The Medieval Review 16.11.10

Kowaleski, Maryanne, John Langdon, and Phillipp R. Schofield, eds. Peasants and Lords in the Medieval English Economy: Essays in Honour of Bruce M. S. Campbell. The Medieval Countryside, 16. Turnhout: Brepols, 2015. pp. xxv, 433. $143.00 (hardback). ISBN: 978-2-503-55156-2 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

James Masschaele
Rutgers University

Bruce Campbell has long been a leading figure in the field of medieval social and economic history, known both for the quality of his scholarship and his boundless energy as a conference organizer and mentor of other scholars. This collection of essays is a fitting tribute to his special place in the field, bringing together a stellar group of historians whose work has been deeply influenced by Campbell's groundbreaking studies of medieval society. The volume began life at an international conference held in 2013 in the cathedral town of Wells which showcased Campbell's many contributions as scholar and facilitator and highlighted the respect he had earned from the contributors to the volume and the many participants who attended. Both the editors and the press are to be commended for taking such a wide-ranging set of papers and welding them into a coherent collection that takes stock of the field's development over the past generation while also underlining many of the issues that will animate it for years to come.

The volume is divided into four different parts, each highlighting a theme of Campbell's work and illustrating his influence over a range of subfields. The first part, "Lords, Peasants, and Agricultural Performance," includes contributions by Philip Slavin, Jane Whittle, John Langdon, and Christopher Dyer. Slavin provides a new analysis of the 1283 lay subsidy return for Blackbourne hundred in Suffolk, long familiar to agrarian historians for its detailed listing of peasant possessions. His main conclusion is that peasants were heavily invested in the ownership of livestock, so much so that their stocking density typically exceeded the density of the lords who are recorded in the subsidy. Whittle explores some of the social dynamics between peasants and lords in the village of Hunstanton, Norfolk, in the later fourteenth century recorded in local manorial and household accounts. She illustrates facets of the relationship that have received relatively little attention in previous literature, particularly the prominence of gift exchange and the prevalence of employment relations that were not mediated through lordship. Langdon deploys an underutilized source--extents for debts associated with recognizance procedure--to compare the productivity of lords and "non-lords" (mostly peasants but with some other social groups) as cereal producers in the fourteenth century. He finds that rates of productivity between the two groups were broadly similar in the first half of the century but then diverged after the Black Death in favor of non-lords. He also marshals the data to support Campbell's argument that total population in the early fourteenth century was in the vicinity of 4 million people rather than the higher estimates most other historians have favored. Christopher Dyer ends the first section by comparing a series of fifteenth-century tithe and manorial accounts from Worcester Cathedral Priory to consider how individual producers used their resources. His most important finding is that peasant production strategies tended to be more commercially-minded than those of larger producers, with a stronger orientation toward wheat production in particular and a greater willingness to specialize in a single crop or limited number of crops.

The second part of the book includes essays by John Hatcher, Mark Bailey, and Stephen Rigby on the evolution and general significance of villein status. Hatcher provides an excellent synopsis of changing historical opinion about the burdens associated with villeinage from the writings of Karl Marx to the present. He illustrates the gulf between commentators focused on legal theory and those who prioritize real practices, a divide that can be found already in thirteenth-century legal texts as well as in later centuries, with nineteenth and early twentieth-century historians, for example, giving greater weight to legal theory while recent generations have emphasized everyday practice. He then reiterates a fundamental argument found in some of his earlier work that the widespread acceptance of custom by lords worked to the benefit of villein tenants in the long thirteenth century, insulating them from rising rents and the market uncertainty that made life difficult for the period's lesser freeholders. Bailey endeavors to debunk what he calls the "myth" of the seigneurial reaction in a valuable and thought-provoking essay. He concedes that lords actively sought tools to control the social churn following the Black Death and that the English state was a forceful accomplice in this effort but he queries whether these tools were as effective as is generally thought. He makes a strong counter-argument that the forces unleashed by the Plague were simply too powerful to be managed and directed by society's privileged orders. In his view, historians have sought evidence to fit the reactionary model without being sufficiently attentive to the episodic and intermittent nature of the evidence. Even in the bishopric of Durham, long seen as the exemplar of reactionary lordship, the effort to reassert traditional forms of dominance proved to be unworkable and was ultimately abandoned. Rigby explores the social imagination of three medieval thinkers and writers--John of Salisbury, Giles of Rome, and Christine de Pisan--looking for clues to contemporary sentiment about inequality and hierarchy. Other scholars have characterized the three writers as relatively sympathetic to the plight of the lower orders but Rigby contends that they were largely conventional in viewing inequality as natural and divinely ordained. In a more speculative vein, he queries whether their conventional attitudes really had much influence beyond the social elites who read their works and already shared their assumptions.

