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Furnishings of medieval English peasant houses: investment, consumption and culture

Christopher Dyer
University of Leicester

Medieval peasant houses have been much studied in England in the last 60 years, and gradually the questions that have been asked have changed. Initially research was dominated by problems of construction – materials, joints, and methods of walling and roofing. These varied from region to region, and evolved over time, which required explanation. There was also some concern with the identification of the precise social status of the builders and inhabitants of the houses. Vernacular building was typical of a peasant society, in its use of local materials and traditional methods of construction, but for a long time there was a reluctance to identify standing buildings as peasant houses. It was believed that because peasant houses were too insubstantial to survive, only excavation provided evidence for structures at that low level of society. The economic history of houses was concerned with the chronology of construction – the ‘great rebuilding’ it was argued resulted from the prosperity of better-off farmers in the 16th and 17th centuries, after a period of low quality buildings.

Now we know that peasant housing was not universally badly built and incapable of surviving for a long time. The earliest dated house which is still inhabited and likely to have belonged to a peasant was built of timbers felled in 1262. With the full impact of dendrochronology a wave of building can be identified which coincided with the ‘great depression’ of the 15th century. As well as telling us about the resources that peasants could afford to devote to building, houses can be compared with other types of expenditure – peasants could choose to invest in production, or spend on communal projects such as the parish church, or to concentrate on food, drink and clothing. For a long time it was believed that peasants were largely self sufficient and would have built their houses themselves, using materials from woods, quarries and local sources which were part of the common assets of the village. Since the acceptance of the ‘commercialisation’ model, it is accepted that peasants often employed artisans and labourers, and bought materials, even from a long distance.

More recently we have become concerned with the social and cultural history of houses. How were rural houses different from those in towns? Did rural houses influence the form of urban buildings? Or did peasants emulate the new styles that they saw in towns? Were houses intended to convey messages about the wealth and status of those living in them, or did their relative uniformity express the egalitarian character of the village? What were the meanings of the public buildings of the village such as the guild hall or church house: did they make a statement about the character of the community? Were peasant houses influenced by models provided by the aristocracy, or did they plan their buildings to suit their own needs? To what extent did the inhabitants wish to make their lives private, both in relation to their neighbours and the individuals occupying the domestic space? Were spaces occupied by the different genders? What can be learned about different regional cultures from the design of houses and the relationship between them and the various landscapes?

To help us to provide answers to these questions we need to know more about the interior of the houses, not just the layout of the spaces, but also the function of the rooms, and the nature, quality and value of the furnishings.

Sources of information about peasant furnishings are few and all have to be combined together to provide a full picture.

Physical evidence
Standing buildings may contain evidence for fixed furnishings. A line of holes bored into a beam could be a trace of a wooden bench attached to the wall. When houses are excavated there are sometimes hints in the floor of the remains of fixed furnishings, such as seating. The best evidence comes from the excavation of houses in regions where stone was abundant, where stone benches might have been built against the wall. Pieces of furniture have survived, especially in churches, but they rarely if ever originated in peasant houses. Nonetheless they belong to types of furniture which written sources tell us belonged to peasants, such as the chest and armoire (in English almary), or cupboards. Though wooden peasant furniture has not survived, metal fittings such as locks and keys and hinges, and applied decoration from chests, are found on village excavations.

Written evidence
Illustrations in manuscripts or wall paintings sometimes depict a peasant interior, but as with the surviving furniture, their main value is to show objects which were used in aristocratic houses, such as trestle tables, which we presume resemble those owned by the lower ranks of society. The main written sources are inventories and wills, and here I will be focussing on those surviving from Yorkshire in the 15th century, and for many parts of southern England in the period 1480-1500. These can be supplemented with lists of principalia, of the period 1350-1440 which were goods belonging to customary peasant holdings which were listed on transfers of land, and many other occasional references in court records such as heriots (death duties) and stolen property.

This evidence will be used to investigate the three themes of my title: investment, consumption and culture.

This part of the inquiry is simply concerned with placing furnishings in a broader economic context, and to see how expenditure on the furniture of a house compared with the other calls on a peasant’s income. Peasants had some choice, and it is important that we know how they made decisions in relation to furniture. This discussion will establish the furnishings owned by peasants, and the values that were assigned to them.

If we look at the very full inventories of two contrasting peasants, both preserved among manorial court records, we find that in the case of a village craftsman without much land, in 1457, Richard Sclatter had furnishings: chests, a table, a chair, a bench (form), a wooden bedstead and bed clothes – a mattress, sheet, pillows and coverlets worth 7s. 10d. out of total of 15s.5d. He did not need to invest much in his craft, as his tools were very cheap – 1s.9d., including a spade and shovel to dig his garden, and a spinning wheel for his wife. More prosperous peasants had larger holdings of land and consequently more agricultural equipment and livestock. Robert Oldman of Cuxham who died in 1349 had his goods valued at £9 14s. 6d., of which furniture accounted for about 14s. (7 per cent), while his agricultural implements (cart, plough etc.) and animals came to £3 2s.0d, or 32 per cent of the total. Most peasant inventories record very low values for furnishings, with farm equipment and livestock making more than a half of the total inventory. Thomas Hall of Holdgate near York in 1468 was rather unusual in having furnishings worth 19s. 5d. (11 per cent of the total of £8 15s. 10d.) but still his agricultural stock came to £6 6s.6d. (73 per cent).

