Growing up in the Medieval Village

9783030036010 (1)I know it has been some time since I last added to these pages, but I was busy writing and finishing my book on medieval village children, the research for which has occasionally made it into the pages of my blog.Why Medieval Childhood ? A girl called Edith….  I am so pleased to be able to announce that the book will be published by Palgrave Macmillan this year.




Why Medieval Childhood ?

Fundamentally medieval – as any other historical – childhood matters. I find myself saying and thinking this a lot these days as I keep working on and re-working the introduction for my book on medieval village childhood. For many years the study of childhood has resided firmly on the margins of historical enquiry, if it existed at all. The discipline of history was not alone in this, as both archaeologists and sociologists have bemoaned the fact that the study of childhood was not considered important by research until quite recently. How can this be? After all, everybody was a child at one point, children and young people are everywhere and would in pre-modern societies most certainly have constituted a much larger proportion of the population than they do now.  Arguably they are a much more important subject for research than the traditional pursuit of the examination of diplomatics, battles and political machinations of the high and mighty, unless, of course you think that children do not matter because you feel that they had no agency, or that their agency – limited as it was- of little or no consequence. Sound familiar? It should, as similar views were help about the history of women.  The reasons for this type of perspective can probably be found in an overwhelming androcentric perspective which has dominated the various disciplines. (See especially Dawson and Alanen for further discussions of this) The view that everything revolved around adult men who ran politics and cultural exchanges and dynamics, has blinded researchers historically not only to the history of women and gender, but also children, who are – of course – culturally very much associated with women. The research on children thereby probably suffered a double disadvantage; they were seen as less important than men and less important than women. Added to this a widespread view which perceives children not so much a entities in their own right, but mere appendage to adults, small beings who are in a liminal state before ‘becoming’ adult – hence more ‘important’ people, and we have a situation where children are not only neglected as a valid research topic, but also people who research them are frequently asked ‘but why children?’ (See Alanen’s excellent discussion of the idea of childhood conceived as an adult to be in below)

Ok, here is why: They are interesting people in their own right, they did have agency – always and yes, even in medieval society, and no, they were not seen as ‘little adults’. They had agency  of sorts in law, in economic production, in the production and performance of culture. Anybody who thinks children have no effect on culture – even adult culture – is sorely mistaken. That medieval society had a view of childhood as distinct from adulthood is now happily not really questioned anymore, but is also, however, secondary to my own interest in the young people themselves. (The seminal works by people including Shahar and Orme on medieval childhood were crucial in putting to rest the idea that medieval society had no concept of childhood) The perspective on the history of childhood must now shift from a top down – developmental perspective – to a bottom up one which tries to focus on the children rather than on OUR view of what we think medieval adults thought of them, although this is clearly part of the equation. Androcentric views of the past are also presentist in conception. a look into the past desiring to seek what we know and comparing the past to our own lives. So we think that we know what childhood means and ask ourselves what it looked like in the past, so the danger is that we look in the past for what we think we know of the present  in the context of childhood this is a view based on rather traditional developmental views of childhood as ‘not adult yet’. So what we find will by definition be shaped by what we seek – this was Philippe Ariès’ core problem, even if he very much desired to circumvent it. Instead the life of a child is in a constant dialectical relationship with adults and other children, They are not passive recipients of culture, they are not only vulnerable victims, they have views and perspectives, responsibilities and wishes. Do the sources exist? yes they do, but the same sceptical question was asked regarding the history of  women – the problem, it was said, was a ‘lack’ or dearth of sources on women, hence research has to be limited. This, we now know, is also incorrect, generally speaking, we see what we decide to see, it is merely a matter of asking the right question of our sources. Children ditto.


For further reading on these issues see for example:

L. Alanen, ‘Rethinking Childhood’, in: Acta Sociologica, vol 31, no. 1 (1988) pp. 53-67.

P. Ariès, Centuries of Childhood (1965)

W.A. Corsaro, The Sociology of Childhood (fourth edition, Sage, Los Angeles, London and New Delhi, 2015)

N. Orme, ‘The Culture of Children in Medieval England’, in: Past and Present, vol. 148, no. 1 (1995)

Shahar, Childhood in the Middle Ages, (London and New York, 1992)

 H. Dawson, Unearthing Late Medieval Children; Health, status and burial practice in Southern England (BAR British Series 593, 2014)

Memory, Landscape, and a Coastal Community in 13th- and 14th-Century England

I am really looking forward to giving a short paper under the above title at the International Medieval Congress at Leeds soon in a very interesting session sponsored by the Landscape Research Group in Oxford. IMC Programme Session The Medieval Landscape. 

