Saturday, March 10, 2012

Life in a Medieval Village

by Katherine Ashe

When Julius Caesar arrived in Albion, what we call Briton, he reported to the Roman Senate that here was a land completely under cultivation. A thousand years later, when William of Normandy conquered England he had to eradicate numerous villages to plant what is still known as the New Forest to create a future supply of oak for ships.

What did this long sustained agriculture look like and how was it maintained? We don't know if the "three field system" was already in place in Caesar's time, it certainly was well before the arrival of the Normans, who were using it on their home fiefs as well.

Picture a land wide open, dotted with villages here and there, a manor house, often fortified and with a bit of woodland, a hunting chase that would also supply wood for heat and cooking and occasionally a few large timbers for a crook-built building the walls of which, between the supporting timbers, would be woven willow wands -- a sort of basketry -- wadded with clay and horsehair: a building material called wattle and daub.

The single village street would be lined with wattle and daub "half timbered" cottages, each set on its own little "toft", usually planted with a vegetable garden at the back and surrounded by a willow "wattle" fence to keep in the chickens. The cottage would also possess a "croft", another small piece of land probably planted with a few fruit trees: apple, pear, quince, cherry, and here pigs might be kept.

These cottages were not the property of the cottagers but belonged to the fief, the whole of the estate that included the village, the manor house, the fields and the chase. Before the Conquest in 1066 these fiefs belonged to whatever Britain, Saxon or Dane happened to hold it as overlord from time immemorial or as the results of war and apportionment to the dominant power's friends. With the arrival of the Normans the fiefs were granted to William's followers under the feudal system, through the King's direct gift of a multitude of fiefs to his most useful followers who then apportioned the fiefs under their control to their knights to supply them with a living through specific taxes so that they were free and well supplied when their services were called upon for war.

But regardless of who might be living in, or rebuilding the great house to suit his tastes, the life of the villagers, or "villeins" as they were properly called with no disparagement intended, remained the same. Even what they paid in duties to the holder of the fief remained the same according to ancient custom. For each village had a "wittenmote" a group of elders who knew the customs of the place: what was owed to the lord of the manor and when, how the cultivated land was apportioned and to whom, what the penalties were for crimes, etc. Thus the wittenmote provided a continuity for village life regardless of who was the dominant force politically at any given time. In the 13th century the royal judge Henry de Bracton made a compilation of these customary laws of the wittenmotes and that collection lies at the foundation of the British and U.S. legal systems based upon precedent, rather than a code of law as is the practice in most of the rest of the world.

But who were these villagers who had been occupying the cottages from time out of mind? Each cottage was held by its "house-bondsman," the eldest son, or in the counties under the Danelaw, the youngest son. One must suppose this Scandinavian practice of making the youngest son the inheritor, on the idea that the older ones would certainly be old enough to fend for themselves long before their father died, encouraged the expansionary practice of going a-viking -- from which nearly everyone in reach of Scandinavian ships suffered.

The house-bondsman, or "husbandman," inherited the bond for the cottage and all that pertained to it: the toft, the croft and a right to a certain number of rows, say three rows for example, in each of the three great fields surrounding the village. Since the land was not of equal quality in all of its rows, the rows were not permanently allotted to specific cottages. Each year the fief's husbandmen drew straws for which set of rows would be theirs to cultivate that year. The unfortunate ended up with that "short straw" and "a hard row to hoe," but the misfortune would probably be rectified the following year.

The fields, and the rows in them, were demarcated by posts: palings or "pales." To trespass on someone else's row was to "go beyond the pale." Don't picture these rows as the little scraping of the soil you might do in your veggie garden, these rows were huge -- and S shaped, giving the fields something of the look of a sea ruffled with waves as high as a man's waist and sometimes wider than one might be able to jump over. The S shape was the result of the wide turning radius of the ox drawn plows in use.

Though the Minoans apparently had huge bulls and the Romans had what look like the beautiful modern, good sized and cream colored Charolais, England's oxen in the Middle Ages were not very big at all, their backs reaching only to about the height of a man's chest.

