TERRY’S DAD USED THE WORD ‘MEDIEVAL’ as a term of abuse: ‘That plumbing is positively medieval,’ he’d say. It was one that people used about anything that didn’t work very well or that was barbaric. Even today’s newspapers talk about ‘cruelty that is truly medieval’.

In this book we’re not trying to prove that there was no such thing as cruelty in the Middle Ages or that we’ve lost out on some beautiful experience by introducing flushing lavatories. But we would like to readjust the spectacles through which we view the medieval world. And the first thing you might notice, when you try on these new spectacles of ours, is that the ‘medieval world’ itself starts to vanish – or at least becomes remarkably blurred. Not a very good start for a new pair of specs, you might think . . .


‘Medieval’ means belonging to the Middle Ages. Of course, nobody then thought of the period as the Middle Ages. For them – as for everyone who has ever lived – they were living in the modern world.

The idea that there was a ‘middle time’ that separated that modern world from antiquity first appears in a letter from a Renaissance bishop in 1469. Giovanni Andrea, like many of his contemporaries, was so besotted with the splendours of ancient Greece and Rome that he thought the classical world was the only basis for civilization. He took pride in the fact that his own world was returning to its values, and was therefore at pains to distinguish it from the media tempesta (middle time) – that bleak interlude between then and ‘now’ when the world was deep in dirt and ignorance.

Of course, we could tell him that he was himself living in the Middle Ages, poor deluded chap.

The phrase ‘middle ages’ first turned up in English in the seventeenth century, and right from the start it carried with it a judgement – it was never just a chronological expression – and that judgement is the same today as it was in the seventeenth century: from the fourth century AD (or was it the fifth? or sixth?) until the Renaissance, Europe was sunk in feudal superstitious ignorance that needs to be consigned to the dustbin of history. Medieval people, we are invited to suppose, lived out their lives in a kind of fairy tale, unaware of science or real learning, under the tyrannical rule of feudal overlords.

Nowadays we tend to divide this epoch into the ‘Dark Ages’, which in England apparently ended in 1066, and the ‘Middle Ages’, which lasted until the crown landed on the head of a Henry Tudor in 1485. But even though this is today enshrined in school and university syllabuses, we should beware of thinking of it as a ‘fact’. It isn’t a fact at all. It’s simply a convenient division – an invention of historians.

Of course, historical ‘periods’ can be useful. Historians argue about the significance and reality of decisive moments, turning points in history, but it seems absurd to deny that there are real instances of change, when nothing will be the same again, and which force us to think of the past in ‘periods’. The Battle of Hastings in 1066 was such a moment in the history of England.

There is an entire academic industry devoted to demonstrating that feudalism existed in England before 1066, that William I changed few of the laws of England, that warfare was not so very different before and after the invasion, that in fact England was little changed by the Norman Conquest. But we all know in our bones that something fundamental did change when Harold fell.

At least half, and perhaps three-quarters, of the male aristocracy of England perished between 1066 and 1070. Their families were dispossessed, and many of their widows and daughters fled to nunneries to avoid being forced into marriage with William’s followers. London burned, and many other towns were partly demolished. The agricultural economy was laid waste over huge areas, and in the North repression left nothing but famine, reducing people to cannibalism.

This was a moment of irrevocable change; the Conquest would not be undone. England was permanently removed from the Scandinavian orbit and bound to France. There were some who tried to reverse this. Waltheof, Earl of Northumbria, was executed in 1076 for supporting Danish plots to drive William out. He failed; the clock would not be turned back.

Waltheof’s skald (bard), Thorkill, wrote a lament in Old Norse:

William crossed the cold channel and

reddened the bright swords and now

he has betrayed noble Earl Waltheof

It is true that killing in England will be a

long time ending

The end of our ‘period’ is more debatable. There is no comparable moment of change 400 or 500 years later. The defeat of Richard III and the victory of Henry Tudor at Bosworth on 22 August 1485 certainly put an end to the long struggle between the houses of York and Lancaster for the throne of England, and established a new dynasty which was able to rule with reinforced authority. But it hardly compares with 1066, when the entire land suffered wholesale subjection to new men with new ways and a different language.

However, there was one moment when everything changed irreversibly. It came in 1536, with Henry VIII’s suppression of the religious houses – the monasteries. In 1066, William I had given over a quarter of the land in England to the Church. His conquest bound the country not only to France but also to Rome.

