Preface. Winston recreates what life was like from the 5th to the 15th centuries — from the fall of the Roman Empire to the beginning of the Renaissance.
Energyskeptic.com shows why hydrogen, wind, solar, geothermal, nuclear, fusion, and other alternatives to fossil fuels can’t replace them. So it is worth knowing how people lived before fossils if we’re doomed to go back to Wood World after peak oil, where biomass was the main source of heat and infrastructure.
If only peak oil, rather than climate change, had been understood as the main problem facing us, we could have prepared for the future much better. We could have had civil engineers figuring out how to insulate homes better, build roads to last as long as the Roman ones still around today, and other infrastructure for future generations. Organic farming would start in earnest, horses be bred to replace tractors, materials scientists would find ways to preserve knowledge that lasted longer than paper. Stone fences built since barbed wire will rust away. Social structures like guilds, who enforced high standards lest all of them not be trusted put in place. Tens of thousands of small granaries to keep pests from devouring crops post-harvest.
I’m sure as you read this you can think of ways to prepare now for the future, and most of all, a social system that doesn’t make most of us poor peasants.
Alice Friedemann www.energyskeptic.com author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer, Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report
Richard Winston. 2016. Life in the Middle Ages. New Word City.
A beautiful world – we are painfully conscious of our distance from it and of the hopelessness of wishing it back. Nor are we so sure we would like those preindustrial patterns. We would hardly want to be plunged into the insecurities of medieval life. In a scarcity economy, famine was inescapable. In the absence of scientific knowledge, there was no defense against disease. Although medieval wars were minor operations by our standards – the armies small, the weapons simple – the battlegrounds were entire countries and the devastation was cruel enough, in terms of human suffering. We cannot help shuddering at the harshness of the legal system. We shudder also at the guilt and terror instilled in the medieval psyche in the name of religion. No, we cannot fall into the illusions of the 19th-century romantics who thought they could take the good of an agrarian world and leave out the bad. We have some idea of how all these things hang together.
The peasant lived in a low house of not more than two or three rooms. The main room was used for cooking, eating, and household industries. The family slept in the next room. If there was an overflow of children, a third room would be built on. That was easily done, for the building was generally made of wattle and daub, built with a double palisade of sticks around a frame of stout timber. The space between the sticks was filled with straw and rubble; the outside was plastered with clay. Rafters were made with heavier branches, then covered with thatch. There were few window openings, and these were small. Window glass was a luxury beyond the peasant’s means; the windows were closed against the cold by wooden shutters. There was a hearth at one end of the main room for cooking and heating, but a chimney presented a complicated construction problem and might be absent from the average peasant dwelling. The smoke would simply accumulate up near the eaves and find its way out through the thatch. The peasant built with what he could procure from the forest, river bank, and stubble field. He used a minimum of worked lumber and hired no carpenters.
The inside of the peasant’s house was not as cheerless as it is sometimes represented. There were pieces of household furniture: a bed for the parents, perhaps with a carved wood headboard, a cradle for the youngest, and a bed in another room for the rest of the children. Peasants slept on straw, but they could supply themselves with goose-down bolsters or woolen coverlets. They had tables, stools, benches – homemade pieces, stout and utilitarian, the wood polished from hard use. There were a number of chests and cupboards for storing clothes and foodstuffs.
A few shelves mounted on the wall held the family dishware. It is often assumed that the peasant family did without plates. This is not true. Earthenware dishes of the common, unglazed type were locally produced, and any peasant could afford them, as well as bowls and jugs. He also had wooden platters, bowls, and drinking cups. Horn spoons and wooden ladles were in use. Though metal was scarce and expensive, each family owned a few iron pots, as well as an iron trivet and a spit for roasting meats.
Loosely grouped around this dwelling were the outbuildings. These were built of the same materials as the house, except for a small granary made of stone to keep out rats and mice.
There was space enough around each house for a patch of vegetables, a few vines, fruit trees, a hay rick. Paths and lanes led to the village center, to a water source, and to the small stone church flanked by its cemetery. Larger roads led to the fields.
The peasant lived close to his neighbors; hamlets and villages rather than farmhouses were the rule. These had been shaped by the earlier form of feudal society, where the serfs lived clustered around the manor house for protection.
Historians have surmised that the feudal manor was born, in the dark reaches of the past, from the union of two distinct institutions, the Roman estate and the Celtic-Germanic village. The Roman system was based on slavery. Its agricultural techniques were highly advanced, and it produced considerable surpluses intended for sale elsewhere. It presupposed a complex urban society. The Celtic-Germanic village was a far more primitive unit. There, a rude agriculture was combined with hunting and animal husbandry. The tribe was an association of equals under a (perhaps elected) chieftain, bent on the humble but not so easily attained goal of self-sufficiency. It also functioned as a military unit, defending its territories against incursions of other bands. Elements of both institutions can be seen in the early medieval manor. In the course of a millennium, slavery had disappeared, to be replaced by serfdom. Like the slave, the serf did not own the land he tilled. Possession of the land was vested in the lord or in some arm of the Church. The serf, however, owned himself – he was no longer a chattel to be bought and sold.
However, he was obligated to his lord for a great deal, and this indebtedness conditioned his entire existence. In a sense, the lord was his “state” from whom fundamental blessings flowed: the right to share in the land, on which the serf’s physical continuance depended; a place in a stable community, so important for his social continuance.
During many turbulent centuries in which these relationships were forged, the lord was often the only visible organizing power. The prerogatives that fell to him were not due to sheer brutal usurpation, but resulted from consent and sometimes even a clear agreement between ruler and ruled. The lord kept his part of the bargain in various ways. He was supposed to maintain some military force to deter and repel attacks. He provided a fortified area where the serfs and their animals could take refuge in times of danger. He built a communal cellar for storing wine. He kept the breeding stock that serviced the village animals. He took over the management of roads, bridges, and ferries. He acted as a judge, settling quarrels and enforcing morality. In times of want, he gave succor to his people from his own surplus.
In return, the serfs of a manor maintained the lord on a scale befitting his rank. They worked on the lord’s private fields, which were, in any case, the most productive. Tending these took priority over their own planting and harvesting. They cut the firewood he needed to heat the castle or manor house where he lived with his retinue of hangers-on and attendants. They themselves acted as such personal attendants or sent their children to serve in the lord’s kitchens and stables. They might also be assigned tasks in the lord’s workshops, for the manor was a largely self-sufficient unit, like the serf’s own household.
In addition to these obligatory labors, which claimed half his time and strength, the serf had to deliver some of his own produce to the lord’s storehouse. There were various fees to pay – for the right to marry outside the manor, for instance. A death tax was collected, usually in the form of a sheep or a cow, before a serf’s heir could step into his father’s tenure. In addition, in theory, the lord could call on his people for all kinds of special donations. These were known as aids and came up when the lord needed special revenues – for his daughter’s marriage, for his son’s knighting, for a military expedition or an improvement to his property. The aids were in a sense half-voluntary; on the other hand, the lord could ask for them as he pleased. Such ambiguities were typical of these medieval arrangements.
When they acted as a group, serfs had considerable bargaining power.
The lords holdings were to a great extent parceled out among the peasants, although peasants rarely worked a large, solid block of property. Because of the fortuitous ways in which peasant holdings accumulated, the individual peasant was apt to farm bits and pieces all over the estate or the village. A strip here or a strip there would be inherited from father or mother, acquired as dowry, bought in a good year, or – privately, without too much concern for legality – hewed out of the forest or the wasteland. Once such a piece had been plowed and harvested for a number of years, the peasant’s right to it was beyond dispute.
There were advantages to this seemingly chaotic fragmentation of the land. It afforded a fair distribution of good soil and bad soil among the peasants of a community. Then, too, the variegated nature of the crops grown on different strips in a field provided a primitive form of control of pests and diseases.
Another time-honored practice was the rotation of crops. In some parts of the country, particularly the south, where fields were stony and rainfall sparse, half the land would be left to idle every year, reverting to wild plants that came in on unused cropland. In the north and east, with deeper topsoil and a wetter climate, the three-year cycle was normal. A field was planted to wheat or rye in the fall. The seed sprouted in the abundant autumn rains, wintered under the snow, and made good growth again in the spring. By July, it was ready for cutting. The field then rested until the following spring, when another crop – oats, barley, or peas – was planted. This was harvested in its season, and the field then lay entirely fallow for a year, until it was plowed for winter wheat again. With land so important, this deliberate restriction on its use seems curious. In fact, it was an ingenious way of making the most of the available land while maintaining its fertility. There were no artificial fertilizers to replenish what had been taken from the soil – only the manure from the livestock, and there was never enough of that for all the peasant’s purposes. The virtue of compost was certainly understood, and along the coast, seaweed was collected and spread on the fields. Of course, no cabbage leaves or turnip tops went to waste about a peasant’s household; everything that was not eaten by people was thrown to the pigs or poultry. But labor was a major factor in the medieval agricultural equation. The peasant instinctively sought ways to make nature work for him with a minimum of assistance. Rotation of crops was a great ecological principle, and it continued to be practiced until the beginning of scientific agriculture.
