Social Welfare and Mutual Aid in the Medieval Countryside

by Elaine Clark
Social Welfare and Mutual Aid in the Medieval Countryside
Elaine Clark
The Journal of British Studies
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Social Welfare and Mutual Aid in the Medieval Countryside
Elaine Clark

Almost every social problem that troubles the conscience of a community has a history. Poverty, hunger, homelessness, the conse- quences of crime and epidemic disease-all are familiar topics of con- temporary discourse that also mattered in the medieval past. Then, as now, questions about social welfare provoked debate and thoughtful comment in courts, churches, and political councils. The parameters of discussion naturally shifted with the ebb and flow of economic cir- cumstance, but seldom more so than in the fourteenth century, when famine, recurrent plague, and labor unrest disrupted English society. In the villages and little market towns of the countryside, where most of the population lived, the threat of economic insecurity raised ethical and legal dilemmas about begging, vagrancy, and alms for the poor. All posed hard questions for people living in small groups, for they understood, better than solitary folk, how the ideals and practices of social welfare were grounded in communal life. Its conventions and norms reflected the shared values of neighbors and kin, as well as the social boundaries and inequalities of medieval society. How, then, did people who lived by the labor of their hands view the poor and disa- bled? Were the aged, the unemployed, the infirm, and chronically ill a part of the community, or did disability and want set them apart?

These questions pose the problem of how social cohesion and a sense of belonging were maintained by people of diverse sorts and conditions in the medieval countryside. To ignore or hurriedly dismiss their interest in the subject of community life would be a mistake. As a senior clerk said to his junior in the Exchequer in 1177 when con- fronted with a difficult question, "Wait a moment, let us ask the coun-

ELAINECLARKis professor of history at the University of Michigan, Dearborn.

Journal of British Studies 33 (October 1994): 381-406 01994 by The North American Conference on British Studies. All rights reserved. 0021-937119413304-0003$01.00

tryfolk."'Rural traditions of cooperative effort and local responsibility in governance are of course well known, but less fully appreciated is the contribution that the locality or neighborhood (patvia) made to public policy and law. The combined endeavors of mutual aid, self- help, and casual relief, along with the demands of lordship and custom, characterized social programs and policy in the countryside. Though pragmatic in intent, social policy was not for the poor alone and vari- ously addressed the expectations of powerful lords, as well as the needs of hard-pressed farmers and laborers. They knew firsthand that networks of mutual aid and casual relief served to offset economic adversity but still mirrored a widespread concern on the part of the privileged to preserve justice and social order. If status and subtle variations in political rank mattered in the design of social welfare, then the shares that people had in each other's lives certainly counted as much. Once again, the problem is to explain the boundaries of community. Was a sense of solidarity the consequence of exclusion or inclusion? Did the poor and the needy subsist at the margins of village life, or were they valued as neighbors and afforded material support?

Sources and Setting

The information we have about charity and mutual aid in the Mid- dle Ages is more often descriptive and personal than quantitative. It is contained in handbooks of pastoral care, in the commentary of law- yers and social critics, in chronicles, sermons, and saints' lives. Rele- vant facts are found, too, in the private contracts and property settle- ments of peasants, arrangements documenting gifts and charitable bequests comparable to the almsdeeds that merchants and gentry noted in the cartularies of monasteries, hospitals, and guild^.^ Although factual in nature, this source material contains little statistical

' Cited by Helen M. Cam, "The Theory and Practice of Representation in Medieval England," in Historical Studies of the English Parliament, ed. E. B. Fryde and Edward Miller (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 1:269.