By the time of the Dissolution there were about 550 religious houses in England, and the monks in them were referred to as ‘the pope’s army’.

The whole of Europe was changing rapidly, and the breakup of the one universal Church was the most powerful symbol of that change. In England, the Dissolution of the Monasteries was its visible and dramatic product. The whole religious infrastructure was transformed; the Church of England that emerged would produce a very different society from that produced by the Church of Rome.

Western Europe was already well on the way to developing distinct national states, and the break with Rome confirmed that process in England. On a political level, in a country that had been conquered by William under a papal banner, Rome was now stripped of any authority. In terms of language, in a country where Latin had been the language of learning and French the language of power, the vernacular had taken over. The divergence of English law and custom from that of the Continent, which had been developing steadily over centuries, was now finalized by the elimination of the Pope’s jurisdiction from canon law. For a few years, England retained a tiny foothold on the continent of Europe at Calais, but the English Channel had become a much broader sea than in the past, and ‘abroad’ a far more foreign place than it had been before.

A long era had truly come to an end.


Having established, for the sake of convenience, that our ‘Middle Ages’ (which never existed as an entity) was the period from 1066 to 1536, we have to recognize that we are talking about 470 years.

This is about as long as the time between the end of the Middle Ages and the present day.

Obviously, in such a long period things change. People in the mid-eleventh century inhabited a very different world from that of the early sixteenth, and did not live out lives that were always the same against an unchanging backdrop. So the very idea of telling stories of ‘medieval lives’ needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.

But, given the right amount of salt, we should find that we can strip away the mythology of medievalism and enter a world in which people’s lives seem remarkably familiar – a world where decisions were made about social and political issues that still impact profoundly on us today. Stripping away the mythology will also allow us to glimpse how much we have lost by dumping centuries of art, argument, thought, literature and discovery into that catch-all ‘medieval’ dustbin. Some wonderful things have been truly lost, and we would be better off recovering them.

Of all the changes between 1066 and 1536 perhaps the least significant was the size of population. There were about two million people in England 1066 and about three million in 1535.There had been four million to five million in Roman Britain, and about 1300 the population rose to some six million, but famine, disease (including the Black Death) and the changing patterns of families’ working lives halved this by 1450, and recovery was slow.

But who the two million or three million people of our period were, and where and how they lived, changed very greatly. Snapshots of the kingdom at each of those two dates, 1066 and 1536, show two utterly different worlds.

In the middle of the eleventh century barely 10 per cent of the population lived in towns. A community qualified as a ‘town’ in Domesday Book if it had more than 2000 inhabitants, and there were only 18 such communities. Even London was tiny – perhaps no bigger than present-day Sittingbourne. England was an entirely agricultural country, and its bishops were based in villages.

It was also a society in which wealth was concentrated in the hands of even fewer people than it is today. Analysis of the Domesday survey reveals that about 10 per cent of the island’s inhabitants were slaves – people who were bought and sold and who could not own property. The labouring classes above them (cottars, bordars, villeins), who made up 75 per cent of the population, were unfree, obliged to perform service on their lords’ lands. Five per cent of this society owned everything, landwise.

The Norman invasion made the divisions in English society even more pronounced than they had been.

There was virtually no literacy outside the Church, and such books as were produced were laboriously hand-copied in monasteries. The ruling class had neither language nor culture in common with those below them. The country lived under a form of martial law, in which whole communities were held responsible if a member of the occupying power was killed.

By the early sixteenth century, however, this was all ancient history. Slavery was long gone, villeinage had, for practical purposes, disappeared and the land was worked by free farmers who paid rent. Towns were now significant urban centres, with their own charters and independent oligarchic democracies. The towns were already old, and many people saw the corporations that ran them as ossified defenders of ancient privileges, blocking industrial initiative.

For there were, indeed, new industrial developments that were already making England prosperous, but they were to be found in the countryside or in unofficial, unincorporated towns.

London had become a major city, and its population was dominated by artisans, tradesmen and educated professionals involved with the court and the law. About 60 per cent of its citizens could read, and there was a ready market for printed books.

England was a very legalistic society, ready to go to court at the drop of a hat. Even the poor could use the law against the rich. Proceedings were in English, and trial by jury was well established.

