A Brief History of Life in the Middle Ages

I read the book during Christmas, but I didn’t blog it back then. So here we are…

I gave it 2 stars on goodreads, mostly because of unclear sourcing. When I’m reading a history book I don’t want there to be a single sentence anywhere in the book where I’m not pretty much perfectly clear on where the information provided is coming from – and unfortunately there are a lot of those kinds of sentences in the book. Aside from this issue it’s a good and interesting read, and some will consider this to be much less of a drawback than I do; the book has a 4.3 average rating on amazon, and the average goodreads rating is 3.44.

The book covers the history of England from about 900 to 1553 – the former marking the beginning of the West-Saxon reconquest of the Danelaw following the first great phase of Viking invasions, the latter marking the year of the death of Edward VI; it was under his reign that Protestantism in England took off. It starts out with a characterization of late Anglo-Saxon England, and then there’s some discussion of the changes following the Norman Conquest, with an emphasis on how the rise of manorialism affected the English countryside (where most people lived – “evidence from taxation returns from the 1520s suggests an urban population of about 18 per cent of the national population. This is similar to the proportion in the 1370s.” – a quote from the book). After this stuff is covered there’s a chapter on religious beliefs and how they changed during the period, followed by a discussion about matters relating to among other things diet and health, as well as population trends and distributional changes. An interesting chapter on ‘women and the family’ comes next, followed by a chapter on ‘law and order’. There’s also a chapter on ‘language, culture and entertainment’, and one about the yearly religious cycle, among other things; I don’t care much for religious stuff, but there’s really no way around the fact that religion played a much greater role in the lives of ordinary people then than it does now, so it makes a lot of sense in a book like this to go into this kind of stuff in some detail. As you might have been able to infer from these comments, each chapter deals with a few specific topics and talks about how things changed (or didn’t change) during the period; this is not a book that starts out at the year 900 and then systematically covers each decade in detail until we reach the Reformation. I think the approach Whittock applies works rather well.

In general Whittock is much more interested in answering the question of how ‘ordinary English people’ lived (and died) during this historical period than he is in telling you what the dictator of the day had for breakfast or what was the name of that dictator in, say, the year 1268 (the answer is Henry III, but who cares?). Wars waged in foreign lands, which some historical works would spend a lot of time on, does not get a lot of attention in this book, and they’re mostly covered here in relation to the extent to which they actually impacted the lives of people living in the English manors or towns (e.g. by causing taxes to go up to pay for the bloodshed). Although there’s perhaps a bit too much religious stuff for my taste I generally like Whittock’s approach when it comes to which questions to ask, and I should note that if not for the sourcing issue I’d probably have given the book something like four stars. The book is full of interesting observations, and it’s not hard to read. Actually after having written this post I’m seriously reconsidering if I should reevaluate and give the book 3 stars.

I should perhaps also note before I go any further that wikipedia seems to have a lot of stuff about many of the topics covered in the book; if the post makes you want to learn more about these things, you can start out by following some of the links provided above and below. With all that out of the way, some quotes and observations from the book:

“By 1066 about one-sixth of the land in England was in Church ownership. […] By the 1060s about 30 per cent of the landscape was employed in arable farming and about 15 per cent as managed woodland; the remaining 55 per cent supported pastoral farming, or was too poor to be used (with a small but unspecified area in urban use). By comparison, early twenty-first-century figures for England are: arable 40 per cent, woodland 9 per cent, pastoral 25 per cent. The remaining 26 per cent of the modern landscape is mostly within urban areas. […] If the vast majority of people lived in the countryside in the year 1000, a very important minority (about 10 per cent) lived in towns. This proportion was comparable with Roman Britain at its peak. During the eight century, after a period in which there had been no true urban settlements in England, places began to appear which had features resembling towns. [relevant link][…] By the ninth century these early semi-urban sites had developed into what are recognizably towns. […] towns were not a Norman intervention. They were a Europe-wide phenomenon and in England their roots lay in the Anglo-Saxon period after 750. […] Towns would have increased in number and importance whether the Conquest had happened or not.”

“The population of England by the mid-eleventh century was about 2.5 million. To put this into context, the English population in 1541 was probably about the same size (estimated at about 2.7 million) after all the ups and downs of the Middle Ages. […] in 1300 the English population was comparable with 1750 [~5.5 million], but it took 450 years to reach this level again following the great fall in numbers in the 150 years after 1300.”