For those not familiar with cattle raising, oxen are castrated bull calves. Since a cow, to be milk-able, must bear a calf, and since half the calves born are likely to be male and useless as milkers, its these bull calves that supply the meat -- as of course do the old cows past milking age. When needed, a strong bull calf would be kept for breeding, or castrated and trained to the heavy wooden oxbow that would couple him to another ox and enable him to be hitched to a plow or wagon. These little cattle were not very strong; a team for plowing would require six of them, a heavy wagon might require a team of ten or more. So the husbandman would share his two oxen with his neighbors who had rows of a sufficient distance from his that the team, wending its way through the row's S curve, would take up the neighbor's row at the right place in the curve.

Where were all these oxen kept when they weren't plowing? Here we come to the three field system. The oxen lived on that year's fallow field, helpfully manuring it. The three fields in which the principal manor lands were divided followed a regular three year cycle.

The Fallow Field, on which nothing was planted, rested and was renewed with manuring by the village animals. The next field in the cycle, known as the Spring Field, was planted with oats, peas, beans and barley: all nitrogen-fixing plants. Because these four plantings required different growing conditions regarding moisture, the slope of the row was used like a little hillside with the four different kinds of plants each in its own row along the incline. After harvesting, these plants would be plowed into the soil, enriching it even further. The third field was planted with wheat (called "corn" but not at all the Indian corn we designate by that name now), which requires a great deal of nutrients. Grains will exhaust the soil in a short time if those nutrients are not replaced - and that is why modern farmers are so dependent upon chemical fertilizers. The three-field system, because of its cycle of two years of nutrient replacement before a piece of land was planted again with grain, was endlessly sustainable.

A certain number of rows in the field belonged to the manor house although, managed by the lord's steward, it took its chances in the row selection along with everyone else in many places. The husbandmen, in part payment of the "bond" for their holdings in the fief, gave service, plowing, seeding and harvesting the lord's crops. They also might owe a hen or eggs every now and then, especially at Christmas time. How their debt of labor was paid was specific to the customs of each fief and were well known to the wittenmote. Much distinction was made between a water bidreap and a beer bidreap when the steward of the manor was required to serve the plowmen beer when they rested.

Regarding local law and order, the principal person responsible in the village was the husbandmen's chosen "reeve." The reeve had a horn that he blew whenever there was an emergency: as when the sheep had gotten into the meadow or a cow into the corn -- Little Boy Blue was a typical reeve.

For crimes, there was a system of fines. Even murder was squared with a fine, a very heavy one that economically crippled not only the perpetrator but his entire family. The amount of fine for a murder depended upon the social status of the victim, fundamentally his lifetime's worth in earning ability, his value to the community. Except of course for aristocrats, who might be seen as having very little value to the local community but whose murder commanded so high a fine that the convicted, or a relative taking his place, would languish a lifetime in prison for the unpayable debt.

If the husbandman was the eldest, or youngest son in the Danelaw, what became of his brothers and sisters? Some migrated to the cities, learning crafts, becoming a new middle class of merchants and artisans. Some became servants in the manor house. Many of the excess population of the fiefs peopled the enormous religious houses with their vast communities of low level monks and nuns, and some of these rose through education to become priests, and even bishops, as in the case of the brilliant Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln, author of the standard published work on manor management of his time, translator of the Old Testament from Hebrew, mathematician, scientist, theologian, and author of "On Kingship and Tyranny" and hence instigator of the movement that resulted in the first Parliament with power over the Crown.

And one of Grosseteste's acts as bishop was to establish a system for legitimizing bastard children. By the old system, only the husbandman (husband) could marry, for only he could provide a stable living for a family. It was a system that just about guaranteed a goodly supply of bastards. Grosseteste's solution was to perform marriages for those who weren't husbandmen, to cover the couple's children with a sheet until the end of the wedding ceremony, then to whisk away the sheet, revealing the couple's children as "new-born" in legitimacy. One wonders if Grosseteste, whose name is not a surname but means "the fat-head", was himself illegitimate, though such a history might impair a person's qualifications for the priesthood.