Our story is not about a long period in which nothing much changed, but about how the England of 1066 turned into that of the early sixteenth century, a story of lives lived in a world that was in a constant state of change.


Well into the sixteenth century English architects were still cheerfully refining and developing what was then the modern style of architecture – the soaring, light and airy Gothic that had been all the rage for the last three or four centuries. But modernity was, paradoxically, somewhat out of date. On the Continent, fashion had turned the clock back to imitate the antique styles of ancient Greece and Rome. The Renaissance was not a new, fresh start – it was backward-looking and conservative.

In the end it proved irresistible, even in the somewhat marginalized kingdom of England. In rejecting the modern in favour of the antique, the Renaissance constructed a mental bridge that reached back to the Roman Empire, without having to paddle in the swamp that lay between. That swamp became the Middle Ages:

The Renaissance invented the Middle Ages in order to define itself; the Enlightenment perpetuated them in order to admire itself; and the Romantics revived them in order to escape from themselves. In their widest ramifications ‘the Middle Ages’ thus constitute one of the most prevalent cultural myths of the modern world.

BRIAN STOCK, Listening for the text

The Renaissance, it should be said, is a term almost as meaningless as ‘medieval’, though it does have the merit of being used by people who actually lived at the time. The word was coined by the fourteenth-century Italian poet Petrarch, who condemned those who lived between the fall of Rome and his own time as the inhabitants of a Dark Age: ‘Although they had nothing of their own to hand down to those who were to come after, they robbed posterity of its ancestral heritage.’ By the time England caught up with the Renaissance, in the mid-sixteenth century, it was essentially over. Historians have proposed that the Italian Renaissance came to the end of its run on 6 May 1527, when Spanish troops looted Rome.

But the idea of a middle age of darkness and ignorance had been launched on the world, and it did not go away. According to Jacob Burckhardt’s celebrated book, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, published in 1860, medieval people were not even individual human beings, but existed only as members of some corporate group. One section is entitled ‘The Development of the Individual’. The English writer John Addington Symonds, whose huge work Renaissance in Italy was published later in the century, thought the history of the modern world was a history of freedom, and that achieving this freedom had required a sudden leap forward out of the darkness and bondage of the Middle Ages into the glorious light of the Renaissance.

The Romantics of the late nineteenth century began to be intrigued by what they saw as the mysterious glow and gloom of the Middle Ages and, dressed in interesting flowing robes and mocked-up suits of armour, went exploring there with candles. They came back with tales and paintings of a magical, fairy-tale world of knights in shining armour and wan damsels in distress, of bold outlaws and Bad Kings, of alchemists in league with the devil and saintly holy men, of downtrodden peasants and cunning minstrels.

In this fantasy land there was no sense of historical change; the medieval world was essentially timeless. The lack of individual identity which Burkhardt had claimed as a mark of medievalism meant it was convenient and helpful to understand this place in terms of stereotypes. And those stereotypes have become standardized and generalized to the point where everyone now ‘knows’ what it was like to live in medieval England. An unholy alliance of nineteenth-century novelists and painters with twentieth-century movie-makers has created a period of history that never existed.

This book sets out to examine and deconstruct some of those stereotypes, and replace them with real people living in a changing world. The reality of those 400-odd years is far more interesting, surprising, moving and disturbing than the stereotype landscape.

The strange ‘maps’ of the world – the so-called mappae mundi – that thirteenth-century map-makers created, carry images of a world populated by creatures with their heads in their chests or big feet over their heads – but this does not mean the map-makers actually lived in such a world. Nineteenth-century imaginers of medieval England often took the material of the past too literally and ended up constructing their own fantasies.

In a quite comical recent book, The Lord’s First Night, Alain Boureau investigated the truth of the old story that a feudal lord had the right to sleep with the bride of a vassal on her wedding night. From The Marriage of Figaro to Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, this has been the ultimate symbol of feudal barbarism. Of course, it is a complete fantasy – like the chastity belts knights are supposed to have locked on to their wives when they went on crusade.

But this droit de seigneur was certainly mentioned in medieval sources. It was described as an ancient custom, in the fourteenth century when supporters of the king raised it as a spectre to rally public opinion against local lords.

Which just goes to show, you should not believe everything you read in books.



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