How close were the living standards of India compared to England during the medieval period?

How close were the living standards of India compared to England during the medieval period?

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India, China and the African continent today are mostly associated with poverty in Europe, the US and so on. Looking at India specifically, did it during the medieval era share a similar standard of living to England (at the same point in time), and if so when did they start to diverge?

This is partly covered in the article "India and the Great Divergence: An Anglo-Indian Comparison of GDP per Capita, 1600-1871" by Stephen Broadberry and Bishnupriya Gupta.

The article is available here: . (Note that in-progress articles like this have a tendency to disappear from the web over time). The abstract of the article is:

This paper provides estimates of Indian GDP constructed from the output side for the pre-1871 period, and combines them with population estimates to track changes in living standards. Indian per capita GDP declined steadily during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries before stabilising during the nineteenth century. As British living standards increased from the mid-seventeenth century, India fell increasingly behind. Whereas in 1600, Indian per capita GDP was over 60 per cent of the British level, by 1871 it had fallen to less than 15 per cent. As well as placing the origins of the Great Divergence firmly in the early modern period, the estimates suggest a relatively prosperous India at the height of the Mughal Empire, with living standards well above bare bones subsistence.

The paper does perhaps not go as far back as you want to, but the literature section contains several references to other studies of living standards in India and Britain. I also suggest you have a look at Broadberry's home page (a very respected economic historian) for more information on related topics:

Among these is a paper by the same authors from 2006: "The Early Modern Great Divergence: Wages, Prices and Economic Development in Europe and Asia, 1500-1800", Economic History Review, 59 (2006), 2-31. Abstract:

Contrary to the claims of Pomeranz, Parthasarathi, and other 'world historians', the prosperous parts of Asia between 1500 and 1800 look similar to the stagnating southern, central, and eastern parts of Europe rather than the developing north-western parts. In the advanced parts of India and China, grain wages were comparable to those in north-western Europe, but silver wages, which conferred purchasing power over tradable goods and services, were substantially lower. The high silver wages of north-western Europe were not simply a monetary phenomenon, but reflected high productivity in the tradable sector. The 'great divergence' between Europe and Asia was already well underway before 1800.

"Living Standards" require certainmeasuresor standards. It is therefore very difficult to come to empirical conclusions. On what basis do we judge living standards?

However, if we considerGross Domestic ProductandPer Capita Gross Domestic Product, as well aswagesin absolute terms, that is taking some particular year as a base (100) then a few studies show that while UK's Per capita GDP increased steadily from 1000 C.E., India's did not rise that much at all. By 1500 C.E. India was already lagging behind. This study is due to Angus Maddison. See this.

Another paper which provides several other indicators, also studies the period from 1600 C.E finds a steady decline in per capita GDP while UK's per capita increases steadily in the same period. See page 22, tables 12 and 13. For wages, see page 16, table 3. This paper also mentions several other source material as reference.

Another source which which studies economic history is "World Economic Historical Statistics" by Carlos Sabillon. This book details/charts the changes in GDP and sector-wise contributions (Manufacturing, Agriculture) from 16th century to the 1990s for all regions of the world.

See this :


List of regions by past GDP (PPP)

GDP per capita is an indicator of living standards.

A solid comparison of share of GDP can be found in this link

Since 01AD until today the world's changed quite a lot. But until 1700AD the balance of wealth hadn't. For the past two centuries the share of the world's GDP has shifted to the west to Europe through imperialism, and technological innovation. With the rise of China that's changing again and this infographic explores the story of balance and unbalance in the world economy courtesy of the data from the Maddison Project (


GDP data taken from

Very broad question and it also ignores the fact that feudal and cast-based societies were redistribute wealth different way than present democratic societies.

However let me give an angle that may be useful (no data, sorry): The huge economic difference between India and the UK is coming from the significantly earlier industrialization of the UK. However in the pre-industrial age the GDP was dominantly coming from agriculture and other primary sources (forestry, mining, fishery etc). This was true for thousands of years and agricultural technology more or less set the level of GDP in a given area.

Europe is much northern to India, so the agricultural production is much poorer. while the corps are different, at similar technical level you can grow 2-3 times wheat or other grain in India than in Europe, especially places like UK. In other words, Europe was significantly poorer than India or China at the time, and only exploration + industrialization changed this.

When people are not happy, they revolt against the rulers, the French revolution followed a famine. So, if you research the number of revolutions and popular uprisings through the centuries, and list them, you may have an indication of living standards by area. It has to be one of the simplest ways to answer your question. It's a direct measurement of popular discontent. So is conflict, also known as mass pillaging, the interest of neighbour countries to capture wealth from somewhere and feudal versus empire structures. Feudal societies are harsher. So is lawlessness and banditry. Unhappy societies have a lot of crime and heavy fortifications for anywhere with with even oxen to steal. Europe was lawless and every notable house was fortified until the end of the feudal system.

Living standards are normally measured by very many indicators:

The right to own an animal, frequency of starvation, quantity of gold and silver for normal people, number of diseases (the condition of people at gravesites shows how hard they worked and what they died from), longevity, existence of peasant casts that gave the majority of people no right to weapons and no right to even metalwork, nutrition and so on…

You must be be able to account for everything to answer the question…

It's barely measurable, however, you can try to find information of each of these indicators of living standards, and maybe tell us your results!

You can image a countries wealth by the amount of trade they made and transported, what leisure they indulged in, how much people emigrated from one place to another, how much they reproduced, how much work their agriculture took to feed their people and how many people per amount of resources… Rajasthan-punjab is relatively abundant, and Karnataka-central India is barren.

The quality of life was usually divided by cast, with the slaves, peasants, middle class, soldiers, and aristocracy all enjoying different lifestyles, and in different countries the distributions of classes were different, so it is just such a broad question, to ask what standards "people" had. People in areas with good weather, abundance of fish, fowl, and easy crops, essentially had good living standards, so it's very erratic.

Amount of gold and silver is not a very good indication of material possession of people at the time, because gold and silver vary geographically. Mostly trade was animals, pots and pans, woodwork, clothes, etc. In those times, countries like India were the world's only source of diamonds. Some areas traded in gold and some traded in copper, amber, jade, amethyst, gems, spices, linen, pearls were a form of currency, rubies from rivers and so on.

This is really a broad question which probably should be closed, but I will take a stab at it.

First of all, it is hard to compare India to England because India is a much larger place. Comparing India to Europe might be a better comparison.

Many parts of India were probably better off than England between 400 A.D. and 1000 A.D. after that the Moghul invasions made India go downhill and meanwhile things were getting better gradually in England.

So, to pick a date, that would be about 1000 A.D. that was the turning point.

The Middle Ages

In terms of disease, the Middle Ages can be regarded as beginning with the plague of 542 and ending with the Black Death (bubonic plague) of 1348. Diseases in epidemic proportions included leprosy, bubonic plague, smallpox, tuberculosis, scabies, erysipelas, anthrax, trachoma, sweating sickness, and dancing mania (see infection). The isolation of persons with communicable diseases first arose in response to the spread of leprosy. This disease became a serious problem in the Middle Ages and particularly in the 13th and 14th centuries.

