Sunday, May 24, 2009

Medieval village life

Life in a Medieval Village is by the inveterate medieval history popularisers (I mean that in a good sense) Frances & Joseph Gies. It concentrates on the village of Elton in England. (I wondered if there was a bit of an historian's in-joke in the choice.)

The advantage of England is that it is, along with Japan, the historically best-documented (in the sense of the range and depth of surviving written records) society. The disadvantage of England is that it was institutionally distinctive in various ways from much of the rest of Latin Christendom.

Still, the book is highly readable and gives a nice, nuanced overview of village life. Only picked up one obvious error—the common law was from the first Plantagenet king Henry II, not William the Bastard. (Hence time immemorial—the limit to legal precedence—starts with the accession of his son Richard I.)

G. G. Coulton’s The Medieval Village is an older work (originally published in 1925) with much wider coverage geographically. It is so saturated with quotes from medieval sources that one gets a very good view of the complexity of medieval life (apart from the book’s assumption that its readers will all be literate in French as well as English, so none of the French quotes are translated). The book is mainly concerned with the interaction of peasants with the Church (particularly the Church as landlord). Even though it is a good 70 years older than the Gies book, there is little difference in the picture each gives of medieval village life.
Coulton clearly loves the sheer variety of the medieval. (He is particularly down on polemical generalisations, whether Church-apologia, Reformation romanticism or materialist reductionism.) It was a bit startling to discover that Queen Elizabeth I still had bondsmen and women on her estates (mainly those acquired from former abbeys).

One of his themes is that the Church had no problem with slavery or bondage. Indeed, Church serfs were less likely to achieve manumission than those with lay landlords, since Canon Law forbade the alienation of Church property. The Council of Toledo decreed that the children of priests were condemned to bondage (which makes sense as a barrier to alienation of Church property). Later Church decrees extended that to the wives of priests. The soon-to-be-burnt-alive Archbishop Cranmer was reminded by one of the (Catholic) clerical lawyers at his trial that bondage to the See of Cantebury would be the fate of the (married) Archbishop’s children. As late as 1789, the Abbey of St-Claude in the Jura had 20,000 bondsmen and women.

Yet it is equally true that much of C18th and C19th anti-slavery agitation in Britain and the US was deeply inspired by Christian sentiments. (Amazing Grace is a musical legacy of that.) Which just shows how a religion can be (quite sincerely) reinterpreted.

Two very useful and informative books.

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