Encountering Medieval History

Although I haven’t updated the blog in nearly a year, I have not been idle. The responses to COVID-19 have caused substantial changes to my work life, as they have for so many others. I am one of the lucky ones with stable employment, but the pandemic has redistributed work in strange ways, taking it from those who did not have enough, and giving too much to those who already had plenty – including me. I’ve been working a lot more than I’ve ever worked in my life, and I have had little time for writing since March. But this blog post, and the next one, have been brewing for a while, so now that I’ve found some space, here they are.

At the start of 2020, I set myself the goal of writing my first draft of my first chapter, and I’ve been quietly working towards that in the background. My thinking on what that chapter would be has changed significantly since my last “Book I’m writing” post. It was initially going to be on the binary opposition between “work” and “home”. I’ve since decided that the appropriate place to start my history of work is with an examination of how people came to be thought of as either employed or unemployed. It is a near-universal idea that we should fill out days with something productive to do. No universal idea should go unquestioned, so I propose to ask, how did that notion come to be? Who did the work required to bring this idea into being, to disseminate it, and to enforce it? Why has it proven so resilient over centuries? How might we start to unseat it?

This story, I argue, takes place between the 10th and 14th centuries in France and England, as what we commonly think of as “feudalism” emerges and settles into a dominant technique of power. It’s roughly bounded by two large popular movements – the Peace of God in France in the late 10th century, and the Peasants’ Revolt in England in 1381. It encompasses the upheavals of the Norman Conquest of England and the Black Plague. It’s an enormous span of time, space, and language. As a periodisation it papers over so much nuance and change that it will probably cause me more problems than it solves. But it’s a starting point, and it’s helped me focus my reading and thinking.

In today’s blog post, I am not going to offer any answers to the above questions. But I am going to sketch out some of the methodological problems I’ve encountered as a newcomer to Medieval history. Fair warning – it’s going to be a long post, and contain a lot of undigested quotation. If it is of interest at all, it will be because it exposes the ‘grunt work’ of research. I hope it’s not too boring!

Stephen Harding and Amice Bellamy – two Medieval stories

I want to begin with the stories of two medieval people from England. I will do so through two extended quotations with some analysis afterwards.

According to R. W. Southern, Steven Harding was a runaway English monk from the late 11th century who became an early Cistercian:

“He had been dedicated as a child to the monastic life in the monastery of Sherborne at about the time of the Norman Conquest, but then he came to manhood he cast aside the cowl, abandoned the religious life and set out on his travels. Any competent authority would have been bound to condemn his action in leaving the monastery to which he had been finally though involuntarily committed. The clues to his purposes at this time is entirely lost, but he was evidently not an ordinary rebel. After a good deal of wandering, he found his way (in the eighties or early nineties of the eleventh century) to a recently founded monastery at Molesme in Burgundy, which, under a remarkable abbot, Robert, was the scene of a vigorous controversy. On the one hand there were those who with their abbot were working towards a simpler and more rigorous life, in keeping, as they believed, with the primitive spirit of the Benedictine Rule; on the other there were those who stood firm, for the innovations which had stamped the reforms of the last two centuries. The new arrival, who now, it seems, changed his name to Stephen, threw in his lot with the abbot and his supporters, and form this association there arose first the monastery (1098) and then the order of Citeaux. Our earliest informant, the English historian William of Malmesbury, who from his nearby monastery knew Sherborne well and was evidently familiar with the Sherborne side of the story, says that it was Harding who began the controversy at Molesme. In this he may be mistaken, but it is certain that Stephen Harding, as he is known to later historians (although his contemporaries knew him by one or another of these names according as they were French of English) had an extraordinary talent for giving legislative form to a spiritual ideal. He was the author of two great documents of early Cistercian history, the Carta Cariatis and the Exordium Cisterciencis Coenobii; and it was during his abbacy (1110-33) that what had been an obscure experiment became the most stimulating source of religious life in Europe.”

The Making of the Middle Ages, 159-60

By contrast, here is everything we know about Amice Bellamy, taken from a Manorial Court Roll entry in Bedfordshire, made in 1270:

“It happened in the vill of Eaton in a hamlet called Staplehoe in the brewhouse of Lady Juliana de Beauchamp about the hour of none on Thursday next after Michealmas in the fifty-fourth year that Amice Bellamy, Robert Bellamy’s daughter and [Sybil] Bonchevaler were carrying between them a tub full of grout, intending to empty the grout into a boiling leaden vessel; and Amice Bellamy’s feet slipped, and she fell into the said vessel, and the tub fell upon her. Sibyl Bonchevaler at once sprang to her and lifted her from the vessel and shouted [for help]; the servants of the household came and found her almost scalded to death. Amice had the rites of the church, and died on the following Friday about hour of prime.”

cited in Barbara Hanawalt, The Ties That Bound, 12

Harding was probably a son of a noble house, and circulated within and through a world of literate, educated, religious men. He enjoyed considerable freedom of movement, travelling from England to France. Harding’s life is captured in both of his own books and the work of another prominent Medieval scholar, William of Malmesbury. We know about him because the words of literate elites have survived long enough to mark him out as important. He stays in our field of view because of the importance we ascribe to the beginnings of the Cistercian Order in the late 11th century and his role in it. Of course, being written about by a distinguished white male historian doesn’t hurt.