In the hall, the space in the peasant house for eating, sitting and receiving guests, wooden furniture, notably tables, stools, forms (benches without backs), and chairs were often valued at a few pence each. The table simply consisted of boards standing on trestles, which could be easily dismantled and moved after a meal. All of these items were commonly assigned a low value. Forms and chairs were often said to be worth 4d. or an even lower figure. Tables again were said to be worth sums in the region of 4d. In the chamber, sometimes the parlour, wooden bedsteads were not very valuable – ‘boards for a bed’ in one case were priced at 4d. More costly were the chests used to store clothing and other possessions, and peasants’ chests, while they could be valued as little as 6d., were often assigned a value of 2s. -3s. Even peasants with modest resources would own two or three of these useful containers. The most expensive item of all, though it was not found in every household, was the almary, which we would now call a cupboard (indeed in 1506 at Shipston on Stour in Worcs there is a reference to an almary alias a cupboard) , at 1s.6d. to 3s. 0d. The generally low prices of wooden furniture reflects their relatively clumsy construction, and lack of decorative features or ornament. The robustness, lacking much delicacy of carving and finish, is found in some of the examples that have survived, mostly we presume from aristocratic households. In the case of tables, when on public display they were partly hidden by table cloths. Chests required more skill to make, and were more likely to be decorated. They were sometimes made from imported wood, such as spruce from the Baltic, which is reflected in their price.

A pair of linen sheets in a peasant inventory could cost more than 1s, but those made of hemp rather than flax, which were worth only 7d. at most Coverlets usually cost between 1s. 0d. and 4s. 0d.

To provide a standard of comparison in the late 15th century when most of the documents from which these prices were compiled, a cow could be bought for 8s., and cart or wain, the most expensive piece of farming equipment, was worth at least 10s. and sometimes as much as 16s. or 23s.4d. It is not difficult to see how a peasant inventory of tables, forms, chests and a range of textiles was worth in total only 10s.-20s, was easily outstripped by a farmyard full of cattle, horses and other animals, and a cart shed with basic implements for cultivation. The same generalisation must be true even if domestic equipment and utensils for serving food and drink was included in the calculations.

The relatively high proportion of an inventory’s value which came from agricultural livestock and deadstock, compared with items of domestic consumption, was not confined to peasants, and inventories of the gentry confirm the tendency for about a half of the value of people’s possessions to derive from agricultural produce and farm equipment.
The inescapable conclusion was that peasants spent a great deal on the productive resources of the holding. If peasants were tempted to buy luxuries, these were most likely to be clothing, foodstuffs or metal utensils, such as basins and ewers, pewter plates, metal candlesticks, silver spoons, and brass cooking pots, or the expenditure was concentrated on the construction of the house rather than its contents.

Among the furnishings the purchase of household textiles would require some outlay of cash, and one can see evidence here of consumer items being bought for prestige as well as for their usefulness. Coverlets were often identified by their colour – red, green, blue etc. and occasionally valued highly, such as those worth 6s.8d. each in the household of the rich farmer, Roger Heritage in 1495. Some care and discrimination had evidently been taken over the purchase of this item in the bedclothes that was visible. One notes how households kept a ‘special’ pair of quite expensive linen sheets, and the much cheaper everyday ‘harden’ or hemp sheets. John Hall of Holgate (Yorks.) who died in 1468 had a pair of linen sheets valued at 1s.8d., and three pairs of harden sheets at 7d. per pair. Most households owned more than one table cloth and also towels. Among the items of wooden furniture chests of spruce or a Flemish chest point to some pretension and the acquisition of prestige items. Chests came in many forms, which are called arks, coffers and forcers as well as simply chests. They were chosen presumably for specific purposes, but also because their owners appreciated their varied designs and shapes. From the excavations of the deserted village of Upton in Gloucestershire came a copper ornament, gilded, in the shape of a fleur de lys, apparently designed to be nailed to a chest as part of its decoration.

In the hall, the main public room where display was most appropriate, the cushions and bankers (long cushions covering a bench) provided an element of comfort. The wall of the main public room, the hall was often covered with a painted or stained cloth (in lieu of the aristocracy’s tapestries) which could be worth between 2s. and 5s. A number of Yorkshire peasants kept weapons in the hall – John Jakson of Grimston (1464) had a sallet (helmet), bow and arrows, Carlisle axe and pike. The various references to ‘boards’ and cupboards suggest that prestigious items such as pewter plates and saucers could be put on display.

The chamber normally contained bedding, usually including a mattress, sheets, blankets and coverlets. William Atkynson of Helperby near York who was not especially rich owned a featherbed. His less fortunate contemporaries slept on mattresses stuffed with straw or hair. The really superior households, those of farmers with more than 100 acres of land, could aspire to fit a bed with a dorser, curtain and canopy, like Thomas Vicars of Strensall (1450) who had a green bed with a tapet (carpet) and a blue bed with curtains.

We can surely see here signs of that spirit of emulation which has been identified among the middle ranking consumers of the 18th century. Peasants had visited the halls of the manor house to attend a court, witness a legal document, or even as a guest at an annual Christmas dinner for tenants. They presumably noted and admired these impressive rooms, and arranged their halls as much as possible like the aristocracy, with meal tables covered with table cloths, a special seat – a chair - for the head of the household with forms and stools for women, children and servants. A reference to a ‘turned’ chair hints at its superior craftsmanship – the legs were presumably finished with some form of decoration on a lathe. Yorkshire houses in the late 15th century had two chairs – was the second for the peasant’s wife or perhaps his elder son?

Sometimes no chair is mentioned, and the seating arrangement is indicated by the presence of a ‘banker’, which was a long cushion placed on a ‘dais bench’ that formed part of the structure of the house. This built-in bench is well known from standing buildings, and as it was attached to the wall it would not be mentioned in an inventory which was concerned exclusively with moveable items. It was in widespread use, as it appears as a stone feature, facing the hearth, in a house excavated on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall (Garrow Tor). In timber buildings the dais bench might have a carved frieze above it, or a dorser of coloured cloth was fixed behind the privileged seat, which drew attention to the superiority of the head of the household, even if he was only a husbandman with 15 acres of land. Meals were preceded by hand washing using a basin and ewer and towels. The walls were decorated with the peasant’s equivalent of hangings, a painted cloth, and presumably the weapons were also hung on the walls, symbolising that the peasants had a military function, and that they were ready to serve their lord or their king in emergency. The arms had a function also, as they are notably prominent in the north, towards the Scottish border, in contrast with the more peaceful midlands.