I have been very preoccupied in recent months with writing my book on medieval village children, and am still not quite finished with it. So it requires somewhat of a shift to think once again about my other project, a microhistory of the coastal fishing village of Heacham in Norfolk. The sources for the coastal manor of Heacham are unusually plentiful, if not always in the best of condition. Memory plays a crucial role in the rolls especially in the 13th century, when communal memory is used very actively to construct manorial court precendent to inform seigniorial policies regarding the manor. Memory was thus a communal tool to resist lordship, shape manorial custom and negotiate boundaries, physical, moral, economic and hierarchical boundaries. Whether memories are ‘true’ or not is really not of importance, it is the communal weight behind them that matters, the collectivity of an intellectual construct if you will, which establishes parameters within which community and lordship operates. On another level memory also operates in purely physical spheres, trees, fields, hills, mills, bushes, all become markers of identity.  The people who inhabit the coastline falling within the jurisdictional boundaries of the manor similarly embody a link between communal, collective memory, landscape and neighbourhood identity, forged through families holding particular tenements for generations, or living in neighbourhoods associated with particular crafts or the fishing industry. In places the land and the family identity intertwine, land being called ‘the lands of …’ followed by a family name even long after the family itself does not hold the land anymore. Memory and land thereby forges and re-enforces local identities and familial associations. So apart from the fun of seeing friends and colleagues again at Leeds, I really look forward to turning my attention and focus back to medieval Heacham.


Pots, Pans and Heriots

Image taken in the Malvern Hills by M. Muller 

Sometimes it is difficult to distance oneself from the material of one’s research. The Abbot of St Albans was hardly popular with his tenants. He treated the towns people of St Albans like unfree tenants, villeins, and even called them thus. I have previously written about his continued arguments with his tenants across various manors, which caused them to rise up in rebellion in 1381, and how even after the revolt was crushed, he continued to actively try to subjugate and humiliate his tenants. In various episodic clashes between the Abbot and his tenants, the latter kept pushing against seigniorial authority and the former striking back, occasionally with the backing of the king. When the townspeople buried their dead hanging from gibbets after the 1381 revolt secretly at night time, he ordered that their bodies be dug up again and replaced in the gibbets. Repeated arson attacks at various of the Abbot’s estates in, what seems to be revenge attacks after the suppression of the rising, show that even years after the revolt feelings ran high on the St Albans estates

One rarely commented upon fact of life in rural English society of the later Medieval period were the payments of heriots, or death duties to the lord, which fell due upon the death of a tenant, a head of a household, man or woman, holding the tenement from the lord in villeinage. The type of heriot exacted varied significantly according to locality and lordship. In some places only the best animal of the tenant who had died was collected from their heirs, and those without ‘beasts’ paid none. Some lords took cash payments instead of animals, and some do not seemed to have minded as long as something was given. If a family was impoverished, occasionally lords waived the heriot payment altogether, though admittedly this was fairly rare.

So this is where our favourite medieval Abbot comes in. At St Albans the lord took almost anything. He preferred the best animal, an oxen or horse, valuable animals and beasts of burden, we can also find him taken pigs and sheep. Things become troubling in the year the Black Death arrived in the various manors of the Abbey. Many holdings went through more than one heir in a single year as the plague took its terrible toll. The Court Books of the St Albans Manor of Winslow have been edited and translated by David Noy, and been published by the Buckinghamshire Record Society. Spanning much of teh 14th century, including the plague year of 1349, they tell a story of a ravaged population, struggling with the terrible effect of the epidemic, meanwhile the Abbot of St Albns was collecting heriot after heriot. When Ralph Kyng died holding a virgate of land a heriot of a bullock was collected. teh holdinmg went to Walter, Ralph’s brother, who died, and from whom a brass pot was collected worth 12d. The holding then went to Agnes, Walter’s sister, but she died as well and now the lord collected a heriot from her which was a mere plate which was worth a mere 6d. The next heir in line was Agnes’ uncle, John, who was finally excused from paying an entry fine to take up the holding as he was considered too poor. Or look at Henry who held nothing but a cottage from the lord and whose heriot was a dish worth a mere 1 penny and a half. While many tenants had a cow or horse when they died, their heirs often had far less valuable things left in their possessions. Joan had died holding a cottage  and her heriot payment was a cheap tunic. It makes me rather worried about the implications behind comments that individual tenants had ‘no heriot’ at all..