The Black Death, an outbreak of plague, reached the Mediterranean ports of southern Europe in 1347 and in three years swept throughout Europe. The chief method of combating plague was to isolate known or suspected cases as well as persons who had been in contact with them. The period of isolation at first was about 14 days and gradually was increased to 40 days. Stirred by the Black Death, public officials created a system of sanitary control to combat contagious diseases, using observation stations, isolation hospitals, and disinfection procedures. Major efforts to improve sanitation included the development of pure water supplies, garbage and sewage disposal, and food inspection. These efforts were especially important in the cities, where people lived in crowded conditions in a rural manner with many animals around their homes.

During the Middle Ages a number of first steps in public health were made: attempts to cope with the unsanitary conditions of the cities and, by means of quarantine, to limit the spread of disease the establishment of hospitals and provision of medical care and social assistance.

Activity 1. Priests and Monks

Review the types of medieval people studied in Activities 1 and 2. Then ask the students if they can think of group of people who lived during the Middle Ages who have not yet been mentioned. (As a hint, mention that during the Middle Ages most people in Europe were members of the Roman Catholic Church.) Their responses should include priests, monks, friars, and nuns. Explain that in this activity they will be learning about the priests and monks.

Begin group research of this topic by reading together the text found at Religion available through Learner.Org. Ask what special role the local church played in the lives of the villagers.

Now read about medieval monks at Monks and Nuns available through Learner.Org's Middle Ages. Explain that the eight daily services (or times for prayer) observed by the monks were the same as those referred to in the Book of Hours. Groups of monks lived together in a monastery, which was also known as an abbey. Read about abbeys by accessing the following websites:

    available through EDSITEment-reviewed resource Internet Public Library available through Labyrinth available through Labyrinth

Remind the students of the illuminated images they viewed in Activities 1 and 2. Explain that the very earliest illuminated manuscripts were made by the monks. These were copies of the Bible and other religious writings. They were painstakingly written and illustrated on parchment or vellum (skin of a calf or sheep) in a special room in the abbey known as the scriptorium. Go to Manuscripts available through Labyrinth. At the top of the page is a picture of a monk working on a manuscript at his desk in the scriptorium. Notice the shape of his desk, the tools he is using, and the examples of beautifully bound books lying around him. The covers of the manuscripts were often made of wood and leather the finest ones were encrusted with jewels and carved pieces of ivory. A fine example of a page from a Bible made in a monastery can be viewed at Cutting from a Bible available through Labyrinth. Explain that the first letter in a new section was often enlarged and elaborately decorated, as is true in this case.

The multiple prayer services took place in the church at the abbey, although those monks who were out in the fields simply kneeled and prayed where they were. The words to the prayers were often chanted. To hear an example of a Gregorian chant, access Gregorian Chants available through Labyrinth and click "chants" in second paragraph.

Discuss with the students what they have learned about the monks. Conclude this activity by instructing each student to write a paragraph or two in the first person about a typical day in the life of a monk. They should select names for themselves, ideally those from the Bible (i.e., Brother Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, etc.) and decide what special tasks he might have been given (i.e., ringing the bells for service, raising honeybees, leading/conducting the chants, bottling and serving the wine, writing or illustrating manuscripts, working in the fields, and so forth.). Girls have the option of pretending to be a monk or a nun. (The lives of the nuns were very similar to those of the brothers.) Use the form available in .pdf format.

The first castles

An intensive programme of fortress building controlled the newly conquered land.

The Normans’ first castles were ditched and banked earthwork enclosures (the bailey), defended by wooden stockades and often including a mound (or motte), a strongpoint with its own ditch and stockade. Earthwork motte and bailey castles were quickly and easily constructed – local forced labour helped. Well over 500 were raised in the 20 years after 1066.

In castles such as Eynsford, Kent, the timber stockades of the bailey were soon replaced with stone ‘curtain’ walls. Those of the motte were replaced with circular stone-walled ‘shell keeps’.

What medieval Europe did with its teenagers

Today, there's often a perception that Asian children are given a hard time by their parents. But a few hundred years ago northern Europe took a particularly harsh line, sending children away to live and work in someone else's home. Not surprisingly, the children didn't always like it.

Around the year 1500, an assistant to the Venetian ambassador to England was struck by the strange attitude to parenting that he had encountered on his travels.

He wrote to his masters in Venice that the English kept their children at home "till the age of seven or nine at the utmost" but then "put them out, both males and females, to hard service in the houses of other people, binding them generally for another seven or nine years". The unfortunate children were sent away regardless of their class, "for everyone, however rich he may be, sends away his children into the houses of others, whilst he, in return, receives those of strangers into his own".

It was for the children's own good, he was told - but he suspected the English preferred having other people's children in the household because they could feed them less and work them harder.

His remarks shine a light on a system of child-rearing that operated across northern Europe in the medieval and early modern period. Many parents of all classes sent their children away from home to work as servants or apprentices - only a small minority went into the church or to university. They were not quite so young as the Venetian author suggests, though. According to Barbara Hanawalt at Ohio State University, the aristocracy did occasionally dispatch their offspring at the age of seven, but most parents waved goodbye to them at about 14.

Model letters and diaries in medieval schoolbooks indicate that leaving home was traumatic. "For all that was to me a pleasure when I was a child, from three years old to 10… while I was under my father and mother's keeping, be turned now to torments and pain," complains one boy in a letter given to pupils to translate into Latin. Illiterate servants had no means of communicating with their parents, and the difficulties of travel meant that even if children were only sent 20 miles (32 km) away they could feel completely isolated.

So why did this seemingly cruel system evolve? For the poor, there was an obvious financial incentive to rid the household of a mouth to feed. But parents did believe they were helping their children by sending them away, and the better off would save up to buy an apprenticeship. These typically lasted seven years, but they could go on for a decade. The longer the term, the cheaper it was - a sign that the Venetian visitor was correct to conclude that adolescents were a useful source of cheap labour for their masters. In 1350, the Black Death had reduced Europe's population by roughly half, so hired labour was expensive. The drop in the population, on the other hand, meant that food was cheap - so live-in labour made sense.

"There was a sense that your parents can teach you certain things, but you can learn other things and different things and more things if you get experience of being trained by someone else," says Jeremy Goldberg from the University of York.

Perhaps it was also a way for parents to get rid of unruly teenagers. According to social historian Shulamith Shahar, it was thought easier for strangers to raise children - a belief that had some currency even in parts of Italy. The 14th Century Florentine merchant Paolo of Certaldo advised: "If you have a son who does nothing good… deliver him at once into the hands of a merchant who will send him to another country. Or send him yourself to one of your close friends. Nothing else can be done. While he remains with you, he will not mend his ways."

Many adolescents were contractually obliged to behave. In 1396, a contract between a young apprentice named Thomas and a Northampton brazier called John Hyndlee was witnessed by the mayor. Hyndlee took on the formal role of guardian and promised to give Thomas food, teach him his craft and not punish him too severely for mistakes. For his part, Thomas promised not to leave without permission, steal, gamble, visit prostitutes or marry. If he broke the contract, the term of his apprenticeship would be doubled to 14 years.