The range of this evidence is noted in various studies, including Marjorie K. McIntosh, "Local Responses to the Poor in Late Medieval and Tudor England," Continuity and Change 3 (1988): 209-45; Joel T. Rosenthal, The Purchase of Paradise: Gift Giving and the Aristocracy, 1307-1485 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972); Miri Rubin, Charity and Community in Medieval Cambridge (Cambridge: Cambridge Univer- sity Press, 1987); Norman P. Tanner, The Church in Late Medieval Norwich, 1370-1532 (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1984); Barbara A. Hanawalt, The Ties That Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), and "Keepers of the Lights: Late Medieval Parish Gilds," Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 14 (1984): 21-37.

data of the kind collected by a modern state. We have no true totals of the medieval poor, nor can we easily reconstruct the costs and benefits involved in relieving economic distress. Yet in England there had always been pockets of bureaucracy and talented administrators adept at record keeping. By the fourteenth century their attention to detail enhanced the quality and quantity of the information kept by law courts, ecclesiastical agencies, and the estate offices of manorial 10rds.~As this information accumulated, it brought into focus the eco- nomic problems besetting the countryside during years when the con- ditions of life were changing.

The setbacks and demographic crises that troubled rural society were clearly noticeable in the generations before and after the Black Death (1348-49). At the close of the thirteenth century, agricultural production lagged behind population growth. Hardworking peasants became vulnerable to land shortages, high rents, and crop failures. Wages stagnated; nutrition deteriorated. The famine of 1315-18 occa- sioned widespread mortality, and 10-15 percent of the residents of some villages died.4 Conditions worsened in mid-century when approx- imately half of the population succumbed to plague and epidemic dis- ease. As population diminished, rural land markets quickened to facili- tate the sale of newly available fields and farms.j The demand for workers gradually intensified, and labor markets expanded. Wages rose in the 1350s and 1360s, then markedly increased in the last quarter of the ~entury.~

Everywhere there was change. It generated opportu- nity but also underscored the economic and social disparities that had long complicated village life. By any measure, inequality stemmed from the uneven distribution of goods and resources at the local level. Although cottagers and smallholders no longer faced land shortages in postplague years, substantial properties increasingly came into the hands of a peasant aristocracy composed of large-scale farmers able to prosper at the expense of less fortunate neighbors.

Given the stratification of rural society, not all peasants led ex- actly parallel lives. The size and productivity of agricultural holdings occasioned differences in economic security and wealth. Yet poor smallholders and richer peasants belonged to the same social group

'For archival references, see Appendix. Christopher Dyer, Standards of Living in the Later Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 140.

For a detailed discussion, see P. D. A. Harvey, ed., The Peasant Land Market in Medieval England (Oxford: Clarendon, 1984); Richard M. Smith, ed., Land, Kinship and Life-Cycle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).

Dyer, Standards of Living, pp. 217-19.

and occupied the estate of "those who labored." More than other people, they understood the work that defined rural life, and, as al- ways, they did it. Peasants had little else to sustain them through difficult times and knew from experience that a community seldom flourished iinless it embraced a variety of hardworking folk. The busi- ness conducted in markets and shops, along with domestic service, complemented agricultural production. Many craftsmen combined a skilled trade with small-scale farming, while smallholders lacking in- dustrial skills labored for better-off neighbors and lords. Rural wage earners formed a diverse group that included smallholders and cot- tagers as well as villagers without land of their own. Landless laborers were in the minority but still had an interest in the community at large. Some found permanent employment on the home farms (demesnes) of manorial lords; others depended on seasonal work, especially during the summer and autumn when extra hands were needed for haymaking and harvest. The opportunity to work enabled poor villagers to sur- vive, but in the varied economy of a rural community, wages never displaced the benefits of land.

Landholding peasants formed the solid core of village society and played an active part in the day-to-day governance of the countryside. The resources of middling and substantial cultivators ranged between a dozen to forty or fifty acres of land and represented a peasant house- hold's main source of income. Since land was the basis of wealth, influential villagers invariably came from households that were territo- rially well endowed and actively engaged in political life. Public service excluded women but involved husbands, fathers, and sons in the offi- cial business of manor, parish, and court. Reeves, haywards, consta- bles, churchwardens, and bailiffs all held prominent places in local governance. Jurors and tithingmen were also drawn from better-off families and formed the center of gravity in manor courts where they operated under the supervision of the lord's ~teward.~

Although of- ficeholders were generally men of property and rank, they still re- mained subject to customary constraints. A manorial lord never viewed jurors and tithingmen as his peers and had little if any desire to call them into fellowship with him. They were his subordinates, his bondsmen and dependents; the land they farmed was held at his will. As a result, few men underestimated the power and privilege of lord- ship in the manorial world.