A portion of the village lands was set aside as a hay meadow. This was apt to be a wet, low-lying area, perhaps a former marsh that had been ditched and drained. Sometimes, it was hayed collectively. With 10 to 35 households participating, the sharing-out of the hay was bound to be complicated, but the peasant took cooperative arrangements for granted. If he wanted to augment his hay supply on his own, he might know of some patch of grass up on a steep hillside or at the edge of the woods and send a half-grown son out with a scythe after it. But such patches were rare. For the village livestock was out for much of the year, roving over all the rough and marginal land, and little that was edible would escape the meticulously cropping sheep, the venturesome goats, or the indiscriminate donkeys.
For the winter, however, the animals needed hay, and the meadow was the only significant source of it. The natural perennial grasses, those that took hold when the meadow was first reclaimed from the waste, were the only ones known. The meadow was never turned over and reseeded, as is done today. Again, there were no artificial fertilizers to enrich the sod. But from time immemorial, agrarian man had observed the affinity of grass for limestone. The application of ground chalk, where it was available, was one of the ritual tasks of the medieval peasant. The chalk pits might well be a great distance away. The peasant would hack the chalk out of an iron bar, shovel it into his ox cart, transport it over rough trails to the field, pound it into fragments, and spread it around with his scoop-like wooden shovel. Where chalk could not be had, the peasant used marl, a natural mixture of sand, clay, and lime found along river banks.
The yields, by modern standards, were pitiful. In the case of the grains, a three-fold to six-fold increase over the seed was the best that could be expected. The labor and skill involved in securing such yields were staggering. Furthermore, when we consider that upon these yields depended the survival not only of the peasant but also of the whole social pyramid of which he formed the base, we realize on what slender margins civilizations can be built.
In those great checkered fields, no space was wasted on fences or other signs of ownership. A few stakes or stones sufficed to mark off boundaries. The peasant knew to a furrow where his land began and ended. Measurements, when required, were by paces – rehearsed each time the section was sowed – or by the planting time: a morning’s plough or a three-day ploughing.
Attempts were made to consolidate the small holdings, for the subdividing of land sometimes reached ridiculous extremes. The same piece, as it passed along through succeeding generations, might be apportioned to sons by halves, quarters, eighths, and even thirty-seconds. There are records of peasants plowing as many as fifty strips, some no longer in their own village. Nevertheless, it was not easy to change the system. Familiarity with one’s bit of land bred affection and possessiveness. The peasant knew the contours of his plots and the composition of his soils, what could be done with various strips when the weather was favorable, how well this parcel or that stood up to drought. Knowledge of this kind afforded security. He naturally hesitated to trade off a good piece for another perhaps not so good but more conveniently located. Private bargains could be reached, for the peasant had plenty of experience in trading. But wholesale redistribution was centuries away.
A considerable variety of crops was grown on the peasant holdings. Foremost, of course, was grain. Cereals were central to the peasant’s diet and also provided the surplus with which he paid his debts. Moreover, of all food products, they were the least perishable and the most suitable for storage and shipping. Only the best land would do for wheat, the queen of the grains. Rye was grown on rougher land and in harsher climates – the peasant called it black wheat, and his own bread was generally made from it. Oats and barley were commonly grown, as well as millet, as much a staple then as the potato was later to become. There were also feed crops, such as sorghum and vetch, which sustained the peasant’s animals through the winter.
Fruits of all sorts were grown for home consumption and for market: apples, pears, cherries, peaches, and plums throughout France; in the south, figs, almonds, and olives.
The noblest fruit of all was the grape, and the growing of wine grapes was honored above all other forms of cultivation. Special land was set aside for the vines, for the grape has rather peculiar requirements as to soil chemistry, sun, and drainage. Nevertheless, vineyards were planted even in northern, moist, and cool climates like that of Normandy, since wine was considered a necessity of life for everyone, and agriculture aimed first of all at providing for the local market. The best wine districts, then as now, were the fertile, sunny slopes of Burgundy and the marshes and gravelly regions of the Bordelais. From here came the wines that were shipped abroad – then as now – and formed a principal article of commerce.
Perhaps because of the central importance of the grape, perhaps because it lent itself better than other crops to outside control, the lord levied a tax on the grapes grown on his land, thus prefiguring our present-day excise taxes on alcoholic beverages. Many large vineyards had been planted on the outskirts of towns, where the wine would be conveniently close to its eventual buyers. In such cases, the municipal authorities claimed the tax. To prevent evasion, the harvest could not begin until an official day had been set for it. This announcement was cried abroad – there was no sense posting a notice, since the peasant could not read.
Access to a mill should have seemed a blessing to the peasants. But there is no record of their warmly welcoming the new installation, and they used it only under compulsion. The miller is consistently represented as a swindler and thief. Instead, the peasant clung obstinately to the toilsome hand mill that had been part of the equipment of every household from earliest times. The amount of equipment he owned was, in fact, formidable.
The peasant needed a wheelbarrow. He needed a cart, in fact, several carts for different purposes. If he owned a horse, still other types of tack – bits, bridles, one of those newfangled horse collars that so increased the work a horse could do. But horses were as yet a luxury beyond the reach of most peasants – they required too much hay and fell sick all too easily. For the most part, the peasant managed with a team of oxen for the heavy work and a donkey for the light loads like firewood or going to the market. There was the plow, of course. By now, the progressive peasant also owned a harrow whose heavy wooden frame studded with iron prongs did a much better job at breaking up the clods than what he had earlier used – perhaps only a thorn tree weighted with stones that would be dragged over the field. He needed scythes and sickles – the former for cutting hay, the latter for grain. A flail for threshing the grain and a winnowing fan for blowing off the chaff. Any number of receptacles: baskets, sacks, buckets, and tubs; sieves for flour and clabber; cheese presses and feed troughs. Hoes and shovels, hay rakes, pitchforks, axes, mattocks. Knives of various sorts – for pruning vines, grafting fruit trees, shearing sheep, butchering pigs, castrating bullocks, and doing miscellaneous whittling. Whetstones to keep blades sharp.
Sheep belonged in the self-sufficient peasant economy; their wool provided for the family’s clothing. The wool was spun and woven at home – in any moment not claimed by other work, the peasant woman would be plying her distaff. Any surplus of wool could be sold, for the French clothing industry was growing. Excess lambs and aging ewes provided meat; the hides could be sold to be processed into vellum or parchment. But the most practical meat animal of all was the pig, whose medieval aspect was somewhat different from the present-day swine’s. A lean animal with long tusks and a ferocious temper, it could be expected to fend for itself much of the year. In the autumn, bands of such pigs ranged the woods, fattening on the wild nuts – chestnuts, walnuts, acorns, and especially beechnuts.
The sheep, too, would be allowed to wander, though under the care of a shepherd to protect them from the wolves, who, despite a long war of extermination, were common enough in the countryside. The cows were led to and from their grazing grounds by the village children. Once the hay was taken, the cows were allowed into the meadow. They grazed in the fallows and in the stubble of the cut-over grain fields. Wherever they went, they left behind their dung, a valuable contribution to next year’s fertility. In the south, animals were even allowed to browse on the grapevines after the vintage, for the grape grew so luxuriantly down there that it could stand such trimming. Elsewhere, any patch of vines would be tightly fenced. But steep banks, river edges, the rough land it did not pay to plow – in all these, the animals had free range.
The necessity of letting livestock wander in a herd for much of the year inevitably gave a communal cast to peasant life. That the children of each family took turns tending the animals also affected the emotional tenor of the village. A man would not openly quarrel with a neighbor whose child would be supervising the cows or goats in a week or two. The mutual suspicion and sharp feuds that characterize country life in other places and periods seem to have been absent from the French medieval village. People were not above filching a bit from each other – the many regulations forbidding peasants to go alone to the fields at harvest time between the hours of sunset and sunrise testify to that. But pasturage was shared, and while one peasant might have more land than others, a relative equality prevailed in the possession of livestock.
The forest, too, was considered common property. Woods still abounded – vestiges of the primeval forests described by Julius Caesar. The woods were not uninhabited: There was a whole race of folk who built their huts in the depths of the forest and were, therefore, looked upon with suspicion by the peasants, whose domain was the open land. There were charcoal burners, iron smelters, bee men who spied out the haunts of wild bees and collected the honey and wax. There were gatherers of bark, an ingredient vital to the tanning trade. There were also professional hunters and trappers, for hunting was far from a casual sport. Besides providing meat, it furnished leather, a highly saleable commodity wanted for a multitude of products: shoes, saddles, harnesses, the protective jerkin worn by soldiers, binding for books.
