Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The People of Britain 850-1520

Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The People of Britain 850-1520

by Christopher Dyer

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Dramatic social and economic change during the middle ages altered the lives of the people of Britain in far-reaching ways, from the structure of their families to the ways they made their livings. In this masterly book, preeminent medieval historian Christopher Dyer presents a fresh view of the British economy from the ninth to the sixteenth century and a vivid new account of medieval life. He begins his volume with the formation of towns and villages in the ninth and tenth centuries and ends with the inflation, population rise, and colonial expansion of the sixteenth century.

This is a book about ideas and attitudes as well as the material world, and Dyer shows how people regarded the economy and responded to economic change. He examines the growth of towns, the clearing of lands, the Great Famine, the Black Death, and the upheavals of the fifteenth century through the eyes of those who experienced them. He also explores the dilemmas and decisions of those who were making a living in a changing world—from peasants, artisans, and wage earners to barons and monks. Drawing on archaeological and landscape evidence along with more conventional archives and records, the author offers here an engaging survey of British medieval economic history unrivaled in breadth and clarity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300167078
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 08/11/2003
Series: New Economic History of Britain seri
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 424
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Christopher Dyer, formerly professor of medieval social history at the University of Birmingham, is now professor of regional and local history at the University of Leicester.

Read an Excerpt

Making a Living in the Middle Ages



Copyright © 2002 Christopher Dyer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-09060-9

Chapter One

Living on the land, c.850-c.1050

Most medieval people made their living from agriculture, and had to arrive at decisions about the best methods of production. Their choices were not made freely, because they worked within the limits imposed by their social circumstances and technical knowledge, and by the soil, terrain and climate. Their resources were more restricted than those of later cultivators, but that did not leave them at the mercy of nature. They moulded and exploited the landscape, and indeed were the inheritors of a countryside already changed by centuries of human intervention. It was once believed that great tracts of primeval woodland survived into this period, which made the clearance of trees so that the land could be used more productively one of the main tasks of early medieval cultivators. We know now that in much of England the area under trees was not much greater than at the present day. Patches of 'wild wood' had survived since early prehistory, but some woodland was quite new, the result of the regeneration of bushes and trees on former cultivated land since the end of the Roman period. Woodland was not left as wilderness, but was managed to produce timber or fuel, and feed for livestock. Bears had been hunted to extinction throughout Britain by the eleventh century, and in the following century beavers were to be seen only on a few rivers in Wales and Scotland. Wolves still survived, but only in the more remote parts of England and other parts of Britain. Wild animals which were valued as food and for sport, such as deer and boar, were protected and nurtured. Nature had been tamed.

i. Farming

In managing the earth, vegetation and animals, the first priority of medieval men and women was to produce food, but they also expected to receive the benefits of their work in the foreseeable future, so they practised (to use the modern term) 'sustainable' agriculture. They planned for the same land to yield crops regularly, and they appreciated that well-managed resources renewed themselves. They anticipated the changeability of the seasons and the harvests, and hoped that their farming methods would allow them to survive in a year of unusual weather, for example by planting a variety of crops. At no time or place within our period can they be described as 'subsistence farmers', in the sense that they ate only food that they had grown, or that they produced solely for their own consumption needs. They always expected that their land would yield a surplus, whether for the benefit of the state, the church or their lords, or for exchange for goods and services which they could not obtain from their own land.

These aims were most easily achieved in the favourable environments created by the wide river valleys, such as the Wye, upper Thames, Warwickshire Avon, Nene, Great Ouse and upper Trent, and in low-lying districts such as eastern Norfolk, as well as on coastal lowlands in Kent, Sussex, south Wales, and eastern Scotland. Here were light soils that could easily be turned by the plough, which gave a good seedbed for cereal crops. The level ground gave easy access, and implements could be used at all times, as the free-draining soil did not become waterlogged. The topsoil on flat land or gentle slopes was not easily washed away by the rain. The fields were sheltered from extreme weather and in the south there was a long growing season, so that crops would ripen even in a wet summer. In the most favoured locations water was near to hand, and the land adjoining rivers and streams yielded long grass for haymaking. Cultivation extended over much larger areas, which offered many, if not all, of the advantages of the river valleys. The limestone hills like the Yorkshire wolds and the Cotswolds gave good opportunities for growing corn, as did the heavier clay and marl lowlands which prevailed in much of the country from central Scotland, through eastern and midland England, to Somerset.

