Life in a Medieval Village by Frances and Joseph Gies. Recommended.
Life in a Medieval Village is one of a series, including Life in a Medieval City and Life in a Medieval Castle, written by Frances and Joseph Gies. This series rarely touches upon the great people and events romanticized by Hollywood and numerous fiction writers (and perhaps even a few historians), but focuses on the basics of everyday life for the average person or even the average lord or cleric. The Gies use a number of primary and secondary sources, the latter of which reveal how the historian’s view of the medieval village has changed in the 20th and 21st centuries and how flexible historians must be in interpreting the evidence.
Researched and written for the layperson, Life in a Medieval Village is more accurately about life in an English medieval village, with most of the detail coming from the records of Aethelintone/Aethelington/Adelintune/Aylington (Elton) in Huntingdon, one of Ramsey Abbey’s manors. The Gies provide a history of the village concept and its definition; its role in the manorial system (contrasted to the seigneurial system); a description of its people, physical structure, buildings, administration and administrators, judicial system, family and spiritual life, and work; and the background behind its decline.
The world of Elton and similar villages is not found in movies or novels. Social and economic statuses are not always clear cut, economic upward mobility is possible primarily through acquisition of land, and even the distinction between “free” and “unfree” is not distinct. Life revolves around the manor and the villeins’ and cotters’ obligations to the mostly absent lord and the manor, which come in the form of work, rents, fees, taxes, and fines. The administrative structure of the manor is somewhat like that of a modern corporation, with the lord as CEO of multiple manors (and primary consumer of goods) who “wanted the certainty of rents and dues from his tenants, the efficient operation of his demesne, and good prices for wool and grain.” His steward, or seneschal, serves as senior executive, while the bailiff, reeve, beadle, woodward, and others are the manor’s day-to-day managers and supervisors.
As the villagers acquire surnames (from where they live, what they do, the offices they hold, and personal characteristics), patterns emerge from the records. Some families become dominant economically and politically (e.g., holding many offices such as reeve or juror many times); others decline; while yet others show a propensity for violence and petty crimes. Such infractions are punished primarily with fines rather than corporal punishment; the stocks and hanging are resorted to only in the most egregious cases. The judicial system is often compassionate (or at least practical); many fines for minor trespasses are lowered or forgiven by the court because “she is poor.” When laws are broken, a jury hears the case, but the entire village decides.
The Gies also provide an excellent overview of the passing of the medieval village, which began with a sustained famine and the Black Death. The labor-intensive manorial system simply could not survive the depletion of workers, the increase in expenses, the onerous taxes brought on by wars, and, perhaps more importantly, the sense of change and discontent that began to pervade the villein class.
The challenge for the Gies as authors is to take the minimal material available (ranging from books about estate management written for lords and stewards to court and ecclesiastical records) and to bring the village to life from these records. What emerges are people who live in fragile houses; are rarely well fed from a nutritional perspective and whose food supply is always in doubt; work hard and are not above trying to wheedle out of work; who drink and fight and are sometimes brutal; fornicate (primarily a woman’s crime but not a particularly reviled one); vandalize; commit petty crimes against the lord and their neighbors; and in short live lives of struggle every day without the expectation or vision of change in the future.
The Gies focus on Elton, with supplemental material from other English villages, so the reader who is interested in village life on the continent will need to explore other works to flesh out the picture. Because the mostly illiterate villagers themselves left few personal records, it is up to the thoughtful reader to discern the village’s character and personality and to conceive of what day-to-day life must have been, based on the little that is known — to put oneself into the worn shoes of the working villein and to imagine his or her thoughts, feelings, and aspirations. Life in a Medieval Villageis a good beginning.
30 October 2003
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf