1215: The Year of Magna Carta

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Overview

A few years ago Danny Danziger wrote a popular book about what life was like during the year AD 1000, a year of great psychological significance for much of Europe's population. Now, with the help of John Gillingham, he directes his attention to a milestone year in English history, 1215, a year which saw the transformation of England's monarchy, government and legal system all due to King John's signing of the Magna Carta. Each chapter adopts a theme, such as the castle, the countryside, town, school, tournaments...
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Overview

A few years ago Danny Danziger wrote a popular book about what life was like during the year AD 1000, a year of great psychological significance for much of Europe's population. Now, with the help of John Gillingham, he directes his attention to a milestone year in English history, 1215, a year which saw the transformation of England's monarchy, government and legal system all due to King John's signing of the Magna Carta. Each chapter adopts a theme, such as the castle, the countryside, town, school, tournaments and battles, King John, the English, the Church, Christianity, the wider world, and the reasons for the Magna Carta, to look at how rich and poor lived their lives and how they viewed their changing world. As one would expect, the text is approachable, full of interesting facts and complemented by extracts from all manner of texts.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Do you like history? Have you been searching for a good historical page-turner? Danny Danziger has written the perfect book for you. 1215 takes one of the most important years in Western civilization and delivers an excellent account of the events that occurred. Each chapter highlights a different area of interest, from royalty and politics to popular entertainment activities to the making of the Magna Carta itself. A great way to spend an afternoon, 1215 will transport you to an exciting time in history and leave you begging for more. Shonda Wilson
Publishers Weekly
Magna Carta is considered a foundation of modern freedoms, yet it is deeply rooted in the unique facts and political situation of 13th-century England. This excellent study is not only about the document itself but also about the context in which it can be fully understood. Danziger (The Year 1000) and Gillingham, professor emeritus of history at the London School of Economics, head each chapter with a passage from the Great Charter and elucidate the daily experience and issues that underlie it. While the first chapters elaborate on how both average folk and elites lived, worked, hunted, married, studied, played and went to church, later chapters get deeper into the meaning of the document itself. Marvelous details about daily life abound, while myths and misperceptions are firmly swept away. The infamous King John, who signed the Great Charter, moves slowly to center stage against the background stories of his parents, the legendary Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine; his brother Richard Lionheart; and other great figures of the day, both historical and mythical, including Robin Hood and Thomas Becket. When the reader reaches the climactic chapter, in which the barons force the Charter on John, the document has jumped off the pedestal on which tradition has placed it and become a living thing. The event itself and the details of the document show how age-old practices and last-minute concessions shaped the text (which is included in its entirety). Danziger and Gillingham make it clear that the Magna Carta was not an abstract thesis, but a brilliant response to a particular time and circumstance. Map. (June 15) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
"No vill or man shall be forced to build bridges at river banks, except those who ought to do so by custom and law."The years preceding 1215 in England were bad ones, apparently, for the folks who didn't wish to be press-ganged into building bridges; they weren't much better for those who liked a little variety in their diet, for in those days "the poor virtually fasted every day," even if their simple repasts spared them from the tooth decay that the rich, with their artificial sweeteners, suffered. British historian/writers Danziger (co-author, The Year 1000, 1999, etc.) and Gillingham (History/London School of Economics) take readers on an informal, sometimes even breezy tour of the times, explaining oddments and customs: Chairs being rare, for instance, visitors to a house were usually seated on daybeds; only an important guest was given the seat of honor, whence the modern term "chairman" or "chair." Danziger and Gillingham linger appreciatively on some of the better aspects of the day, when cathedrals and seats of learning were established and England's holdings were beginning to expand across the waters to France and Ireland. But they don't shy from the less idyllic features of life in Merrie Olde, when slavery may have been abolished but serfdom endured ("Economic and social circumstance inevitably meant that some people were less free than others"). Their narrative, which moves along nicely, closes with the rebellion of the English knights against King John, who, most commentators agree, needed to be rebelled against; the result was the Magna Carta, a translation of the complete text of which closes this study (and makes it of extra use for readers seeking good value for theirshilling). Danziger and Gillingham suggest that the most important clauses of the Magna Carta concern the requirements for fair trials and judgment by peers-but protection against having to build bridges unwillingly must have been nice, too. A reader-friendly glance at a turning point in history.
From the Publisher
"Entertaining and informative...Even more enjoyable than the account of the Magna Carta itself is the depiction of who we were in the crucial year of 1215."
— Antonia Fraser, Mail on Sunday

