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Life in the Middle Ages – M. Whittock

October 27, 2015

ABKOLITMAYou can tell that the author is a school teacher and lay reader because he explains things and makes them interesting.

We Anglo-Catholics tend to reverence the Middle Ages as a time of faith – but things are not that straightforward.

East Anglia had more murders in the 14th Century that does New York today.

Trading was international so English coins have been found as far away as Russia.

There was ethnic cleansing – the Danes were regarded as ‘weeds’ and there was a massacre. The accusation that ‘foreigners are coming over here and taking our jobs’ is nothing new.

Most incomers assimilated very quickly.

Setting up a monastery was a tax loophole. Monasteries were not attacked by people against religion but as sources of wealth.

Not all clergy were celibate and minor orders were allowed to marry.

Pagan symbols were employed form cultural, rather than religious, reasons.

Bristol was involved in the slave trade as far back as 700.

Life expectancy was 35 for men, 25 for women.

The origins of modern ground rents can be found in mediaeval London.

Cathedrals were in rural areas but the Normans rebuilt them in cities so as to have church and state together controlling everything.

Boys could marry at 14, girls at 12 and sex after betrothal but before marriage was OK.

Ale was made from grain but beer from hops.

There’s a very good chapter on the persecution of Jews.

If as king was killed, even a bad one, this effected the whole country’s fortunes.

I didn’t know that an older custom than Midnight Mass was a vigil for Christmas which included the reading of Jesus’s genealogy.

Ronald Hutton sees the reformation, where celebrations of the medieval calendar were abolished, as ‘the end of merrie England.’

Topics include Roger “the Raker” who drowned in his own sewage, a “merman” imprisoned in Orford Castle, the sufferings of the Jews of Bristol, and more.

There are chapters on:
The Character of Late Anglo-Saxon Society
The Changing Countryside
The Growth and Decline of Towns
Changing Expressions of Christian Belief
Population, Diet and Health
Women and the Family
Law and Order
Language, Culture and Entertainment
Living on the Edge: Aliens and Outcasts
Signs and Marvels: the Medieval Cosmic Order
The Cycle of the Year
The Shape of English Society by 1553


Contrary to what might be expected, living standards may actually have risen following the end of the Roman Empire, with a knock-on effect for nutrition and health. The end of imperial taxes and long-distance trade may have meant that many people were living in closer proximity to protein sources in the countryside, and in England — in common with northern Europe generally — there may have been an increase in protein-rich diets which may explain a rise in average height until the early eighth century

With regard to children, the laws suggest that there was no automatic bias in favour of husbands with respect to the custody of children if a husband and wife separated, and no bias in favour of the husband’s family in the event of his death.

During the period 1160-1216 the system of royal justice known as the Common Law emerged. One of the key prin­ciples of this was that only freemen could take complaints about land to the royal courts; villeins were denied this right and had to rely on the manor courts, which were heavily weighted towards the interests of the lord of the manor… sense the abolition of slavery in England in 1102, by the Statute of Westminster, was largely due to the fact that the bottom end of the English rural population was being so effectively exploited there was little need for this institution. The statute itself, presided over by Anselm the Archbishop of Canterbury, decreed: ‘Let no one hereafter presume to engage in that nefarious trade in which hitherto in England men were usually sold like brute animals.

A survey dating from 1120 of a Church estate at Pinbury near Cirencester (Gloucestershire) indicates that here the demesne land came to about 400 acres (161.8 hectares), with the remaining 300 acres (121.4 hectares) being worked by villeins who, in addition to the work required on their own land, were expected to give five days’ unpaid work per week.’

In 1293 a Worcestershire man drowned himself in the river Severn rather than be forced to take on land, from the Earl of Gloucester, which would have caused him to be considered a villein. The shame was clearly too great to contemplate. In the period 1066-1200, villeins could be sold by their lords and families split up.

What seems certain is that the Black Death led to a rise in per-capita wealth through a shortage of labour and — consequently — rising wages.

who were the clergy? Today that might seem an obvious question. They constitute those in paid employment within the Church, who teach and lead worship of the Christian community. In the Middle Ages the matter was much more complex. In the thirteenth and fourteenth century any schoolboy who received a tonsure as a mark of his literate status was technically a member of the clergy. This could include boys as young as seven years old. As a result, anyone accused of a crime could claim what was called ‘benefit of clergy’ if they were literate. This allowed them to be tried in a Church court, where punishments (usually involving penance and without the death penalty) were lighter than in royal courts. The Bible passage used for this test of literacy was Psalm 51: 1, whose words, in Latin, contained this appropriate opening verse: ‘Have mercy on me, 0 God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions!’ Thus, an illiterate person who had memorized the appropriate Psalm could also claim benefit of clergy, and Psalm 51: 1 became known as the ‘neck verse’. A reaction against those avoiding justice by reciting this verse led to restrictions, and by the end of the sixteenth century the crimes of murder, rape, poisoning, petty treason (e.g. a wife’s murder of her husband), sacrilege, witchcraft, burglary, theft from churches and pickpocketing went before a secular court. Analysis of those ‘clerics’ (whose professions can be checked) who successfully pleaded ‘benefit of clergy’ as recorded in the records of the archbishop of York between 1452 and 1530 show that only 24 per cent were genuine clerics.