Our sources are concentrated in a relatively short period, which makes it difficult to identify changes. We know that in the 16th and 17th centuries the quality of ‘joined’ wooden furniture was improved, and it may well be that in the period 1350-1520 there were changes in household textiles, such as the purchase of more imported linen of superior quality, and a greater use of chairs and bankers in peasant halls.

Emulation suggest that lords and peasants shared a common culture, and makes us wonder if peasants had their own way of life, or were merely pale imitations of their superiors. It is clear that peasants were different, and the interior of their households had special features appropriate for their economy and social position.

Firstly the aristocracy usually kept agricultural buildings and farming separate from their domestic accommodation. The peasants also owned barns, byres, cart sheds and other structures apart from their dwelling house, but they were much more intimately connected, and agricultural implements and produce is found in living and sleeping rooms. Even a very prosperous farmer, John Bond of Alvescot in Oxfordshire, in 1499 had a first chamber with the usual beds and chests, and a second chamber with bedding, and also reaping hooks and a scythe. John Gaythird of Acomb in 1494 kept a pick, a spade, sacks and a kiln hair (for malting barley) in his chamber.

Preserved food stuffs could be kept either in the chamber or the hall. These were not just flitches of bacon hanging in the roof of the hall, like those listed for John Jakson, which are known from contemporary illustrations, but also sacks of grain and barrels of salt meat (e.g William Atkynson of Helperby).

Some peasants used their hall mainly as a room for eating and for enjoying the warmth of the fire, judging from the furnishings which consisted of table, chair(s), stools and forms, and occasionally equipment for the hearth, such as andirons and a screen. There were pieces of wooden furniture for storage and display, such as an almery, shelves and a sideboard or small table. The use of the hall extended into the evenings, judging from the references to its candlesticks. But sometimes the hall was also used for cooking, and its contents included (e.g. John Gaythird) spits and pots and pans. Similarly a shepherd of Soham (Cambs.) in 1417 had a spit, pots and a ladle in his hall. More often these activities were conducted entirely in a separate kitchen, which was apparently completely devoid of wooden furniture, but was equipped only with pots, pans and other utensils. In some houses the kitchen was used also for brewing – it contained leads, mashing vats and other vessels. These were more often kept in a dedicated brewhouse.

The peasant house also sometimes contained the equipment necessary for craft activities, which we associate with the work of women, but which may not have been specific to them. These are usually for the early stages of textile manufacture, such as wool combs, heckles (in linen preparation), and spinning wheels. A smallholder from Stoke Prior in Worcestershire in 1409 owned a spinning wheel, comb and heckle, in a district known for its flax production. These processes would have been carried out in the home, but passed on to a more specialist weaver for the next stage of manufacture. In town houses halls could be used for business transactions, and the commercially active farmer Thomas Vicars of Strensall apparently did the same, as his hall contained a ‘counter’, which could have been used to compile written accounts.

Peasants were often involved in small-scale retail trade, but this is rarely directly represented in their possessions. Excavation of a village verging on a small town at Dassett Southend in Warwickshire revealed a house of fairly standard plan, but a concentration of ceramic drinking cups suggests that the hall had served as an ale house. Richard Barber’s hall (in Allertonshire, Yorkshire) seems over provided with furniture, with its 3 tables, 2 chairs and 3 stools. There were also plates and dishes in the same room. Cups would not be mentioned in an inventory because their value was so slight. These suggestive pieces of evidence remind us that alehouses were not purpose built, but represented a specialised use of a dwelling house.

Sometimes we are unable to provide an adequate explanation of the contents of houses and rooms – why did John Jakson, for example, keep a ladder in his house? And why were so many houses apparently inadequately supplied with beds, unless the two or three beds were regarded as sufficient for the average household of five people, often with an additional servant?

We have to conclude that peasants were flexible in the use of their space – they tended to use the hall for meals and social activity, and the chamber as a sleeping room, but they departed from these conventions. This reflected their poverty – they only had two rooms, so had to fit their possessions and activities into them. It also reflected the close relationship between production and consumption that was an important part of the peasant way of life.

* * *

In general conclusion, I have shown that peasant furnishings are quite well documented. We can envisage the interior of houses and this reveals much about the peasants’ use of space, the internal hierarchy of the household, and their attitudes towards their social superiors. Peasants spent any surplus cash on their farm and buildings, and did not give a very high priority to furniture. Nonetheless they were discriminating purchasers, and the items which they used in their houses tell us a good deal about their mentality and way of life.

The Rural House in Italy during the Middle Ages: A Complex Product

Paola Galetti
Università di Bologna

A) Introduction
The rural house was a complex construction, because at the same time represented the house a family and a farm reference point. So the rural house reflects the life quality and the social status of its inhabitants.
Here I will proceed in my presentation in two complementary ways:
- First, the structures characterizing the rural settlement in central-northern Italy in the Early Middle Ages, 8th – 10th centuries, using either written sources and archaeological data will be presented.
- Second, some examples of the rural houses of the late Middle Ages will be described using written sources.

B) Early Middle Ages
Early Middle Ages housing structures were made using simple construction techniques and using wood and earth as building material.