"Brimming with period detail."
The Washington Post

"This is an excellent slice of popular history which has 'bestseller' written all over it."
Sunday Express

"In 13th-century England, it was bad manners for lords to pick fleas from their breeches during meals. Urinating in the dining hall was likewise frowned upon, 'unless you were the head of the household.'... Such nuggets abound in this small volume, which doubles as a brilliantly concise history of the Magna Carta... Students of history, and of engaging writing, should hope for further installments."
Dallas Morning News

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743257732
  • Publisher: Touchstone
  • Publication date: 6/15/2004
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 5.28 (w) x 7.06 (h) x 1.11 (d)

Meet the Author

Danny Damziger was brought up in England and America. Now an award- winning columnist for The Sunday Times, he is the author of eight books, including the bestselling Eton Voices and The Year 1000. He is currently writing a book on the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

John Gillingham is professor of history at the London School of Economics and the author of a number of highly regarded academic works on the Middle Ages, as well as the popular history Medieval Britain: An Introduction.

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Read an Excerpt

1215

The Year of Magna Carta
By Danny Danziger

Touchstone

Copyright © 2005 Danny Danziger
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0743257782

Chapter One: The Englishman's Castle

Neither we nor our bailiffs shall take other men's timber for castles or other work of ours, without the agreement of the owner.

Magna Carta, Clause 31

This was a time when a laborer was paid a penny a day, and when an income of ten pounds a year was enough for a country gentleman to maintain a comfortable lifestyle. A wealthy magnate, possessing twenty or thirty manors, had an annual income of several hundred pounds and lived luxuriously in his castles and country houses. It is hard for us to visualize this today. Surviving castle walls tend to make us think of cold, dark, drafty, damp and thoroughly uncomfortable rooms. And so they were by twenty-first-century standards. But by the standards of the time, when they compared the way they lived with the way in which their parents and grandparents had lived, the rich families of King John's England felt they were enjoying all mod cons.

When we see ancient, crumbling stone walls, we think of dungeons and sieges. Instead, we should think of chimneys and fireplaces. Until the twelfth century most castles and great houses were built of timber, and usually one storey high. Heat was provided by open fires or braziers in the center of the floor, the smoke being drawn out through a louver in the roof. In stone buildings fireplaces and chimneys were encased in the thickness of the walls and one room could be piled on top of another to make a tower. While early fireplaces usually had short flues, by the later twelfth century it was known that an extended flue produced a stronger draft.

Stone walls were not just fireproof and handy for keeping enemies out, they could also be used for plumbing in running water. The lead pipes in the Great Tower, King Henry II's keep, at Dover Castle drew water from a well sunk more than 240 feet into the chalk. Thick walls could contain corridors and private rooms -- above all, latrines, usually approached round a sharp bend so that the person using it could have some privacy. You no longer had to go outside to use a lavatory.

In 1215 new fashions were beginning to change the way the houses of the aristocracy were designed. For many centuries before this, the residences of the aristocracy had nearly always consisted of a number of buildings within an enclosure. The principal buildings were a hall, for receiving visitors and dining, a chamber block, where the lord's family had their private space, which it was rude to enter uninvited, a kitchen and at least one privy. These separate units were often linked by covered ways. There would be other buildings too: extra accommodation for visitors or senior servants, stables, a brewhouse, and workshops for jobs such as carding and spinning wool, or retting flax. Poultry and other animals ran freely in the yard.