By contrast, we know almost nothing of Amice Bellamy. We know her father was called Robert, and that she may have been a servant of Lady Juliana de Beauchamp, working in a brewery. We know she died in a manner that was probably terribly painful in November 1270. Unlike Stephen Harding, whose life was set down by learned peers, Amice’s brief moment in the historical spotlight was produced by a nameless manorial clerk entering the details of her death in the court rolls. Amice herself was almost certainly not literate, and left nothing else behind her for us to find when she died. I only know about her because Barbara Hanawalt singled her out as an example of a Manorial Court Roll entry in the introduction to her book on English peasant family life.

The most important thing this comparison reveals is that the documents we read have a politics, and that politics is particularly important when trying to think about Medieval lives. This has huge ramifications for a history of work that begins in the Middle Ages. It was clearly not the Amice Bellamies of the world who got to set down what labour meant, disseminate it, or police it, but they had to live it.

On whose terms do we approach the past?

In her history of work, Andrea Komlosy describes peasant life at around the time Amice Bellamy lived:

“Peasants working as serfs on manorial estates took their orders from estate stewards … On the side, most engaged in subsistence farming on the land apportioned to them by the feudal arrangement, known as fiefs. In this sense, peasants’ land-usage rights entitled them to an indirect form of ownership, and they largely determines the course of work on their respective fiefs themselves. A wide variety of work was generally performed in this context, as peasant work did not just mean agriculture and livestock, but also included the production of essential goods, building and maintaining housing, and providing sustenance for the households’ family members, lodgers and servants. Male household members were generally placed under the authority of the housefather, or patriarch, female members under the lady, the housewife. Paternal authority and community politics were matters for the male head of the family. Work was distributed among the household members according to status, skill and capacity. Although work allocation and provisioning were mostly of a habitual nature according to age, sex and marital as well as social status, changing demands could occasionally or even continuously affect the distribution of work. The household economy as a unified life and work form is characterised by a strong sense of community, which expects specific obligations from each individual as well as a large degree of flexibility and willingness to adapt.”

Work: the Last 1000 Years, 99-100

It is worth contemplating whether Amice Bellamy might have described her life in anything approaching these terms. We can never know, but it seems vanishingly unlikely.

The point I’m trying to make here is that historians bring their own politics to their reconstructions of the past. Komlosy’s analysis drew conclusions about a sweeping period of history, from the 1200s to the present. In order to do this, she made the decision to set down a few common elements that she could then compare across time, such as household organisation, divisions of labour, relationship to subsistence or the market, relationship to an employer, etc. While I would never make the claim that Komlosy “cherry-picks” her sources or “bends them to fit her theory”, there is always by design a certain amount of interpretative leeway required to make sources from the thirteenth and twenty-first centuries conform to a common analytical language. In a very real sense, Komlosy is assembling her theory of work in the present, on her own terms, and then casting it back in time.

Much of the history of rural Medieval England does the same sort of thing. The field, like so many others, seems to be in a perpetual debate between Whigs and Marxists. Whigs basically argue that history is a progressive story in which our society and culture evolve towards ever more liberal freedoms. They tend to see the history of England as a slow, methodical journey towards liberal democracy, and unproblematically situate the villeins, cottars and tenants of the medieval countryside as workers jostling for the chance to become freer and more individual. The Marxists, on the other hand, argue that the landlord class participated in something of a historical conspiracy to keep the peasant class subordinated, usually through violent coercion. Where they broadly agree is that “feudalism” was just a rung on the ladder that led to industrial capitalism. Both interpret the sources through that ultimately teleological lens.

What this means is that most histories of Medieval England talk about “the Medieval economy” without ever acknowledging that the economy itself is a modern invention. Yes, the historical and archaeological records enable us to trace the movement of goods from place to place, and yes, we can develop the sorts of aggregate analyses of these movement that allow us to construct something called “the Medieval economy”. But the fact remains, the monks and brewery servants – and the manorial clerks, knights, bishops, farmers, and day labourers of England did not think in these terms. Constructing a medieval economy reveals as much about the present as it does about the past.

