03.04.07, Hicks, Revolution and Consumption in Late Medieval England

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Lorraine Attreed

The Medieval Review baj9928.0304.007


Hicks, Michael, ed.. Revolution and Consumption in Late Medieval England. Series: The Fifteenth Century. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2001. Pp. x, 198. ISBN: 0-851-15832-3.

Reviewed by:
Lorraine Attreed
College of the Holy Cross

Michael Hicks has collected examples of recent research in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century studies, and garnished them with writings of senior scholars to produce a valuable volume treating political power, economic regulation, and conspicuous consumption in late medieval England. The fruits of a 1999 "junior" conference showcasing graduate students' work, the papers treat fairly narrow issues and rarely address the issue of revolution, but they should prompt some rethinking of major themes in the period.

Three of the contributions by young scholars illuminate issues of Richard II's reign, outlining the king's long-term intentions to gain absolutist power. Alastair Dunn's work "Exploitation and Control: The Royal Administration of Magnate Estates, 1397-1405," examines what Richard II and Henry IV shared in their takeovers of noble lands, and how their policies differed. Taking on such experts in the field as Tuck, Given-Wilson, and Saul, Dunn's close study finds no coherent policy for Richard, who provided none of his favorites with a united block of holdings confiscated from his enemies. Piecemeal distribution damaged the efficient administration of some estates, but Dunn also finds cases in which the king was thwarted in his pursuit of maximum profits. Much depended on the nature of the royal escheators, with efficient ones able to strip bare the Gloucester estates and the forfeited marcher lands of Arundel in a period of two or three years. Henry IV was more sensitive to the drawbacks of confiscation and redistribution, having many partisans to reward, but Dunn observes that his general resumption of the Mortimer estates, while good for the crown, may have precipitated more troubles from the Percies than any other factor.

Shelagh Mitchell turns her attention to "The Knightly Household of Richard II and the Peace Commissions," arguing for the existence of a larger group of Ricardian household knights than has been previously accepted. The Great Revolt of 1381 precipitated increases in both the number of knights and their nominations to special peace commissions, a decade earlier than other historians have identified. Much of the evidence for her assertions lies in her unpublished doctoral thesis, but Mitchell makes a persuasive case here for citing 1381 as the start of Richard's assertion of increased control throughout the administration. One could observe, however, that such an assertion naturally appeared not as consciously articulated policy but as a consequence of Richard's own departure from childhood and the restraints on a child-king's household.

Alison Gundy focuses on "The Earl of Warwick and the Royal Affinity in the Politics of the West Midlands, 1398-1399." She concludes that Richard totally misconceived the roles and symbiotic relationship of the king and his subjects, and by retaining nobles he confused his role as monarch with that of a feudal overlord. Not only did Richard attempt to build up his own affinity, but he set out to destroy those of noblemen such as the Appellant earl of Warwick in the 1380s and 1390s, and the Courtenay earl of Devon. In his insecurity, Richard created local tensions by favoring his retained nobles over non-retained men, a procedure that backfired when the former could not win support for the king when he needed it in 1399.

All three of these papers cast Richard's administrative skills and grasp of political realities in a dim light, asserting that he was either inept or abrasively absolutist long before the late 1390s. While it is valuable to have these new ways to measure such faults, none of the papers asks why and how Richard came to form these skewed ideas of monarchy, whether early or late in his reign. Brief conference papers, fresh from their thesis binding, may not be the best place to pursue such context, but readers can look forward to seeing how these studies become incorporated in larger works in the years to come.

Patterns of consumption, conspicuously in surplus or of the bare necessities, and the light they shed on regional and urban networks, tie five of the remaining papers together. John Hare studies "Regional Prosperity in Fifteenth-Century England: Some Evidence from Wessex," focusing on the western region in the post-plague society that witnessed increases in cloth production and export. The wide variety of rural economies in the region prevents easy application of Postan's uniformly bleak vision of general recession and demographic decline. Areas fit for livestock rearing fared well as post-plague diets included more meat products, but so also did areas providing barley for ale. Hare sees the spread of demesne leasing after the mid-fifteenth century not as a radical change but as a sensible return to a rational organization replaced by the unusual conditions of the thirteenth century, and one that did not change the basic nature of agriculture. Nevertheless, it was cloth production that would bring added prosperity to the area in this century, although with it came increased vulnerability to monetary pressures and interruptions of trade.