The hall was at ground level. In his manual of good manners, The Book of the Civilised Man, Daniel of Beccles advised keeping pigs and cats out of the hall, but allowed in a "gentleman's animals": dogs, hawks and even horses. Only those whom the master had expressly allowed to do so could enter the hall on horseback. King Henry II liked to ride into his chancellor Thomas Becket's hall, jump over the table and join the dinner party. The hall was a public space and some behavior was frowned upon, as Daniel of Beccles makes clear: don't scratch yourself or look for fleas in your breeches or on your chest; don't snap your fingers; don't comb your hair, clean your nails, or take your shoes off there in the presence of lords and ladies. Messengers should take off gloves, arms and cap before they entered -- though bald messengers were permitted to keep their caps on. Urinating in the hall was particularly bad manners -- unless you were the head of the household; then it was permissible.

By contrast with the hall, the chamber block often had two storeys, a semi-basement cellar with chamber above -- the word "chamber" could mean either a room or a suite. When stone replaced wood, kitchens especially and chamber blocks were built or rebuilt in this more durable and less flammable material. Chairs were rare. Often a bed was the only piece of furniture in a room. During the day people sat on beds made up for the purpose -- "daybeds." A chair was reserved for a person of status -- hence the modern term "chairman" or, nowadays, "chair."

The walls of the grandest rooms in important houses were often painted. Henry II commissioned a mural of an eagle and its four chicks for his Painted Chamber in Westminster Palace. In that room the bed was lavishly decorated, a "state bed" on which the king received important visitors. Other walls were decorated with embroideries or tapestries. When a household moved from one residence to another, the best of these wall hangings were packed and taken along, either in carts or on sumpter horses, as also were costly soft furnishings such as the coverlets with which daybeds were spread.

The king led the way in setting new fashions. Take, for example, the great tower at Orford, a royal castle built on the Suffolk coast in the 1160s. It was architect designed, based on a precisely calculated geometrical pattern, a 49-foot-diameter circle with three projecting towers. It contained two fine public rooms, one above the other, both circular, each lit by three double windows, the upper room embellished with a dome-effect ceiling. Similarly the great tower at Conisborough in Yorkshire, built for King John's uncle Hamelin, contained two spacious circular rooms one above the other. At Orford, with a kitchen on each of the two main floors and a bakery, it was possible to provide the five private chambers with what was, in effect, night storage heating. One of these chambers had a well-ventilated privy en suite. In addition a cistern provided running water and three separate privies, although if two people were using a double one, it was not polite, Daniel of Beccles explains, for one to stand up before the other. At Orford the doorways were reminiscent of the pedimented entrances of classical antiquity.

These magnificent stone towers were phenomenally expensive when compared with timber buildings. The timber hunting lodge built for Richard I at Kinver in Staffordshire in the 1190s cost £24 18s 9d. For this the king got a hall with a buttery and pantry, a chamber block, a kitchen and a jail, all enclosed by a 16-foot-high palisade with a fortified gatehouse, plus a newly made fishpond outside the enclosure. By contrast, the luxurious tower at Orford cost nearly £1,000 and Henry II's great tower of Newcastle-upon-Tyne cost £912. At this date few nobles could afford to build even one such prestigious "power house."

Another design feature that became increasingly common during King John's lifetime was the window seat, which allowed the proud owner of a fashionable new house to make better use of the light and enjoy the view. Increasingly the rich had their windows glazed. In 1237, for example, Peter the Painter was paid 5s 6d for making a glass window in Marlborough Castle. At this time, what is now the tiny village of Chiddingfold in the Sussex Weald was the center of the English glass-making industry. Those who could afford them chose floor tiles in place of beaten earth or stone floors -- and fine tiles were meant to be admired, not covered with rushes or rush matting. In The Romance of Horn the poet describes a princess's chamber "paved with intricately worked marble and blue limestone." Tiled floors were easier to keep clean too. Comfort and fashion were of primary importance rather than defense. When the rebellion against John broke out in 1215 it was more than forty years since the peace of the English countryside had been seriously disturbed. In the borderlands people were vulnerable to Scottish and Welsh raids; elsewhere they preferred to spend their money on luxury and pleasure rather than on preparation for war.

