This chapter examines the earliest attempts, in terms of a modern historiography dating from the second half of the nineteenth century, to discuss the medieval English peasantry. It begins with one of the most resilient of the themes in the historiography of the medieval English peasantry: lordship. The chapter explores the following main themes from this early period: economy, population and demography, and the village community. One of the more vibrant themes in later nineteenth-century historiography of the medieval peasantry was the nature and development of the village community. Political theorists and historians in the middle decades of the nineteenth century sought to identify long-term continuums and the interconnectedness of village communities over time. Studies of the village community by H. S. Maine, F. Seebohm and G. L. Gomme identified the organisation of the farming landscape as a major factor in the regulation and nature of the village community.
This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book begins by exploring the origins of, and influences on, the culture of the late medieval gentry, thus contributing to the debate on defining the membership of this group. It considers the gentry's emergence as a group distinct from the nobility and looks at the various available routes to gentility. Through surveys of the gentry's military background, administrative and political roles, social behaviour, and education, the book provides an overview of how the group's culture evolved, and how it was disseminated. It offers a broad view of late medieval gentry culture, which explores, reassesses and indeed sometimes even challenges the idea that members of the gentry cultivated their own distinctive cultural identity.
The medieval gentry read about education in didactic literature, meaning literature whose purpose was to instruct. The home is the place where all education begins, and this was so for the English gentry in the fifteenth century. They grew up in households consisting of parents, nurses and servants, all of whom might play a part in raising and educating the children. The culture of the fifteenth-century gentry was ambivalent socially. The gentry of the fifteenth century took education seriously. It figured as a topic in much of the material that they heard in sermons or read in literature, even in recreational reading such as romances. Hunting was important for the gentry both recreationally and socially. Socially it provided the gentry with a common activity in which they could meet and entertain one another.
Alongside investigation of the demographic study of peasant populations there has been closely related work on social and familial structure. This chapter discusses historical work on gender and the condition and role of women in peasant society. It begins by examining the peasant family and household in demographic terms and by looking at household formation, age at marriage and the size and structure of the peasant household, as well as the evolution of the peasant household in the high and late middle ages. Historical interest in household formation owes a great deal to work on post-medieval populations. Clearly, discussion of age at marriage and the process of family and household formation are closely associated with discussion of the size and structure of the peasant household as well as any regional and temporal differences.
Sir Edward Hastings expected immediate understanding of the term 'gentilman', and sympathy for his claim that gentle status and imprisonment were radically incompatible. In Latin, 'generositas' seems to have signified nobility by birth in the early thirteenth century, but by 1295 it also signified gentility bestowed by royal title. The breadth of meanings that came to be associated with gentility may itself have encouraged extended usage of the terms, making them peculiarly applicable to women as well as men. Dress and material circumstances were certainly two common makers of reputation and markers of gentility. Virtues such as truthfulness, courage and courtesy were also taken to be concomitants of gentility. Claimants to gentility were involved in a world of fluid social meanings, where their social status was continually being tested and negotiated by peers and neighbours in their community of honour.
After many years at the margins of historical investigation, the late medieval English gentry are widely regarded as an important and worthy subject for academic research. This book aims to explore the culture of the wide range of people whom we might include within the late medieval gentry, taking in all of landed society below the peerage, from knights down to gentlemen, and including those aspirants to gentility who might under traditional socio-economic terms be excluded from the group. It begins by exploring the origins of, and influences on, the culture of the late medieval gentry, thus contributing to the ongoing debate on defining the membership of this group. The book considers the gentry's emergence as a group distinct from the nobility, and looks at the various available routes to gentility. Through surveys of the gentry's military background, administrative and political roles, social behaviour, and education, it seeks to provide an overview of how the group's culture evolved, and how it was disseminated. The book offers a broad view of late medieval gentry culture, which explores, reassesses and indeed sometimes even challenges the idea that members of the gentry cultivated their own distinctive cultural identity. The evolution of the gentleman as a peer-assessed phenomenon, gentlemanly behaviour within the chivalric tradition, the education received by gentle children, and the surviving gentry correspondence are also discussed. Although the Church had an ambivalent attitude toward artistic expression, much of the gentry's involvement with the visual arts was religious in focus.
This introduction presents some of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book is an examination of the themes and approaches employed by historians in their discussions of the medieval English peasant, and most particularly in the period from the end of the eleventh to the beginning of the sixteenth century. It offers an overview and assessment of the development of work on medieval peasants since the close of the nineteenth century. Much of the early twentieth-century discussion of the medieval economy was located within and was explained by institutional structures. The book presents a sketch of the key historiographical phases in this area of research and writing. This sketch is also supported by a discussion of a range of possible causes of changes and developments in writing on the medieval English peasantry. The book considers historical reflection upon the term 'peasant' and its appropriateness.
Mindful of the need to avoid generalisations, and to approach the available evidence cautiously, this chapter draws on the surviving letter collections of the late medieval English gentry in an attempt to gain insight into the writers' literacy. It focuses on the gentry's command of the English language and deals predominantly with writing skills. Of all the late medieval social groups, evidence of the reading and writing skills of the gentry is the most accessible. The advantages of acquiring developed literacy skills grew throughout the late medieval period, as the gentry's involvement in local and national bureaucracy, as well as in commercial activities, increased. The concept of 'being literate' changed considerably throughout the Middle Ages, and to confuse matters modern scholars have defined literacy in many different ways. The late medieval gentry put their increasingly sophisticated literacy to use for the purpose of strengthening their group identity.
Since romances were read alongside other literary, historical, political and religious texts, and since their audience was both noble and gentle, this chapter aims to identify gentry concerns in the different texts available to them. Among the most well-known Middle English texts dealing with the topic of gentility are Chaucer's poem 'Gentilesse' and his 'Wife of Bath's Tale'. The portraits of the Knight and the Franklin in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales have also been used by literary critics and historians when discussing fourteenth-century society and its stratification in relation to Chaucer's own reflections on this topic. Instructional texts appear in miscellaneous manuscripts alongside romances, religious tracts and other items, including recipes and medical remedies. In the composite manuscripts many copies survive of the Brut chronicle, Thomas Hoccleve's Regiment, John Lydgate's Secrets, chronicles, genealogical chronicles and advice literature alongside romances.
This chapter explores the ways in which historians have engaged with the peasantry chiefly as tenants, and especially in terms of the relationship between lord and peasant-tenants. This concentration on lord-tenant relations has sometimes narrowed the historical focus to dwell upon sub-sets of the peasantry. An original intention of historical discussion of rent was to chart the development of serfdom, with a view to exploring the origins of servility in medieval England. Rodney Hilton suggests that evidence for class-consciousness amongst the medieval peasantry can be detected in their resistance and their claims against their lords. Hilton in particular, and Robert Brenner as a later contributor, were both engaged in what has been referred to as the 'transition debate', a longstanding discussion of the processes that explain change in the European economy and which sought to identify a primacy of causes for that change.