A decade of celibacy was too much for many young men, and apprentices got a reputation for frequenting taverns and indulging in licentious behaviour. Perkyn, the protagonist of Chaucer's Cook's Tale, is an apprentice who is cast out after stealing from his master - he moves in with his friend and a prostitute. In 1517, the Mercers' guild complained that many of their apprentices "have greatly mysordered theymself", spending their masters' money on "harlotes… dyce, cardes and other unthrifty games".

In parts of Germany, Switzerland and Scandinavia, a level of sexual contact between men and women in their late teens and early twenties was sanctioned. Although these traditions - known as "bundling" and "night courting" - were only described in the 19th Century, historians believe they date back to the Middle Ages. "The girl stays at home and a male of her age comes and meets her," says Colin Heywood from the University of Nottingham. "He's allowed to stay the night with her. He can even get into bed with her. But neither of them are allowed to take their clothes off - they're not allowed to do much beyond a bit of petting." Variants on the tradition required men to sleep on top of the bed coverings or the other side of a wooden board that was placed down the centre of the bed to separate the youngsters. It was not expected that this would necessarily lead to betrothal or marriage.

To some extent, young people policed their own sexuality. "If a girl gets a reputation of being rather too easy, then she will find something unpleasant left outside her house so that the whole village knows that she has a bad reputation," says Heywood. Young people also expressed their opinion of the moral conduct of elders, in traditions known as charivari or "rough music". If they disapproved of a marriage - perhaps because the husband beat his wife or was hen-pecked, or there was a big disparity in ages - the couple would be publicly shamed. A gang would parade around carrying effigies of their victims, banging pots and pans, blowing trumpets and possibly pulling the fur of cats to make them shriek (the German word is Katzenmusik).

In France, Germany and Switzerland young people banded together in abbayes de jeunesse - "abbeys of misrule" - electing a "King of Youth" each year. "They came to the fore at a time like carnival, when the whole world was turned upside down," says Heywood. Unsurprisingly, things sometimes got out of hand. Philippe Aries describes how in Avignon the young people literally held the town to ransom on carnival day, since they "had the privilege of thrashing Jews and whores unless a ransom was paid".

In London, the different guilds divided into tribes and engaged in violent disputes. In 1339, fishmongers were involved in a series of major street battles with goldsmiths. But ironically, the apprentices with the worst reputation for violence belonged to the legal profession. These boys of the Bench had independent means and did not live under the watch of their masters. In the 15th and 16th Centuries, apprentice riots in London became more common, with the mob targeting foreigners including the Flemish and Lombards. On May Day in 1517, the call to riot was shouted out - "Prentices and clubs!" - and a night of looting and violence followed that shocked Tudor England.

By this time, the city was swelling with apprentices, and the adult population was finding them more difficult to control, says Barbara Hanawalt. As early death from infectious disease became rarer the apprentices faced a long wait to take over from their masters. "You've got quite a number of young men who are in apprenticeships who have got no hope of getting a workshop and a business of their own," says Jeremy Goldberg. "You've got numbers of somewhat disillusioned and disenfranchised young men, who may be predisposed to challenging authority, because they have nothing invested in it."

How different were the young men and women of the Middle Ages from today's adolescents? It's hard to judge from the available information, says Goldberg.

But many parents of 21st Century teenagers will nod their heads in recognition at St Bede's Eighth Century youths, who were "lean (even though they eat heartily), swift-footed, bold, irritable and active". They might also shed a tear over a rare collection of letters from the 16th Century, written by members of the Behaim family of Nuremberg and documented by Stephen Ozment. Michael Behaim was apprenticed to a merchant in Milan at the age of 12. In the 1520s, he wrote to his mother complaining that he wasn't being taught anything about trade or markets but was being made to sweep the floor. Perhaps more troubling for his parents, he also wrote about his fears of catching the plague.

Another Behaim boy towards the end of the 16th Century wrote to his parents from school. Fourteen-year-old Friedrich moaned about the food, asked for goods to be sent to keep up appearances with his peers, and wondered who would do his laundry. His mother sent three shirts in a sack, with the warning that "they may still be a bit damp so you should hang them over a window for a while". Full of good advice, like mothers today, she added: "Use the sack for your dirty washing."

Medieval Hospitals of England

During the Middle Ages, writes Courtney Dainton, English hospitals continued to flourish until the beginning of the fifteenth century.

Over seven hundred hospitals were founded in England between the Norman conquest and the middle of the sixteenth century. This number is surprisingly large, for at no time did the population of the country exceed four million. Of course, many of them were not really hospitals as we know them today. Their name indicated their primary function it was derived from the Latin word hospitalis, meaning being concerned with hospites, or guests, and guests were any persons who needed shelter.

Some of the hospitals were, therefore, erected for the use of pilgrims and other travellers others were really almshouses, intended chiefly for the poor and the aged. Nevertheless, a considerable number of them provided accommodation where the sick could receive care and even some primitive form of treatment for their ailments.

Many of the early hospitals were erected for sufferers from leprosy, the common scourge of the Middle Ages. Some time before 1089 Archbishop Lanfranc built a leper hospital at Harbledown, near Canterbury it had room for one hundred inmates. In the following century another Kentish hospital, also used mainly by lepers, was erected by monks at Buckland by Dover.

Because lepers were seldom cured they usually became permanent inmates, and becoming a patient in a leper hospital was almost like entering a monastery. At Buckland there were strict rules regarding the type of leper admitted, and the actual admission was accompanied by a religious ceremony.

No leper could be admitted unless the other patients gave their consent it was probably thought that this measure would help to maintain peace among the long-term inmates. The new patient also had to give one hundred shillings to the funds of the hospital in those days that was a considerable sum, so that only a fairly wealthy leper could gain admission.

On being admitted the leper was required to take the following oath:

‘I. do promise before God and St. Bartholomew and all saints, that to the best of my power I will be faithful and useful to the hospital, obedient to my superior and have love to my brethren and sisters. I will be sober and chaste of body and a moiety of the goods I shall die possessed of shall belong to the house. I will pray for the peace of the church and realm of England, and for the king and queen, and for the prior and convent of St. Martin, and for the burgesses of Dover on sea and land, and especially for all our benefactors, living and dead.’

After making this vow the leper was sprinkled with holy water and then escorted to the altar. There he knelt to receive the warden’s blessing. That completed his formal admission to the hospital, but every day that he remained there he had to say two hundred Paternosters and Aves during daylight hours, and every night the dormitory bell awakened him in order that he could sit erect in bed and say another two hundred.

One of the largest hospitals in the country was St. Leonard’s at York. It was built during the reign of Stephen to replace a Saxon establishment which had been destroyed by fire. It accommodated over two hundred sick and poor, and in addition there were twenty-three boys, for it also served as a children’s home. The staff included bakers, brewers, carters, cooks, smiths, boatmen, a ferry-woman, and sixteen male and female servants.

