Posts tagged ‘Middle Ages’

Monday Masterclass: The Medieval Village and Its People

Once again, this week, I’m going to take a quick look at an aspect of life in a medieval village – information that comes, appropriately enough, from Life in a Medieval Village by Frances and Joseph Gies.

Occupations

As noted previously, the village in the 12th to 14th centuries was almost entirely geared towards food production, whether it be crops, livestock or dairy. Many villagers worked both on their own land and on their lord’s demesne. Cotters, who had little  or no land of their own, worked as labourers. Other villagers were free, land-rich men who hired others to work their furlongs. Most were somewhere in between.

Craftsmen were generally based in the towns, but there were plenty of itinerant traders and workers who provided services. Just about every villager was a farmer of land and livestock – but there were plenty of other occupations, too, either full-time or part-time.

Almost as important as producing food, was the production of ale. A lot of the barley grown in a village was used for producing the malt for ale – although other cereals were also used. Malt was dried in a communal kiln, but ale was brewed in large cauldrons in people’s homes – most often by women. Once a batch was brewed, the family would put a sign outside their house and establish a temporary tavern.

Ale-taster was an important rôle in the village; ale-tasters were elected on an annual basis – and were also often female. Ale had to come up to certain standards of strength and measure, otherwise the seller could be fined.

Bread – or, more specifically, the milling of flour and the baking of bread – was an important source of revenue for the lord. Mills and ovens were seigneurial monopolies. Villagers were fined for baking their own bread, while millers were regulated quite strictly and could also be fined for inappropriate behaviour, such as accepting payment in kind.

Religion and Village Life

Every village had a church, or, at least, was part of a parish centred around a church belonging to a bishop, a monastery or even a wealthy layman who commissioned a church for his family and tenants. The priest was employed by the church’s owner and, as a literate man, was useful to villagers for witnessing documents and suchlike. Funds raised by the church went to the owner.

Villages were also visited by travelling preachers, who could often be more entertaining than the local pastor. The parish vicar would give the mass in Latin, which, of course, the villagers did not speak. The mass would become something of a social event, with women being fashionably late, and lots of gossiping and flirting going on.

Mendicant friars, Franciscans and Dominicans, gave more engaging sermons. Life in a Medieval Village gives this amusing example:

[T]hese roving brothers preached in the parish church with the permission of the rector, or failing that, in the open air, where their sermons offered a lively alternative  to the routine of Sunday services. Illustrated with personal experiences, fables, and entertaining stories, the encouraged the participation of the congregation. A preacher might call out, “Stop that babbling,” to a woman, who did not hesitate to reply, “What about you? You’ve been babbling for the last half hour.” Such exchanges brought laughter, applause, and more friendly heckling.

In this period of the Middle Ages, the family had become the most important social unit, superseding previous clan and other loyalties. Families resembled the modern ideal of a nuclear family – mother, father and two or three children. Old people may have lived with their families or may have continued to live by themselves. Some even paid pensions to be looked after in their old age by monks at a monastery.

Marriage was achieved by the bride and groom making vows to each other and didn’t need witnesses, although, of course, the Church preferred such vows to be in public. A wedding would typically have the couple say their vows at the church door, followed by a mass inside the church and a ‘bride ale’ in a tavern or house.

Clandestine marriage also occurred, with the couple saying their vows in secret in the woods or elsewhere – which led to men sometimes taking advantage of a woman, speaking vows he didn’t mean in order to have sex with her. Pre-marital sex was illegal and subject to the typical sixpence fine, but wasn’t especially stigmatised. Women may have deliberately allowed themselves to become pregnant before marrying their partner in order to establish their fertility.

Another important area where religion affected everyday life was the regular cycle of feast days. On such days, the lord would lay on feast for some of his villeins, and the villagers would prepare special foods, play games and sports, sing and so on. Christmas was a two-week holiday, while Easter lasted a week. Other holidays included All Hallows (1st November), Martinmas (11th November), Rock or Plough Monday (first Monday after Epiphany), May Day, Whitsunday (Pentecost – seven weeks after Easter), St John’s Day (24th June), Lammas (1st August) and a Wake Day celebrating the local saint’s day.

Conclusion

While the medieval villager’s life was dominated by farming and related trades, there were also plenty of diversions from such hard work. Frances and Joseph Gies book, Life in a Medieval Village, was an interesting read that corrected a few erroneous ideas and put a lot of flesh on the stereotypical image one has of life at that time. I certainly recommend it, and I’d like to move on to some of their other books, such as Life in a Medieval Castle.

What thoughts do you have on the village and on the medieval era? Speak your brains in the comments section.

