EARLY IN THE FOURTEENTH CENTURY THE POPUlation of England probably surpassed four million, as compared with the Domesday figure of a million and a half to two million.1 By far the greater part of the increase came from the villages, “the primary seedbeds of population.”2 The Europewide demographic surge was halted by a series of calamities that began with the floods and famine of 1315-1317. Two catastrophic harvests in succession, possibly related to a long-term climatic change, sent grain prices to levels “unparalleled in English history,” and, accompanied by typhoid, hit poor families especially hard.3 The lords added to the misery by cutting down their alms-giving, reducing staff, and halting livery of grain to their famuli, like latter-day governments and business firms responding to business depression by laying off workers and reducing purchases. Severe murrain and cattle disease added to the calamity. Thefts of food and livestock rose sharply, and bodies of paupers were found in the streets. Dogs and cats disappeared, and cannibalism was rumored.4

By the time the next, even worse disaster struck, three long-term changes in agriculture and rural life were already evident: a discernible shift from crop farming toward sheep grazing; a general return by lords to farming out their demesnes; and a growth in the proportion of peasant cultivation as opposed to demesne cultivation.5 The lord was slipping from his role as producer-consumer to being merely a consumer, a “rentier,” albeit one with a large appetite.

In Elton in the agricultural year of 1349-1350, three different villeins held the office of reeve, for which there was suddenly little enthusiasm.6 The Black Death, sweeping through England in the summer of 1349 via the rats that infested houses, barns, and sheds, left so many holdings vacant that it was impossible to collect rents or enforce services. The manorial accounts read like a dirge: “Twenty-three virgates in the hand of the lord [vacant].”7 “Rent lacking from eleven cottages…by reason of the mortality in the preceding year.” “Of the rent of…Robert Amys…nothing here for the cause abovesaid. Of the rent of John Suteer…and William Abbot…nothing here for the cause aforesaid. And [the reeve answers for] two shillings sixpence from Robert Beadle for twelve acres of demesne land formerly of Hugh Prest lately deceased.”8 “From the fulling mill nothing because it is broken and useless.”9 “Of divers rents of tenements which are in the hand of the lord owing to the death of the tenants…”10 “Three capons and no more this year because those liable to chevage are dead.”11

The following year things were no better: “Of the farm of one common oven…nothing this year because it is ruinous. Second common oven…nothing for the same cause.” “And for sixpence from the smithy this year because it fell down after All Saints and from then on was empty.”12 “Of chevage nothing because all the chevagers are dead.”13

Expenses were up because of the shortage of villeins doing labor service: “In divers workmen hired by the day to mow and lift the lord’s hay, seventeen shillings five pence by tally.”14 The harvest was costly: “Expenses of forty workmen coming at the bailiff’s request to one repast and of divers other workmen hired by the day…And in the expenses of forty workmen coming…to reap and bind the lord’s grain during one day…one young bullock. And in the expenses of two boon-works of the autumn, on each occasion of ninety workmen, each of whom take three loaves whereof eight are made from one bushel…and in divers workmen hired to reap and bind the lord’s grain for lack of customary tenants…”15

Grain production on Ramsey manors was reduced by one half.16 In desperation, stewards and bailiffs strictly enforced work services on the surviving tenants, and sought to hold down the cost of hired labor with the help of a royal Statute of Laborers (1351), backed by a threat of the stocks. The main result they achieved was to stir resentment among both tenants and hired laborers. With depopulation, land inevitably fell in value and labor inevitably rose in price.

The Hundred Years War added heavy taxation to peasant burdens. For many years, “lay subsidies” (to distinguish them from taxes on the clergy) had been occasionally levied at the rate of a tenth or a twentieth on all movable goods above a certain figure. In the long reign of Henry III (1216-1272), the lay subsidy was collected only five times. In those of Edward I (1272-1307) and Edward II (1307-1327), marked by wars with Scotland, the royal tax collectors appeared in the villages a total of sixteen times.

Edward III imposed the tax three times in the first seven years of his lengthy reign, then as the war in France escalated, he needed it no fewer than twenty-four times (1334-1377).17 To facilitate collection, he changed the mechanics of taxation, putting the burden of it on the villagers themselves and charging the royal administration with the task of seeing that every village met its quota. The new method made it possible for the better-off peasants who filled the village offices to arrange distribution of the tax in their favor.18 Besides the lay subsidy, the village was afflicted with conscription, which itself was apparently a light burden—volunteers were found, and a village might perceive the army a good place to get rid of its bad characters—but each community had to pay for its own recruits’ equipment. Finally, in 1377, amid a succession of defeats in France, a poll tax was introduced: four pence per head on everyone over fourteen years of age, with only genuine beggars exempt. In 1379 a second poll tax was piled on top of a double subsidy, and in 1381 a third on top of a subsidy and a half. Wealthy taxpayers were rather piously requested to help pay the share of poor taxpayers.19

