The History of Ordinary People in Medieval England

A Brief History of Life in the Middle Ages: Scenes from The Town and Countryside of Medieval England

By Martin Whitlock

Robinson (2017)

Book Review

What impressed me most about this book is Whitlock’s superb depiction of everyday life and ordinary people prior to the Norman conquest. He describes a resurgence of a money economy (which significantly declined with the collapse of the Roman Empire) by the eighth century AD. By 1066 AD, England was a nation of market towns, each organized around a central church and a specialized industry.*

In the years preceding the Norman Conquest (1066), only 4,500 of a population of 2.5 million owned land. Ten percent were outright slaves.** Seventy percent were villeins (serfs) attached to landholding lords who could sell them to other lords. The latter spent most of their work week tilling the lord’s land and only two days or less cultivating the land that provisioned their families. Twenty percent of the population lived in towns and worked as artisans or merchants.

Life expectancy was 35 years for men and 25 years for women (owing to high risk of death in childbirth).

Medieval England reached its peak population (6.5 million) in 1300. The fourteenth century saw a steep population decline, from a series of famines (1314, 1319-21), followed by the the Black Death in 1348. Owing to recurrent plague outbreaks (ending in 1666), England’s population wouldn’t fully recover until the 17th century. Declining population worked in favor of lower classes determined to curb feudal oppression by both gentry and church hierarchy.

For me the most interesting chapters concerned the origin of Common Law, which Whitlock distinguishes from Statute Law (ie laws passed by Parliament) and the systematic persecution of Jews in medieval England. According to Whitlock, Common Law was the system of royal justice that emerged from 1160-12. It’s first summarized by Henry of Bratton in On the Laws and Customs of England.

By the early thirteenth century, according to Whitlock, Jews were the primary financiers (the New Testament forbids Christians to lend money at interest) and paid huge taxes to the king for the right of residence and royal protection. In addition to moneylending, they also served as merchants and pawnbrokers and traded in precious metals, furs and jewelry.*** They enjoyed special status under Henry I (1100-1135), who received a percentage of all transactions conducted by Jewish merchants.

Under the influence of Pope Gregory IX, who condemned all Jews owing to their historic persecution of Christ, this tolerance was gradually reversed. Systematic persecution of English Jews escalated until their eventual expulsion from England in 1290 by Edward I (who inherited all their land). Following their departure, immigrant bankers from Venice and Florence (for some reason exempt from the Christian ban on charging interest) replaced the Jews as England’s principal financiers.


*Examples of eighth century industries include pottery kilns, armor manufacture, wool production for export, glass blowing and slave trading. Specific occupations (in most cases directly employed by the lord of their manor) recorded in the 1086 Domesday Book include millers, shepherds, pigmen, beekeepers, fish women, eel catchers, vintners, salt makers, quarry mean, carpenters, tilers and mason.

**People were enslaved after being defeated in war or committing crimes such as theft or working on Sunday. In some cases they were descendants of slaves or sold themselves into slavery to avoid starvation. Prior to the ban on slavery enacted in 1102, Anglo-Saxon slaves were shipped from Bristol for sale in Iceland, Scandinavia and Spain.

***In the Venetian city states that succeeded the Roman empire, Jews engaged in moneylending because they were forbidden to own land, farm or engage in most other professions. See https://stuartbramhall.wordpress.com/2022/07/24/how-history-helps-us-understand-what-russia-and-china-are-up-to/

2 thoughts on “The History of Ordinary People in Medieval England

  1. I think it’s a lifestyle we will be quickly returning to, Aunty, if fossil fuel prices continue to skyrocketed. All the lifestyle changes that have occurred relate directly to the availability of cheap energy.

    Like

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