'Edwin B. DeWindt, Land and People in Holywell-cum-Needingworth (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1972), pp. 217-20; R. H. Hilton, The English Peasantry in the Later Middle Ages (Oxford: Clarendon, lP75), p. 54.

The layered society of a medieval village was, however, no less complex for the fact that tenant farmers lived within the bounds of lordship and custom. Peasants were not all alike, and to label them "simple, common rustics," as political commentators occasionally did, obscured the diversity of rural life. What resulted was a discussion of medieval society solely in terms of those who labored, those who fought, and those who prayed. Such a view of society, Helen Cam observed, was "functional and v~cational."~

It disclosed little if any- thing about the common action and interests that brought people to- gether and gave them a feeling of familiarity, of taking part in the everyday, of association. This is not to say social commentary lacked seriousness or displayed a failure of craftsmanship; rather, contempo- raries wrote in a way that reflected the political conditions and require- ments of their day.
Images of Community

By the fourteenth century the social thinking and imagery reported in chronicles and religious manuals suggested how a rhetoric of order, of natural hierarchy and mutual dependence, framed the perception of communal ties.9 What mattered in the small society of a village was what mattered in the small world of a monastery, a parish, a guild. Commonality with others was valued and brought into focus all the meanings of the word "common": participating in a group, being known, having a public role, pursuing mutual goals. Time and again, medieval teachers emphasized the virtues of generosity and compas- sion that enhanced cooperation, then noted the divisiveness and en- mity engendered by vice. "Pride, wrath, and avarice," moralists warned, led "men out of fellowship" and threatened the cohesion of the group.1° Antisocial behavior diminished solidarity and provoked conflict unless diffused through traditional ceremonies of communion and exchange." Banquets and communal meals promoted harmony

Cam, p. 265.

Priscilla H. Barnum, ed., Dives and Pa~lper, Early English Text Society (hereafter EETS) no. 275 (London, 1976), pt. 1, pp. 63, 358, and no. 280 (London, 1980), pt. 2,

    222; Woodburn 0.Ross, ed., Middle English Sermons, EETS no. 209 (London, 1960),
    238; Walter W. Skeat, ed., The Vision of William concerning Piers the Plowman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1924; reprint, 1954), B. Prologue, 11.116-22.

'O Richard Morris, ed., Ayenbite of Inwyt; or, Remorse of Conscience (in the Kent- ish Dialect, 1340 A.D.), by Dan Michel, EETS no. 23 (London, 1866), p. 102; Ross, ed.,

p. 67.

" For discussion of ways to restore or enhance social solidarity, see Michael Clan- chy, "Law and Love in the Middle Ages," in Disputes and Settlements: Law and Human Relations in the West, ed. John Bossy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp. 48-70; Judith M. Bennett, "Conviviality and Charity in Medieval and Early

and goodwill but also provided an occasion for the many to judge the misconduct of the few. Particularly telling, observers claimed, were rituals of exclusion that regulated behavior by reinforcing the common consciousness and identity that bespoke membership in a group. When monks violated religious law, as happened at St. Germans in 1400, they forfeited the company of peers; in the refectory malefactors had to sit on the floor with nothing to eat but bread.12 Dominican and Franciscan friars just as purposefully excluded errant brothers from communal meals, compelling the men to dine on meager portions of food deliberately left on the ground.I3 Formal meals enhanced the as- sembly of fellows at colleges in Oxford, but a scholar who spoke with- out cause, save in Latin, risked being put in a corner to eat by him- self.14 If, as it seems, the sharing of food defined a community, then the threat of exclusion acted as a powerful inducement to correct mis- behavior.

