David Nicholas

title.none: Britnell, Daily Life in the Late Middle Ages (Nicholas)

identifier.other: baj9928.9906.004 99.06.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: David Nicholas, Clemson University, nichold@CLEMSON.EDU

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Britnell, Richard, ed. Daily Life in the Late Middle Ages. Goucestershire: Sutton Publishing, 1998. Pp. 256. $39.95. ISBN: 0-750-091587-0.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.06.04

Britnell, Richard, ed. Daily Life in the Late Middle Ages. Goucestershire: Sutton Publishing, 1998. Pp. 256. $39.95. ISBN: 0-750-091587-0.

Reviewed by:

David Nicholas
Clemson University

Fi ve of the nine chapters of this excellent collection were prepared for a conference at the University of Kent in 1996 for the Richard III Society; the others were added to provide more balanced coverage. The first three articles are devoted largely to women. Anne Sutton, in "Dress and Fashions c. 1470," a period when contemporaries recognized that fashions were changing rapidly, concentrates on women's dress but not to the exclusion of men's. She takes England, the Low Countries, and northern France as a unit, using iconographic evidence as well as narratives and particularly manuscript wills, some of which she cites in extenso. Central to her thesis of rapid change is the Flemish manuscript of the romance Cle'riadus et Me'^Îliadice, whose text shows the elaborate court dress of the 1440s while the illustrations portray more ordinary attire that had developed around 1470. Jennifer C. Ward, "Townswomen and their households," discusses the household as the context of identity for most women, given their lack of a public role. The domestic responsibilities of women were obviously centered there, but so was most employment, whether as part of the family productive unit or in wage service in the households of other persons. The article uses a stages-of-life organizational scheme to discuss the legal, financial, and to a lesser extent emotional situation of women. Although their lives were often hard, women only faced destitution or unpalatable alternatives such as indigence or prostitution when the household was dissolved. While Ward's discussion breaks no new ground, Carole Rawcliffe, in "Hospital Nurses and Their Work," discusses an aspect of women's work that is often neglected. Rawcliffe begins with Jehan Henry's book of guidance composed for the sisters of the Ho^tel-Dieu of Paris, then places the nurses' work in the general context of medical care in the late fifteenth century. She notes a late medieval shift "from the monastic or quasi-monastic model, with its open-ward infirmary and comparatively large staff, to the small, selective almshouse for respectable elderly paupers" (p. 45). Most sick persons who had homes were cared for by the females of their households; hospitals were mainly for the poor. Hospital regulations were at least as concerned with care of the soul as of the body; one of the nurses' frequent duties was going for the priest. Most nurses lived under a rule, and they had to take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Many hospitals, concerned with nurses' sexuality, restricted them to laundry and food preparation for a few years, and some specified that only women above a given age could be nurses. The nurses were expected, however, to examine patients on entry to make certain that they did not have contagious diseases, bathe them and provide them with vermin-free clothing, and make certain that they were in a proper spiritual state. Considerable medical care was still provided by female "empirics" who were not bothered as long as they did not crowd the preoccupations of the academically trained physicians, who did little hospital work until the sixteenth century.

The fourth and eighth articles deal with religious questions. Gillian Pritchard, "Religion and the Paston family," provides a solid and uncontroversial discussion of the religious beliefs of the Paston family members as revealed in their letters and wills. She places them firmly in the context of recent work that argues that the gentry had an essentially conventional religious practice rather than deep faith at this time; indeed, the Pastons showed less inclination to endow chantries or other charities than others of their rank. Although the Pastons had a private chapel, which was a status symbol, they remained active in their parish church, and several gave money to beautify or repair churches. The parish connection links Pritchard's article to Clive Burgess, "London Parishes: Development in Context." Burgess argues that there is little evidence of dissatisfaction with the church at the parish level. The "intercessory institutions" such as chantries were essential to the good works that could mitigate the pains of Purgatory. They were intended not only to observe liturgy, but also to "cure social evils" (155) and benefit the founder and his family and nominees. Using a variety of sources but particularly churchwardens' accounts and testaments, Burgess argues that the chantries' endowments, both perpetual and temporary, were more than sufficient to accommodate the "selfish" interests of the founder and thus also benefitted the broader liturgical and charitable needs of the parishes. He compares the accounts of the parish of St Mary at Hill, Billingsgate, which had the unusually large number of seven perpetual chantries, to those of the much poorer parish of St Andrew Hubbard, which bordered St Mary's on the north, to show similar administration in very diverse units. He uses the evidence of expansion of music books and chanting, together with building and rebuilding in the late fifteenth century, and the continued high income from tithes as well as bequests, to show that there was no eroding of support for the local churches.

