This part introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The part identifies features of the relevant historiography that often relate to or respond to the major shifts in our understanding of the medieval peasantry. Some of these developments reflect an intensification or a deepening of research in relation to more general theories regarding the functioning of medieval rural society and economy. Much of the discussion of medieval peasant culture has emerged in relation to discussion of peasant agency, be that in terms of politics and the political engagement of the peasantry, in or beyond the manor, or in commercial exchanges involving peasants, as producers and consumers. Historical investigation of themes relevant to our understanding of the medieval peasantry has been conducted by historians working, for the greater part, in other areas and often responding to other agendas.
Royal jurisdiction through the common law increased exponentially during the
period 1215-1381. Participation in the royal courts was therefore an
important way in which people became increasingly familiar with the
processes of law. A mixture of royal policy, experience of litigation and
feedback from lawyers and litigants shaped the development of the royal
courts. The effects of changes are assessed by four criteria: availability,
actionability, accountability and accessibility. The chapter first considers
the availability of royal justice and provides the reader with a snapshot of
the judicial system. Accountability was an important feature of the
Crown's policy towards the administration of justice and one that had
political and financial implications as well as purely legal ones. The
Crown's role in the prosecution of individuals was not restricted to
the identification of offenders through the use of local juries.
Patience is a poem that combines discussion of a moral quality with biblical narrative, in the case of Patience, one narrative only, the story of Jonah. It is reader-friendly and engaging. In both poems human beings are at odds with God, but the outcomes are very different. Patience sets out to explore the meaning of the virtue of its title. Through its God, the poem exemplifies and explains a more spiritual view of patience which the narrator gives no sign of understanding. The reader is led to suspect that his total lack of comment on Jonah's second lesson indicates that he is not only out of sympathy with Jonah but himself does not understand God's forgiveness of the Ninevites. Patience does not end with a prayer, a confirming sign, perhaps, that its narrator is meant to be seen as not attuned to spiritual matters.
Pearl is a religious dream-vision in which the dream is largely taken up by dialogue between the narrator or dreamer, as a figure in his dream, and a woman who is a fount of divine wisdom. It does not engage significantly with the fourteenth century. Its interest lies rather in relating Christian doctrine to universal life-experience, and particularly in the problem that some of the basic tenets of that doctrine fly in the face of basic human instincts and attitudes. The narrative of Pearl is multi-layered, with the poet creating a dreamer-figure separate from himself whose attitudes differ significantly before, in, and after his dream. If the dreamer is to be taken as a representative figure for all humanity then the poem demonstrates that the ways of God can never be justified to men, for the distance between God and man is too great to be bridged.
This chapter explores an element of the historiography of the medieval English peasantry, culture. There are two important strands in the historiography of the medieval peasantry which, in terms of their core assumptions, have supposed the presence of a peasant culture at least capable of being posited and, in part at least, examined. The first of these is the examination of peasant engagement with the market, especially in terms of peasants as consumers, and the second is that aimed at exploring peasant agency, especially as regards politics, be that at the level of the manor and estate or on a national scale. The chapter considers each of these in turn before turning to some other, related, features of peasant culture, including relatively new initiatives, typically issuing from beyond studies directed at the medieval peasantry per se, and examines aspects of culture related to and encompassing the medieval peasantry.
The study of the medieval English peasantry began in the nineteenth century as an adjunct to the study of other themes. Medievalists have tended to assume that modern working definitions of peasant, as proposed by Thorner et al., are sufficiently accommodating as to make room for a medieval English peasantry and conceive of a peasant society operating in medieval England. The book describes the ways in which historians have discussed change within the village community, notably in the pre- and post-Black Death village communities. It examines the ways in which debates or particular avenues of research have emerged from three main strands of research: population movement and its determining; the demands and constraints of the seigneurial economy and of resistance to the same; and the development of commerce and the market. The book analyzes 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. It suggests that the study of the medieval peasantry is not a plaything of historical fashion, subject only to the whims and musings of historians the views of whom are rooted only in the present; it reflects a nuancing and refining of questions that will lead to a fuller understanding of a topic and period of great and enduring interest.
The role of peasants as participants in markets and as distinctive players in the medieval English economy has been emphasised by a number of historians. Marxist historians writing either side of the Second World War argued for a peasant economy that was, in its development, principally influenced by lordship and which was certainly not determined in the greater part by the market or commerce. The chapter sets out the ways in which the market has often tended to be set aside in discussion of the medieval peasant. It examines the adoption of new approaches to the study of the medieval English economy. Central features of this approach are: an awareness of the potentially significant impact of peasant economic endeavour on medieval gross domestic product and a reconsideration of the role of commerce, including rural trade and peasant economic activity, in effecting and indeed driving change in the medieval English economy.
This chapter maintains that the key concerns and political debates during the
period 1215-1381 invariably rested on issues of legal import, among them
ways of defining the legitimate exercise of royal power, matters of
jurisdiction, law and order, and the functioning of the judicial system. It
examines some of the contexts in which law entered the political arena and
the processes by which royal authority was transmitted to, and received by,
subjects. The chapter focuses on kingship and particularly the use of image
and rhetoric in upholding public order and maintaining confidence in the
law. It considers the attempts on the part of successive monarchs to
legitimise their actions on the national and international stage by applying
legal concepts and processes. The chapter looks at 'popular'
attitudes towards the law and the assimilation of legal concepts as
manifested in the Peasants' Revolt.
The politics of later medieval England have acquired an unsavoury reputation: this was an age of king-killers, after all. Sir John Scott and Sir John Fogge dominated Kentish politics during their time as, respectively, controller and treasurer of Edward IV's household. Each of these local leaders had his own gentry networks. Service in the king's wars, either on campaign or as part of a castle garrison, gave many of the gentry experience of England's Celtic neighbours and, of course, France. Office-holding provided the framework within which the greater gentry led their public lives. The Church held vast estates, and the major religious houses needed servants, estate officials, lawyers and well-wishers, creating their own 'affinities' within which the gentry found employment. In many cases, the greater gentry were perfectly capable of maintaining their autonomy.
Richard Brome's satirical travel drama The Antipodes of 1636-1638 is a late example of the Renaissance vogue for English plays which engage with the idea of New Worlds and colonial politics. This chapter focuses on another influential source for Brome's play, Mandeville's Travels, and examines the significance of the relationship between the texts in two related ways. Firstly, Brome's importation to 1630s 'London' of Mandevillian monstrousness is explored, specifically with regard to gender behaviour and sexual appetite. Secondly, the chapter examines the status accorded to Mandeville's text in The Antipodes and in the early to mid-seventeenth century more generally, in order to pose larger political and generic questions concerning the ways in which dramatic texts use travel writing in this period. In The Antipodes, Brome represents the characters' various social problems and health issues as types of madness or moral sickness.