Debating the medieval English 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.

in Peasants and historians

The earlier Middle Ages are generally thought of as a period when there was no such thing as equality. Nevertheless, parity, however circumscribed by particularity, is attested in enough contexts, and in sufficiently many terms, to demand serious attention as an aspect of social relations and political thinking in the earlier Middle Ages. This chapter focuses on the period before 900, though it is gazed occasionally. In Philippe Buc's L'Ambiguïté du livre, there is a striking insistence both on the role of the Bible as a source of legitimacy in the Middle Ages, and on the possibility of egalitarian readings of Holy Writ. Not that Buc means 'egalitarian' in the universalistic sense of the Enlightenment. But he notes that for some twelfth-century Bible commentators, ecclesiastical authority was legitimately and normally wielded by local clergy rather than the pope.

in Law, laity and solidarities

Simon Walker studied modern history at Magdelen College, Oxford, graduating with first-class honours in 1979. When Walker began researching the retinue of John of Gaunt in 1980, 'bastard feudalism' had been the subject of debate for thirty-five years. A study of John of Gaunt's retinue could be expected to throw important, if not decisive, light on these problems. For not only was his the largest retinue in late medieval England, but for thirty years the duke himself had a dominant role in the domestic, military and diplomatic policy of England. In 1994, Michael Jones and Walker published for the Camden Society an edition of all the surviving private life indentures for peace and war apart from those of John of Gaunt and William, Lord Hastings. Walker's introduction to the volume reviewed the evolution of life indentures, the range of services they embraced, the regulation of obligations for service and reward, and the changing role of such indentures over the period 1278-1476. From these broad investigations into the balance of power between magnates and gentry, Walker returned to examine how, in individual cases, two men from different backgrounds built their careers on noble and royal patronage. Walker then turned to examine the retrospective view of the 1399 revolution in literate culture. He used case studies to build up a picture of collective mentalities among different social grades and vocational worlds, hoping ultimately to construct a new approach to the tensions and strength of the late medieval polity.

Charters as evidence

The charters of the 990s not only give readers a rare insight into the terms of early medieval English political debate, and into the tensions and contradictions within and between them, but also into their successful deployment within a specific historical context. This chapter begins with the 'youthful ignorance' charters. Returning to them now suggests how far the ideals of the 990s, albeit recorded in clerically drafted documents, should be seen as shared values, or ones which at least had strong resonance for the laity. In the context of debates which utilised the values of kinship and family, and in which the king was made to place himself and his actions within a dynastic past, a metaphor of the king's reign drawn from his human life-cycle was a very apposite way of presenting what was claimed as a shift in direction and a king's change of mind.

in Law, laity and solidarities

This chapter is an investigation of the nature of political society in later medieval England, though the angle from which it approaches it is notably oblique. Its starting point is an attempt to investigate the nature and significance of the religious sanction enjoyed by the political order through an examination of the changes in the definitions of sanctity that occurred within this period. Later medieval England was unusually rich in one further group of candidates for sanctity, the 'political' saints. The chapter discusses principal representatives of this group, who will receive more detailed attention in this paper, are well known: Simon de Montfort, Thomas of Lancaster, Edward II, Richard Scrope, archbishop of York, Henry VI. Political saints were no different from the other saints venerated in later medieval England in being valued 'not primarily as exemplars or soulfriends, but as powerful helpers and healers in time of need'.

in Political culture in later medieval England

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.

in Medieval law in context
Abstract only

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.

in Gentry culture in late-medieval England

Since the mid-twentieth century, much of the discussion of the medieval English peasantry has been determined by consideration of the overarching theme of population and the availability of resources relative to the peasant's capacity to cope in his or her world. It was the work of M.M. Postan which effected a crucial shift in the study of the medieval peasant by introducing a broad thesis of economic change based upon the relationship between population and resources. This chapter begins with a discussion of Postan's thesis of population movement before exploring it both in relation to his own views on the medieval English peasantry and, further, the application of that thesis by a generation of historians writing subsequent to Postan. This overview of Postan's work and its response summarises what can, with some justification, be described as the predominant explanatory model for the historiography of the medieval English peasantry.

in Peasants and historians

The acquisition and development of legal consciousness among those who were not themselves lawyers or judges are significant features of the political history of the period 1215-1381. An individual's obligations within a particular community and his or her awareness of those obligations contributed further to the level of consciousness of the law. Attendance at public courts was an important way of acquiring legal knowledge. Attendance at church, required by the 1215 Lateran Council, provided various opportunities for the acquisition of legal knowledge. At all levels of the court system, legal knowledge was a concomitant of experience gained from, and in many cases a necessary requirement for, employment as a court official and service as a juror. Finally, an understanding of the law could be acquired either directly or indirectly from the growing documentary culture, from book learning and/or from exposure to literature relating to legal matters.

in Medieval law in context