B/1): Types/Materials/Dimensions
Two different kinds of houses are described in the written sources:
- "casa a corte" (court yard house). It is a court yard closed by the surrounding buildings, which had different characteristics depending their purpose (called sedimen/ casalivo/ casalino in the written sources).
- "casa a struttura unitaria o elementare": it is an alone building.
The dimension of these two kind of buildings depended by whole needs of the farm. The measures of the "sedimina", i. e. the measures of the building, are shown, according to the written sources and archaeological data.
B/2: Buildings
According to the written sources, either private and public, the most part of peasants built their houses by themselves.
B/3): Social status symbols
The "casa a corte" showed the same construction scheme as if it was the centre of a big farm as if it was a small peasant farm, but the total dimension of the “sedimen” and the different organization and complexity of the inner space increased as increased the prosperity of the inhabitants.
Moreover the presence of the "solarium" represented another differential element.
B/4: House cost
Few data are available about this subject, we can repeat that in general the "casae solariatae” were more expensive than the others.
B/5: House internal space organization/domestic furniture
The rural house could have one or more rooms, with different functions. A typical room feature were the obscurity and the presence of smoke. Regarding the domestic furniture, they were few and made using wood or pottery. So the life inside the rural houses was not really comfortable.

C) Late Middle Ages
The late Middle Ages presented a very complex situation regarding the rural houses, so first of all some example of rural house we studied will be presented. Then the common characteristics of the rural houses during this Ages will be underlined.

C/1): The features of a XVth century farm in Friuli will be described.
C/2): Bologna municipality fiscal registers of the year 1235 will be shown. Moreover also the fiscal registers of the small community of Calcara (53 families) for the year 1304 and of Galliera (116 families) for the years 1235, 1282, 1315-16 will be discussed.
C/3): The characteristics of Rimini countryside during the XVth century will be described.
During the late Middle Ages the rural house was usually small, with a rectangular base and with a roof made by tiles. Moreover the 67% of the rural houses had brick walls, while the 15% showed walls made partially with brick and the 18% had non brick walls.
Also in the late Middle Ages the rural houses were built directly by peasants that will leave inside them.
Social status symbols
Usually the prosperity of the rural house was represented by building since, the internal space organization, the materials used for the construction and the kind of domestic furniture.
House cost
The cost of rural houses was low.
House internal space organization/domestic furniture
Usually the rural house had just one or two rooms. According with the written sources the house furniture were few and essential.

D) Conclusion
In conclusion, besides representing the material culture and the construction techniques of the Middle Ages, the rural house is also an important element to define the society of this historical period.

Manorial court roll inventories as evidence for English peasant possessions and living standards

Chris Briggs
University of Cambridge

William Lene, a peasant from the village of Walsham le Willows (in Suffolk, eastern England), died in 1329. The rolls of the Walsham seigniorial court contain a rare list of the dead man’s property. This inventory provides an exceptional insight into the circumstances of a peasant of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It shows the wide variety of agricultural equipment and household goods owned by a wealthy peasant. Unsurprisingly, historians have given considerable attention to this document and to William.* Because this inventory is of considerable historical value, it is natural to look for similar examples. This paper presents the results of an attempt to do this. Around a dozen examples from the period 1270 to 1412 are described and discussed (the information from each inventory will be summarized in a handout).

Most of these inventories were made when a lord exercised his right to seize the goods of a felon (criminal) within his lordship. Most of these individuals had left their homes following their crimes. Other inventories were made when a lord seized the goods of a serf who had fled. None of the inventories discussed is as informative as that of William Lene. Most certainly omit objects. However, because of the shortage of alternative sources for this period, these inventories represent valuable evidence on peasant consumption and living standards.

My presentation addresses three main questions. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the inventories as a historical source? To what extent do they show that peasants engaged in a market for consumer goods? And what do they reveal about differences between rich and poor peasants? The inventories confirm that the peasants with larger landholdings owned more goods than those with small landholdings. Also, the smallholders also usually did not have capital goods like carts and ploughs. Some but not all of the smallholders lacked the iron pots and pans owned by the wealthier peasants. However, a few of the smallholders owned animals in surprising numbers. The inventories contain evidence for employment outside agriculture, for example in cloth production.

* For example, Phillipp R. Schofield, Peasant and Community in Medieval England, 1200-1500 (2003), 213-14; Christopher Dyer, An Age of Transition? Economy and Society in England in the Later Middle Ages (2005), 26; Michael Prestwich, Plantagenet England 1225-1360 (2005), 457-8. For Lene’s inventory, see R. Lock, ed., The Court Rolls of Walsham le Willows 1303-50 (Suffolk Records Society, 1998), 132-5.

The Peasant Diet: Image and Reality

Paul Freedman
University of Yale

Peasants often appear in medieval literature, theatre and art as uncouth and crude figures, little better than the animals they use to till the soil. Their supposed lower nature was a key justification for their exploitation or ill treatment on the part of the nobility and clergy since there is no point to treating those naturally inferior as if they were the equal of those placed above them socially and politically.

A fifteenth-century poem that mixes Latin and Italian, entitled «The Life of the Infidel, Wicked and Rustic Villeins», summarizes a number of the comically exaggerated representations of peasant wickedness and bestial lowliness. They are stupid and resemble animals; they are infidels who are even worse than the Jews. They look funny and misshapen and are inveterate liars and robbers. They labor and suffer while other benefit from what they produce, but this is entirely appropriate because they are little better than beasts. They subsist on garlic, onions roots and vegetables. This last aspect, seemingly so particular as to be irrelevant, is part of a consistent set of dietary images of medieval peasants: the vocabulary of subordination of peasants included ideas of what they ate. Peasants were thought to prefer the food that poverty often forced them to subsist on--- root vegetables, dairy products, and porridge or bread made from grain other than wheat-- these are the basic elements of upper-class ideas of peasant diet. A song written against the peasants at the time of an uprising in Flanders (1323-1328) mocks them for their clothes, appearance and food. Curdled milk, rye bread, porridge and cheese are all they really need; anything else would dull their already insufficient wits.