Jessica Freeman, in "Middlesex in the Fifteenth Century: Community or Communities?" also focuses on a region, but brings forward the factor of urban influence on the creation of a corporate shire identity. By studying those men elected as shire knights 1399-1491, and those made parliamentary attestors, she concludes that London's proximity did not deter the perception of the county as a readily identifiable unit, where men of differing status could participate in elections and believe they were acting for a common purpose, separate from that of the city. The depth and sincerity of community-mindedness, however, is a matter more difficult to measure.

Urban influences also direct the inquiries of three other young scholars. John Lee examines "The Trade of Fifteenth-Century Cambridge and its Region," concentrating on the impact of Cambridge University's pattern of consumption on the town and its surrounding region. He reveals that demands were met by Lynn and London suppliers in addition to local ones, and the integrated network that resulted lightened some of the bleaker aspects of post-plague economy. Miranda Threlfall-Holmes' study of "Durham Cathedral Priory's Consumption of Imported Goods: Wine and Spices, 1464-1520" traces purchases through the study of obedientiary accounts. Some of the calculations of portions of wine and spices in this chapter are confusing (perhaps crucial details remain in the thesis?), but more pertinent than the personal portions she calculates is the author's evidence for the importance of Newcastle as a center for supplies. This is a valuable revelation in light of the town's paucity of surviving records. In similar fashion, Winifred Harwood studies "The Impact of St. Swithun's Priory on the City of Winchester in the Later Middle Ages," finding that the priory was an important employer and consumer in local markets. These three papers provide slight additions to our economic knowledge of the period, and are perhaps most valuable for showing how essential it is to make the study of the fifteenth century that of a "long" century, extending our glances into the mid-sixteenth century for a more accurate view of economic change.

These "junior" conferences also feature plenary sessions by senior scholars, and three intriguing examples are published here. Related to the theme of regionalism and urban interactions, Peter Fleming's "Telling Tales of Oligarchy in the Late Medieval Town" investigates the contested arena of the political philosophies and self-awareness of urban society's lesser members. The paper manages to be wise, controversial, and suggestive all at once, and one hopes that Professor Fleming will expand these thoughts at length. His study begins with Bristol and ends with York's mystery play cycle, and its treatment of the "official" records kept by urban corporations reveals the opportunities urban subjects took to subvert the prescribed order of town rule. In contradicting Susan Reynolds' theories about oligarchic rule, Fleming does not do full justice to the complexity of her argument, yet another reason for desiring an extension of this work at a later date.

The contributions of T. B. Pugh and Christopher Woolgar lead us back to the world of noble households and consumption patterns. Pugh's study of "The Estates, Finances and Regal Aspirations of Richard Plantagenet (1411-1460), Duke of York" notes York's vast inheritances and the claims he laid upon them. He finds the decade 1443-53 to be critical to York's monetary and political fortunes, for as profits from the marcher lordships declined, York turned to short-term fundraising schemes, and political dominance came to offer a solution to his financial problems. Pugh concludes with an examination of the constitutional implications of the 1460 Accord, the foundation of both the divine right of kings until 1701, and the right of the female to transmit and even embody valid title to the English throne.

Spendthrift nobles receive particular attention in Woolgar's succulent study "Fast and Feast: Conspicuous Consumption and the Diet of the Nobility in the Fifteenth Century," in an examination of meal portions in two noble households and at the 1465 enthronement feast of George Neville as archbishop of York. Household accounts reveal five to six dietary regimes simultaneously in operation on any one estate, to tempt appetites ranging from that of the lord to the poor at his door. Woolgar calculates that ordinary retainers could find a pound or more of meat (beef, pork, mutton) on their trenchers each day, plus fish and grain products, while the gentle members of the household had additional access to veal, piglets and squabs. (The size of medieval livestock remains debatable, and it is unclear whether the weights mentioned in the essay include bones, gristle, and other waste.) The lord himself ate less red meat than high quality poultry and fowl, fresh fish, fruit, cream and sugar. It did not seem that anyone in a noble household could go hungry for long, nor could anyone ignore the message that such conspicuous consumption denoted an individual of wealth and clout. Woolgar can only speculate on what some of the more elaborate dishes looked, smelled, and tasted like, but it is clear that rituals of serving added to the effect of luxury and privilege.

This "junior" conference on the fifteenth century was the ninth of its kind since its inception twenty-five years ago at the behest of Professor Charles Ross. I was a guest at that first conference, and several since, and have watched many of the participants develop into productive and respected historians. This particular volume contributes valuable insights into the sources of political power and the nature of the post-plague economy. Like its predecessors, it heralds continued interest in the later Middle Ages by a new generation of able and promising young scholars.

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Author Biography

Lorraine Attreed

College of the Holy Cross