Two articles deal with rural life and economy. Andrew Watkins, "Peasants in Arden," notes the general doom and gloom of Hilton-inspired historiography of the fifteenth-century rural economy. Using the forest of Arden (Warwickshire), outside the champion country, as a case study, Watkins argues persuasively that it developed a diversified economy that was able to withstand short-term fluctuations better than either largely arable or sheep-raising areas. Wood-extractive and working industries provided considerable income. Demesne cultivation by lords persisted alongside substantial enclosure, but the Hundred Rolls of 1279 show a generally freer peasantry even then than elsewhere, with lighter labor services. Arden had fewer deserted villages than its neighbor, the Feldon region of south Warwickshire. Watkins is consciously reacting against the tendency of most medieval agrarian historians until quite recently to study administrative units, most often a single manor or the estates of greater lords or religious institutions that may be scattered across several counties. He uses the regional approach preferred by most historians of agrarian England in the sixteenth century.

Richard Lomas, "A Priory and its Tenants," is a classic example of the approach that Watkins criticizes. The paper supports May McKisack's assertions that landlords by the end of the fourteenth century had surrendered farming to their tenants, keeping only financial and administrative interest in their estates; and that three main categories of freeholders, tenant farmers, and landless or nearly landless laborers were present. The article is well-documented, but it is administrative and financial history; as a contribution to "daily life," it is the weakest of this collection.

The peasantry is not well served in this volume. Lomas' article does not concern "daily life," and while Watkins' paper is excellent, for balance the book needs a study of the more traditional farming areas. The urban sector, by contrast, is well represented. The papers of Ward and Burgess discussed above are town-based. Matthew Davies, "Artisans, Guilds and Government in London," discusses the social and political activity of the guilds, their internal development in the fifteenth century, and their relations among themselves and their links to and in the city government. He concentrates on the history of the leading organizations that later made up the Twelve Livery Companies. A gulf present earlier deepened in the fifteenth century between liverymen, the upper ranks of the misteries who wore the livery on ceremonial occasions, controlled most offices, and represented the trade in city politics; and the other masters, who in some trades were organized separately as a "guild within a craft" (p. 134). The status of liveryman often but not invariably accompanied membership in a formally constituted fraternity of the guild elite. The Courts of Assistants, consisting of liverymen, acted as "governing bodies for both the livery and for the mistery as a whole" (130). In the first half of the fifteenth century only the older and politically prominent guilds got royal charters, but many lesser ones did after 1460, although in most cases as confirmations of existing practice. The Common Council became significantly larger and restricted to liverymen, who had onerous financial obligations, including payments for civic projects, loans to the crown, and the livery itself. Yet, although the sons of freemen were allowed lower entry fees than outsiders, most sons of aldermen did not follow the father's occupation; in its lack of many "aldermannic families," London thus follows a very different pattern from continental cities. Although Davies discusses the political role of the guilds, he does not follow Heather Swanson in seeing them primarily as agents of the city government. Rather, despite the fact that the control of individual trades by their merchant elites was strengthened, they were genuine artisan associations, with trade issues rather than politics their primary concerns, an orientation shown in their internal legislation, the turf quarrels between trades, and the subjects of their parliamentary and aldermannic petitions.

From the perspective of portraying "daily life," the most successful article in the book in my opinion is the last, Richard Britnell, "York under the Yorkists." Britnell begins with a description of the major buildings and what was done to them in the late fifteenth century, evoking a vivid sense of "sights and smells," appearance of streets, fines for nuisance offenses, and the plural market structure of York. He relies heavily on P. J. P. Goldberg for the social geography of the artisanate. From this essentially descriptive introduction, Britnell passes to the numerous signs that York was decaying in the fifteenth century, as its textile economy lost ground both to rural artisans in Yorkshire and to the better marketing and credit possibilities afforded by London and its satellites. He then considers standards of living, domestic architecture and household furnishings, and wages, which remained high but could not compensate for intermittent employment. Again following Goldberg, he notes that as economic opportunity declined, there was less opportunity for women to work outside the home to supplement the family income. Britnell describes the city government of York, noting that the crafts had a political role that was unusually strong among English cities. The jurisdiction of the sheriff's and mayor's courts are explained on the evidence of actual cases. Britnell does not consider levels of crime in York, confining himself to civil matters, but the extent of violence must surely make this a proper subject of consideration for "daily life." He concludes by considering religious devotion and cultural life, concentrating on the mystery plays. His findings implicitly corroborate Burgess's for London that the parishes remained vital and that individual piety was not declining.

Several of these authors are young scholars, but all but one have significant and in some cases extensive publications. While specialists will quibble, each of these articles is at the least an effective summary of recent research, supplemented by published documents and archival records, and some are considerably more than that. Endnotes for all chapters are printed consecutively at the end of the book. English documents that are quoted in the text are given the original spelling; Latin and French materials are rendered into modern English.

Coverage is always uneven in books of this nature. The title suggests more breadth than the volume provides, for all papers concern Yorkist England. Only two use much material from the continent, and then to illustrate points where English evidence is weak. Readers whose particular interests are in the daily lives of clergy, students, prominent merchants, peasants bound to a traditional agrarian routine, marginals, or a host of other topics will not find much here. Within the bounds imposed by its format, however, this book succeeds as a coherent and subtly interconnected collection.