The accumulation of tax levies, the Statute of Laborers, and the other burdens, afflictions, and irritants resulted in the Peasant Rebellion of 1381. Sometimes known as Wat Tyler’s Rebellion, from the name of one of its several leaders, the English revolt was part of a larger pattern. “A chain of peasant uprisings clearly directed against taxation exploded all over Europe,” says Georges Duby.20 If they were discernibly triggered by taxation, the risings had a broader content, both substantive and ideological. Another leader of the English rebels, the Kentish priest John Ball, preached that “things cannot go right in England…until goods are held in common and there are no more villeins and gentlefolk, but we are all one and the same.” Unsympathetic Froissart, chronicler of the nobility, may not be recording Ball’s words with reportorial exactness, but there is little doubt that the gist is accurate: “[The lords] are clad in velvet and camlet lined with squirrel and ermine, while we go dressed in coarse cloth. They have the wines, the spices, and the good bread: we have the rye, the husks, and the straw, and we drink water. They have shelter and ease in their fine manors, and we have hardship and toil, the wind and the rain in the fields. And from us must come, from our labour, the things which keep them in luxury.” And the fiery preacher’s auditors, “out in the fields, or walking together from one village to another, or in their homes, whispered and repeated among themselves, ‘That’s what John Ball says, and he’s right!’”21 One chronicler credits Ball with the phrase, “All men are created equal,” and with a declaration that villein servitude is “against the will of God.”22 One of several priests who took part in the rising, Ball was certainly on the far Left of his age, but there is no doubt that the aims of the mainstream of rebellion included the abolition of villeinage. The demand was put forward in the rebels’ negotiations and dramatized by the destruction of manorial records “from Norfolk to Kent,” not to mention the number of lawyers killed.23 The Continental revolts showed the same revolutionary tendencies.

A feature especially noted by modern historians is the participation, even domination, by the better-off peasants. “Peasant revolts…were wont to spring up, not in the regions where the serf was in deepest oppression, but in those in which he was comparatively well off, where he was strong enough to aspire to greater liberty and to dream of getting it by force,” says Sir Charles Oman.24

All the risings were suppressed, naturally, by the united upper class—monarchy, nobility, upper clergy, and wealthy townsmen—but all nevertheless left their mark. In England the poll tax was abandoned, and the Statute of Laborers left unenforced. Everywhere, the process by which serfdom was withering was accelerated. In England the villein class rid itself of its disabilities mainly through “copyhold tenure,” which amounted to a reversal of the law’s point of view: instead of the manorial records’ proving the legality of a villein’s obligations, they were now taken to prove the sanctity of his claim to his holding, since the succession within the family was registered (copied down) in the court rolls. Over the course of the fifteenth century, the villeins bought their way free of, or simply refused to pay, merchet, heriot, gersum, chevage, wardpenny, woolsilver, and all the rest of the vicious or petty exactions of the long past. On Ramsey manors, customary payments and labor services were “relaxed” in 1413. The last fines for default on boon-works were recorded at Elton in 1429. Quietly and unobtrusively, an era in social relations was closed.25

Closed, but not altogether forgotten. A century after the Peasant Rebellion, it was still possible to pour scorn on a family of the gentry, such as the Pastons of Norfolk, by pointing triumphantly to their alleged bondman ancestor, while to this day the English language retains the word villein, slightly altered, as a pejorative, and its synonyms boor and churl, now mainly in adjective form, to convey a connotation of base manners.

The fifteenth century witnessed a return of prosperity—uneven, checkered, with plenty of setbacks and slowdowns, but nevertheless a recovery for Europe and its villages. In the wake of depopulation, individual holdings grew, the shrinkage of arable provided more pasture and stimulated increase of livestock, and the manure probably helped improve crop yields. Wealthy townsmen joined with the newly freed villagers in sharecropping arrangements. “The conduct of village economy passed decisively into the hands of peasants backed by townsmen’s money,” says Georges Duby.26

The era was one of extensive rebuilding. Peasant houses began to be constructed with masonry foundations and stronger frames, and many added rooms or even a second floor, with fireplace and chimney. Manor houses were enlarged. Parish churches were rebuilt in the new Perpendicular style, the vertical lines of the building emphasized with elaborate tracery and fan vaulting. The Elton church was extensively remodeled, the great square tower built, the aisles extended on either side, a south porch added, and the nave lighted by a clerestory.27

Not all villages shared in the prosperity, or even survived it. From about 1450, as grass became the favored land use in England, some villages, such as Wharram Percy, saw fields that had grown cereal crops for centuries turned exclusively into pastures for sheep. The smaller and less prosperous villages were especially vulnerable, as were those with few free tenants, who were much harder to displace than villeins. Vulnerable also were villages whose landlords, whether old feudatories or new men of wealth, had connections in the wool trade, or merely intelligently acquisitive appetites.28 Where enclosure struck, families packed up their belongings, drove their animals ahead of them, and departed the village. Behind them their wattle-and-daub houses tumbled into ruins, the ditches that marked their crofts were filled in by erosion, the fences tottered, and the lanes and footpaths tramped by the feet of so many men and animals disappeared in weeds. The manor house often survived, with the shepherds sleeping in the bailiff’s old quarters.

