Saturday, March 12, 2005

Life in a Medieval Village

Book Review: Life in a Medieval Village
Frances and Joseph Gies
Harper and Row, 1991

The Middle Ages are often mischaracterized with the title of Dark ages. A rather inadequate and inaccurate description for a vast variety of situations, a time when much of the frame work for the modern world was set. To not know something of it is not to have a solid understanding of the modern world.

This book describes daily life in the typical English village of Elton in the late 1200’s to mid-1300’s. The life of the village is reconstructed from contemporary records of the village supplemented by information on similar villages.

Elton was founded prior to 1000 AD, the first records being slightly after that date, on the river
in the East of England. By the time covered it was a typical “open field” agriculture village and manor. “Open field” agriculture, the norm in Northwestern Europe in this period, typically had three or four large fields practicing crop rotation. Each field was divided in to strips, (easier to plow) some of which the villagers farmed on their own account and common strips in which the owed labor and the produce went to the manor. All land was theoretically the property of the king, the lords being tenants-in-chief (landlords) and the villagers being sub-tenants. In practice each tenant had uncontested ownership of his land as long as the rent was paid. This system required a great amount of cooperation to work but produced one of the more prosperous pre-industrial age economies. On the other hand being pre-industrial age meant that poverty was the norm; they were just less poor than most people in antiquity.

I found internal political/economic structure of village very interesting. We see the beginnings of English Common Law and democracy. The lord allowed virtual autonomy as long as he received his rent. Many holding village office, who were in theory agents of the lord, were in fact elected by the village. The basic rule governing political life was the “custom of the manor” the past or traditional practice. Rights and duties were not normally changeable from what had happened in the past. This tended protect the villagers from arbitrary action by the lord because an arbitrary action would be a change. The lord had an interest in maintaining this system because his rights in respect to the king were also based on past practice. Twice a year the village met in Hallmote (a meeting in the lord’s hall), This was a village meeting, in which set village by laws, elected officials, the board of directors for the village as an economic unit, and the a court. Over time the emphasis on past practice became the Common Law and the Hallmote set the cultural foundation of democracy.

Because the book is intended to be introductory some may find parts a little slow while the authors provide background. I would have liked a little more biography on members of the village, however the nature of the surviving records does not provide enough information to build biographies.

Most areas of village life are covered so you will likely find something you will find especially interesting. This book is written at an introductory level, is interesting, and provides a realistic picture of what it was like to live in a medieval village.

Also see: Voices of Morebath about a village in Devon in a later period

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