Part III of the volume is devoted to the influence of market institutions and commercial development on lords and peasants, with contributions by Phillipp Schofield, Richard Britnell, Chris Briggs, and James Davis. Schofield writes about the early land market in East Anglia, particularly on the estate of Bury St. Edmunds, arguing that a market can be found as far back as the eleventh century and may have begun even earlier. By the thirteenth century, even customary tenancies were circulating in the region's robust market. In line with the arguments advanced by John Hatcher and Mark Bailey in the previous section of the book, Schofield suggests that even relatively powerful lords had to acquiesce to the dealings of their tenants, seeking ways to tax market exchanges rather than exerting any real managerial control over them. Britnell, who sadly passed away while putting the finishing touches on his essay, draws attention to the market in tools, implements, and metal wares documented in manorial account rolls. He notes that estates procured these goods ready-made in all parts of the country whenever needed, although they often chose to control costs by purchasing only essential parts and hiring local specialists to craft the finished product. Briggs does a deep dive into the unusually well-documented market in Balsham, Cambridgeshire. He uncovered an interesting reference to tenants helping to fund the lord's acquisition of the market franchise and uses it to make the case that people saw even relatively localized commercial venues as beneficial promotors of trade in foodstuffs and basic staple goods. In a similar vein, Davis revisits the relationship between local and regional trade in pre-Plague markets, arguing that much of the period's commercial infrastructure was designed to facilitate local trade and that previous historians have given too much attention to the role markets played as constituent elements of wider commercial networks.

The final section is the most disparate part of the volume, bringing together essays by Judith Bennett, Marilyn Livingstone, Maryanne Kowaleski, and Richard M. Smith touching on issues of poverty and the environment. Bennett addresses the gendered nature of medieval poverty, arguing that women made up a large proportion of the most desperately poor members of society, a reality that is often hard to grasp because of the paucity of source material and the tendency of contemporaries to lump women and men together as a single category of the impoverished. Given what we know about the handicaps women faced as landholders, heirs, and participants in the labor market, though, there is ample reason to suspect that women were more prone to poverty than men, as they have been shown to be in many other periods and places. Livingstone contributes a fine essay on how environmental conditions affected agriculture in the late 1330s and early 1340s, based mostly on evidence provided by the Nonae Rolls. She finds that farmers were seriously hampered by exceptionally wet conditions, with up to five percent of all arable land in the country out of commission due to flooding. Her evidence provides further backing for Bruce Campbell's account of the early fourteenth century as a period of widespread economic hardship and extreme environmental stress. Kowaleski reminds us that even though economic circumstances were often difficult, medieval people were adaptive and opportunistic, as in the case of peasants dwelling near England's extensive coastline who developed hybrid lives combining farming and fishing. As Kowaleski demonstrates, there is a surprising body of evidence showing how individuals and local communities brought these two pursuits together, devising ways to mitigate against the risks of maritime pursuits and to use collective action to improve standards of living. Smith's essay returns to the issue of poverty, comparing social and political responses to periods of dearth and famine in the 1310s and the 1580s and '90s. He argues that mortality rates were lower in the later period, partly because the underlying cause of the earlier harvest failure was more severe but also because people living in the later period had better safety nets protecting the most vulnerable. In particular, parishes had become more vital institutions in the interval and had become capable of caring for the poor in ways that fourteenth-century parishes could not manage. Agents of the state were also better prepared to address food shortages at the end of the sixteenth century than were their counterparts in the fourteenth century.

As this whirlwind tour of the fifteen essays making up the volume demonstrates, Bruce Campbell has inspired a wide range of innovative work on a host of important questions in social and economic history. Our understanding of the period is significantly different now than it was when Campbell first began to publish in the early 1980s and much of the credit for our improved understanding can be given to Campbell himself. But as these essays reveal, the mark of successful scholarship should be sought more in the way it inspires colleagues to take up new questions and issues than in a listing of one's own accomplishments. By that standard, Campbell has had an extraordinarily successful career, so much so that it is difficult to conceive of how different the field would be if he had not been such a central part of it over the past four decades.

Copyright (c) 2016 James Masschaele

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