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Review of Society in the Middle Ages


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the inadequate supply, if not deficiency, of information respecting the great mass of the people in what are generally known as the Dark Ages, but more properly speaking as the Mediaeval period, has induced many writers to describe those who lived and flourished in them as rude and unenlightened barbarians.

Before proceeding in our current history, it may be advisable to test the soundness of this opinion, to present our readers with a picture drawn from records and data on which they may rely, drawn chiefly from the lately published rolls of the period.

The bases on which society rests are undoubtedly legal security for person and property, and the possession of a competent degree of wealth.

In these two requisites the Mediaeval period has been supposed - erroneously, as we propose to show - to be peculiarly deficient. We have been told that money was so scarce that few persons below the rank of nobles possessed aught beyond the strictly necessary, and that the life of a peasant was considered, not merely by the nobility but by the law itself, as scarcely of more value than that of a deer.

In many instances such was but too probably the case. The fault, however, did not arise from any defect in the laws, but rather from the inefficient manner in which they were executed; and many examples are to be found in which crimes against the person were most severely punished. We find in that interesting work, the "Rolls of the King's Courts," which extend from the sixth of Richard to the first of John, that a strict legal inquiry was always made in respect to those who had been found dead in the fields; and that even in cases where it was found the man perished through want, a verdict of murdrum is returned.

This does not mean murder; it is a technical law term, which involved the payment of a fine by the hundred within which the death took place. The awarding this verdict in. cases of death from starvation, is considered by Sir F. Pal-grave as proving the recognition of a legal provision for the poor.

The entries in these rolls supply abundant evidence of the care with which the law watched over the lives of each member of the community, and, what may scarcely be believed, over their property too. The number of lawsuits - and these not for grave offences, or entered into by persons of rank - is most remarkable and curious.

Thomas de la Marc demands damages from Geoffery de la Marc for an injury done to his house by digging a ditch. William the vintner, Henry Basket, and Henry de Tony, are fined for selling wines contrary to the statute. Golling, the son of Stouard, is charged with selling corn by short measure and wool by short weight; whilst Serle, the son of Eustace, summons Roger, the smith, before the chief justiciary for a mere beating and bruising.

Neither does it appear that even in time of war the civil power was that most ineffectual thing which many writers have supposed it. Letters of safe conduct are to be found on almost every page of the patent rolls, granted, not only to the noble or wealthy, who could always find means to travel with an efficient escort, but to the poor and humble.

There is one to Alan, the vintner of Reading, as well as to the Abbess of Meanling; to Margaret de Modington and the men belonging to Walter de Lacy, with the cows and horses which were in the forest of Gillingham.

All appear to have found sufficient security to enable them to pass safely through the midst of hostile ranks.

If these illustrations of the occasional vigorous exercise of the civil law create surprise, what will be said to the many indications of wealth and comfort which are to be met with in the same records?

In the enormous ransoms demanded for prisoners who fell into the hands of John during his contest with the barons, we find that the class immediately below the nobility were in possession of considerable riches.

Fulke d'Oyry paid a fine amounting to nearly 5,000 of our present money.

Baldwin the constable of Ermelingham's ransom was fixed at 1,000 - not less than 15,000 at the present date.

Reginald de Cornhill's ransom was higher still, amounting to 30,000.

The next class, too, appear to have been wealthy. Ralph de Lancel charges Hugh de Stotden and five others with breaking into his house, and robbing him of horses, arms and silver vessels, to the amount of 100 marks (1,000). Philip de Stanes is charged with having carried off "chattels" to the amount of 27, and one mark (415), from a widow named Constantia j and the pleadings in this case make it probable that these " chattels" were the lady's plate, jewellery, and apparel. On reference to the prices of various articles of absolute luxury, we perceive not only the advancing civilisation, but the wealth of the period. Rings of one mark value (10 present money) seem to have been an ordinary article of dress; a gold buckle, value two marks (20), we find given on one occasion by the monarch; silks and fine cloth are valued at sums varying from 3 the yard (present value); while the price of spices is enormous. Cinnamon is 2s. 6d. (1 17s. 6d.) per pound; ginger the same; nutmegs, 10s. (7 10s.); mace, the same price; white cloves, the highly prized "gariofilium," were actually 20s. (15) per pound. This list of prices is collected from the precepts in the Close Rolls; we therefore can have no doubt of its correctness. The reader would probably be surprised at the extensive list of foreign luxuries which might be compiled from this work, as well as at the large quantities of each article required for the royal kitchen. Three pounds of ginger, three of cinnamon, two of saffron, fifty pounds of pepper, and one hundredweight of almonds, is part of the order to Galfrid the salter, towards the close of each year.