There appears to have been a woman in charge corresponding to the modern matron, for an old document relating to the hospital refers to Matilda la hus-wyf, and in 1416 a sum of money was bequeathed to the staff and inmates with instructions that it should be distributed by Alice materfamilias.

Henry III directed that the hospital should be allowed ‘to take what they need in the forest of Yorkshire for building and burning, and also of herbage and pasture for flocks and anything needful for their ease.’ The hospital also collected a tax known as the thraves of St. Leonard a thrave probably consisted of twenty-four sheaves of corn. This tax was collected in respect of every plough used in the archbishopric of York, an area covering the modern counties of Cumbria, Lancashire, and North, South and West Yorkshire.

When times were prosperous the hospital’s income from the thraves was considerable: in 1369-70 it amounted to £1,369, while expenditure was only £938. In bad times, when there was war or plague or famine, the hospital naturally suffered in 1409 the income fell to £546. In another year the situation became so bad that the master resorted to pawning the hospital chalices and ornaments, but the patients strongly disapproved of this action and sent a petition to the King about the matter.

In most hospitals the master was appointed by the patron, but at a few of them he was elected by the staff. One such hospital was St. John’s at Oxford, which was founded in 1213 by Henry III ‘that therein infirm people and strangers might receive remedy of their health and necessity.’ The master of St. John’s was chosen from the three Augustinian chaplains, who, with six lay brothers and six sisters, formed the staff, although a number of artisans and farm workers were also employed.

A high standard of conduct was expected of a hospital master. At Wells in Somerset he had to be ‘circumspect and expert in spiritual and temporal things, and free from all infamous vice.’ At Heytesbury in Wiltshire he was forbidden to visit the alehouse, go hunting, or play cards or handball. He was not allowed to be away from the hospital at night if he went away during the daytime his absence must only be of short duration and in addition to being in charge of the hospital he also had to be master of the village school.

Usually only a few of the ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ were responsible for caring for the sick. The others were allotted various non-nursing duties. Often one of the brothers was called the proctor it was his duty to collect alms.

The hospitals were largely dependent on charity, but some received regular payments from their patrons, and some owned land or houses for which they collected rents. A number of hospitals raised money by holding annual fairs under a charter granted by the sovereign. The largest of these fairs was that at Sturbridge near Cambridge it was authorised in 1211 by a charter which King John granted to the lepers of the hospital of St. Mary Magdalene.

Other hospitals had the right to levy tolls on local produce. At Carlisle the lepers received a pot of ale from each brewhouse every Sunday, and a farthing loaf from every baker. At Shrewsbury they took handfuls of corn or flour from the sacks in the market. In a few places the tolls were in cash the lepers at Southampton received a penny for each tun of wine that entered the port.

The rules governing the conduct of both patients and staff were usually very strict, and often the master or warden was required to hold a weekly meeting for the purpose of dealing with infringements and punishing offenders. Punishment might be by means of fines, or by flogging or fasting. At the hospital at Reading a patient guilty of any misbehaviour had to sit in the centre of the dining hall during mealtimes and eat only bread and water, while his share of the food and ale was distributed to the other patients.

The food was usually plain but plentiful. At Sherburn in County Durham each patient received a loaf and a gallon of beer daily there was meat three times a week, and on the meatless days there were eggs, vegetables and cheese.

The beds in the earliest hospitals consisted of pallets of straw, but before the end of the twelfth century there were probably wooden bedsteads. These were usually large and had to accommodate two or more patients. How frequently the bedding was washed is not known that it was washed from time to time is clear from the records of St. Thomas’ Hospital at Canterbury, where the warden and his wife were paid 46s. 8d. annually for ‘wasshyng of the bedds for poure people.’

It also appears that each new patient received clean sheets there was an inquiry at London’s Savoy Hospital in 1535 and one of the matters investigated was ‘whether any poore man do he in any shetes unwasshed that any other lay in bifore.’

One of the most famous hospitals in the country was founded in the twelfth century. It is now the oldest hospital still in use and still standing on its original site. About 1123 a man named Rahere, who is described as ‘a courtier though a cleric’, went on a pilgrimage to Rome. There he was taken seriously ill, and he vowed to build a hospital if he recovered.

When he was restored to health he returned to England and asked the Bishop of London to help him to carry out his vow. The bishop persuaded Henry I to provide some land at Smithfield, and there the hospital was erected. It was dedicated to St. Bartholomew because Rahere had seen this saint in a vision during his illness.

It appears that Rahere assisted in the treatment of the patients, although the methods he used were hardly those of a man with medical knowledge. We are told that when a woman with a badly swollen tongue was brought to him, he dipped his relics of the Cross in water, wished the woman’s tongue was better, and painted the sign of the cross on it. Less than an hour later the swelling had disappeared, and the woman returned home ‘gladde and hole’.

The hospital’s records contain no particulars of the patients or their treatment in those early days, except in cases where it appeared that a cure had been effected miraculously. For example, there was a beggar named Wolmer who was very badly deformed. He had sat begging in St. Paul’s Cathedral every day for thirty years, and so he was well known in the city.

His friends took him to the new hospital, where he was placed before the altar in the church. This appears to have been sufficient to effect a cure, without any other form of treatment, for ‘by and by euery crokidness of his body a litill and litill losid’ and eventually ‘all his membris yn naturale ordir was disposid’.

A better idea of the medical treatment at St. Bartholomew’s is obtained from the Breviarium Bartholomei, written by John Mirfield and published in 1387. For instance, when a patient suffered from rheumatism, the pharmacist placed some olive oil in a clean vessel and then made the sign of the cross and said two prayers. The vessel was then put over a fire and had to remain there while part of a psalm, the Gloria and two prayers were recited seven times.

The heated olive oil was then applied to the affected limbs. It will be seen that religion appears to have played a large part in the treatment it has been suggested, however, that in those days, when there were no watches and very few clocks, the recitation of psalms and prayers was a means of timing the heating of the olive oil.

When Rahere founded St. Bartholomew’s he directed that it should have a master, eight brethren and four sisters. The master was to have ‘a servant fit for his place, who is to stay continuously in the infirmary and wait upon the sick with diligence and care in all gentleness.’ This servant was also to prepare the patients’ food, ‘show their water to the physician, and take a careful note of how they ought to diet themselves.’

The master was usually a priest, and three of the eight brethren were chaplains. The four sisters were nuns and devoted their whole lives to the service of the hospital. They wore grey tunics the hospital’s rules said that these must not reach below their ankles. They shared their daily rations of seven loaves, a dish of cooked food and half a flagon of ale, and they all slept in a dormitory.

Another famous London hospital, St. Thomas’s, was also in existence in the twelfth century, although the exact date of its foundation is not known. It formed part of a priory at Southwark, but after being destroyed by fire it was rebuilt on a new site in Borough High Street in 1215. The new hospital appears to have had forty beds, but each of these was shared by two or three patients.

The hospital derived a large part of its income from the rents received from land it owned. There were also many bequests and gifts. These sources of income were greatly reduced during the time of the Black Death, which also increased the number of patients. In 1357, in an attempt to win new benefactors, the brethren appealed to the Pope to grant an indulgence of two years and eighty days to everybody who assisted the hospital, but the maximum indulgence which he would allow was only half this length.