Each fief's village would have a church, and the lord of the manor would have the right, called "advowson", to designate whom the priest would be. With the appointment went a modest "living" charged against the local husbandmen. Since the "living" might be given as an income to someone who didn't live in the village, indeed never showed up to preach or otherwise, there was a need for some currency. This was solved by fairs held in the nearest town. The husbandman's wife (which word incidentally means "carver of the loaf") would take the fruits and vegetables from her toft and croft, or a hen or eggs, in a basket and would walk to the nearest fair. If more money was needed she might have her child come with her to drive along some geese or a pig.

If these images: of the Goose Girl or Little Boy Blue the reeve, and phrases such a "going beyond the pale," ring deep in our psyches it's not only because we saw illustrations in books when we were very small, but because, if they dwelled in Europe, this was the life that most of our ancestors lived. And on inspection at this remove, it seems not such a bad life, given they had no expectations of plumbing, heating or modern means of travel and communications. There were, actually certain advantages, certain absences of stress regarding expectations of achievement -- life would be what it had always been.

Suggested further reading: George Caspar Homans, English Villagers of the Thirteenth Century, Russell and Russell, New York, 1960.

Katherine Ashe is the author of the Montfort series, available from Amazon:
Montfort: The Early Years
Montfort: The Founder of Parliament
Montfort: The Revolutionary
Montfort: The Angel with the Sword


  1. That was very interesting and informative. I find this kind of life quite charming in its simplicity and I'll be definitely learning more about it. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Fascinating! A very hard life, but very regulated too. There did not seem any wiggle room for advancement so that is impressive of that Grosseteste making Bishop.

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. A fine article. I learned so much! Thank you, Katherine.

  4. There was actually considerable possibility for advancement -- all those younger brothers going to the cities, becoming apprentices then merchants or craftsmen on their own. Thomas Becket came from a merchant family which almost certainly at one time had been settled on the land. He rose to be Chancellor of England, Archbishop of Canterbury and a saint. The Church, particularly, provided a good deal of social mobility for those who were highly capable. Entry into the nobility may have been far less likely than in later centuries when kings granted titles to commoners who had served them well, but there was a growing middle class in the 13th century and capital was flowing from the highly taxed aristocracy to the cities as property seized for taxes had to be converted to pay for mercenaries or the luxuries enjoyed by the king and his friends.

  5. Elizabeth Gayle FellowsMarch 11, 2012 at 7:55 PM

    Great information. Very informative. Gives us a good picture of what it was like in the UK in those days, and how a lot of what we do today was set up. Thank you for your great research.

  6. Thank you for sharing this informative and comprehensive article.
    This way of life was also true on "my" side of the North Sea in The Netherlands, or "Frisia" as it was called back then, even before it became "Holland". One important additional aspect for them was manufacturing, especially the watertight woolen cloths they produced at home and traded all over Europe. The wool generally was bought in England, even as early as pre-Carolingan times, when my ancestors rowed over to England and back before the introduction of sails. The Romans even knew how to appreciate their Frisian "rain"-capes.

    But the primary remark I would like add is what I learned from one of my old teachers, that in contrast to our view and experience of time, which is lineair - we set goals and work to achieve them and advance in life, career and fortune - the middle-ager experienced time as circular. They lived the rythm of crops and seasons and hence from beginning to end of the circle and then the next year all over again without any significant changes. This alternative expirience of time accounts for so many differing views and aspects of medieval life to the one we know, that for us (it took me many years to realise this to the full) it is difficult to understand the apparent lack of urgency and initiative of our ancestors to change their ways of life and respond to what in our eyes would have been problems.
    Only the occurence of famine, disease, war or political upheaval would disturb village-life, and not even that at all places. For the rest of the time all had its purpose and place in time and that was reassuring.

  7. Fascinating stuff, Katharine!! We tend to think of those old times as so rudimentary but their systems were really quite stragetically planned. They didn't know they were living in the 'olden days' I guess! Thanks for the wonderful post.