Monday Masterclass: The Medieval Village and Its Lord

As I’ve just finished reading Frances and Joseph Gies’s Life in a Medieval Village and as many fantasy novels are set in a medieval-esque environment, this week’s Monday Masterclass will give a description of the village in the Middle Ages. Specifically, the village in the 12th to 14th centuries, which is what the book focuses on. This week, I’m going to look at the lord – who was actually somewhat peripheral to the concerns of villagers.

What is a Medieval Village?

The word village comes from ‘villatic’, meaning ‘of the countryside’, which in turn comes from ‘villa’, the country house of the Roman elite, which functioned as both seasonal residence and plantation.

The medieval village was a mostly self-sufficient community centred around farming. Its inhabitants worked the land or produced goods from farmed crops. The nucleus of the village was the villagers’ homes and various communal buildings, while around it were the fields. Village populations were in the order of 300 to 600, and villages represented the bulk of a nation’s population in that era.

Some peasants lived in homesteads – single houses near a farm or other resource that the people exploited. Some lived in hamlets – small clusters of homes of often interrelated families who farmed, fished, hunted etc, but who lacked certain amenities such as a church, bakery, mill and so on. Some lived in towns – which were centres of trade and commerce, hosting markets and merchant businesses. The village was a different entity, occupying a rôle between hamlet and town.

Lord and Village

One of the defining characteristics of the medieval village was the presence (although maybe at a remove) of a lord. The lord may have been a petty knight granted land as part of his knighthood; it could have been a powerful nobleman with lands scattered across several counties; it may have been the Church – the village that is the main subject of the Gies’s book, Elton in Cambridgeshire, was under the leadership of Ramsey Abbey.

The lord may also have been a lady – widows and heiresses controlled land, as well as abbesses and prioresses. Usually, a village was subservient to a single lord, but occasionally, the land of a village might be divided amongst two or more lords. The lord was subservient to either a more powerful lord, of whom he was a tennant, or to the Crown.

The land of the whole village is referred to as the manor. This is divided into two parts: the lord’s demesne (pronounced like ‘domain’) and the villagers’ own land. Villagers could also be divided into two types: freeholders with no particular duties to the lord; and villeins (or serfs) who had a duty to work the fields that made up the demesne as well as their own land and who were required to pay fees for various events in life.

A lord with a single manor would have lived permanently in the manor house in the village. A lord with an extensive estate may never have visited all the villages he (or she) was responsible for – but every village had a manor house. This was the residence of the bailiff, the lord’s main official in a manor, and provided lodging for visiting dignitaries – the lord’s steward or seneschal, who oversaw the whole estate, for instance. Other village officials, such as the reeve – the bailiff’s assistant and highest ranking peasant – would eat meals in the manor house.

The lord was the main authority in the village, but seems to have been quite a hands-off ruler. The village was primarily an economic unit – a producer of food and drink – and the lord mostly allowed villagers to organise themselves to maximise their own output and profit – and therefore his profit.

The main, albeit not necessarily direct, interaction between villager and lord was the manorial court or hallmote, held at least twice a year. At the court, a jury of villagers and the steward would oversee much of the legal business of the village. Villagers were fined for breaking laws and customs, fees were paid for various things, bylaws were made and village officials were elected.

Fines were typically sixpence and made up the vast majority of punishments allotted (occasionally, someone might be sentenced to spend time in the stocks; serious crimes like murder were tried in royal courts). Poor villagers often had their fines waived.

Fees included chevage (payment of an animal by a villein living outside the manor), gersum (for taking possession of a tennancy), heriot (death duty of the deceased’s best animal), merchet (for a woman’s marriage – usually paid by the father; sometimes by the woman if she was a widow, or other arrangements were possible), mortuary (death duty paid to the Church of the second best animal) and tallage (annual tax on villeins).

Villeins could also pay to get out of doing week-work – farming the lord’s demesne. With the money raised, the lord would hire labourers to work his land. Or the lord may have leased his land to a rich peasant, local knight or businessman from a nearby town, who would then keep the difference between the lease fee and the profits. In a similar way, by the 12th and 13th centuries, lords going to war for their monarch was becoming old-fashioned; instead a lord’s taxes would go towards hiring an army.

Conclusion

As a rule, ordinary peasants would have no contact with their lord – dealing instead with the reeve or bailiff, or occasionally the steward. Because of the village’s autonomy, there seems to have been little discontent at the relationship (until increasing taxes led to the Peasant’s Rebellion in 1381 at least). Which isn’t to say villagers led an idyllic life – but, during the period in question, they weren’t miserable oppressed wretches, either.

What are your thoughts on medieval villages and lords? Comment below and share your wisdom.

Next time, I’ll look at another aspect of the medieval village.