In these regions which offered fertile land for cultivation the inhabitants devoted their main productive effort to growing large acreages of grain - wheat, rye, barley and oats, together with legumes, mostly peas and beans. This was the most efficient way of producing basic foods. Wheat gave the most nutritious and palatable bread; barley and oats could be made into an inferior bread, or could be malted and brewed into ale, or, like the peas and beans, be boiled for pottage; oats and beans could also be fed to animals. The cultivators had to be careful to combine their arable with grassland and wood. The best way of maintaining the quality of the soil - or even of creating a decent seedbed in the case of the heavier clay soils - was to keep a good proportion of land as grass or hay meadow, so that animals could be fed and their manure used to spread on the fields. Sheep were especially efficient sources of fertilizer, because they could be fed on pasture land in the day, and penned at night on the land on which crops were to be sown. Not only would they deposit their manure, but their small sharp hoofs would tread the droppings into the surface. Animals were themselves an important source of food - medieval people lived not by bread and pottage alone - and their muscle power was essential for ploughing and hauling. Woodland was also a vital asset for fuel, timber for building and making implements, and acorns and beech mast for fattening pigs. So those who lived in the regions with the best potential for grain-growing kept a balance between different types of land. If they extended the arable, they rested it regularly with fallow, on which animals found stubble, grass and weeds to eat, as well as keeping some land as permanent pasture. The descriptions of boundaries attached to the charters of the tenth and eleventh centuries of the Vale of the White Horse in Berkshire reveal the local concentration on arable. The writers of the charters defined the edges of estates not by the usual trees, stones and ponds, but instead by reference to parcels of cultivated land - acres (meaning strips that had been ploughed), furrows and headlands (the strip at the end of a field where the plough turned). If the outermost fringes of these territories were fully occupied by arable, the centre was also likely to be cultivated.

Not everyone was so heavily involved in growing corn. Across the southern counties, from Essex and Kent to the Chiltern Hills and north Wiltshire, and in much of western England, the arable land was interspersed with patches of pasture and woods, some of them commons to be shared among a number of settlements (Map 1). In north Worcestershire, for example, the local informants quoted by the clergy who wrote boundary clauses for charters often mentioned hedges and crofts (meaning hedged fields) as landmarks. In East Anglia much land was given over to arable, but important features of the landscape were the large greens, consisting of uncultivated land used as common pasture. Around the Wash, and along both sides of the Severn estuary, in the Somerset Levels, on the south coast at Romney Marsh and the Pevensey Levels, south of the Humber estuary, and in the south-west of Scotland were fens and marshlands around which communities combined cultivation with summer grazing, peat-digging and fishing. The people of the uplands of western and northern England, Wales and Scotland aimed at a very different balance in their management of the landscape, cultivating arable as much as possible, but inevitably depending on pastures for their main livelihood. An extreme example is provided by the people who lived in the ninth century on Gauber High Pasture above Ribblehead in the Pennines, in a house at 1,100 feet above sea level, who in spite of the adverse climate were able to grow a few acres of oats, as well as grazing sheep and cattle. In environments lacking easily cultivated land, as in the Scottish islands, soils suitable for growing corn were created by concentrating all of the manure, and other sources of compost such as turf and seaweed, on to small fields. Barley and oats could be grown, but people made much of their living from keeping sheep and cattle, fishing and catching sea birds.

One means of making use of varied types of land was to lay out territories which included hill and valley, wood and arable, so that natural resources would complement one another. The boundaries of an estate or a village would run in parallel across the contours from the crest of a hill to a river bank some miles away, encompassing hill pasture, wooded hill slopes, lowland arable and riverside meadow. Sometimes arable and woodland could be associated only by abandoning the ideal that an estate would consist of a single block of land, and attaching to the main arable-based estate a piece of woodland, even if the two properties were ten miles or more apart. A balance could also be achieved among the possessions of a monastery, for example, which might include among the land scattered over a region some specialist woods and pastures as well as manors devoted to corn-growing.