In maps showing the two phenomena, a clear correlation between the belt of open field agriculture and the distribution of the deserted villages can be seen, and a further correlation becomes apparent in comparing the two with a map showing enclosures of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.29

“Within a century and a half of the Black Death, ten percent of the settlements of rural England had been erased from the landscape,” says one historian, possibly with exaggeration.30 By the year 1600 over thirty villages in Huntingdonshire had been deserted, leaving behind sometimes the ruin of a church, sometimes the site of a manor house, sometimes nothing but plow marks discernible from the air.31

The old feudal landlord class was dealt a devastating blow from an unexpected source with Henry VIII’s famous “Dissolution” of the monastic orders beginning in 1536. The king, embroiled with the Church over his divorce problems—and, like so many kings, needing money—violently suppressed all the great monasteries and seized their manors, which he then sold off at an ultimate profit of a million and a half pounds. Among the suppressed monasteries was Ramsey Abbey. A Huntingdonshire chronicler, Edmund Gibson, observed, “Most of the County being Abbey-land…many new purchasers planted themselves therein.”32 The new purchasers were entrepreneurs out to make money, and not surprisingly many of them saw the merits of sheep farming.

The enclosure movement appeared on the Continent too, but nowhere on the same scale as in England, where petty incidents of resistance multiplied without slowing the progress of the sheep, who, it was said, now devoured men instead of the men devouring sheep. The process “produced much controversy, many pamphlets, a number of government inquiries, some ineffective acts of Parliament, and a revolt in the Midlands in 1607,” summarizes Alan R. H. Baker.33 Yet many of the old villages

image 57

Relics of the Dissolution: ruins of Glastonbury Abbey (above) and Whitby Abbey. Of Ramsey Abbey, nothing medieval survives.

survived, some even gaining new population and character as numbers of craftsmen quit the cities, in part to escape guild regulation, and took their weaving, dyeing, tanning, and other skills to the now freer village environment. Some villages became primarily industrial. The village of Birmingham in the sixteenth century became a burgeoning town of 1,500, specializing in tanning and clothmaking.34

At the same time cereal crop agriculture made belated progress. Yields improved, if slowly, in the seventeenth century, reaching a general average in England of seven to one.35 Famine became largely a threat of the past. “Starvation…cannot be shown to have been an omnipresent menace to the poor in Stuart times,” says Peter Laslett.36

In 1610 a Herefordshire husbandman named Rowland Vaughan solved the problem of meadow and hay shortage that had vexed medieval lord and villager by devising an irrigation technique.37 This and other improvements in agricultural technology made possible the servicing of a rapidly expanding market for English produce in Britain, on the Continent, and in English colonies overseas. The market gave scope for the ambitious, the industrious, the competent, and the fortunate, creating new, deeper divisions of rich and poor among the villagers. Individual enterprise moved to the center of the economic stage, as those who could afford it took advantage of the land market to buy up and consolidate holdings, forming compact plots that could be enclosed by fences or hedges and set free from communal regulation. At the other end of the scale, the number of landless laborers multiplied. In some places the old open field arrangements, with their cooperative plowing, common grazing, and bylaws, hung on amid a changing world. In 1545 the hallmote of Newton Longville, Buckinghamshire, ordained “that no one shall pasture his beasts in the sown fields except on his own lands from the Feast of Pentecost next-to-come until the rye and wheat have been taken away under penalty of four pence…”38 But the future of individualism was already assured. “The undermining of the common fields, the declining effectiveness of the village’s internal government, and the development of a distinct group of wealthy tenants [spelled the] triumph of individualism over the interests of the community,” in the words of Christopher Dyer.39

Among the last guardians of the old communal tradition were the English colonists who settled in New England, laid out their villages with churchyard and green (but no manor house), divided their fields into strips apportioned in accordance with wealth, plowed them cooperatively with large ox teams, and in their town meetings elected officials and enacted bylaws on cropping, pasturing, and fencing.40 But in land-rich North America the open field village was out of place, and it soon became apparent that the American continent was destined for exploitation by the individual homestead farm. (It may be worth noting, however, that even technology-oriented American agriculture proved resistant to radical change; until the introduction of the tractor, one to two acres was considered an ample day’s work for two men and a plow team.)