The peasant still thought of the woods as his own and held firm to his rights over them. He went there regularly for firewood, the only heating material there was. As other needs arose, his first thought was to go to the woods to see what he could find – pine knots for torches, branches for building material, lighter brush for weaving into wattle fences, stakes for vine supports, a chunky piece of wood to be carved into sabots, or a curved piece that would make a good plow handle. He also carted away moss and dried leaves for use as litter in his cow shed. He filled the basket with beechnuts for his pig. The children were sent to collect chestnuts, a delicacy when boiled with milk and honey and a hearty food when converted into soup or roasted in the embers. When the wild berries ripened or the mushrooms pushed through the forest floor, the children were once more sent out with their baskets. Wild fruit trees were noted and visited yearly. Some might be dug up to be transported into the home orchard, to be grafted with improved stock. Now and then, a trap was set for rabbits and pheasants.
With all this bounty of nature, the peasant’s diet was not monotonous. The remarks sometimes made about the scurvy medieval peasants fell prey to are nonsense. They were by no means restricted to cereal foods and meat. Each household had its own vegetable garden close to the dwelling, fenced to keep out the livestock, watered faithfully, and apt to receive a lion’s share of the precious manure. The medieval vegetables were onions, garlic, leeks, parsnips, spinach, peas, beans, lettuce, fennel, beets, pumpkin, and various member of the cabbage family. Pungent herbs were also grown – parsley, savory, marjoram, and sage. With all this to draw on, the peasant family met the minimum daily vitamin requirements a good deal better than some people today.
A difficult time was the depth of the winter, but even then, the wine, taken with every meal, furnished a standby portion of vitamin C. There was, in addition, traditional knowledge of wild plants, the so-called potherbs, which appeared in the early spring and filled the gap before the garden vegetables were ready.
Medieval agriculture, despite its low yields, supplied a good diet. The problem lay not with what food the peasant could raise, but with what proportion he could retain. Oppressive rents cut directly into his living standard. When enforced payments increased, generally because of some levy connected with war, he had less grain to tide him over the winter and sold off more of his animals. The enormous ransoms exacted by the English for the French nobles taken in battle were felt almost at once by the peasantry.
Warfare & brigands
Far crueler than the worst of taxes was the effect of war itself on the peasant population. For a century, on and off, the countryside was a battlefield, not only for English and French forces but for the opposing factions of the French.
The standard method of warfare was the raid. This consisted in army’s marching up and down a district, destroying everything in its path. In intervals of truce, the mercenary soldiers of the various armies, unpaid and forced to live off the countryside, again stripped the peasant of whatever he had.
In addition, large-scale brigandage developed as the ruined small nobility and desperate peasants preyed on those who were still a step away from destitution.
At times areas were absolutely deserted, uncultivated, abandoned, emptied of all people, covered with briers and brush or growing back into thickets of trees.
The only lands that could be cultivated were those fields within the walled enclosure of a town or a chateau, or on the immediate fringe of these, near enough so that a watchman on a tower could see the approach of brigands. He could then sound his horn and warn the people working in the fields or among the vines to take refuge within the fortifications.
It became a common matter everywhere for the oxen and workhorses, as soon as they were untied from the plow, on hearing the signal of the watchman, to instantly, by themselves, from long habit, rush terrified for the refuge where they would be safe. Sheep and pigs also learned to do this. But since the towns and fortified places were rare in relation to the size of the provinces, and many had been burned or demolished or pillaged by the enemy, these bits of land cultivated as it were in secret, close to the fortifications, seemed very small or even almost nothing compared to the vast stretches which remained completely deserted, with no one who might work on them.
Jeanne d’Arc, one of the few peasants we know much about
We possess no biography of a peasant, either in peace or in war. There is one striking exception, and that is of a life exceptional in many ways. The peasant in question was a girl who, moreover, lived only to the age of nineteen. Her name was Jeanne d’Arc. Until she set out in her patched red dress to see the king, Jeanne passed her time largely in the small village of Domrémy on the Meuse. Her family were peasants, though somewhat high in the social hierarchy of the village – her father represented his neighbors in dealings with the chateau and was in charge of collecting the taxes.
Jeanne grew up without learning how to read or write. That was perfectly normal for her class. From the start to finish of her short career, Jeanne showed extreme self-possession. She spoke to older people, nobles, bishops, the king himself without embarrassment. She did not feel awkward in polished society or in places altogether different from her native village. She learned, in one lesson, how to hold a lance and to play at jousting – that sport reserved for kings. She quickly became knowledgeable about military tactics. She made friends easily with rough captains and delicate duchesses, and later, in the hands of high churchmen, she was not especially awed by them. Allowing for a sense of divine calling, there still remains a degree of natural poise that does not at all conform with the stereotype of the peasant as a lout. The many peasants whose depositions were taken for the rehabilitation proceedings of Jeanne, twenty years after her execution, also speak sensibly and to the point. We have to conclude that peasants, as a whole, were well-organized, integrated people, neither servile nor stupid.
Jeanne showed a surprising amount of knowledge of public affairs. She knew what the issues were and who the personalities were in the long and complicated hostilities. She understood the priorities of the situation – the importance, for example, of having the dauphin crowned at Reims, where he could be properly anointed with oil from a sacred ampule that had been brought by a white dove for the baptism of Clovis, back in the fifth century. All this without reading or writing, without newspapers or printed books. It is clear that all along, the peasantry had a good overview of the general situation. There was enough traffic and travel for news to get around. The town was not so isolated from the country, nor the court from the common people, for politics to remain an affair of the rulers only. The peasants reported, recollected, pieced together, and discussed. Patriotism in the modern sense may have existed, but there was no doubt in Jeanne’s mind that the English were to blame for the woes of France and that they must be driven back to their own country.
The walls girdling some medieval French towns were a thousand years old. The oldest went back to the third century, when, as beleaguered outposts, towns threw up ramparts to hold off the first barbarian invaders. Waves of Franks, Goths, Huns, and Avars followed at intervals. Some conquered, some were repelled, some passed on to settle elsewhere. In periods of ostensible security, the neglected walls, collapsing in sections and overgrown with briers and creepers, seemed only an obstruction and were often used as quarries. Then they had to be repaired hastily and rebuilt to stave off the raids of the Northmen. Time and again over the long span of history, walls had saved the towns.
Most towns were already old by the 14th century. The larger places – Paris, Orléans, Rouen, Lyons, Toulouse, Metz – had all been urban centers in Roman days, linked to one another by those remarkable paved roads, with footings three feet deep.
Stone castles made their appearance at this time, replacing earlier wooden structures. Towns expanded and rebuilt their walls. Much had been learned about the art of fortification from the Saracens, whose walled cities had successfully resisted the Crusaders. In fact, the new walls built around French towns were well-nigh impregnable. They were very thick, with an inside and outside course of stone and rubble between them. Topping the walls were battlements – tall stone curbs behind which bowmen could crouch to shoot their arrows through narrow apertures.
At intervals, the walls were supplemented by towers. Bounding up the staircases inside these towers, the defenders could quickly and safely reach the top of the walls and be ready to grapple with an attacking party. Stones were hurled, and boiled water poured down as the attackers struggled up their ladders. The entrances into the towns were shielded by gates and heavy metal grilles called portcullises. There was also a drawbridge raised and lowered by pulleys. Walls were further protected by a wide, deep moat. This could be filled with water brought from a nearby stream via canal or be left dry and allowed to grow up to rough briers. Perpetual watch was kept from the high towers flanking the principal gate, and the town was locked up every night even in peaceful times.
There was another type of town that was deliberately created at this period. This was the so-called New Town. It arose in connection with the new lands recently thrown open for settlement. No peasant wanted to live so far from a population center that he could not bring his produce into town and return to his home village within the same day. Since he went on foot or on a leisurely mule, this meant a distance of no more than ten miles. Moreover, it had become evident that a town added to the prosperity of a region. Since the lord owned the land on which the town would be located, he could collect good rents from building lots. He could also collect small fees from future commerce – so much for every wagon entering the gate, so much for the use of every market booth. A town, in short, was a source of continuing revenue.
Residents of the new towns were tempted by favorable concessions. They were offered charters spelling out their future rights. The terms were highly appealing, and large numbers of newly chartered towns were founded and peopled during the 13th century.
They gradually extended their control within the walls until they were governing themselves. The walled town became a self-sufficient unit owing nothing to an overlord except certain payments. A discontented countryman could come to the walled town, and after a year and a day, be relieved of his old obligations.
The new towns were less obsessed with security than the older ones that had suffered so many assaults in the course of their long history. For practical reasons, a ville neuve was generally established on a flat along a river. The river provided power for mills. Waterpower was being applied to a number of industrial processes besides the grinding of grain. There were mills for pounding hemp, tanning leather, and fulling cloth, and a water wheel could also power a saw. This gave tremendous impetus to lumbering.
There was plenty of light and air. Houses were rarely above two stories and had courtyards and gardens for such utilitarian purposes as stacking firewood, airing clothes, and locating privies. Disposing of wastes was a simple matter; an arrangement was made with a landowning neighbor who would cart the ordures out to his fields. The town provided communal laundering facilities – a group of stone tubs along the river bank. Many houses had their own wells, and water was piped into fountains.