No wonder was it that the De Basings, and Fitz-Marys, and Bukerels kept such state as London merchants, and challenged respect from the proudest nobles in the land. Still descending in the scale of society, we find the various classes possessed of a competent portion of wealth. Lucas Brockshewet charges one Walter "with the theft of an ox, and with carrying off Felicia his wife, his seal, and chattels, to the amount of 100 shillings" (75). Peter Holt charges John Dene with carrying off 15 in pennies (225), and chattels of the value of sixty marks (600). Both these men appear but as farmers; money could not, therefore, have been so very scarce in those days. Descending still lower, we find wayfaring men with half a mark (5) and 5s. (3 15s.) in their possession, and charging their cloaks, of which they had been robbed, at 5s. also. Few men in their rank of life, even in the present day, could afford to wear a cloak worth 3 15s. Even among the lowest class of farmers, William Norreys complains that his "hamsoke" was robbed of 6s. 6d. (4 17s. 6d.) in chattels, twenty-four two year old sheep, and his house damaged to the amount of 10s. (7 10s.). Roger Boss and his family flee away, leaving as "chattels, three oxen, three cows, two calves, twelve sheep, two horses, nine geese, and an acre and a half of corn."

An additional proof of a diffusion of wealth and comfort in the humbler classes, far beyond what has generally been supposed, may be found in the circumstance that household linen is frequently mentioned amongst them, and that sellers of wine are not only found in the chief towns, but in most of the smaller ones, especially in Essex and Hertford.

It is true that taxation had not yet been reduced to a science; the generous wines of France were imported on the payment of a duty so moderate as not to be beyond the reach of the petty trader. It was reserved for modern times to protect gin at the expense of wine, and the sin is bearing its fruit.

The popular opinion of the strict division of the higher and lower classes, and the abject slavish condition, resembling that of a Russian serf, in which it is erroneously supposed the latter were held, as well as their utter privation of all legal rights, is forcibly disproved by the "Rolls of the King's Courts," in which we find many instances of servants carrying on suits against their lords, and of small freeholders bringing actions against the great nobles and landholders for unjust dispossession.

Isabel de Bennington summonses the celebrated Baron Fitzwalter, the lord of sixty-six knights' fees, for dispossessing her of her free tenement, probably little more than a cottage. Eililda, a widow charges Thomas Fitz-Thomas with similar injustice.

In the latter instance the noble vindicated his right by asserting that her two sons were his villeins, or vassals; this was denied.

Although the result of the suit cannot be ascertained, it corroborates the opinion of Sir Francis Palgrave, that villenage was not a state of bondage.

"Although, according to legal language, the villein might be given, bequeathed, or sold, these expressions, which sound so harshly, and seem so inconsistent with any degree of personal liberty, bore a meaning essentially different from that which we would now assign them. In no instance can we find the ceorl or villein separate from his land. He was always a villein appurtenant; and notwithstanding the language employed, the gift, bequest, or sale, was the disposition of the land and his services."

Does not the view of this able writer derive confirmation from that very passage in the Annals of Dunstable so frequently brought forward to prove that slavery then existed; and which records, in the year 1283, that "we Gold our slave by birth, William Pike, and all his family, for one mark." Surely 10 present money would have been altogether inadequate to the purchase of one person. Is it not therefore evident that this one mark was a mere fine, paid on the transference of the land held by William Pike, and by consequence his services, which were in lieu of rent?

Another instance that the villein was capable of exercising the right of a freeman may be found in the case of Ralph Clair, in which it was decided that he could not hold land, and that he be amerced for making the claim.

Here the judge, Geoffrey Fitz-Peter, imposes a pecuniary fine on one of a class which we have been told, on grave authority, had no legal right to the possession of money.

The very curious entries in the "Boulden book," which records the inquisition made by Hugh Pudsey, Bishop of Durham, in 1183, corroborate this view of the subject. The villeins of Boldenare held each thirty acres of land, and their payments are partly in service, partly in kind, and partly in money. In Southbydyk the villeins held their ville in farm, and find "eight score men to reap in autumn; thirty-six wagons to carry the corn; and they beside pay 5." Many of the entries in this ancient document are very curious: at harvest time it is determined that the whole household shall turn out to work, "excepta husewifa," and this respectful attention to the mistress of the house is repeated in every entry.


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