Hundreds of churches from King John's time still survive today, but only a handful of town and country houses. Buildings in which people prayed have been used for many centuries without the need for fundamental redesign, but the same cannot be said of domestic accommodation. Changing ideas of comfort and fashion have meant that homes have been torn down and reconstructed time and time again. For this reason books about medieval architecture are almost entirely devoted to churches. We know very much less about domestic buildings -- although, thanks partly to the spadework of archaeologists, we are no longer quite as much in the dark as we used to be. We can see now that in this period the basic design of the aristocratic residence was changing. Once separate buildings were being brought together to form a single whole. Service rooms, later known as the buttery and the pantry, were added at one end of the hall, often with cellar space below. The early thirteenth-century fashion for attaching the other end of the hall to the principal chamber block led to the establishment of what is thought of as the classic "English medieval house," a three-part house, all under one roof, with great chamber and parlor at the "upper" end of the hall. At the "lower" end there were service doors from the buttery and the pantry, often shielded by screens from the eyes of upper-class diners at the "top table." A passage designed to give direct access into the hall from the kitchen -- which, for safety reasons, still remained separate -- ran between buttery and pantry. For the next three centuries anyone who had any social pretensions lived in this new type of house.

The palace at Woodstock in Oxfordshire was a royal residence on which a great deal was spent from Henry I's time onwards. Nothing remains of it today, and even the landscape in which it stood was drastically altered when Blenheim Park was laid out in the eighteenth century. In King John's time a spring fed three pools around which gardens and a group of buildings clustered. Henry II kept the most favored of his mistresses, Rosamund Clifford, "Fair Rosamund," in this rural retreat. It included the "king's high chamber by the pool," the queen's chamber, Rosamund's chamber, the kitchen, a wine cellar, and a chapel. Great houses such as Woodstock were set in ornamental landscapes, often with artificial lakes created by dams, which were appreciated for their beauty as well as for their stock of delicacies such as pike, bream and lamprey -- a freshwater eel (Henry I is supposed to have died of a surfeit of lampreys). There was also the pleasure of fishing with rod and line. The Paris-educated Anglo-Welsh intellectual Gerald de Barri -- often known as Gerald of Wales -- claimed that his family home, Manorbier Castle, on the Pembrokeshire coast, was the most beautiful place in Wales. He picked out the magnificent pool below the castle walls as one of its finest features, together with its orchard and grove of hazel trees. Gerald described the Bishop of Lincoln's palace at Stow as being "pleasingly surrounded by woods and pools"; it was here that the most saintly bishop of the day, Hugh of Lincoln, liked to feed his pet swan. Deer parks, orchards, vineyards, enclosed gardens and viewing pavilions, known as gloriettes, were all part of the aesthetic of the country house.

Those who lived in such houses had plenty to keep them busy and entertained. For the staff, nearly all of whom were male and lived in, the day was long, and especially so for the chief officer of the household, the steward or marshal: he was often the first to rise and the last to retire. In summer the porters opened the gates at five in the morning and closed them at about ten in the evening. In winter they opened two hours later and closed an hour earlier. The kitchen staff were next on parade. Lunch (prandium), the main meal of the day, was taken at what we would now think of as mid-morning, so even if breakfast consisted only of bread, cheese and ale -- and some households did without -- the staff was kept busy. Not only was there the food to be prepared, there was also the hall to be cleaned, wall hangings shaken or beaten, tables (boards on trestles), stools and benches had to be put in place or stacked away. Servants who lived outside the household arrived, often women who worked as laundresses or dairymaids.

When the lord and lady got up, servants and maids helped them wash and dress. They used a soft soap made by boiling mutton fat in wood ash and caustic soda, and a twig, probably springy hazel, to clean their teeth. Men's and women's dress was similar. Both wore stockings (chauces) made of wool or silk, then a shirt (chemise) with long sleeves, which were often detachable and worn so fashionably tight that they had to be stitched on each time the shirt was worn. Detachable sleeves were a favorite gift, especially as a love token. A tunic or gown (bliaut) went over the shirt, secured with a brooch; above a full skirt a lady's gown had a tight-fitting bodice, while both chemise and bliaut might be slashed and laced above the waist to reveal her bare skin. Then came a coat, or surcoat, and in cold weather a fur-lined pellice, often sleeveless, might be worn on top. Out of doors on a cold day a mantle was thrown over everything, fastened at the shoulder with another brooch. The poor wore shorter garments; for the rich the sheer length of their clothes was a way of displaying wealth -- although the young Henry II became known as Curtmantle when he reversed the usual trend and set a fashion for short cloaks. Since clothes were made without pockets, coins and valuables were commonly carried in a purse attached to the belt, though they could be tied into a skirt or shirt sleeves. A cap could be worn either in or out of doors. They wore thin-soled leather shoes. It was said that the shoes of an elegantly dressed gentleman would fit so well that no one could see how he had got into them or imagine how he would ever get out of them again.

