James Masschaele

title.none: Schofield, Peasant and Community (James Masschaele)

identifier.other: baj9928.0410.017 04.10.17

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: James Masschaele, Rutgers University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Schofield, Phillipp R. Peasant and Community in Medieval England, 1200-1500. Series: Medieval Culture and Society. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Pp. vii, 279. ISBN: $22.00 0-333-64711-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.10.17

Schofield, Phillipp R. Peasant and Community in Medieval England, 1200-1500. Series: Medieval Culture and Society. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Pp. vii, 279. ISBN: $22.00 0-333-64711-4.

Reviewed by:

James Masschaele
Rutgers University

Phillipp Schofield's new book on medieval English peasants is a welcome addition to the literature of the field. Like most other branches of scholarship, medieval rural history has splintered into numerous subfields in the past generation, a process that has opened up several new and exciting areas of research but one that has also greatly complicated the task of writing a synthesis of current scholarship. Schofield's book is particularly successful in conveying what is important about newer areas of interest without losing sight of the more traditional issues that have animated the general field. To have accomplished this within a text of just over 200 pages (not counting endnotes) is no mean feat.

Schofield divides his book into three main sections, one dealing with land, one with family, and one with the world beyond the village. Two major issues drive the first section on landholding: the diversity of landholding within the ranks of the peasantry (geographically and chronologically) and the role of the land market in shaping peasant society. The discussion of diversity provides a solid overview of an extensive secondary literature related to issues of peasant stratification and the mechanisms by which internal differentiation between different ranks of peasants changed over time. Schofield's comments on the emergence and operation of a land market are a particularly interesting part of the book. He argues forcefully for the existence of a real peasant land market (not one that simply redistributed land as a natural concomitant of personal life cycles). He also believes that such a market emerged relatively early (by the first part of the thirteenth century in some parts of England) and that it was extensive enough by the early fourteenth century to facilitate considerable change in the overall composition of peasant society (mainly by enhancing stratification).

The section on family similarly develops the theme of chronological and geographical diversity, but not quite as successfully as the section on landholding. Schofield addresses many different questions that demographic specialists have treated over the past two generations: household size, fertility rates, age at marriage, life expectancy, overall population trends, and kinship networks, to name some of the more prominent. These have proven to be contentious issues, and Schofield's attempt to find common ground by arguing that family situations could differ greatly between regions and periods tends to sidestep some of the more controversial issues (such as the root cause of the fifteenth-century demographic stagnation, for example). There is certainly a good deal of truth in the author's contention that the family situation of a virgate-holder in the west Midlands in the thirteenth century might differ considerably from that of a petty craftsman in fifteenth-century east Anglia. But such a perspective tends to obscure as much as it uncovers. What is lacking in this section of the book is a clear distillation of a few general principles that might make sense of the diversity. Schofield's problem in this regard probably reflects the uncertainties of the field more than anything else. One is struck in this section by how many central demographic issues have simply refused to divulge their secrets. As Schofield depicts the current situation, the shadow of John Hajnal continues to loom over the field, and the fact that this shadow is still nearly as dark as it was forty years ago raises the question of how well medievalists have been served by their efforts to find the origins of the northwest European marriage pattern.

In the third section of the book, Schofield endeavors to show how peasants interacted with the world beyond their native village by looking at their involvement with markets, the state, and the church. The author spends less energy making the case for diversity of experience in this part of the book and seeks instead to make the case that these relationships were important components of peasant culture. In the case of peasant marketing, Schofield supports the view that the peasant economy was heavily influenced by commercial opportunities from fairly early in the period he covers, and offers some interesting comments about the relationship between the land market and the broader market for peasant commodities. His treatment of the relationship between peasants and the state is notable for being couched in less pessimistic terms than one generally finds in existing secondary literature on the subject. State demands for taxes and other supplies to fuel the war machine did put a strain on villages, Schofield believes, but at the same time peasants were able to develop strategies to minimize the harm and sometimes even to adapt higher levels of government to serve their own interests. A similar line is argued with respect to religion, namely that peasants were generally aware of wider movements in devotional life in the period and actively sought to adapt them to their own conditions.

To the eyes of this reviewer, Schofield's treatment of his subject is coherently organized, well informed by recent literature, and notably fair-minded. There are, to be sure, a number of questions that are glossed over for the sake of clarity and brevity. One finds little discussion, for example, of the complexities of social terminology prevalent in the period or of the overall social stratification that served to demarcate the boundaries of peasant society. The author tends to be more interested in describing real situations and experiences than in formulating definitions, and while this approach is generally laudable it prevents him in some instances from drawing all loose ends together. Particularly striking is the absence of a sustained treatment of the nature of community, a topic one would expect to find front-and-center in a book that includes the word "community" in its title. One might say that the entire book is an attempt to describe the nature of peasant communities (with an emphasis on the plural) but even so it still would have been worthwhile to address the topic more directly, particularly since the configuration and even the very existence of community at the village level has generated so much controversy in recent years. On the other hand, a short synthesis cannot be all things to all people, and it would be unreasonable to expect a work of this nature to cover every possible topic even in a limited way. Schofield gives fresh and often innovative treatment to the field as a whole, and his book should prove valuable not only to scholars with a special research interest in medieval English peasants, but also to readers (and teachers) with a more general interest in this important area of medieval historiography.