Inclusion required conformity and obliged the many to observe a code of conduct that honored the demands of justice and "rewarded each according to his works. "I5 What perplexed medieval thinkers was any group that disregarded distinctions based on merit and afforded the law-abiding and the delinquent an identical place. The issue assumed a human face in the legend of Modwen, the story of whose life evoked remembrance of a holy nun confronted with the dilemma of including a sinner in the company of saints.16 When Modwen assured a contrite thief of his place in heaven, Satan mocked her counsel. Why fast and pray, the devil taunted, if God made saintly folk the "equals" of

Modern England," Past and Present, no. 134 (1992), pp. 19-41; Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992), pp. 92-95, 131-36. For individual cases, see Ross, ed., pp. 62-63; Theodore Erb, ed., Mirk's Festial: A Collection of Homilies by Johannes Mirkus, EETS no. 96 (London, 1905), pp. 41, 131.

I' F. C. Hingeston-Randolph, ed., The Register of Edmund Stagord, 1395-1419 (London and Exeter, 1886), p. 314. For a case involving nuns, see C. Horstman, ed., The Lives of Women Saints of Our Countre of England, EETS no. 86 (London, 1886), pp. 24-26.

l3 Edward T. Brett, Humbert of Romans: His Life and Views of Thirteenth Century Society (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1984), p. 147; Granger Ryan and Helmut Ripperger, eds., The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voraigne (New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1941 ; reprint, 1969), p. 600.

l4 Herbert B. Workman, John Wycliff: A Study of the English Medieval Church (Oxford, 1926; reprint, Hamden: Archon, 1966), 1 :78.

l5 Derek Pearsall, ed., Piers Plowman by William Langland: An Edition of the C-Text (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979), passus 5, 1.32. For translation, see J. F. Goodridge, Piers the Ploughman (Hardmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), p. 258.

l6 Horstman, ed., p. 93.

malefactors and thieves in the afterlife? Although Modwen thought the query false, it lingered in the popular imagination and provoked a sense of unease about a community that ignored disparities in behavior and rank. Was it "reasonable," people wondered, to put a "saint and a thief side by side and reward them both alike?"" William Langland thought not, or so it seemed in Piers Plowman when he likened heaven to a communal banquet that followed the etiquette of aristocratic feasts. The penitent thief, although saved by "God's grace," took his place not at high table with "Sts. John, Simon and Jude," but sat alone on the bare ground, his food served in silence and he, like any beggar in the hall of an earl, hardly an honored guest. Contrite malefac- tors and sinners, Langland wrote, "lounged at heaven's lowest reaches" and enjoyed fewer blessings than saintly "virgins, martyrs, confessors, and widows." '*

Langland's community of saints, it seems, could not but. reflect the standards and preoccupations of the society in which he lived. Acceptance required deference to group norms, but, as Langland well knew, seldom did inclusion eliminate distinctions of rank. Hierarchy, not equality, remained an essential aspect of communal life, whether in heaven or the rural society that Piers the Plowman knew. His world was populated by ordinary people, by peasants and laborers, artisans and priests, some proud, others meek, all keenly aware that "God could have created all men equal, none poorer than the other," but did not.'' This sentiment was admittedly not Langland's alone and found expression in the treatises and sermons of various medieval thinkers. Yet Langland emphasized, more than they, the poverty and social ills with which "plowmen, shepherds, and common laborers" had to contend in their day. Throughout the countryside hardship and want tested the bonds of community and threatened disorder.*' There were no state agencies, no public funds or programs of relief adminis- tered by the government to assist peasants in need. For them, the true problem, the endless challenge, was to find solutions "from within."

"Skeat, ed., B. passus 15, 11.149-50; Goodridge, p. 147.