This idea that coarse food is suitable for rustics is in part what upper-class observers considered appropriate and what they thought the peasants themselves preferred. So on the one hand we have the English writer John Gower lamenting that in the better times of the past obedient rustics were content with coarse bread, milk and cheese while today in their arrogance (this was written at the time of the English peasant rebellion of 1381). they demand all sorts of luxuries. In this instance the peasants do want a better diet, but this is considered subversively inappropriate. In a German poem attributed to Neidhart von Reuenthal, a village lad who is popular with the girls eventually marries someone who rules over him and makes him work hard, giving him cabbage and horseradish in return for his labor. Here again, poor food is not enjoyed by the peasant.

But it was also widely believed that peasants actually prefer their usual unpleasant or at least gross fare. A common theme in the French fabliau literature is the rustic man who acquires sufficient wealth to marry above his station. A well-off peasant marries a girl of the bourgeoisie and she cooks for him the sort of food she is accustomed to, but her husband finds his digestion is off and he complains until she gives him things like peas and beans with bread soaked in milk, whereupon he is happy and his digestive problems go away.

At times peasants started to partake of what had been considered aristocratic food thereby causing the prestige of certain items to fall. Pepper, the most common spice, became affordable to the lower orders, so much so that Eustache Deschamps at the beginning of the fifteenth century considered pepper to be peculiarly popular with rustics and complained of inns that he was forced to endure where he was served cabbage and leeks (two classic peasant items) over-seasoned with pepper.

The second part of the communication deals with what we know about what the diet of peasants actually was. Given the participation of Christopher Dyer and Antoni Riera. who have made pioneering contributions to the actual diet of different elements of society, I will devote somewhat less attention to this side of things than to the images of what peasants ate as described above. The picture we have of the standard of living and so the alimentary regime of medieval peasants havr been very much conditioned by historiographic trends. The Annales School in their studies of diet and nutrition tended, especially for the early modern period, to give an extremely negative picture of pre-industrial Europe. Poor crop yields, primitive techniques of agriculture, economic extraction by the seigneurial regime, and demographic pressures all conspired to keep the lower classes in general and the peasants in particular at the brink of starvation or, more than infrequently, at the point of severe malnutrition. Some of this historiographic tendency was the result of a desire to demythologize the often gilded or rose-tinted picture of the past given by conservative writers, and some was the background to the accomplishments or modernity. One also finds this grim notion of living standards before 1800 in British works of the 1960s such as Peter Laslett’s influential The World We Have Lost.

Some redress or nuancing of this picture has taken place in recent years. This stems in part from a greater emphasis on peasant agency and on the ability of ordinary or lower-class people to organize a viable existence that does not necessarily show up in the official records kept about them by the church or state. The resourcefulness of peasant or their activities outside of the manorial/seigneurial setting receive more attention from historians and archaeologists. In addition, an appreciation of women’s labor, of particular local environments and of the variety of alimentary resources has altered somewhat the ideas that peasants ate nothing but porridge or coarse bread supplemented by onions and garlic. particularly significant are maintenance agreements in which elderly peasants make agreements to exchange their tenancy and rights to a younger person (sometimes but not always a relative) in return for food and other basic materials to be given to them for the rest of their lives. These agreements in effect embody expectations of what a normal or ordinary diet would be and they are by no means limited to gruel or bread.

In both the image and reality of peasant diet what is important, and until recently missing, is an appreciation of the variety of what was eaten. Contemporary stereotypes as well as much of the historical literature tends to see the peasants as subsisting on one or two things, but in fact the actual diet appears to have been somewhat more balanced and less centered around grain than was once thought.

Family and economy in the medieval English village, c. 1300

Phillipp Schofield
Aberystwyth University

One of the features of the recent historiography of the medieval English economy has been the emphasis upon its commercialisation, the role of the market and the degree to which even lowly individuals were drawn into economic activity which moved beyond the family. In that sense the family, once a mainstay of discussion of the medieval English peasantry, has retreated a little from our view, at least relative to the strong presence in our writing of commercial and economic dealing, as undertaken by a fairly confident, economically and quasi-politically integrated peasantry.

I suspect that the tide is now beginning to turn a little and that we may see a redirection of this market focus into other aspects of the economy and of rural life, one of which might well be a more careful testing of the relationship of familial associations with external factors, including the market. In what follows I would like to test that a little further by considering the ways in which a family economy operated in the medieval countryside and also to consider what we might mean by a family economy in this, or indeed any other, period. In a recent collection of essays on the family in early modern England, the editors, in their introduction, remark that ‘within the rural and proto-industrial economy the family home was the base for economic life and all family members, whether men, women or children, were expected to be economically productive’ (H. Berry and B. Foyster, ‘Introduction’ in eaedem, eds, The family in early modern England, Cambridge, 2007, p. 9). While we might cavil over the application of this generality, and I will return to some instances which test the same a little later, it is certainly the case that in pre-industrial England family members were most typically the sustaining force for the domestic economy of the individual family and household. I will begin by considering some of the ways in which this operated in the medieval English village before turning to discuss ways in which that relationship, i.e. between family membership and domestic economy, was not wholly applied.

This discussion is placed within the context of pre-plague rural England, during a period when population was close to its medieval maximum and a burgeoning rural economy extended the economic opportunities for individuals and for families, but in an economic setting that was fragile and in which significant pressures operated upon resources. The bulk of source material for the medieval family, at least for peasant families and especially those of the relatively well-to-do customary tenantry, exists in manorial court records as well as ancillary documentation, including taxation records and the records central court jurisdictions, including coroners’ courts. Reference will be made to a number of instances drawn from this material, in what is essentially intended as a survey of questions and approaches to this topic.

I. The economy of the medieval family: family members as mainstays of the domestic economy

For families operating in the medieval west the likelihood that the well-being and security of family members was dependent upon the work of one or two main providers was remote. It is something of a truism, but one with evident substance, to suggest that the family was largely, if not wholly, dependent upon the work of its constituent parts. Certainly, the combined effort of family members aimed at securing the family economy seems reasonably evident and can be approached from a number of directions, including consideration of the day-to-day economy of the family, the role of the family in the accumulation of surplus and the family as core-provider.

