. But the sumptuary laws – prescribing the food and apparel for each class in the community – indicate that workmen could afford better meals and clothing in the fifteenth than in the fourteenth century. John Gower, the poet and friend of Chaucer, writing in 1375 noted that although labourers did not eat wheaten bread ‘they desired to be better fed than their masters, bedeck themselves in fine colours and fine attire instead of sackcloth’. Women, who were rather downtrodden in the early Middle Ages, also found work. Widows looked after their own holdings and took part in ploughing. Though women servants were paid less than men, women labourers were sometimes paid at the same rate as men. Women shone particularly as brewers.

Obviously the clothing of the rich and poor differed. Men reaping simply wore loose doublets and straw hats, sometimes with cloth stockings and ankle boots; ploughmen wore hoods under their hats, tunics, short trousers (braies) and mittens. Shepherds wore long smocks and hats on top of their hoods. By the fourteenth century the clothes worn by the upper classes were shorter and tighter, made of fabrics of varying colours. Ladies dressed in gowns, lacings and belts and were not ashamed to show the shape of their bodies, though their gowns were always long and had ample sleeves. The hood (capuchon) was worn by all classes, though men might put on hats and caps. Chaucer’s yeoman wore a coat and hood of green, his miller a hood of blue, and his merchant a Flemish beaver hat.

Although the gentry classes were expanding, they were the people who were least happy in the fifteenth century. When Henry v was succeeded by a minor in 1422 and the resources of the English Government were wasted in vainly trying to hold and even extend Henry Vs conquests in France, law and order broke down. ‘Bastard feudalism’, as it has been called, prevailed. The great dukes and earls, who are featured in Shakespeare’s historical plays, usually had paid retainers numbering 200 or more whom they employed to overawe judges and juries in the law courts, intimidate sheriffs and uphold injustices. Complicated quarrels over property rights were thus seldom resolved fairly. Modest landowners were liable to be assaulted by gangs of ruffians who burnt down houses, ransacked churches and invaded private manors. The Paston family in East Anglia three times found themselves besieged in their own homes by armed bands sent against them by peers of the realm. Merchants were injured by widespread piracy. The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was followed by the rising of Sir John Oldcastle in 1414 after he had been accused of heresy and escaped from the Tower of London, and by ‘Jack Cade’s’ rebellion in 1450, which frightened the city of London. Between 1455 and 1485 England was divided by the so-called Wars of the Roses, a dynastic struggle, pictured in Shakespeare’s plays about the reign of Henry VI, in which that king was finally defeated by Edward Earl of March, who assumed the title of King Edward IV. This aristocratic blood-bath preceded another civil war in which the future Tudor King Henry VII crushed Richard III, the brother of Edward IV, at the battle of Bosworth.

Ordinary English people were comparatively little affected by these wars of dynasties and aristocrats, though the breakdown of law and order suggests a moral decline. To generalize about the frame of mind among the different classes in late medieval society is difficult. Yet in contemplating the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in English history one cannot resist speculating on the question of whether the rich and ambitious or the poor and resigned were happier. It has to be remembered that life was short and incalculable and that most people believed that everything might be much better in an afterlife. The rich therefore spent large sums of money on building chapels and chantries and endowing monasteries in order to save their souls. The poor, when they thought about it carefully, considered that they were more likely to go to heaven than their masters.

It has well been said that ‘the growth of a conscious, articulate, and moral fervour among the laity was a marked feature of the age’. Walter Langland in book V of Piers Plowman, entitled ‘The Confession of Seven Deadly Sins and the Search for Truth’, attributed the plagues and storms of the fourteenth century to the judgement of God on King and nobility as well as the mass of the people for their sins, and envisaged ‘Reason’ as telling wasters to go to work, ordering Lady Peacock to leave off clothing herself in furs, Walter’s wife to stop wearing a head-dress worth 5 guineas and urging merchants to stop pampering their children. In their sermons the friars also condemned the sins of the rich, while John Wyclif, the Oxford theologian, and his followers, the Lollards, insisted that the Church consisted only of God’s predestined elect, that the Bible, the whole of which was for the first time translated into English, was the source of eternal truth and that the official doctrine of transubstantiation was false. Wyclif stigmatized serfdom in any form as anti-Christian: hence the popularity of Lollardy with the lower classes. At the other end of the theological scale the mystics, such as Margery Kemp, stressed the need for every Christian to seek direct contact with God. We know that groups of simple people met in their own houses to read and discuss the Bible, and that even after the drastic measures ordered by Parliament against Sir John Oldcastle and his followers in the second decade of the fifteenth century Lollardy was not crushed, but lived on underground to merge into the puritan movement of the sixteenth century.