A new ward for unmarried mothers was added to the hospital with money provided by Dick Whittington when he was Lord Mayor of London. This gift to ‘Thomas Spetylle’, as the hospital was called, is described in a survey made by a later Lord Mayor:

‘And at that same place ys an ospytalyte for pore men and wymen, and that noble marchaunt, Rycharde Whytyngdon, made a newe chambyr with viii beddys for yong wymen that had done a-mysse in trust of good mendement. And he commaunded that alle the thyngys that ben don in that chambyr shulde be kepte secrete with owte forthe, yn payne of lesyng of hyr levynge for he wolde not shame no yonge women in noo wyse, for hit myght be cause of hyr lettyng (i.e. hindrance) of hyr maryage.’

There were complaints about the behaviour of the staff at St. Thomas’s during the early part of the fourteenth century. In 1323 the Bishop of Winchester reprimanded the master because the brethren and the sisters were leading irregular lives. The master was also told that he must have his meals with the other members of the staff.

Allegations such as those made against the staff of St. Thomas’s appear to have been only too common during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. They were one of the reasons for the gradual decline of the hospitals. Another was the fact that the spirit of public service and religious zeal that had led to the founding of so many of them was waning. There was also considerable abuse by the patrons, who often expected the hospitals to provide free lodging for themselves and retinues of their retainers.

Some of the patrons sent their aged servants to the hospitals, with orders that they should be allowed to stay there for the remainder of their lives. Edward II appeared to consider that this was the prime function of hospitals he declared that they had all been established ‘for the admission of poor and weak persons, and especially of those in the King’s service who are unable to work.’

Probably the chief factor contributing to the decline of the hospitals was mismanagement by the wardens the records contain numerous instances of this. In 1348 it was stated that the warden of St. Leonard’s Hospital at Derby ‘neglects the duties of the wardenship and has dissipated and consumed the goods and alienated the lands to the great decay of the hospital’. Wardenships were often given by patrons to their relatives or their personal friends.

Often these wardens did not live at the hospitals some did not even bother to visit the establishments supposed to be under their supervision others were masters of several different hospitals. A Bishop of Winchester appointed his eighteen-year-old nephew as warden of two hospitals, one at Portsmouth and the other at Winchester in addition, this young man had an archdeaconry and two canonries.

People who should have received care inside the hospitals often died neglected outside them. The description contained in a poem, The hye-way to the Spytell house, written by Robert Copland about 1536, was true of many hospitals:

‘For I haue sene at sondry hospytalles That many haue lyen dead without the walles And for lacke of socour haue dyed wretchedly Unto your foundacyon I thynke contrary. Moche people resorte here and haue lodgyng, But yet I maruell greatly of one thyng That in the night so many lodge without.’

In 1414 Parliament decided that it would have to take action to halt the deterioration, and a statute for the reformation of hospitals was passed. The preamble to the statute summed up the situation, stating that many hospitals ‘be now for the most part decayed, and the goods and profits of the same, by divers persons, spiritual and temporal, withdrawn and spent to the use of others, whereby many men and women have died in great misery for default of aid, livelihood and succour.’

The statute had little effect. It was not until the Wars of the Roses had ended and the Tudor era brought prosperity accompanied by a spirit of civic responsibility that new hospitals were founded to replace those which had been established as acts of religious charity. The foundation of these hospitals was but a small step towards the realisation of the Utopian dream of that great Tudor statesman Sir Thomas More:

‘But first and chiefly of all, in respect of the sycke that be cured in the hospitalles. For in the circuit of the citie a little without the walls they have four hospitalles so big, so wide, so ample and so large that they may seem four little towns which were devised of that bigness, partly to the intent the sycke, be they never so many in number, should not lie in throng or straight, and therefore uneasily or incommodiously and partly that they which were taken and holden with contagious diseases such as would by infection to crape from one to another might be laid apart from the company of the residue.

These hospitalles be so well appointed and with all things necessary to health so furnished and moreover so diligent attendance through the continual presence of cunning physicians is given, that though no man be sent thither against his will, yet notwithstanding there is no sick person in all the citie that had not rather lie there than in his own house.’

More was looking far beyond his own times. Henry VIII’s statutes for the suppression of religious houses brought about the disappearance of many hospitals, for most of them were closely associated with monasteries or churches, and a desperate situation was created, particularly in London. Some of the leading citizens persuaded the Lord Mayor to submit a petition to the King for the refoundation of St. Bartholomew’s and St. Thomas’s Hospitals, which were among those that had ceased to function.

Henry authorised the refoundation of St. Bartholomew’s, and Edward VI instructed the citizens to repair St. Thomas’s. The young King also authorised the foundation of Christ’s Hospital for orphans and Bridewell for the correction of idle vagabonds. Thus in the capital a spirit of civic responsibility helped towards the establishment of new hospitals, but in the provinces little progress was made until the eighteenth century.

Architecture and Social Classes in the Victorian Era

Comparing Norman and Victorian Architecture and Social Classes
Location Main Street at Leadenhall Market
Photo taken by Dakota Payette

England history is very rich, spanning back to the Roman Empire and Hadrian's Wall. England has changed dramatically over its plus 2,000 year history, and those changes can be seen in everyday life. The Victoria Era saw great change in England with the installment of the longest ruling monarch yet, Queen Victorian. Her reign over England was from 1837 until her death in 1901. Her coronation brought change throughout the Empire, and especially in the city of London. The Industrial Revolution was starting to take full swing towards the end of the era which provided to be a huge swing in momentum for England. Social classes in London were changing along with the architecture of the buildings. With the new technology that was being implemented, new jobs could be created in areas that were't ever seen before. Steel and iron workers dominated the new job growth along with factory workers and builders. The Victorian Era was an exciting era to be alive with many different changes taking place.

Famine wasn't just something you could pretend wasn't happening to other humans

In the modern West, hunger doesn't have anything to do with the availability of food — it's a symptom of poverty, not the weather. When we have crop failure in here, we get food from other places if we can afford it. Famine as we understand it is something that happens in the developing world, where we can mostly just ignore it and complain about our first world problems instead, like how hard it is to get good cell phone service in rural America. In the Middle Ages, most people did not have the luxury of just getting food from somewhere else. And also, there was no cell phone service anywhere, so hard times.

According to Historic U.K., when famine struck it was epic and deadly. From the summer of 1314 through most of 1316, England was plagued by uncharacteristically huge quantities of rain. And if you've ever been to the U.K., you know that "uncharacteristically huge quantities of rain" is just seriously a ton of rain because typical rainfall is already pretty heavy by most standards. Anyway, it rained and rained, and crops rotted in the fields, farm animals drowned in floods, all the stored food got eaten and then people started to starve. By the end of the famine, roughly 5% of England's population was dead, which isn't Black Plague terrible, but it's nowhere near Whole-Foods-just-ran-out-of-kale terrible, either.