The Marker of Epidemic Death in Memory and Culture…


Halesowen Manor Court Roll, When in a case regarding inheritance in the village of Oldbury the ‘first pestilence’ is referred to in the late 1360s. With thanks to Wolfson Centre for Archival Research, Birmingham Library MS 346347.

Ever since I completed my BA degree my research has tended to hinge upon the Black Death. My research has often focused on teh changes which the Black Death did or did not bring to the Medieval English Countryside. Usually my conclusions were teh that effects were sweeping, momentous and vast, reaching into all areas of daily life, how people made their living, how people changed their perceptions of the world around them, which is also reflected in art, architecture, as well as written culture. Because the changes post the first arrival of the Black Death were so vast, the Black Death itself became a marker, an identifiable point in time when the clocks stopped, when everything seemed to collapse and then restart. How could it have been otherwise? When between 40 and 80 % of the population in your village is wiped out time stops, those left are traumatised and working to re-orientate themselves in a very different landscape. They have to reshape their lives around those empty spaces left by their departed loved ones and neighbours, people, whom they watched die in front of them, not hidden away in a sterile hospital, but in their cottages, their houses. One after another. The marker left was of direct relevance to the survivors and the next two generations or so which followed. It is a marker for us still. certainly for us historians, there was the time pre and post Black Death. It is all too easy to see teh Black Death with a degree of morbid fascination, followed by meaningless statistical data, which is devoid of humanity. Historians are sometimes guilty of talking in terms of ‘demographics’, rather than ‘people’, and this matters, ‘demographic decline’ sounds so much more clinical and acceptable than thousands of people died an agonising death. We feel that we need to pretend at being scientific and ‘objective’, but such scientific ‘objectivity’ can only surely be acceptable in the context of the first arrival of Yersinia Pestis because it happened such a long time ago.


Extract of the list of some of those who died in the Black Death in the mid 14th century at the manor of Halesowen, 1349. With thanks to Wolfson Centre for Archival Research, Birmingham Library MS 346 322.

For me, however, it does not seem so. I work almost daily with manorial court records which bring the men, women and children of England’s medieval villages to life. I see their agencies in buying land, arguing in teh local alehouse and hitting each other with agricultural implements. I see that many of them cared fro their relatives and their animals with whom they lived closely together. their lives were real. these were people and not statistics. When I look though the court rolls of Halesowen, as I have done last week, and I come upon the list of those tenants who died in the Black Death, and it makes me so sad that those people who only a few months ago were trading, arguing, buying, selling, agreeing, negotiating and caring had suddenly stopped mid – track. I see those lists of the dead and it fills me with a sense of responsibility as a historian. These people were not statistics , impersonal ‘demographies’, but real human beings. For the survivors of Halesowen, the arrival of this terrible mortality left a memory marker, to be referred to in future years as ‘the first pestilence’, which was the worst, the main agent of change.


Pointy Fingers


( Wolfson Centre Archive, Birmingham Halesowen Court Rolls, MS 346278 )

Pointy fingers are interesting and they appear quite frequently along the margins of manorial court rolls. As far as I know nobody has really looked at the little doodles in the margins of manorial documents. They are certainly not as engaging or colourful or plentiful as the marginal illuminations found in other medieval manuscripts, but they are still worthy of some research. Occasionally one can find sketches of faces or doodles around individual letters. The feeling conveyed is that of a scribe bored to tears sitting through convoluted cases in the manor court. However pointy fingers are very deliberately placed. They usually ‘point’ at cases involving land or status.

They are also often in a different colour than the remainder of the manuscript, which indicates that they were at least sometimes added at a different time to the original entry. Like some of these ones, all found in the court rolls of the  manor of Halesowen.


( Wolfson Centre Archive, Birmingham Halesowen Court Rolls, MS 346273 )

Or this one. WP_20160726_11_58_50_Pro

( Wolfson Centre Archive, Birmingham Halesowen Court Rolls, MS 346263 )

I suspect that some of these point fingers were inserted when inquiries into specific cases or the status of individuals or their holdings had been ordered by the court. Occasionally in such inquiries it is stated that the court rolls had been consulted to resolve the case. Pointy fingers might thus have been used as easy reference points by those searching the records.