Street cleaning was always a problem. Of course, the medieval city was not afflicted with the litter we have in such quantity. But there was stone dust, builder’s lime, the mud deposited by the periodic flooding of the river, fallen leaves, and loose soil blown in from the countryside. In addition, the medieval city was full of animals. Horses and mules were much about. But cows, too, were often kept within the city limits, even in Paris.
These cows provided fresh milk for city dwellers in an age without refrigeration. The animals destined for the slaughterhouses were allowed to pasture on the rough land adjoining the city walls. In earlier times, any Paris citizen could keep a pig. But after 1131, when the king’s son had a fatal accident because of a pig – his horse shied at one of these huge creatures and threw his noble rider – pigs were banned from the city. As in smaller towns, they performed a useful function in cleaning up vegetable debris.
Throughout the south, where the Roman heritage was strongest, buildings were usually made of local stone, roughly quarried and rather soft and porous. Hence, the stone was usually covered with stucco to keep out cold and damp.
The ordinary town house was what we now call half-timbered. It was a rather better-crafted version of the village house of wattle and daub. The visible beams were laid in attractive patterns and were generally accented with paint, either red or black. Windows were usually set in pairs and hung on iron hinges. The rooms have wood-coffered ceilings, wainscoted walls, and floors of polished, bright-colored tile. The furniture is sparse, but adequate. There are tables, large and small chairs, settees, chests, and cupboards. All such pieces are well formed and have a touch of Gothic carving. The beds have wooden headboards and are equipped with canopies and woolen hangings, dyed deep red or blue. When these hangings were drawn, the sleepers enjoyed warmth and privacy. Babies were kept in cradles set on rockers. There are ample fireplaces, which indicate that at least part of the house was adequately heated. Kitchen hearths seem well supplied with hooks, spits, and trivets.
A small town was closely linked to the surrounding countryside. It produced largely for the local market. Neighboring peasants were required by law to sell to the nearest town – a measure that assured the town its food supply and kept down speculation. There were other regulations of this sort. Thus, a ceiling was placed on the amount that any individual could buy, so that no one merchant could corner the market. On Saturdays, all the town’s artisans had to close their shops and exhibit their wares in the official marketplace – thus giving buyers a chance to compare what was being offered. Prices and standards of workmanship were fixed by the craftsmen themselves through their guilds.
The medieval guild was an association of craftsmen, merchants, or provisioners. Butchers, bakers, goldsmiths, tanners, carpenters, cloth merchants, and so on banded together and made rules governing their own trade. They were less interested in consumer protection than in preventing cutthroat competition, oversupply, and economic chaos. They also exercised considerable political power. Guildsmen stood high in the town’s social hierarchy. Guilds had their banners, their patron saints, their processions and feast
For the most part, a guildsman was not a large employer. He was permitted to have three or four apprentices, who came to him as children. A lad was sent off young to learn his trade – sometimes as early as seven. But then, the medieval equivalent of education normally took the form of sending a child to live in another household. The avowed purpose of education was “to learn to serve.” Even the nobility put its children through this process. A peasant family with several sons had to think of the boys’ futures – there was not enough land to go around. So one child would be sent to the nearest town where the family had some connections.
Before the child was sent away on that momentous journey, the parents came to an understanding with their child’s future master.
The master undertook to feed and lodge his apprentice and provide him with clothing and shoes. He might offer a small wage – a matter of a few pennies a year. Or the parents might pay something equally small by way of tuition. The master also promised to treat the child honorably. Sometimes he offered further assurance: Beatings would be administered only by the master, not by the master’s wife.
The child was at first largely a servant, helping with the household tasks. He was given a room, probably no more than a cubicle in the garret, and ate at the family table. Meanwhile, he took in the atmosphere of the trade through his pores – the sounds, smells, rhythms of what went on in the workshop located on the ground floor of the master’s house. Gradually, he was assigned simple duties. In an age without books or manuals, learning was by doing. Standards of workmanship were taken seriously – pride in craft was one of the ruling impulses of the age.
The training period varied from four to twelve years. In some trades, a journeyman period was required, during which the young artisan went from town to town hiring himself out to various masters and learning how things were done away from home.
At the end of all this, the lowly apprentice could graduate into a guildsman. There were still several conditions to fulfill. He had to produce a certificate from his master stating that he was “prudent and loyal.” He had to show that he had enough capital, either in tools or in money, to go into business. There was an oath to take to the guild and a fee to pay to the lord of the town. Lastly, he had to prove his competence by producing a chef-d’oeuvre. Each guild decided what this test piece was to be. A saddler had to fabricate one palfrey saddle and one mule saddle, while the stone carver had to produce a statuette three-and-a-half feet high. A cobbler was given a realistic problem: From a sack full of worn shoes, three pairs were drawn at random for the candidate to mend.
In view of these hurdles, not every apprentice could hope to become a master. The guilds soon began to practice exclusionary policies, reserving the trade for their kin. In many towns, it was possible to set up shop without belonging to the guild, but guild standards of workmanship, of weights and measures, prices, and working hours, tended to be accepted as norms everywhere. The public authorities also actively intervened in economic life, controlling prices and wages. This was especially true after the Black Death when economic patterns suffered violent dislocation.
Another institution grew up alongside the guild and was considerably more inclusive. This was the confrerie, or fellowship. It was not made up of people in the same line of work but cut across social and professional barriers. The fellowships were what we nowadays call benevolent associations. Each maintained a chapel to its patron saint and took pride in the splendor of the altar and other appointments. Here, the confreres gathered for weddings, baptisms, and funerals. The annual saint’s day was an important occasion, celebrated by a colorful procession, a Mass at the chapel, a meeting for the election of officers, and a frequently riotous banquet. Sports events and contests were organized. Some of the wealthier fellowships maintained hospitals for their members. All assured their members proper burial and a well-attended funeral Mass.
One function of the fellowship was the performance of plays on religious holidays and state occasions. These were mystery and miracle plays – dramatizations of the life of the patron saint or enactments of the Passion. The casts were enormous, for everyone wanted a part.
The border between work and private life was fluid. The workshop was not far from home, sometimes under the same roof. There, the artisan found, at least in youth, the satisfying companionship of labor. Wine was cheap. Sundays could be used for strolling outside the walls. Nor were Sundays the only free days, for the year was punctuated with a multitude of religious festivals. In fact, workers were known to protest against the great number of holidays, which kept down their earnings.
We have only the dimmest idea of what those earnings were. Pay varied greatly from trade to trade and region to region. Moreover, the changing value of the currency makes an estimate even harder.
The upper bourgeoisie of Reims had an average annual revenue of 1,500 livres (there were 240 deniers in a livre). Members of leading guilds – furriers, spice merchants (which also meant apothecaries), and drapers – enjoyed an income of 200 livres. Members of the building trades counted 60 livres a year. Even the humblest worker received at least 25 livres a year. We may take that sum, then, as the rock-bottom living wage.
Noble families commonly sent sons and daughters away to another castle to serve as pages or maids in waiting and acquire better manners and the sophistication learned only away from home.
Sharing his retirement was his wife, who was considerably younger than the count. The Spanish visitor, as the courtesy of the age required, found her the most beautiful woman in France. She was everything a great lady should be and ran her household superbly. Surrounding her was a bevy of well-born girls, ten of them, who had no duties but to keep the countess company.
The castle was set on the banks of a river, in the midst of orchards and gardens. Close by was a pond so well stocked with fish that it could provide for the daily needs of a household of 300. This figure, set down by the young Spaniard, was not exaggerated. Apart from the immediate family and the house guests, the place swarmed with a host of retainers, minstrels, trumpeters, grooms, kennel men, falconers, gardeners, valets, and maids, as well as menials to do the cooking and cleaning.
The grooms brought up the horses, each with a fine saddle and splendid trappings. The count kept 20 such mounts, as well as a pack of hunting dogs. Then, the party went riding into the country, stopping to gather greenery and fashion garlands for one another. Both ladies and gentlemen proposed songs and sang them in parts: lays, rondeaux, medieval French lyrics, laments, and ballads
The girls had trained their voices, had been singing since childhood, and could improvise polyphonically. Singing was part of cultivated life, and everyone loved music. The young Spaniard, hearing these songs for which France was famous, thought it the music of paradise.
Back at the castle, the party found the tables already set. The count, the countess, the Spanish captain, and the steward of the castle occupied a small table, while the rest of the party, each maid in waiting paired with a knight or squire, was seated at a large one. The main meal of the day began with its vast variety of artfully prepared dishes. The appropriate themes of dinner-table conversation were fighting and love, the appropriate tone was polished and courteous, and the ladies were as adept as the men at giving replies. Jongleurs also provided music between courses.