No villein could be ordained since, as William Langland summed it up in the late fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman, no `bondmen and bastards and beggars’ should be in holy orders. Candidates should have no physical defects. Finally, they should be of appropriate character, with sufficient learning. Once ordained, clerics were supposed to avoid brightly coloured fashionable clothes and had the character­istic haircut, the tonsure.

What is clear is that there were a very large number of clerics; perhaps 33,150 in 9,500 parishes in 1250. To this should be added 7,600 monks, 3,900 regular canons and 5,300 friars. These may have made up as much as 5.6 per cent of the adult male population in 1200.

As more money flowed to the friars they lost their radical edge. The situation was coming full circle. As a result, gifts of money moved away from the friars and instead increased to local parish churches, where clearly people felt they could monitor its use more closely. Similarly, instead of monasteries, or friaries, wealthy benefactors were now more likely to fund a college which, as well as saying Masses for the souls of their patrons, often included an educational function or provided homes for the ‘deserving poor’. These ranged from magnificent establishments such as King’s College, Cambridge to small colleges and almshouses in less prestigious market towns. This was not an abandonment of medieval spiritual enthusiasm but rather a desire to see it carried out more effectively. As with so much of the later Middle Ages, it was complex. What might be presented as all end to old patterns of behaviour can equally be regarded as a refocusing of them. This is connected with the whole debate over whether the later medieval Catholic Church in England was in decline and facing a crisis which was a prelude to the sixteenth-century Reformation, or instead was vibrant and dynamic but developing new expressions of personal religious practice. At the same time the number of hermits, often located in town churches rather than in deserted spots, increased.

The support given to the early friars reminds us of the demand for a deeper spiritual experience from amongst the laity. Whatever the compromises which occurred as a result of the earthly power of the medieval Church, the desire for a closer communion with God was always fundamental to the medieval Christian experience.

(Religious) made up about 2 per cent of the total population. This is high but the number was declining, while the wealth of the religious houses was out of all proportion to their declining numbers within a national community where a significant proportion of people no longer felt attracted to the liturgy and discipline of the monastic life. However, this would suggest that monasticism by 1500 faced a slow decline, not a sudden collapse.

accounts exist of village priests, accused of sexual misconduct, being castrated by angry parishioners. Is this evidence of a collapse in support for the traditional Catholic Church? Or does it simply indicate, in the former case, anger against the ruling class at a time of crisis and, in the latter case, high expectations of what a priest should be like and anger when trust in a vital and loved institution was betrayed?

1355 it was found that the Fleet Prison ditch, which was designed to be 10 feet (3 metres) wide, was so choked with the sewage of eleven latrines and twelve sewers that water no longer flowed along it. Faced with the need to remove household toilet waste, some turned to piping it into the unused cellars of unwary neighbours. Two men were fined for this in 1347. More often householders dug cesspools in their yards and constructed latrines over them. One such enterprising Londoner was Roger the Raker. Unfortunately, over the years this pit filled to capacity and rotted the floorboards. When Roger eventually plunged through these floorboards and drowned in his own accumulated excrement, it raised questions not only about the quality of London carpentry but also about the way in which health and well-being in the Middle Ages were affected by the sanitation of the time.

By the fifteenth century increased understanding of anatomy assisted in wound treatment; literary evidence suggests the existence of cataract operations and archaeology reveals trepanation (drilling a hole in the scull). However, the absence of anaesthetics and antiseptics will have meant that much surgery was defeated by shock and infection. In this — as in many areas of sanitation, health and medicine ­what we might call ‘the long Middle Ages’ lasted, for most ordinary people, into the nineteenth century. At the largest excavated medieval cemetery outside London (at Barton-upon­Humber, Lincolnshire) this reality was apparent in the fact that the skeletons revealed no significant differences in health over 900 years, from c.950 to c.1850.26 In this sense the Middle Ages lasted a very long time indeed.

