Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Early modern English Society

This is a very brief overview of a complex subject. I've found the following books very helpful.

Susan Brigden, New Worlds, Lost Worlds: The Rule of the Tudors (Penguin, 2000)
John Guy, Tudor England (Oxford, 1988)
Joel Hurstfield and Alan G. R. Smith (eds.), Elizabethan People: State and Society (Edward Arnold, 1972)
Kentish Souces: IV The Poor (Kent County Council, 1964)
Pat Thane, Old Age in English History (Oxford University Press, 2000)
Joyce Youings, Sixteenth-Century England (Penguin, 1984)

These almshouses at Hungerford, Wiltshire
date from the seventeenth century,
and are a particularly good example
of private (as opposed to parish) poor relief
 in early-modern England


At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the population of the British Isles was still small. 
England and Wales: 2.25m.
Scotland: 0.75m
Ireland: 0.75m
For a while the relatively high living standards of the fifteenth century continued, but from the 1520s agrarian society was subjected to sustained population pressure. In spite of the pressures of famine and disease, the population had risen to above 4 million by the 1590s.


It has been estimated that England contained about 8 million sheep, or three to every human, and with the extermination of the wolf, sheep had no natural predators. The growth of the sheep population was a response to the population decline of the 15th century and the demands of the cloth trade - but when the population began to rise in the early 16th century the complaint was that ‘sheep do eat up men’. Pastoral farming for wool, leather and meat took up large areas of arable land as enclosed fields. In 1496 there were enclosure riots around Coventry and in 1549 the issue of enclosure almost provoked revolution

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Asa Brigg's Social History of England

I've been asked to recommend a book that gives a birds'-eye account of English social history, and one of the best available is Asa Briggs' Social History of England. It is now available second-hand at an amazingly cheap price. See here.

The Reformation and cultural change

The ruins of Glastonbury Abbey.
It was dissolved in 1539 and the abbot was
hanged for treason.
I have used the following books (among others) for this post:

Susan Brigden, New Worlds, Lost Worlds: The Rule of the Tudors (Penguin, 2000)
David Cressy, Bonfires and Bells: National Memory and the Protestant Calendar in Elizabethan and Stuart England (Sutton, 2004)
Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 (Yale, 1992)
Eamon Duffy, Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village (Yale, 2001)
Christopher Haigh, English Reformations:Religion, Politics, and Society under the Tudors (Clarendon Press, 1993)

The changes to church and state brought about by Henry VIII’s break with Rome and the religious policies of his successors had profound cultural consequences and this is only a very brief account. 

The dissolution of the monasteries

At first the government’s moves were aimed only at the smaller religious houses (those with incomes of less than £200 pa). This inspired a series of revolts in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire in 1536 and 1537, known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. The rebels marched behind the banners of the Five Wounds of Christ and of St Cuthbert. Economic grievances and northern resentment at a policy dictated from the south were mingled with religious outrage. Ballads lamented the economic distress they thought would result from the loss of monastic charity. This was the last serious attempt to halt the process of the Reformation in England - and it failed.

The rebellion gave the government the excuse to dissolve more monasteries. In September 1538 the shrine of Thomas Becket was destroyed; chests of jewels were carried away so heavy that ‘six or eight strong men’ were needed to lug one box and twenty carts to carry them away.  An Act of April 1539 recognized the dissolution of the larger monasteries. By this time monasticism was only a shell. There was not much left to dissolve and the Act’s main function was to recognise surrenders already made. In April 1540 Waltham Abbey surrendered - the last to go.

Many of the monasteries then became private houses or parts of the buildings were seen as a valuable investment. In 1613, at the very end of his playwriting career, William Shakespeare made a substantial investment in property in London, buying the gatehouse of the old Dominican priory in Blackfriars, where the Blackfriars Theatre was located, for £140. Others, especially if they were in remote rural areas, simply decayed. By the eighteenth century ruined abbeys were seen as picturesque and had become tourist attractions,

The monks were pensioned off. The average pension was five or six pounds per annum, the wage of an unskilled workman or the stipend of a poor priest. But the nuns received very small pensions, and they were debarred from marriage.  Many of the friars became parish priests.