Castle Life Living in a Medieval Castle

Medieval life in a castle was harsh by modern standards, but much better than life for the majority of people at the time - in French the expression "La vie du chateau" denotes a life of luxury.

The civilisation of the ancient pagan world had disappeared. Along with theatres, libraries, schools and hippodromes went luxuries such as running water, central heating, public baths, public lavatories, and sophisticated lighting. Christians did not need baths and they used dark corners for lavatories as God intended. Castles had basic lavatories called garderobes. Light was provided by candles or oil lamps, rarely by the sort of effective torches depicted in Hollywood films.

In early medieval times fires were still placed in the centre of the the Great Halll, often with a sort of lantern tower above to let the smoke out. Later castles featured fires against the wall with a flue to carry the smoke away.

Other rooms in a medieval castle, at least in later times, included solars ,a sort of early drawing room, and private cabinets (for men) and Boudoirs (for women). As in modern Royal castles today, large medieval castles were generally divided into apartments so that each noble individual (including children) would have their own suite of rooms and their own household staff.

Life during the Middle Ages began at sunrise, when a guard trumpeted the day's start. Servants would have already risen, ensuring that fires were lit in the kitchen and great hall and preparing a small breakfast for the lower orders. The fist of the two main meals of the day for the nobles was not served until between 10am and noon.

Medieval Food & Cooking was generally healthy, what we now describe as "organic". Food was prepared in large Kitchens, often in a separate building in order to reduce the fire risk. Food include cereals, vegetables, fish and other seafood , and plenty of meat and bread. Off the kitchens were specialist areas for storing and preserving food, including pantries, larders & butteries. There were also storerooms, undercrofts & cellars.

Herbs and Spices were used extensively. Dairy products were popular, but fruit less so (fruits were often smaller, tougher and less sweet than modern varieties). Puddings (Sweets and Desserts) on the other hand were always popular.

Meals was regulated by some basic rules of etiquette, recognisable as the precursor of modern rules of etiquette. Diet was also regulated by Church teaching which prohibited the eating of various foods at different times of year, prescribing an annual round of fasts and feasts.

Each morning floors had to be swept, cleared of any debris, and basins washed out. Once the lord and his lady were up and dressed, chambermaids entered their bed chambers, swept the floor and emptied chamber pots and wash basins. Laundresses began the day's wash.

If devout, the lord and his family entered the castle's private chapel for morning mass. Once mass was complete, the lord started the day's business. He was the castle's chief administrator when he was in residence, and sovereign in his own domain, exercising absolute authority over his castle, his estates, and his subjects.

Under the feudal system, the lord would need to carry out administrative functions, managing desmenes, accepting homage, carrying out ceremonies of commendation and collecting rents, fees and Medieval Taxes. A lord might be granted possession of more than one manor, barony or earldom so he had to divide his time among all of his properties. His powers were political, judicial, fiscal, and included the policing and defence of his territory. Like his king, he administered justice, inflicted punishment, collected dues from his subjects, and in some cases minted his own coins.

A great lord would need a vast array of officers & servants to run a medieval castle When the lord had obligations that took him away from the castle his main representative was the steward. The steward had substantial power of his own, because he had to know virtually everything that went on at the castle and in the surrounding estates. He had to be skilled at accounting and legal matters, as well as personnel management. Other key members of the household staff included the chamberlain (in charge of the great chamber/hall), the chaplain, the keeper of the wardrobe, the butler (also known as the bottler, he ensured there was enough drink stored in the buttery, where the butts of drink were stored), the cook, the chandler (who made candles), and the marshal (who was in charge of the stables), and a chief-gardener to take care of the castle's Medieval Gardens. Each of these individuals had their own, often large, staff to manage.

Food production would need to be managed: forests for hunting, farms for meat, vegetable and fruit, ice houses for year-round ice, dovecotes for young pigeons and pigeon eggs. Rivers & fishponds provided fish. Mills were originally water Mills and later windmills

The lady of the castle was served by ladies-in-waiting and chambermaids. She spent much of the day overseeing their work, as well as supervising the activities in the kitchen staff. The lady also kept an eye on her large group of spinners, weavers, and embroiderers who continually produced a range of more or less fashionable medieval clothing.

Ladies and sometimes clerics were responsible for educating young pages who, at the age of 7, came to the castle to learn religion, music, dance, hunting, reading, and writing before moving into knight's service as squires. People enjoyed a range of medieval games & pastimes.

At 14, young boys became squires, and the lord placed them under the guidance of a knight who would teach them about chivalry, how to wield a sword, how to ride a horse into battle, and so on. A squire's goal was knighthood, which could be attained at the age of 21 when boys officially became men. Many knights became highly skilled warriors and spent peacetime ravelling to tournaments to pitch themselves into individual combat with other aspiring knights. Training for medieval warfare was important. Jousts and melées in full armour provided invaluable experience. Tournaments especially were good training grounds for real warfare, and could be enormously profitable.

Soldiers were needed to provide a castle garrison. They were stationed in gatehouses and guardrooms. Individual members included the knights, squires, a porter (to tend the main door), guards, watchmen, and men-at-arms. They might need to defend their lord and his household in an instant. Each soldier had his own place in an attack and his own skill to rely upon. Some were crossbowmen, archers, lancers or swordsmen.

Livestock roamed inside the stables, blacksmiths banged out ironwork in castle forges, soldiers practised their skills, and children played when lessons were completed. Various craftsmen worked in the inner ward, including cobblers, armourers, coopers (who made casks), hoopers (who helped the coopers build the barrels), billers (making axes), and spencers (accountants who dispensed money).

Interior walls were used to support timber structures, like the workshops and the stables. Sometimes, stone buildings also leaned against the walls. Servants were constantly bustling, taking care of the needs of the household. Fires burned, and needed regular mending. Wells and cisterns offered water. At mid-morning, dinner was served. This was the main meal of the day, and often featured three or four courses, as well as entertainment. After dinner, the day's activities would resume, or the lord might lead his guests on a hunt through the grounds of his deer park.

The evening meal, supper, was generally eaten late in the day, sometimes just before bedtime. While not as large as dinner, this meal ensured residents would never be hungry when they settled down to sleep off the day's labours.

Holidays - literally Holy Days - were times for letting loose of inhibitions and forgetting the stresses of life. The peasants as well as the castle's household found time for pleasure, and made up for their struggles as best they could.

The castle always had to be ready for an attack. If the lord of the castle found out there was going to be a battle, he brought more food to the castle in case of a siege.

If the battle started and the lord was not at home, the lady organised the army. A siege was an army strategy the attacking army surrounded the castle to stop supplies from coming to the castle. Usually a siege only lasted a few weeks, but could last months or even years. In 143 BC the city of Carthage withstood a siege for 3 years.

Gravensteen Castle (1180), Ghent (Belgium):

An abbey cellarer testing his wine. Illumination from a copy of Li livres dou santé by Aldobrandino of Siena. British Library, Sloane 2435, f. 44v.

