Thursday, August 6, 2015

Keeping Up With The Medieval Joneses

by Anne O'Brien

They are of course beyond price for allowing us to step into the world of the English ruling family and aristocracy. The members of the Paston family also are well known for the range and depth of their correspondence, but fortunately for us there are others too to give insight into the lives of lesser gentry families. How gratifying that these writers, all unwittingly, build up our knowledge of medieval people and the society in which they lived. It should be no surprise to us that in some aspects we in the 21st century are little different in our goals and expectations, particularly when it comes to impressing the neighbours.

Margaret Walkerne was a member of a minor gentry family of the early 15th Century. She was daughter of Philip and Joan Redington. On being widowed, Joan became wife of Robert Armburgh, thus providing Margaret with a step father to whom she was not unwilling to turn when her own fledgling family fell into financial difficulties.

Margaret married William Walkerne in 1428 or 29, and on this occasion of her writing to her step-father, was expecting her first child. Here is her short simple letter which opens a number of interesting doors on custom and family ambition in the early 15th Century.

My dear and well beloved father,

I commend me to you ...I have but a little while to go and am like within a short time with the grace of God to be delivered of a child. And for as much as ladies and gentlewomen and other friends of my mother's and mine are like to visit me while I lie in childbed, and I am not purveyed of honest bedding, with the which my husband's honour and mine may not be saved ...

Here we see that Margaret expects her mother to be present for the birth of her child, and furthermore expects a round of visits from her own and family friends to wish her and the new child well. But clearly the quality of her bedding is an issue for Margaret.

It is very important for Margaret that she should make a good impression for herself and for her husband when the neighbours come to call. She continues, explaining their own lack of money to provide the necessary bedding ...

... and also my friends have been put to so grievous costs and importable charges through the entangling of their adversaries, and my husband in new come into his land (which) is but bare and as yet hath little profit taken thereof, and hath laid great cost on his husbandry, that he may not acquit them (the profits) to be as he would wish.

Which all goes to explain the many reasons why Margaret should be so short of money to spend on her appearance for the visiting ladies and gentlefolk. As well as the lack from their own lands, it would appear that she has already sent a plea to her friends for aid (for which they had been quick to make excuses!). So here finally she appeals to her step father for a loan:

Therefore I would beseech you of your good fatherhood that you would vouchsafe in saving of my husband's worship (honour) and mine, to lend me two marks or twenty shillings until the next term (rent) day (when) my husband's farm (rent) comes in, and then with the grace of God you shall be well and truly paid again. I can no more at this time.

Margaret's anxiety is clearly about putting on a good display when these local ladies come visiting. It is a matter of honour and family status and of great importance for her and her husband's standing in the local community. Keeping up with the Joneses is nothing new.

Did Margaret receive her loan to impress the neighbours? We do not know. What we do know is that Robert Armburgh and Margaret's mother Joan were themselves in serious financial difficulty over an ongoing legal case, as well as from the expenses for Margaret's wedding. Margaret might have had to stiffen her spine and receive her visitors with her less than the 'honest bedding' that she so desired.

What a splendid little letter, allowing us the opportunity to peek into the life and concerns of Margaret Walkerne in 1430. What a miracle that such correspondence of little apparent importance in the great scheme of things should have survived for almost six hundred years.

My novel of Joanna of Navarre, The Queen's Choice, will be released in Hardback and eBook in January 2016.

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  1. In my research on Charlemagne for my own novels, I am convinced that his building projects (Aachen the most famous) were an attempt to show Francia was just as good as Byzantium and Rome.

  2. How wonderful! I wonder how easy it will be for future historians to work out information about us, given how much these days is Internet-based? Mind you,
    it's great now - all those historical documents being digitised so they aren't lost. But few people write letters any more and what happens when the Internet as we know it is no more?


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