The one important difference between men's and women's clothes was that men wore underpants (braies), while women often went naked under the chemise. When King Henry I's illegitimate daughter Juliana was forced to jump into a castle moat in February, the chronicler who described her misfortune thought in particular of the numbing effect of the freezing water on her bare buttocks. A woman's hair was usually arranged in two plaits, the longer the better. Ivory or bone combs, but more commonly boxwood, survive from this period, as do small compact mirrors with concave glass for a fuller image. The fashionable look was for white skin and rosy cheeks, and makeup was available for those who needed help with this.

After morning prayers the senior members of the household either breakfasted or got straight down to the day's business. The management of a manor of two -- or in the case of the great nobles, dozens of manors -- with their farms, tenants, gardens, fishponds, barns and buildings generated a great deal of thought, supervision and decision making for the head of household. Not that every morning was devoted to business. There were plenty of festivals and holy days -- and holidays were not for working. Nonetheless, on most days there was much to be done. Only stupid lords -- of whom, naturally, there were always some -- left top management entirely in the hands of their senior staff. The estate had to generate a profit, money had to be spent, investments made if you and your children were to continue to enjoy an aristocratic lifestyle. Daniel of Beccles quoted the Roman poet Ovid, "It's low class to count your flocks," only to disagree with him. Daniel's advice was: "Keep a sharp eye on your property. Aim to improve the yields of fields and livestock. This way you can afford to be generous." Sometimes the head of the household was a woman, a widow or a wife looking after things in the absence of her husband. Ambitious men were often away from home, consulting their lawyers in London or following the royal court. Other husbands were so keen on hunting that even when they were in residence the lady of the house was the real manager of the estate.

Whether it was a feast day or not, meals in an aristocratic household were very formal occasions. Even the washing of hands before and after every meal was ceremonious. A pitcher of water, or a pottery aqua manile in the shape of a horse or a ram, designed so that the water came out of the animal's mouth, would be brought round; one servant poured the water while another held a bowl under the diner's hands. In a well-run household the approved arrangement was for a high table and two side tables to be set out, and covered with cloth, usually linen. Spoons, saltcellars (which might be silver gilt and very ornamental indeed) and bread would be laid out, and knives too -- though many people brought their own knife. (At this date pepper was much too expensive to be left on the table.) The pantler (from the French word pain) with the bread and the butler (from bouteille) with a fine drinking cup -- perhaps a mazer, a cup made of maplewood, mounted in precious metals -- stood side by side in front of the lords while grace was said. The marshal or steward supervised the serving of food and drink, and kept order in the hall -- young servants were notoriously rowdy. According to Daniel's book, the servers should be well groomed and neatly dressed, their hands and nails clean, their hair properly combed. They should make sure there were no long hairs growing out of their noses, and that their shoes didn't squeak. Those serving drink should never fill cups more than two-thirds full. Whereas those serving food had to go to the kitchen to collect each course, the drinks waiters would bring wine or ale from another table, the "cup-board," in the hall, on which precious plates and goblets might also be displayed. When Thomas Becket was chancellor he was famous for the luxurious state he kept. According to Herbert of Bosham, his friend and biographer: "His table was resplendent with gold and silver plate, and abounded in dainty dishes and expensive wines. Whatever food or drink was a celebrated rarity, no price was so high that it deterred his agents from buying it."