In the fifteenth century this puritan habit of mind turned against the monks and the friars. In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, published towards the end of the previous century, they had been held up to ridicule. The monk in these tales was delineated as a huntsman with ‘dainty horses’ and greyhounds, and the friar as a wanton and merry fellow who kept pocket knives to give to pretty girls and ‘knew the taverns well in every town and every innkeeper and barmaid too’. The Lollard authors even extended their disapprobation to ordinary parish clergy, saying that they were to be found


At wrestling and at the wake,

And chief chanters at the ale;

Market-beaters and meddling-make

hopping and hooting with heave and hale.

At fair fresh and at wine stale

Dine and drink and make debate

The seven sacraments set at sale,

How keep such keys of heaven gate?

The laity were also implicitly condemned for their behaviour in parliamentary statutes and royal proclamations. Tennis, football, golf, quoits and chess were all described as unlawful games. Only archery was encouraged. Wrestling, the owning of dogs, and of course poaching were forbidden to the lower classes. The hours when ale-houses might be kept open were prescribed; while gluttons had been pictured by Langland as eating and drinking ‘a pint of the best’ in the ale-house when they should have been in church, Chaucer’s miller was envisaged as telling filthy stories in the taverns. Dances, ‘scots-ales’ and ‘church ales’, excuses for merriment, were all proscribed by the Church. In fact these prohibitions and denunciations reveal clearly enough how ordinary men and women tried to enjoy themselves in the later Middle Ages.

Thus one sees two sides of the coin. The poor accused the rich of deadly sins, which would take them straight to hell. William Caxton, the pioneer of printing at the end of the fifteenth century, begged ‘the knights of England’ to return to the good old days of ‘chivalry’ instead of going to the baths and playing at dice; and a one-time Chancellor of Oxford University wrote a book instructing the ‘knightly class’ about the virtues they should possess and the vices they needed to avoid. Dominican friars exposed the iniquities of the rich and idle, just as the Lollards did. On the other side, the ruling classes attempted to prevent their inferiors from entertaining themselves in the ways they relished and could afford, whether in the churchyard, the ale-house or on the village green or at fairs and markets, expecting them instead to toil from dawn to dusk and spend the rest of their time in church or practising archery. But in the words of the late Dr Coulton, ‘in spite of squires and church synods, the working man did all he could to escape … from the dullness of his working days’.14 That is the only excuse for conjuring up a vision of Merry England in the Middle Ages.


  1. W. Minchinton (ed.), Essays in Agrarian History I (1963), P. 41. Professor Titow describes the conditions in the thirteenth century as growing impoverishment unchecked until after the Black Death. Writing twenty-five years earlierJohn Saltmarsh in History VII (1941-3) said that by the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries ‘a climax of material prosperity had been reached which was never to be surpassed’, and thought the decline did not set in until the second half of the fourteenth century. But the consensus of opinion now is that a decline began before the Black Death.
  2. M. M. Postan, The Medieval Economy and Society (1972), p. 152
  3. A. H. Bridbury, Economic Growth of England in the Later Middle Ages (1962), p. 92
  4. R.H. Hilton and H. Fagan, The English Rising of 1381 (1o), p. 83
  5. Postan, op. cit., p. 154
  6. Cit. E. Powell, The Rising in East Anglia in 1381 (1896), p. 52
  7. E. Power and M. Postan (eds), Studies in English Trade in the Fifteenth Century (1933), pp. 11 seq.
  8. Bridbury, op. cit., pp. 30 seq.
  9. G.A. Holmes, The Estates of the Higher Nobility in the Later Middle Ages (xs’), pp. 97 seq.
  10. Bridbury, op. cit., pp. 75-6
  11. Cit. A. Abram, Social England in the Fifteenth Century (1909), p. 76
  12. May McKisack, The Fourteenth Century 1307-1399 (195), p. 346
  13. R.H. Hilton, The English Peasantry in the Later Middle Ages (1975), p. io6
  14. G. G. Coulton, Chaucer and his England (1921), p. 280