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- Author: Phillipp R. Schofield x
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 part introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The part considers the ways in which the historical study of the medieval English peasantry has, after its first stirrings, tended to be confined within three broad themes. These main themes have become associated with a more all-encompassing discussion of change in the medieval economy. So, historians have tended to see the economy as driven by one of or a combination of the following 'supermodels': population movement and its determining factors, the demands and constraints of the seigneurial economy and of resistance to the same, and the development of commerce and the market. The part suggests that a population-driven model, associated especially with the writing of M.M. Postan, was highly influential in the third quarter of the twentieth century but lost significant ground to a more 'commercial model' during the 1980s.
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.
This chapter considers the ways in which discussion of certain important aspects of peasant society in medieval England, for instance the transfer of land, are sometimes examined by historians as explicable in terms of their significance for society and community. It identifies four main historical approaches which, with differing motives, have explored the nature, and changing nature, of the medieval village community and the durability of the bonds which sustained it. These are institutionalists, social structuralists, Marxists, and individualists. Institutionalists are those historians, such as Helen M. Cam, who have emphasised the importance of legal and quasi-legal structures in defining the village community. Social structuralists have tended to define the village community according to the activities of its constituents, and especially in terms of co-operation. Individualists, an approach associated with Alan Macfarlane but one that also admits a nuanced discussion of individual enterprise and entrepreneurship.
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.