Modern falconers often use owls (They were not used in hawking in Medieval times)

Holofernes, Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire de Lausanne, U 964, fol. 179v

MS. Bodl. 264, Romance of Alexander, f 065r - Sports and Pastimes

Plantagenet Head coverings (1154-1399)
(Hair may be shown, but not ears)

The Luttrell Psalter,folio 61r
Blood letting by a barber-surgeon.
The staff has become the familiar pole seen outside barbers shops, wound with red and white bandages.
In the past the brass bowl hung from the pole, but it has contracted into a brass knob on the end of the pole.

Ramón Berenguer IV receives the homage of his vassal the Señor de Perelada (1132)

Peasant houses in Midland England

It used to be thought that only high-class houses had survived from the Medieval period. Radiocarbon and tree-ring dating has now revealed that thousands of ordinary Medieval homes are still standing in the English Midlands, many incorporated into des res village houses. Chris Catling reports on how some peasants lived very well in the Middle Ages.

The term ‘peasant’ suggests poverty, ignorance, missing teeth, and poor personal hygiene: Baldrick stuff, all threadbare rags, hunched shoulders, and a life shared with pigs in a squalid hovel barely adequate to keep out the bitter winter wind. In fact, all that ‘peasant’ really means is that you live mainly off the produce of your own labour. Many a modern allotment-holder leads a semi-peasant lifestyle, and there are plenty of contemporary peasants all over southern and eastern Europe – not to mention those living in hippy communes in west Wales. For peasant, read ‘largely self-sufficient’.

Who are you calling a peasant?
Chris Dyer, author of Making a Living in the Middle Ages, points out that some historians are reluctant to use the term because they think it too imprecise (yet they happily use equally broad terms such as ‘merchant’ and ‘artisan’). Professor Dyer thinks that ‘peasant’ is a very useful word, and that nobody has yet devised an adequate substitute to denote people in the lower ranks of society, living in the countryside and gaining their main living from the resources available to them as a result of their own labours. Typically this is based on agricultural production on a piece of land held by customary tenure (common land) or copyhold tenure (in return for which the tenant had to render certain services to the lord of the manor).

Fifteen acres of arable land and pasture is just about enough to keep a family fed, and few peasant smallholdings exceeded 30 acres in extent up to the mid-14th century. One of the economic impacts of the Black Death and climate deterioration from the 1340s was to make more land available population decline meant that those who survived were in demand as agricultural labourers, able to sell their services for hard cash, rather than land or kind. Peasant landholdings doubled in size in the period 1380 to 1540, enabling peasants to produce a surplus for sale in local markets. Many peasants were also able to supplement their income from pursuing such occupations as mining or fishing, or working as artisans or traders. Initially weak and vulnerable, surviving on a subsistence diet of very basic foods, peasants were increasingly able to afford better clothing, tools, utensils, and foodstuffs after the difficult decades of the mid-14th century.

The ‘Great Rebuilding’
In the same way, peasant housing underwent gradual improvement. Once it was believed that Medieval peasant houses were so miserable and insubstantial that no housing from this stratum of society could possibly have survived the 500 years or so that separate us from the Middle Ages. Built of poor-quality materials scavenged from the immediate locality ‘fallen timber, mud, and furze’ with animals and humans living in the same structure, they would have needed frequent replacement, and would have turned to dark earth within a few years of abandonment.

The standard view was that no ordinary Medieval house could have lasted more than a generation, and this constant need to replace rotting structures was one reason why villages were not static, but moved about in the landscape until the so-called ‘Great Rebuilding’. This began around 1570 and continued into the early 18th century, and marks the era when more solid houses were constructed with chimneys, staircases, glazed windows, and private chambers in place of an open hall.

The ‘vernacular threshold’

The homes of higher-income social groups were the first to be rebuilt. Vernacular homes lagged by a few decades. Another phrase in common use among architectural historians is the ‘vernacular threshold’, used to describe the date after which the houses of ordinary people began to be rebuilt in a sufficiently robust form to have survived to the present day. Until recently, that threshold was set somewhere in the later 17th century, partly in the belief that the more substantial timber buildings that had survived from the 16th century or earlier must be the houses of superior types with larger landholdings and higher incomes, such as prosperous farmers and yeomen.

This kind of circular argument, whereby if it survived it could not be a peasant house because peasant houses did not survive, has now been comprehensively undermined by a study initiated by the late Bob Laxton and continued by Nat Alcock, Robert Howard, Dan Miles, and Cliff Litton. Their Leverhulme-Trust-funded project set out to investigate cruck houses, and to provide more accurate dates for this type of early building.

Crucks of the matter
Cruck buildings, referred to in Medieval documents by the Latin word furcae (fork) are built around pairs of timbers (cruck blades) that extend from the ground all the way to the apex of the roof in a single sweep, forming an arch-like truss. Typically these are houses of three bays, with a truss at each end and two internal trusses. The central bay forms an open hall, without upper floor or chimney, recognisable today by the fact that the surviving roof timbers are covered in soot and tar deposits from smoke rising from a central hearth on the floor below. One of the side bays was used as a service space, while the other, the only one with an upper floor, reached by a ladder, provided rooms for sleeping.

Crucks are not the only structural form found in the Midlands. There are also aisled buildings, base crucks (in which the cruck blades only rise as far as a tie beam), and box-framed structures, but these are all minor components among the older timber buildings of the region. With 3,086 documented examples, crucks are by far the most common type to have survived. Plotted on a distribution map, cruck houses are mainly found in western Britain, and are completely absent from large parts of eastern Britain. This sharp boundary was recognised a long time ago, but has never been explained.

Centuries older than expected
For this study, some 120 houses were examined in great detail in the counties of Buckinghamshire, Leicestershire, Oxford, and Warwick, with a few also in Gloucester and Nottinghamshire. Of these, 83 were found to have primary timbers suitable for carbon dating and dendrochronology. The results, to everyone’s surprise, showed that nearly all the cruck buildings sampled were built during the 300-year period from the 1260s to the 1550s: in other words, a long time before that 17th-century vernacular threshold.

But can we really claim that these buildings are vernacular, and do they justify the term ‘peasant house’? The authors of the study answer this by turning the old argument on its head: in place of the doctrine that all early houses must be high status, they say that so many of these houses have survived that they cannot possibly all be of manorial status or the houses of the wealthiest members of the community. ‘When

a village has 10 or even 20 such houses, it is a safe deduction that they were the homes of ordinary people including the whole hierarchy of rural society, from substantial and middling peasants down to a few smallholders’, they conclude. In other words, these may not be the houses of the very poorest peasants, but they are of peasant status, nonetheless.

How they were built
The absence of the roof decoration and timber ornamentation seen in so many higher-status houses, their small floor area (881 sq ft on average), and the modest upper chambers, with low eaves and little headroom, all support this basic premise, as does the efficient use of fast-grown and immature timber that makes cruck construction such an economical form of house building. Only the eight cruck blades are constructed from tall, mature trees of at least 24 inches in diameter.