'' Skeat, ed., B. passus 12, 11.196-212, and C. passus 15, 11.136-52. For discussion of status and meals, see Bridget A. Henisch, Fast and Feast: Food in Medieval Society (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976), pp. 56-57, 98-102, 15160; Stephen Menneil, All Manners of Food: Eating and Taste in England and France from the Middle Ages to the Present (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985), pp. 40-47; Dorothy Lee, "Cultural Factors in Dietary Choice," in her Freedorn and Culture (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1959), pp. 154-61; Madeleine P. Cosman, Fabulous Feasts: Medi- eval Cookery and Ceremony (New York: George Braziller, 1976), pp. 37, 105.

l9 Skeat, ed. (n. 9 above), B. passus 14, 11.166-68; Goodridge, p. 171.

20 Skeat, ed., B. passus 14, 11.72-73.

Social welfare was a local problem, and what came to matter was whether the help that villagers offered "softspoken" neighbors, "the weak and the helpless," was also offered defiant beggars and "loud- mouthed" men, people whose very behavior annoyed and disturbed public life.21

The Physically and Mentally Incornpentent

William Langland and socially minded clerics were, of course, not the only men to discuss the conduct of the poor. Farmers and laborers were just as interested in discussing social behavior and found that manor courts provided a ready forum. Although convened at the lord's command, the court addressed both popular and seigneurial concerns. Its deliberations afforded manorial tenants a public voice and fostered a sense of group responsibility and purpose. By the fourteenth century the court had developed the craftsmanship and procedures necessary to identify and collect information about peasants living in want- procedures which reflected a group judgment as to what the main prob- lems in a village were. This judgment was tempered and informed by the lord's desire to have the community of his tenants include industri- ous, hardworking peasants. From them he obtained the rents, labor services, and revenues that formed a substantial portion of his income. The important business of manorial production was not served, a lord believed, if his court ignored problems posed by peasants unable to discharge the obligations of tenure. What every lord required was the court's assurance that customary land would be in the hands of capable cultivators.

This requirement became an important step in resolving social problems and promoting mutual aid. A court was not to ignore the needy but to match productive resources with productive workers so as to ensure the welfare of those too "helpless and weak" to partici- pate fully in agricultural endeavors. What this necessitated was plan- ning and group effort. Hardworking cultivators had to achieve a bal- ance between the claims of the needy and the utilization of limited

''Whether the poor were loud or quiet, medieval commentators urged a "manner of giving" reminiscent of the monastic almoner; the benefactor was to be compassionate, calm, patient, ever discreet in his apportionments, and under no circumstances was he to abuse, upbraid, or strike any of the loud-voiced poor. For guidelines, see David Knowles, ed., The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfrunc (London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1951), p. 89; see also Frederick J. Furnivall, ed., Robert of Brunne's Handlyng Synne, A.D. 1303, EETS no. 119 (London, 1901), pp. 220-22; Arthur Brandeis, ed., Jacob's Well: An English Treatise on the Cleansing of Man's Conscience, EETS no. 115 (London, 1900), pt. 1, pp. 166, 310; Skeat, ed., B. passus 15, 11.227-28.

resources. Tenurial security was of equal concern since peasants did not own the fields they farmed but held customary land at the will of powerful lords. None tolerated the misuse or lax management of his land. Everywhere disabled cultivators had to find caretakers to manage their tenements or see the land revert to the lord. At law he had cus- tody of the holdings of those tenants his court judged "impotent, in- competent, or of unsound mind."22 Seigneurial response to these vil- lagers was measured and carefully calculated. The lord took their land into his own hands, holding it until a suitable custodian was found. If no relative, neighbor, or friend came forward, the lord placed the bur- den of support on the community of his tenants, compelling them to find a caretaker or, failing this, render the requisite rents them~elves.~~

To forestall intervention, poor and infirm tenants had to appeal in person to the lord. When Aldreda Adam appeared before the court of the Abbot of St. Albans in Park (Hertfordshire), her poverty was apparent.24 The clerk noted in the St. Albans court book that the unfor- tunate woman was "impotent" and by the winter of 1317 without the resources to pay her debts. What she needed was guidance, and the court urged Aldreda to "lease" to the abbot an acre of meadow as part of a bargain to remit five of the six quarters of oats she owed in annual rent. Aldreda consented and, by the lord's grace, incurred no further penalty. Equally hard-pressed was Adam Fengrays, who ap- peared before Toynton's court in Lincolnshire during 1326.25 For the past year, Adam admitted, he had failed to render his customary dues. Because of this, the bailiff had entered Adam's fields, harvested his crops, and delivered them, along with a brass pot, to the lord. "Infir- mity and poverty," Adam claimed, left him little choice but to "relin- quish" his holdings and beg the lord's alms (elemosina). As expected, the lord seized and kept Adam's land but ordered estate laborers to plant two-and-a-half acres to the poor man's use for a year.