Wine was not stored in bottles but kept in wooden casks and drunk young. Henry II's dominions included some of the finest wine-growing areas in Europe: the Bordeaux region, the hinterland of La Rochelle in Poitou, and Anjou and Touraine, from where the best wines, the vins pour la mer, were taken down the Loire valley to be exported from Nantes. According to one twelfth-century author, English wine could be drunk only with eyes closed and teeth clenched. When John came to the throne he fixed the prices at which the wines of Poitou and Anjou were to be sold. In an effort to boost his popularity, he set them low with, in the view of disapproving contemporaries, the inevitable consequence that "the whole land was filled with drink and drinkers." The king's wine was transported in tuns, casks containing 252 gallons, and stored in castles and other houses such as Marlborough and Clarendon until the king called for them. Archaeologists have uncovered the great wine cellar known as "La Roche" built for Henry II at Clarendon. An audit of John's wine revealed that in 1201 he had over 700 tuns of wine (180,000 gallons) at his disposal. Perhaps he went for quantity rather than quality. In 1201 he visited the king of France at Fontainebleau and was given the run of the palace and its wine cellar. "After he had gone," a Frenchman wrote, "the king of France and his people all had a good laugh at the way the people of the English king had drunk all the bad wines and left all the good ones." Or was King John just being polite?

In the largest households there might have to be two sittings for lunch. Since ceremony and hierarchy required that the head of household would be the first served and the last to leave the table, lunch might take a long time, two or three hours. It is not surprising that some lords and ladies preferred to eat in the relative privacy of their own chambers -- though this was frowned upon by traditionalists, who thought it was a lord's duty to maintain his own dignity, and that of his household, by dining publicly.

Tableware -- plates, bowls, cups, saucers, and platters for trenchers (the slices of thick bread on which food was served and which could be eaten after the juices had been absorbed) -- was generally made of wood, earthenware or pewter, though inevitably the richest households liked to display their silver. At lunch two main courses were served, and two light courses, each course including a great variety of dishes. A week's shopping list made for King John's niece Eleanor of Brittany gives a good idea of aristocratic diet.

Saturday: bread, ale, sole, almonds, butter, eggs.

Sunday: mutton, pork, chicken and eggs

Monday: beef, pork, honey, vinegar.

Tuesday: pork, eggs, egret

Wednesday: herring, conger, sole, eels, almonds and eggs

Thursday: pork, eggs, pepper, honey

Friday: conger, sole, eels, herring and almonds

For those who took their religious observances to heart, Fridays, Saturdays and many Wednesdays were fish days. There were also, in addition to Lent, a number of fast days when little but bread and ale were consumed. By these standards the poor virtually fasted every day. They ate eggs, cheese, bread, vegetables and legumes; they drank ale -- unprocessed water posed a known health risk. Ironically this meant that they suffered less from tooth decay than the rich who could afford sweeteners. However, bread baked from stone-ground flour often contained grit, so teeth tended to get worn down.

Food was served in units, known as messes, which were shared between two, three or four people. You used your thumb and index finger to take a portion of food, a piece of meat, for example, from the dish and place it on your trencher. (Table forks came gradually into fashion from the fourteenth century onwards.) You cut your portion into small pieces to be chewed politely, then wiped your knife on the bread. Sharing messes put a premium on good table manners, and Daniel of Beccles has much to say on that subject: don't lick your fingers; don't put them into the dish at the same time as a companion; above all, don't grab the best bits. It was not done to use your fingers or a piece of bread to get the last morsel out of the dish. Sharing a soup bowl was an especially delicate operation, and there were lots of don'ts here. Don't fill your spoon too full; don't share it; don't leave it in the soup plate; don't soak bits of bread in it. If the soup is too hot don't blow on it, although you can stir it with a crust or a spoon or put croutons into it. There were lots of other rules, many familiar today. Don't get food on the tablecloth, or over your lips. Don't pick your teeth. Wipe your hands discreetly with a napkin. Don't stare, don't point at people, or make big gestures with your arms. Don't play with your knife and spoon. Don't grumble about what you're given. Sit up straight. Don't put your elbows on the table. Don't talk with your mouth full. Don't pick your nose at table. Other rules remind us that notions of politeness change with time and place. If you feel the need to spit, then turn round and spit behind you so that you don't offend others at your table. If you belch, look up at the ceiling.