Early crucks used an entire tree of the right size and shape for each blade, trimming off all but one of the main branches, and using the surplus timber for making windbraces and arch braces, the components of the frame that make it rigid and stop the house falling over. This was soon superseded by the more economical alternative of sawing such a tree in two, creating a symmetrical pair of blades that together form an arch. A further 19 tall, straight, medium-sized trees are needed for the tie beams, wall plates, purlins, and ridges, and a further 60 trees of about 4 to 6 inches in diameter are needed for studs, rafters and internal walls, screens, and floorboards.

In all, 111 trees were consumed to build one of the houses studied at Mapledurham: 75 of which came from immature trees of 6in diameter or less, grown in woodland that produced tall, straight trees, 30 of which came from medium-sized woodland trees, and six of which came from large branching trees. By comparison, 332 trees went into the building of a similarly sized box-framed house constructed in Suffolk in 1500. And if 111 trees sounds a large number, Oliver Rackham, the expert on ancient woodland use, estimates that the Mapledurham house would have used the growth of 1.25 acres of woodland, and the oldest trees would have been about 50 years in age, the smallest about 10.


Timber sources
Arguably, that is a modest amount of woodland resource, though Rackham also points out that some box frames were even more efficient: a smaller number of very large trees sawn into multiple components could reduce the number of trees required to less than 40, though such large and potentially valuable timber was no doubt much harder to acquire than gleanings from local coppiced woodland. In fact, the scarcity of timber could add substantially to the cost. In his book Everyday Life in Medieval England, Christopher Dyer says that some peasants enjoyed the rights of ‘housbote’, entitling them to take some building timber from the lord’s wood, but the right was supervised by the lord’s officials, and the quantities of timber taken were rarely enough to build a complete house.

It therefore seems likely that peasants had to obtain timber on the open market. Some Midland towns, such as Lutterworth, Stratford-upon- Avon, and Woodstock, served as outlets for timber originating in the Forest of Arden, and guild records from these towns show that small oak trees cost 3d each in AD 1500, while ‘great oaks’ cost 8d each the timber for one cruck-built house therefore cost around 10s 0d, though the cost of labour for felling, preparation, and cartage probably doubled the price. The actual costs of finished buildings, where these are known from documentary sources, range from £2 to £11, with £4 as the median figure.

Peasants could make their own contribution to the building work, by digging foundations, and using their own cart, if they possessed one, to transport the materials, but records of the period show that even such relatively unskilled jobs as mixing daub were undertaken by specialists. It is perhaps not surprising, then, to learn from poll-tax lists of 1379 and 1381 that there were large numbers of carpenters in England: some 8,000 just in the five main counties in this study. Again, ordinary rural-dwellers – peasants – must have been among their clients, because middle- and upper-class customers alone could not have provided work for so many house-builders.

Prosperity amid crisis
What is especially surprising about these findings is that the main phase of new building in this sample of Midland buildings peaked during a period of severe economic recession, the evidence for which is visible to archaeologists in the form of abandoned or shrunken Medieval settlements all over the country. Until now we have thought of the period from 1380 to 1510 as one of crisis. Estimates of the size of the Medieval rural population in England put the number at 500,000 in 1100, rising to one million in 1300, falling back to half a million by 1400, and then remaining static until the 1540s.

As populations fell back, half of the housing stock was made redundant: half a million houses were abandoned and fell into ruin between the 1350s and 1500. In manorial records we find that peasants are fined in increasing numbers for not keeping their houses in a good state of repair, or for demolishing buildings and taking the timber for use as firewood. There is also a marked increase over this period of properties that were once described as cottages or messuages – essentially a dwelling together with its outbuildings and land – being called tofts (meaning the grown-over site of a burnt or decayed house).

The fact that houses of some stature and no little cost were being built at a time of recession, climate change, economic uncertainty, population decline, and the abandonment of settlements seems contradictory. It shows how difficult it is to characterise any one period in history as if everyone’s experience of living at the time was identical. Manorial records, such as those from Haselor in Warwickshire, reflect these contradictory tendencies. Over a period of 150 years, the manorial accounts tell a story of falling crop yields, reductions in the amount of land under arable cultivation, diminishing rental income, difficulty in collecting rents, tenants in arrears for large amounts (in 1464, the amount owed by tenants was £70 17s 10¾d, equivalent to more than one year’s total revenue). Fines were frequently imposed on defaulters, and persistent non-payers were eventually forced to surrender their holdings.

Incentives to build
But new tenants were not easy to find: it was not in the landlords’ interest to let land and buildings decay, so increasingly they offered incentives to attract or retain the right sort of tenant. This is one reason why some peasants could afford the costs involved in constructing a new three-bay house at this time, or to repair an existing structure, or to add barns and other buildings. One common incentive was to share the cost, by giving tenants free materials, such as timber and straw, leaving the peasant to pay for the construction work. Landlords also agreed to rent-free periods of a year or two, or they cancelled rental arrears if their tenants invested in better buildings (and records show that a number of peasants were fined for taking advantage of this and then not erecting the promised new building within the specified time).

This still begs the question of how the peasant could afford the specialist services of building craftsmen, but Professor Dyer points out that there was also an active credit market in many Medieval towns and villages: peasants could borrow money in the expectation that their investment in, say, a better plough would pay for itself in increased crop yields. The same argument applies to investment in buildings: livestock and grain kept indoors in good condition would fetch a better price. The better the buildings, the more able peasants were to pursue additional profitable activities, such as brewing and baking, or making butter and cheese to sell in local markets, or (as seems to be the case in the Midlands) to join the growing number of peasants who engaged in domestic textile production.

Opposite forces
Decay and growth clearly co-existed in Medieval society. According to Christopher Dyer, ‘for every symptom of decline, some related and opposite trend can be identified.’ Villages decayed and were deserted and rents declined, but that made land cheap for entrepreneurial peasants able to expand their holdings. Abandoned arable fields were increasingly used for grazing animals whose meat, wool, hides, or horn and bone gave higher returns than grain, not least because of a growing demand from town-dwellers for more meat in their diets.

For the survivors of the later Middle Ages ‘the wealthier peasants with relatively benign landlords, low costs, and good health’ this was a period of opportunity amid general decline, and our past focus as archaeologists and historians on settlement shrinkage and decay has served to hide a more complex story in which renewal, entrepreneurship, investment, and craftsmanship serve as a powerful counterpart to the Baldrick view of the Middle Ages.

Some of the cruck houses built at the time proved to be a better investment than their original builders could ever have dreamed: still standing 500 years later, many have since been extended and are now very des res. The so-called ‘cruck villages’ of Long Crendon (Buckinghamshire), East Hendred, Harwell, and Steventon (Oxfordshire), Rothley (Leicestershire), and Stoneleigh (Warwickshire) owe their picturesque qualities to such houses, which now sell for well in excess of three times the average national house price: not bad for a Medieval peasant’s hovel.

This article was featured in issue 279 of Current Archaeology magazine.

Interested in keeping up to date with the latest archaeological finds across Britain? Subscribe to Current Archaeology — the UK’s favourite archaeology magazine — and like thousands of other people you too can get details of all the latest digs and discoveries delivered to your door, every month. Find out more here.

Watch the video: Μικρασιατική Καταστροφή (July 2022).


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