A different problem arose when villagers could not speak for themselves. These inarticulate folk, Langland thought, lacked "good sense" and often were "idiots and lunatics" without the power to look after them~elves.~~ and care.

Like children they needed "guidance" Casual observers saw idiots and lunatics as much the same, as de- mented, raving mad, and deranged, but English lawyers had a subtler view and drew a distinction between the temporarily insane and "born

"Park, October 18, 1336; Winslow, May 6, 1435; Hindolveston, April 25, 1382.
23 Park, October 18, 1340, May 19, 1341.
24 Park, December 13, 1317.
25 Toynton, October 18, 1326.
26 Skeat, ed., B. Passus 9, 11.66-70.

idiots" who experienced no "lucid intervals."*' The "natural fool" never knew his age and seemed unable to identify his parents by name; he could not count to twenty and had no power, it was said, to beget children.28 Fools, lunatics, and idiots were all legally incompetent and needed protection from the consequences of disordered actions. Many suffered neglect and met with indifference in public unless, as occa- sionally happened, they inherited land. Then the community of the lord's tenants took notice and the court intervened. If, after ques- tioning the heir, jurors judged him an "idiot," his land reverted to the lord, and he surrendered it to a new tenant, to hold to himself and his heirs, on the understanding that this tenant was legally bound to sup- port the "idiot" for life out of the income of his landed estate.29 The safeguard of a conditional grant was necessary because a villager, once judged "incompetent," had no control of his land. All its revenues belonged to his caretaker except for the portion that covered the "ne- cessities" of shelter, food, and clothing. If these were denied the disa- bled man, his caretaker was subject to the court's penalty and possible


In some ways the welfare of the mentally ill was analogous to the wardship of orphans. Here, too, inheritance occasioned questions about the use of land and emphasized again the problem of how a rural community responded to powerless, vulnerable persons. Throughout the countryside manorial lords took an interest in children orphaned by the death of fathers or both parents together. This interest stemmed from a concern to preserve the power of lordship over a dependent tenantry, although no less pressing was the lord's need to prevent inexperienced youths from taking up an inheritance. From a seigneur- ial perspective the role of customary tenant involved not only the planting and tilling of land but the performance of manorial services by individuals fully competent to swear oaths of fealty and attend court. Obviously, it was not in a lord's interest to allow the community of his tenants to view minors as equals. Whenever heirs were under-

27 F. Pollock and F. W. Maitland, The History of English Law, 2d ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968), 1:481.

"8.E. Bell, An Introduction to the History and Records of the Court of Wards and Liveries (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953), p. 128.

"Park, October 18, 1336; Winslow, April 1, 1442. See also Eleanor Searle, Lordship and Community: Battle Abbey and Its Banlieu, 1066-1538 (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1974), p. 391; F. R. H. DuBoulay, The Lordship of Canterbury (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1966), p. 312.

age, the lord took their land into his own hands, holding it until guard- ians were approved. Thereafter, his court supervised the relationship between guardians and wards. This work of supervision began with the impaneling of jurors to report the deaths of tenants, survey the land they formerly held, and identify heirs. A problem that troubled jurors was the vulnerability of youngsters without family support, for when orphans were unprotected, their property was liable to misuse. Many jurors were fathers themselves and understood that for children to prosper they needed the care of "honest and good" adults. Estate officials concurred, informing all villagers that the custody of orphans had to be based on an express covenant between guardians and lords, by which agreement guardians assured the lord of their willingness to nurture the young and fulfill for them the obligations that the tenancy of land entailed.30