In terms of everyday economies, we tend to think of a division of labour intended to permit the family to operate to its maximum potential. Thus, for instance, it is a standard of the literature to distinguish the work of the family along the lines of gender and of age, with women and the young tending to perform different tasks from, most obviously, adult males. It is typically assumed to be at moments of crisis and of some upheaval in labour markets that women were drawn more into the male world of work, as in the medieval English post-plague countryside. For the greater part, female employment patterns, within the family and household, were dominated by what we might identify as household chores, including maintenance of the everyday fabric of family life, cooking, childrearing and relatively light agricultural tasks, including gleaning and some of the work involved in the care of livestock. The record of accidental death involving women and female children tends to locate them within or close to the family hearth, and not infrequently their death is associated with domestic chores. By contrast, male deaths, of adults and older boys, occurred more frequently away from home, sometimes the result of what we might be considered male-dominated or exclusively male work. Literary sources, such as the late fifteenth-century English poem, “Ballad of a tyrannical husband”, also make clear the contemporary awareness of the distinct spheres of family employment.

As regards the role of family as a generator of produce and surplus, the modelling of the peasant economy has tended to assume an input into the productivity of the domestic economy founded largely on the efforts of its familial membership. Thus, for instance, the labour on the family farm is founded upon the effort of the male members of the household, while labour in this ‘core’ economic activity is made available through the work of other household members in other areas. Thus, for instance, Christopher Dyer’s model of the farm economy of a substantial midlands tenant, Robert le Kyng, has as its inevitable focus the management of the substantial arable component and Kyng’s own input. The family, from its own holding was, according to Dyer’s calculations, able to generate a reasonable surplus and one that sustained them against all but the worst years. But, as Dyer notes, the family economy and its produce might well have included other elements, including the product of female labour, such as brewing and the spinning of yarn (C. Dyer, Standards of living in the later middle ages (Cambridge, 1989, p. 115). In similar ways, both men and sometimes women might operate as creditors or brokers and factors in other respects, activity that will also have contributed to the manorial economy. Those so involved would then typically combine their farming activity with some other significant economic activity. John Parkgate, a customary tenant on the Westminster Abbey manor of Birdbook (Essex) in the fourteenth century, was also carpenter on the manor’s demesne, occasionally working for 90 or more days per year, along with his assistant, possibly his son. It may have been this additional, lucrative work, supported by his family, which allowed him to increase his peasant holding and, for instance, to lease more land.

The family also, of course, served as core provider of assets, the kinds of surpluses discussed in passing above permitting, for instance, individual family members to establish households of their own. Most obviously, inheritance of family land, post-mortem and by pre-mortem gifts of property were central to the life-chances and expectations of the offspring of wealthier peasant families, if not, as we will consider a little more below, for their poorer neighbours. Within families, even those with relatively significant surpluses, not all family members would, of course, benefit from the same degree and distinctions of age and of gender, conditioned by customary rules of inheritance, had major impact on the opportunities which family membership afforded the individual. Investment in, inter alia, the land market also allowed families or heads of household to establish the kinds of estates which might then be redistributed in kind or in cash at death of prior to death. Richard Smith’s investigation of the Suffolk land market on the Bury St Edmunds’ manor of Redgrave c. 1300 illustrates the ways in which peasant families might accumulate considerable portfolios of land and then redistribute them, often in extra-familial dealings but with at least the possibility that the transfers also allowed a redistribution of family capital to offspring as pre-mortem gifts (R.M. Smith, ‘Families and their land in an area of partible inheritance: Redgrave, Suffolk 1260-1320’, in R.M. Smith (ed.), Land, kinship and life-cycle, Cambridge, 1984).

II. The family economy: exceptions to the rule

While we might be tempted to think of the family and domestic economy as something of a universal type, it is also, of course, abundantly clear that family units were not discrete, entirely self-sufficient and separated from the outside world. This model, in a peasant context, might be best applied to the virgater or yardlander, tenant of a holding consistent with the expectations of a reasonably large peasant family, the so-called terra unius familie. Even in such circumstances, the family economy was far from isolated, drawing upon an external labour force, engaging in economic activity, buying and selling, paying rent and other obligations etc etc. The concept of a self-sustaining family economy works even less well for those who could not expect to live from their own produce and their own land.

In this respect, the size of families is evidently important. Zvi Razi described, for Halesowen, the centripetal and centrifugal pressures of richer and poorer peasant families upon their own membership, with the likelihood that poorer families would and could keep their younger family members close to the hearth remote in comparison to their wealthier neighbours. At Halesowen, it was the wealthier families whose collective resources encouraged, through marriage, inheritance and the purchase of land in a local market for land, a consolidation of their membership, if not in single households then at least in ‘laterally extended’ kin groups. By contrast, poorer individuals tended to seek their fortunes further afield. (Z. Razi, Life, marriage and death in a medieval parish. Economy, society and demography in Halesowen, 1270-1400, Cambridge, 1980; idem, ‘The myth of the immutable English family’, Past and Present, 140, 1993, pp. 3?44.)

This also, to follow a number of commentators on the medieval English family, effected discrete behaviour in terms of marriage and household formation; on the assumption that household formation was dependent upon the acquisition of necessary resources, poorer and non-inheriting offspring might expect to accumulate property not through inheritance or family gift but through their labour (a so-called ‘proletarian’ or ‘real wages’ household formation system). By contrast, the inheritance of property and the opportunity it afforded for marriage and household formation, in a ‘peasant’ or ‘niche’ model of household formation, might also allow earlier marriage with positive consequences for fertility and family size (see, for instance, L.R. Poos, A Rural Society after the Black Death: Essex 1350-1525. Cambridge, 1991).