The village of Elton survived famine, Black Death, the Dissolution, and the enclosure movement. It even gained an architectural ornament with the building of Elton Hall, an imposing structure surrounded by a moat, begun by Sir Richard Sapcote about 1470 and expanded in the following centuries along with many other new peasant houses and old manor houses that reflected the general prosperity. Richard Cromwell, a nephew by marriage of Henry VIII’s minister Thomas Cromwell, acquired Ramsey Abbey and became landlord of the dependent manors. Elton, however, went to another proprietor, through whom it gained a little guidebook distinction. The king bestowed it on his latest queen, Katherine Howard, as part of her jointure, the property settlement made on noble wives. On Katherine’s execution for adultery Henry took back the jointure and presently bestowed Elton in 1546 on his last wife, Katherine Parr, under whose regime Elton Hall was given extensive repairs. On her death in 1548 Elton reverted to the crown, now held by the infant Edward VI, from whom it passed to Queen Elizabeth and James I, who disposed of it to Sir James Fullerton and Francis Maxwell, from whom it passed through still other hands to Sir Thomas Cotton, who held what must have been one of the last views of frankpledge in the manor court in 1633. Sir Thomas’s daughter Frances and her husband Sir Thomas Proby inherited Elton; from them it passed to a collateral branch, raised to the peerage as earls of Carysfort, and in 1909 went to a nephew who took the name of Proby, and whose descendants remain in residence in Elton Hall.41

Enclosures, slow to penetrate Huntingdonshire, finally replaced the old arable strips and furlongs with rectangular hedged fields; one drives down a long straight road to arrive in a village whose irregular lanes and closes still carry a hint of the Middle Ages.

Though it had many ancestors in the form of hamlets, encampments, and other tiny, temporary, or semipermanent settlements, and though its modern descendants range from market towns to metropolitan suburbs, the open field village of the Middle Ages was a distinctive community, something new under the sun and not repeated since. Its intricate combination of social, economic, and legal arrangements, invented over a long period of time to meet a succession of pressing needs, imparted to its completed form an image, a personality, and a character. The traces of its open fields that aerial photographs reveal, with their faded parallel furrows clustered in plots oddly angled to each other, contain elements of both discipline and freedom.

Simultaneously haphazard and systematic, the medieval village is unthinkable without its lord. So much of its endless round of toil went to cultivate his crops, while its rents, court fines, and all the other charges with the curious archaic names went to supply his personal wants and the needs of his monastic or baronial household. Yet at the same time the village enjoyed a high degree of autonomy, regulating its own cultivation, settling its own quarrels, and living its life with little interference.

The legal division of the villagers into “free” and “unfree” had genuine meaning, but went much less deep than the words imply. The unfree villeins had to work for the lord and pay many fees that the free tenants escaped, yet the division into prosperous and poor was more meaningful. Looking at the men of the Middle Ages, Marc Bloch asked, “In social life, is there any more elusive notion than the free will of a small man?”42

Village life for men and women alike was busy, strenuous, unrelenting, much of it lived outdoors, with an element of danger that especially threatened children. Diet was poor, dress simple, housing primitive, sanitary arrangements derisory. Yet there were love, sex, courtship, and marriage, holidays, games and sports, and plenty of ale. Neighbors quarreled and fought, sued and countersued, suspected and slandered, but also knew each other thoroughly and depended on each other, to help with the plowing and harvesting, to act as pledges, to bear witness, to respond when danger threatened.

The most arresting characteristic of the medieval open field village is certainly its system of cooperation: cultivation in concert of individually held land, and pasturing in common of individually owned animals. It was a system that suited an age of low productivity and scarcity of markets, and one that hardly fostered the spirit of innovation. The lords were content to leave things as they were, the villeins had little power to change them. When change came, it came largely from outside, from the pressure of the market and the enterprise of new landlords. Yet change builds on an existing structure. The open field village helped create the populous—and in comparison with the past, prosperous—Europe of the high Middle Ages, the Europe from which so much of the modern world emerged.

In the shift toward that world, many villagers lost their homes, many of their villages disappeared. Argument, protest, and violence accompanied change, which only historical perspective makes clearly inevitable.

Was something larger lost? A sense of community, of closeness, of mutual solidarity? Perhaps it was, but the clearest message about the people of Elton and other villages of the late thirteenth century that their records give us seems to be that they were people much like ourselves. Not brutes or dolts, but men and women, living out their lives in a more difficult world, one underequipped with technology, devoid of science, nearly devoid of medicine, and saddled with an exploitative social system. Sometimes they protested, sometimes they even rose in rebellion, mostly they adapted to circumstance. In making their system work, they helped lay the foundation of the future.

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