The lord's concern to bring all guardians under the supervision of his court reflected the community's interest in how guardians adminis- tered property and supported the young. Many people knew the details of an orphan's estate because issues of wardship became common knowledge once jurors reported the obituaries of tenants in court. If, in time, a guardian appeared incompetent or mismanaged an estate, it was practical for the court to inter~ene.~'

Many villagers expected as much, particularly when children had suffered the loss of both parents. Should no kinsfolk petition the court for custody, the lord acted on the children's behalf and occasionally entrusted orphans to the com- munity at large, whereupon guardians were "elected" by all the manor's tenants or by a panel of jurors acting on the advice of the friends of the underage heir.32 The community's involvement in custo- dial matters worked to limit the potential for abuse that medieval au- thorities uniformly deplored when dishonest guardians despoiled par- entless children.33 Bailiffs had the authority to summon youngsters into court to learn firsthand what guardians had done; officials wanted to know whether a child had received the care he or she was due; to learn, too, if a guardian had mishandled a legacy or withheld "heir-

30 The courts of the Abbots of St. Albans emphasized the contractual nature of wardship; see, in particular, Codicote, May 24, 1249; and Winslow, November 25, 1363. For discussion of legal aspects of custody, see Elaine Clark, "The Custody of Children in Manor Courts," Law and History Review 3 (1985): 333-48.

3' Abbots Langley, May 6, 1329; Park, April 25, 1274, November 2, 1352; Iselworth, August 10, 1332.

3"or involvement of "homage, community, friends," see Abbots Langley, May 6, 1329; Park, October 18, 1336; Winslow, October 9, 1349; Iselworth, September 21, 1283.

33 Abbots Langley, May 6, 1329; Iselworth, June 3, 1318.

looms" from a ward.34 When, as sometimes happened, guardians claimed orphans were too irresponsible to enter land on attaining ma- jority, the lord asked the community of his tenants for advice.35

The result of this intervention was to bring children into closer contact with manorial officials and lords. At their insistence all prob- lems involving orphans were openly discussed in court and subject to communal review. The lesson such publicity imparted was that chil- dren with rights in land were not uncared for in village society. Any injury done them wronged the lord and violated customary law. This law informed the practice of wardship but itself was neither inflexible nor unresponsive to the changing circumstances of the countryside. Wardship remained a matter of manorial custom as well as a fact of rural life. It brought the persons and property of orphans under the jurisdiction of courts but still involved the participation and approval of neighbors and kin. Their involvement in custody cases grew increas- ingly complex during the course of the fourteenth century. At courts held in Norfolk, Middlesex, and on the estates of the Abbots of St. Albans, the Black Death in its first appearance was reported to have greatly disrupted children's lives. Between 1348 and 1350 jurors de- scribed a parent acting as guardian in only 28 percent of the cases on record.36 By the early fifteenth century, the proportions had gradually reversed, and 60 percent of underage heirs lived in the custody of widowed mothers. Although the children still remained subject to sei- gneurial authority, the decisions the lord made on their behalf affirmed and enhanced rural traditions of child care. In the small society of a village, custodial laws assured many children of a mother's care during ordinary times but, if both father and mother were dead, allowed the court to arrange a substitute for parental support. By the close of the fourteenth century, that is, from 1310 to 1390, the exchange of children among village households was sufficiently commonplace that one-third of all orphans had lived in the custody of neighbors.