The position of women in society suffered a setback in 1066. While female land ownership occurred to a significant extent in Anglo-Saxon society, the Norman preoccupation with linking land to military obligations reduced the role of women as landowners. Moreover, developments within Canon (Church) law also reduced the status of women. Whether this would have happened if the Conquest had not occurred is a matter of debate.

regarding conception, many medieval scholars believed that conception only occurred when both partners were sexually aroused. This idea caused acute problems for women made pregnant by rape, since it was assumed that they were willing partners in an act which they found pleasurable.
Where women did comparable jobs to men they seem to have been paid the same rate, but women traditionally did less well-paid jobs. However, women were clearly experienced workers and organizers, and in many surviving wills husbands name their wives as their executors.

In an emergency a lay person could baptize a dying baby rather than risk waiting for a priest. Children — certainly of elite parents for whom we have more information — were often given three godparents, two of the same gender and one of the opposite. (This is still the case).

In the medieval world a young person of seven years old was already considered an adult. In medieval church writings this was the age of reason — the age when it was considered that a child could begin to commit sin. As a result, Aries argued, `there was no place for childhood in the medieval world.’

This view has not gone unchallenged. Following more recent examinations of the evidence, historical sociologists have countered Aries’ view by claiming that, in fact, it convinc­ingly demonstrates the extent to which the relationship between parents and children was a fundamental element in medieval European society.” The contemporary ‘accounts’ of the so-called martyr William of Norwich seem to challenge the idea that what little childhood there was ended early. Despite being 12 years old at the time of his death, it is clear that (although he was already a tanner’s apprentice and living away from home) he was clearly considered a child. It was his apparent youth and innocence which made him such a useful figure to anti-Semites seeking to blame Jews for ritually murdering him.

There is evidence that during the fifteenth century there occurred a hardening of male attitudes towards women and what we would now call gender roles, and that some economic and social freedoms, which had been increasing before this, were reduced. For example, it seemed that men and women were increasingly segregated in church.16 This shows itself in churches where the provision of pews were primarily for the use of women; men presumably standing as before. By 1500 there had also been an increase in the number of separate maidens’ and young men’s guilds, which may reflect the same trend in segregation of men and women.17 In the same way, clues suggest that women no longer played female parts in the Mystery Plays from the 1450s onwards.

women’s involvement in radical trends and challenges to social norms was not restricted to female aristocrats and families of courtiers; it is also evident in those women who appear amongst the early Protestant martyrs under Henry VIII. When Anne Askew was burnt for heresy in 1546, she was not unique in her female membership of the emerging Protestant community. Clearly, she did not consider it her role to sit submissively under an authority she believed wrong — in this case the Catholic hierarchy.” Her assertiveness reminds us that not all women accepted a role of passivity.

Bibles in English had existed in Anglo-Saxon times and, as early as the late seventh century, the Northumbrian monk Bede started to translate the Bible into Old English. In a similar way, the West Saxon scholar Aldhelm (640-709) translated the Book of Psalms and large parts of other books of the Bible into Old English. Then in the eleventh century, Elfric translated most of the Old Testament into Old English. In short, the English Bible was not an invention of Wyclif in the late four­teenth century, as is often assumed. There was, in fact, no prohibition on non-Latin Bibles, and Bibles in French as well as selections of the Bible in English were used by some aristo­crats before the fourteenth century. But the problem was twofold. Firstly, the earliest complete translation of the Bible in the late fourteenth century was associated with the Lollards and so the whole enterprise became suspect. Secondly, even as late as 1400 English had not yet achieved the status which made it acceptable amongst the most educated of the elite. As a result, in 1409 strict controls were placed on translating the Bible into English. Possession of English Bibles had become associated with heresy and the link would not be broken until the English Great Bible of 1539 was ordered to be placed in every parish church.

While these accounts were recorded by literate Churchmen it seems clear that, in many cases, the Christian concepts of heaven and hell, realms of being and spiritual worlds were stretched by medieval folklore to accept ‘other worlds’ which had no relationship with Biblical concepts.

As with other medieval records of wondrous events, some chroniclers also record accounts of marvellous creatures whose activities are not interpreted as portents but who form part of the medieval fascination with strange animals. In this fascination real creatures mix with mythological beasts but both are treated with the same level of seriousness. It is this absence of observa­tional criticism which most clearly differentiates the medieval from the modern study of nature. However, it has to be remem­bered that popular modern interest still focuses on such things as the Loch Ness Monster, Big Foot and the Abominable Snowman. In this respect there is little difference between some modern and medieval outlooks. And some cases — such as the Big Cat sightings in England — may occupy the mysterious twilight zone of possibly being based on real animals.

many people think that pregnant women should not look at ugly beasts such as apes and monkeys, in case they bring children into the world who resemble these caricatures. For women’s nature is such that they produce offspring according to the image they see or have in mind at the moment of ecstasy as they conceive.

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From → Church History

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