There was dancing, the countess taking the Spanish captain for partner and each of the girls her table mate. The dances were rondes and bourrées, fashionable at court, the partners holding each other by the hand and executing complicated figures, meeting and parting, bowing and circling. The dances went on for an hour. When they were done, the countess gave the “kiss of peace” to the Spanish captain, and every gentleman kissed his partner. Wine was served, along with candied and spiced fruits, and the guests retired to their own rooms.
For Spaniards, this was siesta time. The French may have bathed and changed their clothes. The girls would certainly have used this interval to chatter with one another. For behind la belle countenance that they maintained as the etiquette books prescribed, they were lively teenagers. They surely discussed the new arrivals, who was most handsome and most courteous, the particular nuances of the kisses after the dance, and the by-play between the countess and the Spanish captain. They were well acquainted with the story of Lancelot du Lac, the story of Tristan and Iseult, and other romances
They stopped at the mews to pick up the falcon on her wrist, which was protected by a heavy glove. She led the others a random course through the woods. Pages beat the underbrush, startling the game, and the countess released her falcon, which was well trained to wait – that is, to circle until the quarry was sprung. She showed great style in her handling of the bird.
Everyone was a connoisseur of hawking. All could take an interest in the history of each bird, whether it was an eyas, or nestling, taken from its aerie and raised artificially or a brancher that had been caught at a somewhat later stage. The fine points of rearing and training the predators could be discussed endlessly, as well as the design of the jesses and hoods or the birds’ temperaments. Each falcon’s flight, its battle with the quarry, its docility in returning with its prey, were appreciated like an artistic spectacle. Only incidental was the bag of plump songbirds that would do for tomorrow’s breakfast. After the falcons had been transferred to the care of pages, the party dismounted and walked through the lovely meadows. Servants unpacked baskets and brought out roasted chicken, pheasant, and fruit; everyone ate and drank and again; they wove green garlands and sang songs before returning to the castle. Since the weather was fine, the company had an early snack and again went out of doors and played bowls until it was dark. Then, in the hall lighted by torches, they listened to minstrels, danced, and had wine and fruit before bidding one another good night.
This was the courtly way of life as it had evolved over several centuries in France, envied and imitated elsewhere.
Had the count been in good health, his 50 dogs would have been brought from their kennels and a proper hunt organized for stag and boar. The delicate ladies would have participated, although the sport was brutal, with the dogs running the quarry to exhaustion, then closing in and tearing at it, and the animal fighting for survival until the men dispatched it with lances. The program for entertaining guests could also have included a joust. Invitations would be issued to neighboring castles; everyone would come with horses and armor; a crimson tent would be erected for the spectators and a jousting ground prepared. The watching girls would rate the performers, showing great expertise on the matter.
Walls for demarcation and privacy were so universal a feature of medieval architecture that they were taken for granted. But not every castle was strongly fortified or set in what was thought to be an impregnable position. As early as the mid-13th century, a traveler from Florence had noted with appreciation the unfortified manor houses of the Île de France. The presence of such residences, where the charm of living took precedence over the remembrance of danger, were the sign of a secure kingdom and an affluent owner.
The earlier condition of society, when every castle was by definition a stronghold and every noble lived in perpetual battle-readiness, prepared to repel and revenge incursions from his neighbors, was far in the past. Private warfare had been checked, first by the strengthened monarchy, then by the intervention of the Church. King Louis IX forbade his nobles to make war with each other and instead directed their bellicosity against the common enemy, the Saracens who held the Holy Places.
“Feudalism” was coined in the 17th century, when an attempt was made to codify the old property arrangements that had so far gone unformalized – the conditions of tenancy, taxation, and so forth. By the 18th century, “feudal” or “feudalism” had taken on still other connotations. The feudal order meant the bad old days, the tangle of antiquated, unjust, oppressive, irrational conditions against which an overwhelming wave or protest was gathering, to reach its climax in the French Revolution. The theoreticians of that Revolution, and the inflamed citizens who carried out its measures, were very clear in their minds that what they were sweeping away was feudalism. It was Church, Monarchy, and Nobility. It was Power Structure and Property Structure – for these are always intricately entwined.
Nowadays, many historians reserve the term feudalism for the specifically military arrangements that for a while accompanied the manorial system. In this narrower sense, feudalism flourished in the period between the 9th and 12th centuries. Like the manorial system, it was highly unsystematic, not an institution that was ever consciously created, but an improvisation that arose in response to external danger. The conscription of fighting men stopped short at the peasant, who was considered servile and had no great part in these nobler pursuits. In fact, everybody depended on him for subsistence.
In Carolingian times, this system was expanded. Many wars and a growing empire created a continuous demand for fighting men. There were also vast new lands to be distributed among vassals, and many who had not previously been enfeoffed were now integrated into the property-power-military system. The specific duties owed in respect of these fiefs became codified, and the whole institution began to reach up and down, in hierarchical fashion, through the society. In theory, every man now had his overlord to whom he owed fealty. The greatest lords of all owed fealty to the monarch. The marauding of the Northmen, which persisted for a century and a half, drove many more into this system of vassalage. The weak were forced to put themselves under the protection of the strong. A certain haphazardness disappeared. Social and economic obligations were more carefully defined. Ranks and dignities hardened, and the image of the lord ceased to be predominantly that of the landowner (although his wealth still depended as much as ever on possession of land and the auxiliary uses he could put it to) and became that of the warrior.
Back in the eighth century, Charles Martel had placed many of his men on horseback to combat the Muslims who were sweeping up from Spain. The waterborne Northmen had been notorious for commandeering horses and using them to stage lightning raids, far from rivers, on unsuspecting settlements. And, of course, horses were necessary in battle to transport supplies and carry off booty. But in the eleventh century, fighting on horseback became a practice. Horses were bred and trained for this purpose. Every count and baron came to war on the best charger in his stables, and even the lowliest vassal was supposed to show up for military duty on a horse. These warriors were now called chevaliers (“horsemen,” or “knights”). The cost of doing military service went up, and the role took on additional cachet. A whole new set of skills had to be learned and new equipment provided. Moreover, in accordance with medieval feeling – we are now in the twelfth century, when ritual and ceremony pervade all institutions – the role cried out to be solemnized.
By the fourteenth century, chivalry had become a highly stylized way of behavior of the ruling class. It was further characterized by a passion for pageantry and costumes. Every knight must have his colors, his badge, his coat of arms, and his motto.
The common soldiers who carried out most of the fighting were no longer anybody’s vassals. They were mercenaries from another country or another province, with no special sympathy for either side. They fought for their small wages and for booty. They inflicted maximum damage on the areas they were passing through, both because such ravaging was one of the techniques of warfare and because they were expected to provision themselves as they went. They set grain fields ablaze, put villages to the torch, drove off the peasants’ animals, and raped the women.
There was an intricate hierarchy that, together with the body of believers, constituted the Roman Catholic Church. It so completely permeated medieval life in all aspects that, in a sense, we may say that the Church and its destiny was the Middle Ages. The Church Militant, it called itself, in order to emphasize that it was engaged in perpetual struggle against the forces of evil.
The bureaucracy of the Church – the cardinals, archbishops, bishops, archdeacons, cardinal legates, and so on – rivaled kings and barons in wealth and often in conspicuous consumption. High churchmen and high-ranking men of the world came from the same families and had similar interests and lifestyles. Bishops rode to the hounds and rode to war, although on the battlefield, they inclined to carry a mace rather than a sword; canon law forbade the ecclesiastic to shed blood, and with a mace, a strong-armed bishop could crush an enemy’s skull sine sanguinis effusione, as the phrase was, “without spilling blood.
Archbishops quarreled with counts and kings over the ownership of land and sometimes settled such arguments by sending armed retainers. The authorities of the Church and the authorities of secular society stimulated the development of a vast body of jurisprudence called canon law. Codified in the 12th century, canon law was studied particularly by archdeacons, who became the legal advisers and business managers of bishops. The shrewdness and sharp practice of archdeacons ultimately became notorious.
Theologians and preachers made much of the “seamless garment of Christ.” The essential characteristic of the Church, they maintained, was its unity. But it is the nature of unity to give rise to diversity, and this happened repeatedly throughout the history of the Church. Heresies flourished and were crushed. Sometimes there were two popes, hurling anathemas at each other.
Throughout the Middle Ages, kings and high officials were chided for their inattention during Mass. After all, they heard it so often, and they were busy men. Some doodled impatiently, some held whispered conferences. Even ecclesiastics were not above hurrying the familiar ritual a little.
As an adult, depending on the degree of his piety, he might go daily, weekly, or only on the high feast days of the ecclesiastical year. But unless he was a heretic, a Jew, a Muslim, or a reprobate sunk in iniquity, he certainly attended Mass at least twice a year, at Easter and Christmas. And even heretics took the precaution of attending Mass once in a while, lest they be denounced to the Inquisition.