ii. Expansion

The landscapes and territories of the tenth and eleventh centuries were often very old. Much of the arable had been cultivated continuously since Roman times, and some field and estate boundaries dated from that period or even earlier. Building on these foundations, the peasants and estate managers were imposing some major changes on the landscape. Two tendencies can be identified - one to change the use of land in woodland and pastoral regions, and the other to restructure the regions which already contained much arable. The first tendency led them to fell some woodlands and turn them into either arable or pasture, or to bring them under more intensive management. The weald of Kent, one of the largest wooded areas in the country, was divided among the inhabitants of the north of the shire, who gained their main living by cultivating the fertile lowlands. In the autumn, herds of pigs had traditionally been driven to the south-west along well-marked tracks from the Isle of Thanet or the settlements around Faversham to feed on beech mast and acorns, and at the appropriate seasons firewood and timber were cut and carried back considerable distances - often between 8 and 20 miles. The wealden denns, which consisted of pastures and small settlements, some of them occupied seasonally by swineherds and woodcutters, by the late eleventh century had expanded into quite large and permanent communities. The denn attached to Thanet, for example, became the permanent settlement of Tenterden. The use of the land shifted towards arable, though this did not necessarily involve wholesale removal of woods. In a similar way the wolds of the midlands, relatively high ground with limestone or clay soils, which had gained their name from their wooded appearance in the sixth or seventh century, were being brought into more extensive cultivation. On the uplands of Cornwall and the Lake District, shielings occupied in the summer by herdsmen accompanying cattle and sheep on to the high pastures were being converted to permanent farmsteads. The ploughed area was being extended in parts of northern England, southwest Scotland and the isle of Arran at the expense of woodland and pasture, the change in vegetation having its effects on the proportions of pollen of different plants preserved in peat deposits. In the fenland and Somerset Levels, land was being drained and brought into agricultural use. A number of these local changes were not necessarily designed just to expand the bounds of cultivation - often they also increased the amount of pasture, as in East Anglia where intensive grazing turned woodlands into large open greens. The hay meadows of the upper Thames valley were being enlarged by ditch-digging at this time.

Not everyone welcomed this growth in the productive capacity of the countryside. Kings and aristocrats were devoted to hunting, which they valued above all other pastimes. The game, especially deer, would flourish only in a well-wooded environment, and those in authority were anxious to conserve the habitats that still survived. A rigorous forest law of continental type was not applied - that is, the king could not restrict landowners hunting on their own land, but areas of woodland seem to have been put under special protection by kings and major landowners, and they enclosed areas of wood and grazing land into parks. The charters mention 'hays', which in some cases were enclosed woods and in others 'deer hedges' designed to assist in the hunt. Near Oxford, at Shotover, in opposition to the normal trends, the area under trees was actually increasing around the tenth century, presumably in response to royal orders to improve the hunting, and after the Norman Conquest the area became a royal forest. Concern for maintaining areas of wood and pasture was probably a reaction to the prevailing tendency towards its reduction. Outside the aristocracy few people ate venison (deer bones are relatively scarce in excavated rubbish deposits), perhaps because it was reserved for the elite social groups, but also reflecting the domination of the landscape by agriculture.

The main changes in the rural landscape were not on the fringes of woods, moors and marshes, but in the well-developed arable lands, where the tenth and eleventh centuries were an important phase in the creation of villages and their associated fields. Before the tenth century almost everyone lived in small and scattered settlements. These are known from archaeologists' finds of groups of pottery fragments on modern ploughed fields - sites located in this way in the east midlands are usually dated before c.850. Excavation reveals ditched enclosures round fields and paddocks, pits for rubbish, and the remains of rectangular buildings with walls consisting of rows of vertical posts set into the ground, which were used for dwelling houses and barns. The houses occasionally seem to have stood alone, and are assumed to have been isolated farms, or sometimes are found in groups. One site with more than sixty structures, at Catholme in the Trent valley in Staffordshire, at first looks like a large village, but the buildings were arranged in farmsteads, each containing a dwelling and agricultural buildings such as barns and cowsheds, and not all of these were occupied throughout the life of the site from the sixth to the ninth century. At its height the settlement consisted of five households, which means that it rates as a hamlet rather than a village.

Dozens of pre-tenth-century settlements have been discovered in eastern and midland England, the majority of them in the fields of the medieval and modern periods, not under modern villages. So people have not lived on the same sites throughout history: a sharp break came when peasants abandoned farmsteads and hamlets, and moved into larger villages.


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