After lunch was over, and you had washed your hands, and the leftover food had been distributed as alms for the poor, there was free time. You might retire to your chamber for a nap, or take part in a throwing-the-javelin or heaving-the-stone contest in the courtyard. Then you might expect to receive visitors for drinks. This was a crucial moment in the fabric of neighborliness and networking. By now those who had gone hunting should have returned. Daniel of Beccles had plenty to say about visits, on how, for example, to accept or refuse invitations. Accepting all invitations shows, he insisted, a lamentable lack of discrimination.

After drinks it was time to attend evensong before going into the hall for supper at what we might call teatime, four o'clock or thereabouts, perhaps again in two shifts. In winter the hall would be lit, chiefly by tallow candles. These would most probably have been made on the premises, from the by-product of animals slaughtered for the larder. In the early fourteenth century the Bishop of Bath's household used six pounds of tallow candles a day in winter. Supper was always a lighter meal than lunch, perhaps just one main course, a dessert and cheese. But by the time it was over, the lord and his lady might have spent as much as five or six hours eating and drinking. After supper, the lord's clerks were expected to go through the accounts for the day, but for everyone else it was time for recreation: backgammon, usually called "tables," music, storytelling, dancing and flirting.

Anyone wanting to listen today to music sounding something like that played in King John's time would have to go to Turkey or to parts of the Balkans where Ottoman influence used to be strong, and where strident reed pipes can still be heard. Or listen to the unforgettably colossal noise made by the bagpipes of Sardinia. In the West, industrial manufacture and nineteenth-century standardization have brought about the demise of the old sound world. Although there were many kinds of bowed instruments in those days, none of them was held under the chin like a modern violin. Rather they were held -- much as many folk instruments of the fiddle type still are -- farther down the body, or sometimes played on the lap with an underhand bow made from a hank of horsehair. A musical instrument coming into fashion at this time was the lute; its name is derived from an Arabic word meaning "the wooden thing." Then there were the zitherlike psaltery, the harpsichord, and a rich variety of harps; instruments such as the organ, confined to major churches, and those more suitable for outdoors or ceremonial occasions such as drums and trumpets. On feast days the sound of a trumpet might well have summoned the household to the hall for lunch and supper.

Entertainment of a bawdy kind was popular. Roland le Pettour (the Farter) was rewarded with an estate in Suffolk in return for entertaining the royal court at Christmas by "leaping, whistling and farting before the king." Daniel of Beccles would not have approved of this amusement. In his view it was rude to fart noisily for fun. He would have approved even less of the fabliaux which were popular in French-speaking aristocratic circles, and which give us, as few other surviving sources do, an idea of what less earnest people liked to laugh about in twelfth- and thirteenth-century England. So liberally are the four-letter French words vit (prick), coilles (balls), con (cunt), cul (arsehole) and foutre (fuck) scattered throughout them that since Victorian times many readers of a sensitive nature have found them distressingly crude and have preferred to avert their eyes.

After evening prayers, the lord went to his bedchamber with at least one servant, carrying a light, accompanying him every inch of the way. It was this chamberlain's duty to inspect the privy before his master used it. When his master had finished, he had to hand him bunches of well-pressed hay with which to wipe his bottom. Daniel advised that the servant stand -- that is, not kneel -- when doing this. By the end of the thirteenth century the king and queen had separate bathrooms at Westminster, but bathrooms were not generally fashionable among the aristocracy until the fifteenth century. Before then it was usual to bathe in a wooden vat brought into a bedchamber for the purpose. While the master sat comfortably on a large sponge his chamberlain would wipe him with another sponge, dipping it into a basin of herb-infused water, then rinse him with rose water. Once in bed, linen sheets and a quilt were pulled over him, and his dressing gown placed to hand in case he wanted to get up during the night, for people generally slept naked. Just in case he felt hungry or thirsty, some bread, ale and wine were left in the room.

It was a sign of status to be accompanied almost everywhere, even when in the bath or the privy. Even so, there were a few things that people preferred to do alone. According to the historian William of Newburgh, writing in the 1190s, when the doctors advised a seriously ill archbishop of York that his only hope of recovery lay in having sex -- many doctors believe in the restorative power of the sexual act -- the archbishop took the young woman they provided for him into his private room (secretum). But when the doctors examined his urine next morning they discovered that he had not, after all, followed their advice. He explained to his friends that he could not break his vow of chastity -- not even for medicinal purposes -- and that he had pretended to do so in order not to hurt their feelings.

