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The Medieval Village in England

The medieval village in England was pretty much independent, and it regulated its own conduct without any outside interference. If sometimes things were managed badly, the village knew it had only itself to blame.

Slowly, the position of the villeins and cottiers improved considerably when compared with the days of William the Conqueror. The former became free tenants, who paid rent for their land to the lord of the manor, and were not bound to work for him, while the latter worked for wages like a modern agricultural labourer.

A medieval village in England
An English Medieval Village

In the 12th century, on many estates, the conditions were somehow similar to modern ones; the home farm was worked by hired labourers who received wages; while the villeins had bought themselves off from the obligation of doing customary work by paying a quit-rent.

Some carefully kept account books, and "The Boke of Husbandry" written by Walter of Henley in 1250, provide a wealth of information regarding agricultural management. The rent of land was about six pence per acre. Farmers ploughed three times a year, in autumn, April, and at midsummer, and used oxen for their plough-teams. Women helped their husbands in ploughing and harvest work.

Pigs and poultry were numerous on a medieval farm, but sheep were the main source of the farmer's wealth. Large flocks roamed the hills and valleys of England, and their rich fleeces were sent to the Flemish weavers of Antwerp, Bruges, and Ghent.

Prior to the Great Plague, the English villages were prosperous, and the people were better fed and better clothed than any of their Continental neighbours. They were free men, enjoyed their freedom, and it looks like "Merry England" was not a misnomer. There was not all happiness however, mainly due to two major causes of suffering: famine and disease.

The chief famine years were 1315 and 1316, but there is hardly any period of five years from the death of Edward I to the reign of Henry VII without records mentioning further sufferings. The Great Plague arrived in England in 1348 from the shores of Italy, where it was brought from the Orient. Whole villages were depopulated, and about one-third of the people of England perished.

The plague caused sorrow and universal suffering, however it was beneficial to the villagers who survived. Labourers became very scarce and were much sought after. Wages rose enormously, and the tenants discovered that they had become people of importance.

Manor lords found it too expensive to farm their lands, and were eager to hand them over to their tenants, many of whom became much richer and more independent than their lords. The spirit of independence pervaded all classes. The followers of Wycliffe preached discontent among the labouring classes, telling them that they were as good as their masters, who ought not to live in luxury supported by their toil and the sweat of their brows.

The golden age of the English labourer set in, when food was cheap, and wages high. A fat pig could be bought for four pence, and three pounds of beef for a penny. Except for occasional visits of the plague, the villagers were by no means unhappy.

The village life was not dull. Every season of the year had its holiday customs, some of them confined to particular counties, but many of them universally observed. Village sports were a great source of enjoyment. Among them, archery developed the skill of the English bowmen, the winners of so many Middle Age battles.

Almost every medieval village in England had an inn, which, together with its sign, eventually became a landmark. The reason behind the mixture of animals and other things on signboards is that an apprentice, when he had finished his instruction and set up his own business, adopted a sign of his own, and then joined it with the sign of his old master. In some of these inns great events took place. One of them is The Bull Inn at Coventry, where Henry VII spent the night before the battle of Bosworth Field, which was to bring him victory and the English crown.

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