“Anglo-Saxon women had the power to own property in their own right. […] over 25 per cent of surviving Anglo-Saxon wills are by women bequeathing their own property. (In contrast, after the Norman Conquest no woman could make a valid will without the consent of her husband). As well as having the right to sell and exchange land, women had free access to the courts to enforce their rights or to settle disputes. […] Overall the evidence suggests that the average Anglo-Saxon wife was valued and respected and had her economic rights safeguarded. Wills show many men leaving property to female relations. […]

The position of women in society suffered a setback in 1066. […] when a woman married, her property automatically belonged to her husband for as long as he lived. Furthermore, Canon Law permitted a man to beat his wife if he considered her lazy or disobedient. […] women should be quiet and docile […] women could not normally hold responsible roles within government or in law courts and they could not attend university. […] Divorce was not an option for medieval people unless they could prove that the marriage should not have occurred in the first place. In such cases it was necessary to prove that the original ‘marriage’ had involved people whose family ties were such that they broke Church rules on consanguinity, affinity or spiritual affinity. This was often not a straightforward matter […] for ordinary people […] marriage was for life. […] Impotence was also a ground for separation but it had to be proven, and examples exist of authorities testing the husband’s ability to get an erection by exposing him to other women. […] Women could inherit if there was no male heir, and as long as she remained single a woman could hold property like a man. But this right was lost on marriage. Remaining single was a virtual impossibility for a woman who inherited substantial property. […] the king had the right to sell off widowed noble women to the highest bidder […] Lower-class unfree women could similarly be forced to marry by their lord. […] The Common Law decreed that any items which a woman owned on marriage became the outright property of her husband. This was even more severe than a husband’s guardianship of his wife’s landed property. As a result, some fathers without sons disinherited their daughters in order to keep their lands within their family. […] during the fifteenth century there occurred a hardening of male attitudes towards women and what we would now call gender roles, and […] some economic and social freedoms, which had been increasing before this, were reduced. […] In short, there was far more regulation in the later Middle Ages than in the earlier period.”

“manorial estates, which dominate the nature of medieval rural life, were generally divided between so-called demesne land, which was farmed directly for the profit of the lord of the manor, and land either rented for cash or held by villeins in return for unpaid labour on the lord’s demesne land. This was not a new system […] In reality many in the Late Anglo-Saxon countryside were semi-free or unfree, and what the Norman Conquest brought was an intensification of this system rather than its introduction. In this sense the abolition of slavery in England in 1102, by the Statute of Westminster [I’m not sure that’s what it was actually called, and this sentence caused me some trouble due to the poor sourcing. It was certainly part of why I was annoyed by the sourcing problem – however I found this eventually], was largely due to the fact that the bottom end of the English rural population was being so effectively exploited there was little need for this institution. […] Being forced to provide unpaid labour service was not the only way that villeins were made to pay ‘rent’ for the land they worked. Another way was for some to have to pay a proportion of their crops and animals – known as champart payments. Yet another was to pay money rents. Some peasants had to pay all three types. […] On top of labour service there were a whole range of ways in which villeins were targeted to pay cash to the lord of the manor: merchets, a payment to allow a daughter to marry; heriot, a death duty; leyrwite, a fine paid (most often by women) for forbidden sexual activity;[5] chevages, permission to leave the manor; faldagium, permission to graze animals outside the lord’s fold; entry fines, when taking on a new piece of land; tallages, a land tax; and suit of mill, which forced villeins to use the lord’s mill at his prices. This last demand was very profitable for lords and, around 1300, the Bishop of Durham took 10 per cent of his annual income from this alone.”

“London’s continuing growth [throughout the period] (with a population of about 120,000 by 1558) was not representative of many English towns. Indeed, its increasing monopoly of export trade meant that its growth was at the expense of other towns such as Boston and Hull […] For many towns their development was marked by contrasting periods of ‘boom and bust’. There certainly was no clear upward trajectory of growth.”

“For the medieval Church virtually all people in England were members of its community; England was a Christian country. The only religious minority after 1066 was the Jews, and they were expelled in 1290. […] The local unit – the parish – played a huge part in the lives of ordinary people. […] Everyone living within the parish was expected to attend parish Mass on Sundays and the main festivals of the year […] All those living within the parish paid a tithe of their income to the parish church. […] there were a very large number of clerics; perhaps 33,150 in 9,500 parishes in 1250. To this should be added 7,600 monks, 3,900 regular canons and 5,300 friars. These may have made up as much as 5.6 per cent of the adult male population in 1200.[2] In addition, there were about 1,500 men and women working in hospitals as part of a religious order and perhaps as many as 7,000 nuns (though some estimates are as low as 3,000). […] in the later Middle Ages at least 20 per cent of land was owned by the Church.”

“Despite the changing nature of the medieval justice system, one surprising aspect is how little it relied on prisons. Prison as a major form of punishment is largely a modern invention, dating from the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century. It was not until 1576 that JPs were required to build houses of correction in which rogues and vagabonds could be detained. These were apprehended by village constables, who were unpaid members of their local parish and were conscripted for service annually [see also this]. Prior to this, punishment relied far more heavily on execution, other forms of physical violence, outlawry and fining. Medieval prisons were primarily holding places for those avaiting trial, rather than the place of punishment itself.”


January 5, 2014 - Posted by | Books, History


  1. Almost unrelated: a fun read about an infamous justice of the peace … Roy Bean

    Comment by Stefan | January 5, 2014 | Reply

    • An interesting article, thanks for the link.

      Comment by US | January 5, 2014 | Reply

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