The medieval French (and the people of other nations as well) had little faith in the celibacy of the clergy. The reason seems to have been that the clergy had no very high opinion of celibacy. In theory, priests had forsworn the flesh since the 4th century; in practice, they resisted for the better part of a millennium all efforts to deprive them of their official and unofficial wives. For centuries, popes and bishops fulminated in vain. Every villager knew who the priest’s focaria was; officially his housekeeper, she was locally called the presteresse and might very well have a brood of children about her. For the ordinary Frenchman was convinced that lust was stronger than gluttony, pride, or avarice; he therefore kept an eye on his womenfolk when a young priest had no woman of his own.
A series of reform movements initiated by Pope Gregory VII in the 11th century succeeded only in banishing the acknowledged wives of priests; but the focariae remained. Sometimes rebellious priests who had been ordered to put away their wives or concubines closed their churches and refused to administer the sacraments. Eventually, the principle of an unmarried priesthood was established, but the practice of a fully chaste priesthood never was if judged by the incessant repetition of bans against priests’ having any women whatsoever, even their mothers or sisters, in the house. Yet, when bishops and archbishops made their annual rounds of their dioceses (the visitation, these regular visits were called), their reports filled up with accounts of flagrant violations of the rule of celibacy: We found that the priest of Ruville was ill-famed with the wife of a certain stone carver, and by her, is said to have a child. . . . Also, the priest of Gonnetot is ill-famed with two women and went to the pope on the account [i.e., made a pilgrimage to Rome to seek absolution from the pope], and after he came back, he is said to have relapsed. . . . Also, the priest of Wanestanville, with a certain one of his parishioners, whose husband on his account went beyond the sea, and he kept her for eight years, and she is pregnant. . . . Also . . . But the list could go on and on, and this is only one visitation among hundreds recorded. The celibacy of the clergy is a battle that has been waged almost continuously within the Roman Catholic Church.
How are we to account for the strong streak of anticlericalism that runs through medieval society? We see it acknowledged not only in literature but also in public documents. In the bull Clericis Laicos (1296), for instance, Pope Boniface VIII remarks casually: “Antiquity teaches us that laymen are in a high degree hostile to the clergy.” The genuine weaknesses of some priests and prelates, the contrast between the ideal minister of God, and the real human being all too often ministering to his own comfort and advantage, would certainly be part of the reason. But equally potent was the crass economic factor. Lewd or pure, good or bad, the priest was a drain on the substance of his parishioners. They had to support him, and through him, the whole hierarchy of the Church. The ordinary peasant and artisan could not help realizing that priest and bishop, parish house and episcopal palace, parish church and cathedral, were ultimately sustained by his labor.
Fervently as he loved the Virgin Mary, God, and all the saints, he, at times, could not help wishing that there were not so many expensive intermediaries between him and them. It was bad enough that he had to pay approximately 10 percent of his income – the tithe – to the Church.
In addition to the regular tithe, the priest generally charged or was by custom paid fees for almost all the services he rendered. He also led the frequent drives to collect funds for charitable purposes, for support of the building program, for the adornment of the church, for the relief of the Holy Land, and so on. In some places, where wealthy bourgeois generously contributed to their church, the local clergy would be well off, enjoying the benefits of what was known as a “fat prebend.” But grinding poverty was also familiar to the lower ranks of the priesthood, especially among priests in rural parishes. Such curates had small plots of land as part of their livings; they could raise vegetables and keep a pig; many of them got in the hay and shoveled manure like any of their rustic parishioners.
The Church provided the most important avenue of social mobility available in the Middle Ages. Any bright boy quickly acquired the nickname of clergeon, “little clerk.” Trained first to make the responses to the church, he could, if he showed an aptitude for learning – which meant, for Latin – count on becoming the priest’s favorite pupil, assisting at the altar, and later receiving a scholarship in some endowed college. Sometimes, unfortunately, children might be consigned by their parents to the monastic life because there was no inheritance for them if they were boys or sufficient dowry if they were girls.
In nunneries, the routine was much the same, although manual labor tended to be some form of needlework rather than laboring in the fields or building barns and granaries. Nuns appear to have been somewhat more laggard than monks in arriving at the night office – it was hard for anyone to rise for matins, particularly if the rule of silence had not been so strictly observed before bedtime and the good sisters then went to bed late. It was also harder to enforce simplicity of dress in convents, almost impossible to deprive well-born nuns of a jeweled clasp or a bit of fur trim to their cloaks. And there was a tendency for the nunnery to be a merrier place than the monastery, with occasional spontaneous and unauthorized dances, dressing up, and a good measure of laughter.
The struggle against vanities of dress – silken veils and golden rings, silver pins and gilded belts – engaged the attention of the abbesses and bishops almost continually. It was only symbolic of the unending struggle for strict observance of the Benedictine Rule that went on for centuries in the convent communities of the Western world. Piety led to bequests, bequests to prosperity, prosperity to corruption, corruption to a desire for reform and the creation of new monastic orders. In this way, the Cluniacs, Cistercians, Premonstratensians, Franciscans, Dominicans, and countless lesser orders were successively founded, each, in turn, attempting to go back to the simplicities of the past
By the 12th century, trade was going full swing in France. The roads, which had been neglected for hundreds of years, had been improved and widened so that two carts could pass each other. Bridges had been built where previously there had been only a ford or an unreliable ferry. There were no longer those endless nuisance tolls levied by each small lord whose territory the road led through. The greater lords had seen the wisdom of encouraging trade and had made themselves the protectors of merchants. These lords even vied with each other in devising special legislation, regulations, and safeguards designed to lure merchants into their lands. Thus, they had developed a whole network of land routes that facilitated connections with Flanders, with Italy, with the French ports of the Mediterranean.
Highway robbery was still a danger, but incidents were rarer. Merchants went armed or had a few strong fighting men along. By order of the lord, localities themselves cleaned out nests of robbers. And as more merchants took to the roads, often traveling in bands, their own numbers guaranteed safety. All in all, transport of goods was no longer so perilous or arduous as it had been.
The moneychangers had begun extending their role somewhat; they received deposits, lent money on interest, and issued letters entitling the bearer to receive his money when he got home. For it was not wise to travel with a great deal of metal. The moneychangers were well on their way to becoming bankers.
Much that is now taken for granted in the sexual realm was for them sinful. On the other hand, their sexual behavior seems uncontrolled, even brutish. No attempt was made to shield the young from sexual knowledge or to delay sexual experience. Modesty was enforced for girls, but no illusions were held about their innate purity or monogamous instincts. Marriage was hallowed, but adultery was omnipresent. In the upper classes, where marriages were arranged, invariably with a political purpose, boys and girls were married at the age of eight. The formal arrangement would become a physical one as soon as that was biologically possible. Thus, a young duke or prince might be a father at 13. Princess Isabeau, married to the dauphin who was later to be Charles VI, had had three pregnancies by the time she was 16.
The marriage patterns in other classes were somewhat different. Among peasants, marriage was deferred for economic reasons. Families were small due to high infant mortality, and sons and daughters reaching maturity represented valuable labor power. Setting up a household was no light matter. To accumulate at least a pittance toward their future, young people might hire out as servants or agricultural hands. Among artisans, again, the apprenticeship years had to be gone through before marriage was conceivable. And daughters were useful about the house. One might say that excessively early marriages, such as were practiced by the nobility, were a luxury.
The merchant class, in this respect as in so many others, was midway between the peasantry and the nobility. A girl of this class was not sent into marriage at 13. It was well understood that she would be expected to assume responsibilities, to run her future household efficiently and in accordance with her husband’s standing. Therefore, she was given a practical as well as a religious education. She was taught how to read, at least French; it was assumed that her husband would often be away and would want to send her instructions on business or household matters. She might not learn to write. Writing was a dangerous skill for women: They tended to use it for making assignations.
One wonders how the marriage turned out and what luck the Ménagier had with his education. How well did he succeed in teaching his young wife along the ideal lines he believed in? For the text, as read now, provides evidence that the meek, pious, obedient medieval woman was far from universal. In the circles in which the Ménagier moved, apparently, not all women said their prayers or were careful of their husbands’ comfort. Some were drunken, some were foul-mouthed, some came to church disheveled in the morning or snapped at their husbands in front of others. Some held strongly to their rights, even drawing up a contract specifying what each member of the partnership owed the other. Some did what they pleased, finding ways not to clear all decisions with their husbands. Perhaps the Ménagier should not have told his wife of such possibilities. But he was led on by his own gifts of observation and storytelling.
The fashionable clothing of the time – tight bodices, drooping sleeves, and towering headdresses – greatly restricted movement. In spite of this, medieval ladies managed to take considerable exercise – walking, dancing, riding, and romping in such innocent sports as blindman’s buff. They maintained their slenderness by eating sparingly. Moreover, the religious life of ladies called for a good deal of fasting. Thus, piety and slimness went together. Strict observation of religious practices was part of aristocratic manners. Nevertheless, a good deal of this was merely for show. Girls who were too devout were headed for the cloister.