Important for our consideration here, such differences in household formation systems illustrate the likely differences in terms of the family economy and the capacity of individuals to remain within that economy and to enable it to prosper. If we consider the instance of poorer families in the medieval village, we are aware of their relatively small size and the greater preponderance of two-generational, nuclear families. We might also anticipate that it was the offspring of these families who were obliged to seek their own economic opportunities further afield, perhaps as household and ‘life-cycle’ servants in other neighbouring households or, as likely, at some distance, in towns and other villages or as waged labourers.

Certainly, when we consider the significance of service in the medieval economy, even in the period before the Black Death heralded a rise in standard of living, we are impressed by its conspicuous presence, even amongst peasant families. Taxation material, especially the later fourteenth-century poll taxes, illustrates the varied sex-ratios between town and countryside, with an apparent concentration of young unmarried women in towns with a higher proportion of males in the countryside. Local court records also reveal, often in passing reference, the presence of servants within the households of peasants and their social superiors. So, for example, at Birdbook, Essex, in the fourteenth century, it is evident that local priests and the more substantial tenants employed servants in a range of tasks, including such various nefarious activities as poaching, fishing and the illegal rescue of seized goods and livestock. Not all of these servants were unrelated to their masters of course, as formulae such as filius et serviens and filia et manipasta indicate.

In similar respects, and to return to a theme addressed at the beginning of this paper, the market, including a market in land, which has been subject to a good deal of study in recent years throws into relief the nature of the family economy. A willingness to engage in the market was at one stage deemed to be almost antithetical to a peasant economy; we would however now not wholly disassociate markets from peasants, but instead recognise that market activity challenges one view of the peasant family economy (a quasi self-sustaining model) while at the same time admitting others. The extent to peasant engagement in markets or in waged labour was, in the medieval English village as elsewhere, clearly conditioned by such factors as familial and local custom, the control of lordship and the capacity of local markets to support economic activity. In addition, where markets failed to protect individual consumers, as they did in the crisis years of the thirteenth and early fourteenth century when grain prices, for instance, escalated enormously, it is far from evident that individuals could turn to their own families for security. Frequently, of course, they could not.

Furthermore, the capacity of a family to sustain its own membership or to ‘jettison’ it was, as noted, in no small part dependent upon the kind of resources it could generate. But those households with relatively extensive resources might find room to care for those less able or unable to contribute to the domestic economy. In fact, the capacity and willingness to do so might also be consistent, at least in its degree, with an indication of the consumption choices of individual peasant households and their relative wealth, distinctions reasonably evident in, for example, the retirement and maintenance agreements drawn up between elderly parents and their offspring as well as the provisions, far from easily observed, relating to the care and upbringing of the young children of the family and household (as, for instance, R.M. Smith, ‘The Manorial Court and the Elderly Tenant in Late Medieval England’, in M. Pelling and R.M. Smith (eds), Life, Death and the Elderly. Historical Perspectives. London and New York, 1991). Such choices as regards surplus might also be evident in the treatment of charity and of bequests, a form of disposition which, as with the care of children or the elderly, did not necessarily meet the immediate economic expectations of the family but clearly had other social and emotional benefits.


In this summary of some of the potential issues associated with the family economy in the medieval English village, it is clear that some of the important issues, including the extent of individual input into the economy and the willingness of individual members to invest in their families or to seek opportunity elsewhere may be largely hidden from us. In a recent assessment of the family and household economy in later centuries, Pfister has, amongst other issues, considered the ways in which individual families conditioned their response to the needs of their own domestic economy in ways consistent with the extent and sophistication of the same. Thus, for example, women in larger peasant households might adjust their economic activity to coincide with agricultural tasks while the female members of poorer households in the countryside would more typically be identified for day-labour and regular waged employment. (U. Pfister, ‘The Proto-Industrial Household Economy: Toward a Formal Analysis’, in R.L. Rudolph (ed.), The European Peasant Family and Society. Historical Studies. Liverpool University Press, 1995). Further work on the household and family economies of the medieval village may, perhaps above all through micro-studies based on relativities of wealth, illustrate, in the sorts of ways described by Pfister for later periods, the variety of responses open to or forced upon individuals and their families in this period. In the same way, the degree to which individuals and their families were or were not drawn into economic relationships and dependencies beyond their own families is a significant aspect in our consideration of the family and rural economy of the period. Issues such as the relevance of waged labour, of processes of commutation, of the extent to which land could be bought and sold beyond the family, of the proximity of urban markets and of the influences drawing members of the family away from the family hearth are all highly relevant to discussion of the medieval peasant family; they illustrate its variety and of the sorts and range of factors which served to condition and to explain that variety.

Wealthy Peasants, Market and Economic Growth in Castilian Countryside in the Fifteenth Century

Hipólito Rafael Oliva Herer
Universidad de Sevilla

In a recent survey of studies about the rural world in the medieval Crown of Castile, José Angel García de Cortázar and Pascual Martínez Sopena indicated that there were two basic issues in historiography which still required resolution: firstly, the question of social stratification in peasant communities and, secondly, the complex relationship between the peasant economy and the market. If we look at this from the vantage point of the late Middle Ages, I would add that one of the major unresolved problems involves the interpretation and implications of the growth cycle in the rural world, a question which obviously encompasses the two previously mentioned aspects.

It is true that, in recent years, there has been a noticeable reduction in historiographic output concerning the Castilian countryside; it is also true that the very characteristics of the documentary possibilities available to study the Crown of Castile make it enormously difficult to examine particular aspects of it. Whatever the reasons, the questions of the agricultural economy and economic growth in the late Middle Ages have attracted the attention of international historiography, so that we can state that, in a short period of time, the previously generally accepted parameters for interpretation have been considerably transformed.

