The importance of step mothers in the medieval village

Medieval families were rather fluid organisations. Due to high infant mortality and frequent premature parental deaths, medieval families would have experienced not only death as a far from unknown daily companion, but also step relationships. Historians have for some time stressed the importance of the wider community in the raising of children and young people in medieval society (examples include Professor Barbara Hanawalt), but many have still conceived of the peasant family as largely homogeneous in its constitution, Mainly nuclear, with more or fewer children surviving into their teens depending primarily on their social status and relative wealth. I would argue that the medieval peasant family was much much more complex.  Step – parents would have been very common, half siblings due to re-marriage and the consequent re constitution of individual households. It is very difficult to assess the true  extent of the impact of such step – families. In our contemporary society much anxiety is frequently expressed about step families, or the ‘declining traditional’ family. In 2011, according to figures published by the Office of National Statistics in May 2014, 11% of couples with dependent children were step families. This is perhaps a much lower figure than is often assumed, but still sizeable enough to make step families a common enough experience. Yet how ‘untraditional’ exactly would be such a family arrangement?  Looking at my growing ( if still somewhat tentative data) of underaged heirs in later medieval English villages, we might find some interesting evidence that 11% is in fact a very low proportion of step families, and there is little that is ‘un-traditional’ about a family containing step children. Manorial court rolls provide us with some details concerning in whose care underaged heirs were left. Records drew a clear and above all, consistent distinctions between what was termed as the ‘mother of the heir’ and the ‘wife of the deceased’ the latter thus being the head of the household, the father, of the heir. Accordingly the wife, by implication, was not the mother of the heir, but the step -mother. If such records can be trusted, then to date my data seems to indicate that in about 17 to 18% of cases of underaged heirs the person left to look after them and their land was the step -parent, in most cases the step mother. This would provide some interesting statistical evidence of the extent of step families in a typical medieval English village. The next questions to ask then are the effects of this rather significant prevalence of step families on children and half siblings growing up within them.


Medieval Animals

I am interested in how people in the medieval village or smaller town saw their world. Animals were very much a very important and integral part of this world of mixed arable farming. However direct insights into how medieval peasants viewed their animals are rather rare. Manorial court rolls and manorial accounts tend to emphasise that animals had values attached to them. Oxen were valued plough beasts and tended to come at a rather high price, next came cows and horses, although some horses were valued more highly than others, one might think of a well – bred and trained war horse, or a fully trained plough horse for example. Chicken were at the bottom of the ladder and most peasants kept a few for eggs. So animals sold and bought were most consistently

My dog Lacey helping me to think about medieval people and their animals
My dog Lacey helping me to think about medieval people and their animals

entered alongside a monetary value. Peasants also sometimes sued others who had caused damage to their animals, a horse driven too hard by a neighbour so that it became lame, a cow mistreated, or indeed an animal stolen, or borrowed and not returned. It indicates the level of informal bartering and borrowing that went on in medieval communities, families sharing plough animals for example in return for money or favours. But what about any emotional attachment? Can we find out something about what people felt about the animals in their care? It is perhaps difficult to imagine that people would not become in some ways emotionally attached. some peasant families still shared roofs with their cows or horses into the 14th century. We also do know that people named their horses, and naming animals has often been seen as a sign of emotional value or attachment. However such evidence is still comparatively rare. Manorial court rolls in their legalistic language is also often too detached to note down any names of animals which might have been made lame or stolen. So today I came across a lovely case which bucks the trend. in 1286 Matilda of Heacham went to court accusing Robert not only of having  ‘badly beaten’ herself, but also Abilla, her lamb, her lambkin as the court roll noted. Matilda registers her outrage not by noting that the lamb was worth 2d., but by demanding damages amounting to a total of 20s. for the assault. Surely a clear indication of emotional attachment and emotional value to the young sheep.