Etiquette prescribed the right way to act in church – one was to look straight ahead, keep one’s eyes cast down, and one’s thought presumably directed toward one’s salvation. For social life, something less austere was wanted, but even there, demeanor was highly controlled. The love poems of Charles d’Orléans draw a picture of the perfect jeune fille of the time: “Fresh beauty, greatly rich in youth; laughing expression, loving features; pleasant of tongue, governed by good sense; womanly bearing in a well-made, sweet body. Ideals of this sort belonged to the upper classes.
The peasantry, ruled by different necessities, had a different view of what constituted the ideal woman.
Sturdiness and industry counted for more than social graces.
A mature peasant woman was a pretty earthy creature with few sexual inhibitions and a sharp sense of the value of a penny. She did not seem to care much what she looked like. Heavy work, coarse food, and close quarters gave little encouragement to female narcissism. On the other hand, the peasant woman, as her husband’s helper, was pretty much his equal. She was often the dominant figure in the family. Again, we know this from folk tales with a gallery of strong woman characters.
Although there was no lack of people eager for jobs, servants were hard to manage. Those who came for a single day, like porters, wheel-barrow men, and agricultural laborers, tended to be independent and short-tempered. At pay time, they often broke out into shouting and foul language. The prosperous man had an instinctive mistrust of the lower classes. “For if they were without fault, they would be mistresses and not servants, and of the men I say the same,” declared the Ménagier. Here, at the end of the fourteenth century, we already have the convictions that underlay the so-called Protestant ethic.
Before domestics were hired, careful inquiries were made of their previous masters. Their parents’ names and their birthplace were written down so that the arm of the law could reach them if they committed theft. Maidservants between 15 and 20 had to be specially supervised. They were given a sleeping room near the mistress’s, with no window through which they could slip out at night or receive visitors. They were taught how to extinguish their bedtime candle properly, by blowing it out or snuffing the flame with two fingers, not with their skirts. Back home, these country girls had neither candles nor nightshirts.
The closing of the house for the night was an important ceremony and the heavy keys a symbol of the housewife’s rule. The mistress inspected the wines to be sure none disappeared during the night. She gave the servants their instructions for morning and saw that the hearth fires were banked with ashes.
One aspect of housekeeping was time-consuming and frustrating. This was the fight against vermin. Fleas lurked in the folds of woolen clothes and in the bedding. The multiplicity of prescriptions against them indicates that there was no definitive way to get rid of them. White woolen cloths were spread to attract the fleas: The black specks could then be seen, caught, and destroyed. Alder leaves strewn in the bedroom were also said to attract the insects. The airing and beating of textiles were major tasks for the maidservants. In better homes, a small room was provided, a garde-robe, where all the family textiles could be stored and presumably sealed away from infestation.
Woolen clothes were infrequently cleaned, but then the quality of the wool was so good that such clothes largely resisted soil. Grease spots could be removed with various homemade cleansers – fuller’s earth and ashes, wet feathers, warm wine mixed with ox gall. An excellent cleanser was verjuice, which was fresh grape juice prevented from turning by the addition of salt. In the fall, when the grapes were first pressed, a great cleaning of woolens took place. Clothes lasted a lifetime and were listed in inventories upon a person’s death.
Besides her spiritual life, her supervisory functions, and social contacts with relatives and guests, the bourgeois woman had another great resource – her garden. The garden was not large and was rather formally arranged, with square or rectangular beds edged with bricks. In the city, the whole was enclosed by a brick wall, in the country by a wattle fence. The flowers in the garden were violets, pinks, peonies, lilies, and roses. There was also a selection of vegetables, but these were by no means paramount. More room was allotted to the herbs – those used in cooking, those used in simple medicinal preparations, and those from which fragrant waters were made for laving the hands after meals. The garden also contained berry bushes and espaliered fruit trees. The bourgeois wife’s other great interest was, of course, her children. But here we are faced with a paucity of material. The Ménagier, so eager to give instruction on every aspect of the household, has not a word to say on child care.
Children’s lives were frailer than they are now. What the 19th century called the diseases of childhood – smallpox, scarlet fever, diphtheria – were endemic. In the south, there was malaria and typhoid. In addition, there were all those dysenteries and fevers whose causes even now we can’t identify – “bugs,” we say – but whose effects on a poorly nourished infant were far more drastic than today.
We have much to thank Guillebert for. Historians have used his data to construct the street maps he could not draw and to compile glossaries of all the trades, arts, and crafts of Paris, more numerous than anyone could have believed. Thanks to Guillebert, we know, for instance, that there were ivory carvers and diamond and gem cutters in Paris, as well as a school for minstrels. We learn that the spice merchants, apothecaries, and salt merchants were all on one street. Nail makers, wire makers, and armorers were likewise all grouped together. The coffin makers were, of course, established near the great cemetery at the Church of the Innocents.
We learn from Guillebert that the splitters of clapboards and the hewers of beams shared the neighborhood. The area must have been the center for the building trades, for the glassmakers were also located there. Bread, flour, and old clothes were sold in the same market. The butchers massed in several squares, tripe merchants and poulterers occupying the adjacent streets. There was a fowl market, a milk market, a hay market, an oats market, and a busy flower market; for the whole populace bought wreaths of roses and greenery, and flowers were essential for every formal feast.
The streets of Paris, for instance, were not unpaved. Early in the 13th century, by order of Philip Augustus, the municipal authorities began paving the main thoroughfares with stone. The work went on steadily for a century and a half. By the reign of Charles V the entire area within the second ring of walls was cobblestoned.
People were supposed to remove their trash at their own expense. The usual thing was for the residents of a street to hire a cart and a drayman for this purpose, and in the poorer neighborhoods, the filth simply accumulated underfoot. Moreover, the draymen, like present-day sanitation workers, tended to lose part of their loads along the way. As the city grew and the outskirts became built up, the dumps had to be moved farther out. Though disused, the old ones remained, forming hills that are still part of the Paris topography.
The fourteenth-century town planners had made heroic efforts to deal with the problems of sewage. The paved streets sloped toward the center, where there was a runnel that served as a drain. The contents of scrub pails and chamber pots were supposed to be emptied here, so that rain would wash these waters toward the sewers.
Every house that aspired to decency had a privy in the back garden. But this was not made a matter of public law until the 16th century. The city provided public urinals; near the cathedral, there was even one with running water. There were also latrines near the Place de Grève. But it was an open secret that there were not enough of such public conveniences. The wastes were removed by professional scavengers. These were organized into a guild and were also in charge of the city’s sewers and wells. They had their own somewhat self-pitying cry as they went up the streets soliciting business: “To clean a hutch/Takes little skill./I don’t’ earn much,/Do what I will.
The planners had provided the city with an extensive system of trenches and canals that led the sewage toward the moats outside the city walls. Such sewers were sometimes covered over, either with stonework or planks. Usually, however, they were open to the sky and, inevitably, gave off a terrible smell. The stench of Paris was famous.
In earlier centuries, the people of Paris had drawn water from the Seine. Flowing between green banks and bordered by willows, with sailboats its only traffic, it was, by and large, a clean river. Even so, there was enough concern for hygiene for people to use the stream above and below the city, but not directly at it. Almost all houses had their own wells. As the city grew, this self-sufficiency was no longer possible. Under Philip Augustus, two aqueducts were built to supply public fountains all over the city. Water was also piped to the newly built palace of the Louvre and to a number of grander houses. The rich increasingly infringed on the water main, piping off more and more of the flow to their hotels. By the time of Charles VI, the supply to the fountains was so diminished that the shortage of water became a scandal, and an edict was issued forbidding private use of the aqueduct water except in the houses of royal princes.
How to keep the more monied folk from hogging all the water had long been a problem. Thus, regulations had to be made reserving certain fountains for the inhabitants of the quarter and stipulating that people had to draw their own water in person. In finer houses, water was delivered regularly by water sellers. But in the poor neighborhoods, water was a scarce commodity. There was always a crowd around the public fountain, and the water taken from it had to be carried up many flights of narrow stairs. We can scarcely conceive how difficult ordinary domestic work – maintaining cleanliness, doing the cooking – was under such conditions.
Cook shops abounded; prepared food, always hot and presumably savory, was to be had at all hours of the day.
After heavy work in the fields, no religious teachings on earth could have kept peasants – who, in any case, were never prudish – from taking a quick dip in the nearest stream.
Householders were required to keep a bucket of water at their front door in case of fire, but once a fire started, there was not much that could be done about it. There were, however, regulations aimed at preventing fires. It was forbidden for artisans to work after dark; candles and torches in crowded workshops were a fire hazard. Wine shops, too, had early closing hours. Once darkness had fallen, there were few people out in the streets – only the night watch, drunks, rowdy students, or fellows up to no good. A medieval peace descended on the city. Except for what candlelight filtered through closed shutters, and except for the lanterns carried by the watch, the streets were totally dark. The only public illumination was a single lantern placed before the image of Our Lady at the entrance gate of the Grand Châtelet, the huge fortress and prison that guarded the entrance to the Île de la Cité.