Late medieval popular religion

This post is based on the following works:
The Book of Margery Kempe, ed. B. A. Windeatt (Penguin, 1994).
Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, c. 1400-c. 1580 (Yale, 1992).
Gerald Harris, Shaping the Nation: England 1360-1461 (Oxford, 2005).
Miri Rubin, Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture (Cambridge, 1992).
_______________The Hollow Crown: A History of Britain in the Late Middle Ages (Penguin, 2006).

Rogier van der Weyden, The Seven Sacraments
Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp

The English Church

Ecclesia Anglicana was an integral part of both the Catholic Church and the English nation. All who lived in England owed political allegiance to the king and spiritual obedience to the bishop and the pope. Around 1400 there were probably some 9,000 parishes in England, each governed (in theory) by a priest who was (in theory) celibate. The principal function of a priest was the recital of the divine office and the celebration of the Mass in Latin, a function that could never be performed by a lay person. The Mass was one of the seven sacraments. However, lay people had an important role. They were responsible for the fabric of the nave and the provision of service books, altar vessels and vestments. These were the responsibility of the two churchwardens, who were elected from the village elite, to serve for two years.

Popular piety

The care given to parish churches reflected the piety of the people.  The historian Susan Brigden writes (p. 38): 
‘This was a society in which devotions to God and belief in the elements of the Christian faith were assumed, in which there were sanctions, worldly and otherworldly against those who did not give visible witness of their faith; in which membership of the Church and obedience to its teachings were profound social duties’.  

Popular devotion focused not on the abstruse doctrines of Christianity, but on the crucifixion.   There was an intense concentration on physical suffering – blood, wounds – and on the emotions of joy and despair. Religion was visual and ritualistic. Most churches had a rood screen that divided the nave from the chancel and represented the figure of Christ on the cross with Mary and John on either side. On Good Friday people performed the ritual known as ‘creeping to the cross’, a ritual performed by Henry VIII as late as 1539, five years after his break with Rome.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

England in 1400: a society in transition

This post owes a great deal to:
Gerald Harris, Shaping the Nation: England 1360-1461 (Oxford, 2005)
Miri Rubin, The Hollow Crown: A History of Britain in the Late Middle Ages (Penguin, 2006)

'Bayleaf' Wealden Hall House
at Weald & Downland Museum,
Singleton, West Sussex.

An empty land

England in 1400 was a society still recovering from the Black Death. See here and here for more details. The plague reached Dorset in June 1348, and between a third and a half of the population died. On the evidence of the poll tax returns of 1377 the population stood at about 2.5 million, as opposed to the 4.25 million at the beginning of the fourteenth century. This was a level barely if at all higher than in 1086, and may have declined further during the fifteenth century. 

A changing society

Competition for labour: With this dramatic change in population, villages were abandoned (see here) and churches deconsecrated. In 1367 the bishop of Rochester deconsecrated the church of Dode in Kent.

The old labour-intensive agriculture was no longer viable. A new pattern of farming emerged as many previously arable lands were converted to pasture. The labour shortage transformed the status of villeins, giving them a bargaining power they had never had before. The Statute of Labourers of 1351 was an attempt by parliament to fix the price of labour and set the minimum term for contracts of employment. But though the Act was strictly enforced, Parliament could do little about the fundamental economic reality of competition for labour, and the majority of landlords had to make some concession to their tenants. The Leicestershire chronicler, Henry Knighton, wrote: 

‘The great men of the land and other lessor lords … remitted the payment of their rents, lest their tenants should go away on account of the scarcity of servants and the high price of all things – some half their rents, some more, some less, some for one, two, or three years.’

The growth of a service economy: In the new economic climate, labour became more mobile. Young people, previously tied to the land, migrated in search of work and foreign workers were brought in at harvest time. This new mobility had profound social consequences, affecting women as well as men. Domestic service became an attractive work opportunity, enabling girls to acquire housewifely skills and the money that would make them attractive marriage propositions. In the late fourteenth century a third of urban households contained servants.  In the poll tax returns of 1377 30 per cent of the paying population of Worcester were domestic servants. In Yorkshire and Essex women were employed in the textile industry.  The emergence of this service economy meant that in late medieval England there were an abundance of young women in the towns and young men in the country.