How an economic lens distorts the past

Let me give you another example, from J. Z. Titow, one of the historians of English rural society who likes to talk in economic terms. Most of his work is about agricultural and governmental technologies and their effects on productivity, or about demographics. To build his analysis, he draws on a variety of manorial records, which are mostly lists of things that lords owned. It lets him make analyses of things like the productivity of a given package of land, or the different impacts of oxen or horses on that productivity, or demographic change, or the economic reasons behind shifts in manorial cultivation of land. All of these arguments posit manorial lords and tenants as versions of homo economicus – rational actors making nakedly rational economic choices. This kind of thinking gained currency in the seventeenth century. Titow notes that “medieval manorial accounts were not a balance sheet, a profit-and-loss account, but a record of obligations and their discharge” (English Rural Society, 25). To turn them into something recognisable to post-industrial eyes as a balance sheet requires some intervention and interpretation.

Here is an excerpt from one such Account sheet, made in 1208:

“W. son of Gilbert and Gocelinus the reeve, and Ailwardus the granger … render account for 12d. from Ernaldus the earl’s son for having his father’s land. And for 12d. from Richard May for relaxing the law. And for 12d. from Osbertus Peche for the same. And for 4s. from the widow of Anketil for an entry fine. And for 6s. 8d. from William son of Selida for having the land of Emma. And for 5s. for the marriage of the step-daughter of Bren. And for 5s. from Ralph son of Edith for having the land of James. And for 12d. from Adam de Roxi in payment for the recovery of his animals. And for 12d. from Ailet for relaxing the law. And for 10s. from Walter for marrying his daughter. And for 4s. for the heriot5 of Ivonet. And for 6s. 8d. for the heriot of Siwald. And for 2s. from Ingelram of Wick for a transgression of pasture. And for 12d. from Roger Belfiz for the same.”

English Rural Society, 106-8

Reading this source in purely economic terms occludes some of its more telling aspects. Here we have a clerk recording fines paid to the Lord by their tenants. This is evidence of a deeply unequal relationship between people in which labour was implicated. These tenants paid their rents with either labour services (ie by farming it), or in money. As part of their tenancy, these people were also subjected to obligations and interventions that cannot be quantified in economic terms, even if they can be reduced to a monetary value.

The accounts include fines payable to the lord for permission to marry and for heriot. Heriot was a form of death tax paid to the lord after the death of a peasant. They paid the lord to transfer land between themselves, to offset transgressions of other tenants’ land rights, and on occasion for leniency – “to relax the law”. Though concepts like dowries and fines and taxes are recognisable to us, this is nevertheless a picture of a very different sort of ‘normal’ than the one we are used to, and reducing this picture to economic terms is to miss the most important aspects of Medieval Labour.

What Manorial tenants did in the thirteenth century was totally different to what we think of as ‘work’. It bore a different relationship to time, and to money, and to land. It was conducted within relationships of domination and subordination and within a technology of power that had far-reaching effects and shaped English lives in ways that are alien to us. “Economics” is a poor tool for understanding the world of Medieval labour and its impacts on how we, today, still think about work.

The impossibility of ‘pure’ history

The problem with much of what I’ve read so far about Medieval labour is that it does not come to the past on Amice Bellamy’s terms, or even on Stephen Harding’s. But even those terms can be hard to decipher. Kathleen Biddick argues that reading documentary and archaeological sources from the Middle Ages will always replicate the very power structures that created those sources:

“As modern researchers, we have been led astray by this twelfth century English project of emplacement. By excavating within this grid, the toft and croft, constructed by those very medieval emplacing practices, we simply reproduce the material culture of peasants as the objects produced by such placing. The archaeology fails to question this material culture as a desired representation of powerful, historical, disciplinary practices.”

‘Decolonizing the English Past’, 18

In other words: when reading 12th century sources, it is impossible to escape 12th century ideas of what a peasant labourer should be and should do. No ‘pure’ record exists against which to measure it, and no amount of ‘reading against the grain’ will be able to eliminate the political biases of that 12th century knowledge.

It is not possible to ‘retreive’ the past, no matter how good your source base. Bias is part of the terrain of history. Better to approach that bias as the subject of history than to try unsuccessfully to weed it out. Luckily, I am very interested in that bias. I want to know what medieval observers thought labour was, and I don’t really care if they were right. The stories they told about it were doubtless more powerful than the realities of what they described – after all, those stories have come down to us but the realities are lost to time.

I think it is important to be upfront about why you set out to extract meaning from the past, because writing history is always a political activity. Economic histories often just reconfirm the primacy of the economy in our own times. If I want to write a history of work that destabilises work’s totalitarian grip on our lives, then I cannot treat work as a historical constant in the same way they might treat the economy.

I have more to say on the problems of Medieval sources, but I’ll leave that for my next post. In that post, I want to consider two different approaches to medieval history that I haven’t really touched on today – Social and Cultural history.

Header photo from Wikimedia Commons


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