Because she had always been there, Paris possessed no charter. The newest thing the city had to any formal set of rights went back to privileges conferred in dim times past on an occupational group known as the marchands de l’eau, the “merchants of water.” The water in question was, of course, the Seine, and the owners of the boats who plied the stream early played a leading role in the affairs of the city. For the king, who had dominion over the waterways, had delegated to the merchants of the water the right to supervise navigation. They could also set rules for loading and unloading boats, could watch over weights and measures, and could regulate the buying and selling of cargoes. The boats carried mostly grain, salt, and wine. Thus, the boat owners exercised control over the grain merchants and could direct the entire trade in wine, from its crying – the medieval form of advertising – to its prices. They even decided who might sell wine in a tavern, so that, in effect, they issued the city’s liquor licenses.
The merchants of the water were also empowered to collect dues on all wares brought by water. A portion of these revenues went to the king; the rest was retained and reinvented in river business. Thus, the merchants of the water built a port where heavy cargoes could be conveniently handled. This was at the Place de Grève, a gravelly bank of the Île de la Cité sloping down to the river. When it was first ceded to the merchants, it was devoid of houses and sold for the sum of several livres. The merchants enlarged the bank with fill, faced it with stone, and equipped it with ramps for the convenience of the carters. On its edge, they erected a building for their headquarters. This Place de Grève was to become the very heart of civic, commercial, and industrial Paris.
By the 13th century, the provost of the merchants of the water appears as provost of all the merchants, and as such, is indisputably mayor of the city. He was assisted by four échevins – “magistrates.” Their powers were wide: They levied taxes, operated the police system, and looked after public works. The defense of the city was also their responsibility. Originally, each corporation was supposed to supply a certain number of men for the night watch, patrolling the streets and walls after dark.
From the twelfth century on, the municipal authorities were conscious of the need for regulated growth. A “zoning administrator” called the voyer strictly controlled changes in the city. No street could be opened or closed without his permission. He superintended every major repair or modification in the alignment of buildings. He kept down the number of stalls selling foodstuffs. The voyer was often a man of some distinction, and the post allowed him to increase his substance.
In the best of times, Paris attracted criminals and vagabonds. When war or social disruption wrenched masses of people from their roots, the number of social deviants increased alarmingly.
Along with the real beggars, there was also an influx of sham beggars into the city. The records show many ordinances against the tribe of “crocodiles and rogues,” as they were called, who “pretend to be crippled, hobbling on canes and simulating the decrepitude; smearing themselves with salves, saffron, flour, blood, and other false colors, and dressing in muddy, filthy, foul-smelling, and abominable garments even when they go into churches; who throw themselves down in the busiest street or, when a large group such as a procession is passing, discharge their noses or mouth blood made of blackberries, of vermilion or other dyes, in order dishonestly to extort alms that are properly due to God’s real poor.
There were false pilgrims, as well, who went about with the traditional staff and cockleshell associated with Saint Jacques (that is, Saint James) and preyed on the good will of the devout. Another type of confidence man was the counterfeiter, who took advantage of the great confusion in coinage to pass false money. Tricksters also had some famous routines for swindling travelers at inns. First one man would appear lamenting that he had just lost a valuable chain or ring. After he had left, his accomplice would turn up and offer to sell a chain or ring he had just found at a price far below the value mentioned by the first man. Other professionals were expert at breaking into the poor boxes of churches or making candlesticks disappear from altars. Cardsharps and players with loaded dice abounded in the taverns, while cutpurses and pickpockets prowled the streets.
Criminals, on the other hand, were officially put on bread and water. They did not have to pay for this – most, in any case, were penniless. Rather, the guild of bakers provided bread, and there were always collections taken in the churches for prisoners. Accommodations were deliberately rough – inmates were crowded together in one large vaulted hall and slept on straw or the bare stone.
The average criminal did not stay incarcerated long. Justice was speedy. The culprit caught in the act could count on a hearing the very next morning. He either admitted the charges or denied them. Witnesses were heard. The judge decided whether the prisoner should be “put to the question.” A standard piece of equipment in every prison was the rack – a wooden frame with wheels and cords for wrenching the prisoner’s limbs. There were two gradations of punishment: Women and frailer men were put to the “small rack” while stronger men were put to the “large rack.” The instrument did not kill or necessarily inflict lasting injuries. However, many were maimed by the treatment. It was best to confess quickly. After confession, sentence was passed. False clerics and those who received stolen goods were put in the pillory, then banished. Bigamists had their heads shaved. Counterfeiters were thrown into boiling cauldrons. Thieves and burglars were hanged. Those convicted of political crimes – traitors to the king, high officials guilty of peculation, or those who in the civil war who allegedly had relations with the enemy – were carted through the city to the headsman’s block at Les Halles. Their heads and limbs were displayed on pikes, and their torsos were hung on the gibbet along with other rotting corpses.
By far, the largest number of female malefactors were prostitutes. Of course, the Church condemned such women. Yet, what was the purpose of the Church if not to offer even the hardened sinners the means to achieve salvation? Besides, the Church was not unaware that a great part of the clientele for women of ill repute came from its own ranks. So there was nothing to be done about prostitution per se.
King Louis IX had restricted the streets where prostitutes might live in their bordellos. The women could solicit during the day but had to be indoors by six o’clock. Landlords were forbidden to rent rooms to prostitutes except along these special streets. It is evident, however, that this regulation was consistently flouted, for there were repeated new ordinances on the matter, and new streets were constantly being assigned to “dissolute women.” Although they were forbidden to purchase houses, this rule, too, went by the board. There were many complaints of such women coming into respectable streets, locating close to churches, and opening taverns where they received guests at every hour of the day and night.
Another set of regulations was intended to curb the way streetwalkers dressed. They were forbidden the normal finery of women of the bourgeois class – gilt buttons on dress or hood, pearls, lavishly embroidered belts, shoe buckles, and the fashionable trailing cloak trimmed with fur, the houppelande, which was the summit of every merchant’s wife’s dreams. If a woman of evil life was caught in such attire, she was hauled off to prison, where the vanities were confiscated and the cloak trimmed to permissible length. The official reason for such laws was to prevent confusion between the good ladies and the wicked ones. However, the idea may also have been to keep prostitutes from flaunting the luxuries their sinful life made possible.
Yet the greater number of them did not do well by themselves. They were often country girls who had slipped into the life by chance or by force. They had almost no bargaining power, for there were endless numbers of girls like them and they were victimized by procuresses and pimps.
In contrast to the harshness shown the lawbreaker, there was consistent charity shown to beggars. It was easy to fall into beggary. The economy provided no sort of margin between the decent poverty of a peasant or artisan and the wretchedness of the beggar. There is little evidence even of those warm family ties that in some cultures offer the individual protection from the extremes of want. Ill health, a bad harvest, a spell of unemployment, being crippled in a war or on a crusade – any of these misfortunes could be ruinous.
Monks were also out every day begging for their wherewithal. Some belonged to the mendicant orders like the Dominicans and the Franciscans, who were officially committed to sharing the lot of the poor. But there were also the Carmelites, known as the Barrez (“Stripes”) because of their black-and-white habits, and the various orders of canons who added their voices to the cry for bread. The Templars, though known as a rich order, were also out soliciting contributions toward new crusades.
Then there were the famous beggars who belonged to the Quinze-Vingts. This was a charitable institution founded by Louis IX to take care of 300 poor knights, casualties of the king’s crusades, whose eyes had been put out by the Saracens. The pious king left them a good house set in spacious grounds and an annual sum of 30 livres, so that every inmate “might have a good mess of pottage daily.” After the original inmates had passed on, the place became a home for the blind. The inmates were a privileged group, entitled to wear the fleur-de-lis embroidered on their garments. They could have wives and husbands living with them to act as attendants and help administer the institution. The blind were also entitled to beg inside the churches. Since some of the churches were much more lucrative than others, an auction was held every year at the home, and the best churches were assigned to those who promised to pay the highest premium to the hospital. The Quinze-Vingts were known to live high, to drink wine, and to wear serge and velvet instead of proper rags.
The city of Paris and all its institutions were put to the test during the 15 years between 1421 and 1436 when the city was occupied by English troops. There were winters when murderous wolves prowled the faubourgs, for the beasts had acquired a taste for human flesh from the great number of corpses carelessly buried in the countryside. There were times when day and night the streets rang with the crying of the poor: “Alas, I die of cold” or “Alas, I die of hunger.” This in Paris, which in the days of its pride had supported, not badly, the 80,000 beggars Guillebert de Metz had mentioned – for he had meant this fantastic figure as a boast of the city’s generosity and plenty. In better times, the bakers had thrown stale bread out for the poor, and there were always tubs of unsold fish at the end of the day in the fish market close to the Grande Boucherie. Now, men, women, and children lived on cabbage cores and fought with the pigs for the dregs from the barrels of apple cider.