Senior staff and guests went to their own lodgings for the night. The rest slept scattered throughout the buildings -- in corridors, in warmer rooms such as the hall and kitchen if they were lucky. They slept on pallet beds, palliasses stuffed with straw or rushes. The size of palliasses, some as much as nine feet by seven, shows that often they were expected to share. The lord's bedchamber was lit throughout the night, and so too the stables, but everywhere else was left in darkness. Some stories suggest that indoors, with the shutters closed, it was very dark indeed. Gerald de Barri tells of a knight whose girlfriend had promised to creep into his bed at night. When he heard her coming he stretched out his hand to pull her to him, and had it bitten by a dog snuffling around in search of scraps of food. The angry knight grabbed his sword and waited for the dog's next approach. The inevitable happened when his girlfriend arrived. Only their own experience of real darkness, a darkness we can hardly imagine, would have made this morality tale remotely plausible to its audience.

The fact that the permanent household staff was overwhelmingly male caused an obvious problem, and prostitutes provided a solution, but one that needed careful supervision. The porter, who had to ensure that no unauthorized people were bedding down when night came, bore a heavy responsibility. For the king's household there was, in effect, a brothel by royal appointment, with twelve licensed "demoiselles" who were entitled, and expected, to keep other whores away. When on duty in the king's household even aristocrats, who had large estates of their own, were expected to leave their wives and family at home while they concentrated on the royal service which took them so close to the center of power. At Christmas 1204 Joan, wife of Hugh de Neville, one of King John's most influential household officials and gambling partners, offered the king two hundred chickens, which he accepted, for permission to lie one night with her husband.

Copyright © 2003 by Danny Danziger and John Gillingham



Continues...


Excerpted from 1215 by Danny Danziger Copyright © 2005 by Danny Danziger. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction ix
Map of Britain and France xxii
1 The Englishman's Castle 1
2 The Countryside 19
3 Town 37
4 School 57
5 Family Strife 77
6 Tournaments and Battles 95
7 Hunting in the Forest 111
8 The Church 125
9 King John 141
10 The King's Men 159
11 Trial by Ordeal 175
12 A Christian Country 191
13 The English and the Celts 207
14 The Wider World 223
15 The Great Charter 245
16 The Myth 267
The Text of Magna Carta 275
Bibliography 291
Acknowledgments 297
Index 299
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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 14, 2004

    The Magna Carta in Context

    Ironically, the Magna Carta was a failed bit when first signed by King John in 1215. It truly came into prominence in 1225, and its importance grew with the passing years. It has now long been considered a landmark in the evolution of individual rights and freedoms. Danziger and Gillingham present a sweeping overview of the changes in culture, politics, and religion that led to the creation of this important document. They set the stage for understanding the purpose and meaning of the Magna Carta in the time of its origin. The full text of this significant charter is included at the end of the book. The authors do a great job of presenting the chain of events leading up to the rebellion against King John. Land rights for the rich were clearly center stage during the writing of the Magna Carta. But because this was a new kind of rebellion (one without an alternative king to sponsor), the barons found it necessary to add the clauses protecting the rights of all men so they could feel justified in their rebellion. The descriptions of everyday life for the rich and poor highlight the issues that the Magna Carta was meant to address. The actual clauses in the charter come alive when presented in context. Understanding the era is key, such as knowing why so much of England was designated as 'forest' land, whether or not it actually contained a real forest. The authors also debunk a few common myths about the times such as the idea that people thought the world was flat. Full of fun, interesting facts about life around the 1200s, none of the information will be new for students of the era. However, the book succeeds marvelously as a popular history. This is a relatively small and easily digestible book. The writing is clear and concise. I recommend this captivating portrayal of a fascinating time period to anyone with even a passing interest in history.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 1, 2004

    Very informative and easy to read.

    It's not a book for a British history buff. I had only a vague idea about the events that surrounded the drafting of Magna Carta, but this book gave a fairly detailed overview of the politics, culture, religion and society at the time. I highly recommend it!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 18, 2009

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