There is broad historiographic consensus in defining the fifteenth century in Castile as a period of sustained growth. Although it is far from clear when this growth actually started, economic take-off was first apparent in Andalusia; from 1450, there is evidence from widely diverse places telling us of an increase in production and a widespread upward trend. Traditional interpretations of this growth cycle in Castile in the fifteenth century tend to underline that it was predominantly extensive farming, in other words, based on extending the land under cultivation. This is confirmed by myriad regional studies that reflect the intensity and rate of ploughing up of new land. The importance of ploughing up of new land and the emphyteutic grants of noble lands (leases held in perpetuity) of noble lands are the foundations of a paradigm which shows quite a few parallels with the traditional Malthusian-Ricardian model.

More recent interpretations, influenced by economists of the Institutionalist School, attempt to tone down the view of the nature of the growth cycle as exclusively extensive. Hilario Casado pointed out that, at the time, a key factor in the increase in output was a parallel process involving rationalisation of production linked to the increasing legislating powers of the local council; this would be reflected in the organisation of agricultural practices authorised in the municipal by-laws. In any case, it was Bartolomé Yun who provided the most elaborate version. For him, the ploughing phenomenon combined more efficiently with the use of the factors of production. The result was greater security in property rights, regulation of agricultural rhythms and practices, and hence an increase in labour productivity. This would also facilitate the expansion of craft production in the countryside.

One of the many virtues of Yun’s analysis is the importance given to the increased commercialisation of production within the framework the gradual commercial integration of regional economies, without the high level of commercialisation necessarily leading to the conclusion that the economic system had undergone a radical transformation.

Otherwise, Yun’s interpretation is close to the thesis of R. Brenner, in accepting that the very structures for payment of feudal income and the fact that they were clearly directed at ensuring social reproduction, acted as a brake on innovation by preventing investment conducive to expanding the capital base.

This concept, therefore, can be summarised as an addition to the extensive model of agricultural growth, based merely on ploughing up fresh land, increases in labour productivity and reductions in transaction costs, and taking place within limits which facilitate the payment structure and expenditure of feudal rent.

The critique of the extensive model of growth from this perspective appears well founded although there remain significant lacunae in this interpretation. Undoubtedly, the most important is to wonder about the role played by the agricultural producers in this model. In fact, the interpretations of agricultural development in fifteenth-century Castile have not really analysed in any detail the productive rationale at the level of the different segments of the rural communities. Nor have they addressed in any depth the relationships between the countryside, economic growth and the commercialisation of agricultural produce.

Paradoxically, the picture which emerges has much more to do with the persistence of the traditional understanding of the immutability of the rural world: it is thought that the ways of managing the wealth of the nobility and the particular consumption patterns of this group, generally directed towards social reproduction, did not tend to generate innovation in agricultural production, whilst the inability of agricultural producers to carry out transformations leading to increases in productivity is taken for granted.

My understanding is that the necessary condition for resolving the inadequacy of the accepted explanations of the growth cycle lies precisely in recognising the role of agrarian producers as agents and analysing accordingly their specific behaviours and logic; this also implies analysing the complex relationship between agricultural economy and marketplace, and their involvement in the various segments of the rural communities. This recognition was never problematic in English historiography which brought the Brenner debate to a close by highlighting the importance of the effects of production in the marketplace of the rural communities, the opportunities for accumulating land, the implications of this precisely for local stratification, and therefore, for establishing an elite in the countryside capable of making considerable profits, even of introducing innovations which could increase productivity in general terms

Spanish historiography has also drawn attention to the emergence, in the course of the fifteenth century, of a segment in the rural communities comprising wealthy peasants, with each of the various regions having its own specific features. Their role as intermediaries in leasing the property of the nobility is usually highlighted and, paradoxically, they are better known for their political complaints than as a source of income or their development in the age-old circumstances. It has not even been confirmed whether the visibility of this group in mid-fifteenth century sources is qualitatively different from other wealthy farmers of the preceding epoch.

My purpose is to rethink the interpretations of the growth cycle in the rural environment through a specific analysis of the activity of its most dynamic segment, that with the greatest impact on the whole set of rural communities, namely that segment of prosperous peasants referred to in the sources.

My understanding is that an in-depth analysis of these questions will demonstrate not only that the different groups that comprised rural society were capable of handling complex mixtures of produce for marketing and subsistence, but that they also had the specific capacity to develop planned productive strategies which would transform and reorganize agricultural structures and bring about productivity increases. These lead us to rectify the widespread interpretation of economic growth in the Castilian countryside and to make a specific analysis of the restructuring of rural society itself in the course of the fifteenth century and at the beginning of the sixteenth.

It seems obvious that, to answer these questions, we need micro studies which enable us to expose the rationale behind the cultivation of peasant holdings during the growth cycle. We need detailed studies, as M. Bailey proposed in a well known article, which will enable us to refine some general interpretations which are founded on very limited empirical evidence.

I will devote the next few minutes precisely to this: a study of the structural changes in the landholding of a rich peasant family between 1457 and 1543, trying to reveal its logic and extract the consequences which follow an analysis of this kind for generally accepted interpretations of the growth cycle.

The documents I have used come from lists of properties, drawn up at the level of the peasant community, which allow us to follow the way agricultural holdings were organised parcel by parcel. More specifically, I am going to use the references from the family of one peasant farmer, Juan González. During the period, his land wealth underwent considerable growth. Having said that, and as we shall see, the most important thing is to realise that the way the structure of the estates of Juan González and his family evolved clearly takes us away from the model of growth based purely and simply on the extension of crops.

The earliest date we can go back to is 1457. At this time, Juan González was already a prominent resident settled in the village of Torremormojón, situated in the natural region of Tierra de Campos, right in the heart of Castile. This region is close to major centres of exchange and basically the land was used for cereal farming and vineyards.

The example of Juan González brings out the dynamics of the way the peasant elite grew rich during the fifteenth century; however, as I said earlier, the dynamic of growth may have particular features depending on the different agrarian systems.

© 2008 Universitat de València