The involvement of neighbors in the care of children provided a measure of the strength and value of custodial law. Rural orphans lived, after all, in a highly structured world. The inheritance of land afforded them the protection of courts but at the same time compelled

34 Heacham, May 19, 1280; Winslow, October 28, 1334; Plumstead, February 25,

1260. " Park, April 25, 1274; Winslow, May 11, 1429, May 14, 1448. 36 Between 1348 and 1350, forty-one out of 148 extant cases named parents as

guardians. Of seventy-one cases recorded between 1351 and 1410, 60 percent (forty-two out of seventy-one) involved parents. See Clark, "Custody of Children," p. 342, ta- ble 3.

the orphan's deference to guardians and lords. Since there was the potential for conflict between the generations and, as always, the op- portunity for the old to exploit the young, courts supervised guardians no less closely than wards. Just as important, orphans were neither shielded from contact with court officials nor isolated from the com- pany of neighbors and kin. Instead, wards became part of an extensive network of relationships initially formed within families but regulated and linked to the wider world by custodial law. This law provided the procedures for participation and collaboration that drew a community of tenants together and made the welfare of minors not a question of private charity but a matter of manorial policy.

The Old and the Infirm

It was natural for a manor court to assume authority over minors on account of its preoccupation with the efficient use of land. If pro- ductivity were threatened by children inheriting property, the court intervened. Manor courts also had the right, and they often exercised it, to mediate the affairs of legally competent but unproductive adults. The rural world was a world of work, and when a villager was too ill or worn out to labor, the question arose: who sustained the loss of his or her work?

The query came to be answered in a number of ways. On some manors the lord allowed his tenants temporary sick leave from custom- ary work. In various villages in the districts of Huntingdon and Hert- ford, manorial officials permitted a man three weeks' absence unless he fell ill during the autumn, when he might have no more than fifteen days away from his lord's service.37 If still sick a fortnight later, the tenant had to ask neighbors or relatives to labor in his place. Should he become permanently disabled or appear enfeebled by age, officials informed the lord, and he summoned the man into court in order that a fair arrangement for retirement might be made.38 If, at this time, a peasant was so "decrepit" or "simpleminded" as to be unable to defend his needs, the lord called upon the community of his tenants to locate the "nearest heir."39 It was, however, more often the case that the elderly spoke for themselves and told the lord of the pensions they had made to offset problems of dependency in old age. What

77 George C. Homans, English Villagers of the Thirteenth Century (Cambridge, 1941; reprint, New York: Harper & Row, 1970), p. 274; H. S. Bennett, Life or? the English Manor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1937; reprint, 1971), p. 113.

38 Park, October 18, 1336; Winslow, June 2, 1451.

39 Hindolvestone, April 25, 1382; W~nslow, May 6, 1435.

peasants dreaded was being elderly and poor. They knew they had to anticipate future needs and plan for uncertainty, as if it were not a contradiction in terms.

Common sense dictated that these plans include the younger gen- eration and not simply result from the lord's command that his court supervise enfeebled men. Peasants and lords knew that economic secu- rity depended on land and the revenue it produced. Aging tenants understandably feared the onset of infirmity and the disability that occasioned the lord's seizure of fields and farms. The loss of land signaled hardship and threatened to make beggars of "old men with white hair" unless they had the support of family and friend^.^' What this oftentimes required was a partnership between the generations whereby the young assumed responsibility for the old. To ensure ac- countability, pensioners transferred the use of their land, but not its control, to caretakers in return for shelter, food, clothing, and occa- sionally cash. The exchange allowed for a variety of partners. Pension- ers shared houses and resources with sons and daughters in much the same way as they did with friends, although in public the elderly more often discussed the contracts they had negotiated with neighbors than with kin. In either case the result was the same: pensioners made the use of their property contingent on support and had the bargain en- rolled in the manor court to which they would appeal if the payments and services due them fell in arrears. Pensioners distrusted the bare word of caretakers and asked the "community" or "homage" of the lord's tenants to witness and enforce contracts for support.4' Should caretakers violate these arrangements, "honorable men from the neighborhood" intervened. The principal penalty comprised reversion of the land in question to the elderly. At their request, the court ousted remiss caretakers and, if necessary, disinherited children indifferent to parental care. As far as the lord was concerned, pensioners had rights in land, and these rights afforded them the protection of courts.

Through the court, the manor's lord not only met elderly tenants but had contact with various men and women troubled by physical infirmity. All understood the hardship caused by disease and certainly

40 Skeat, ed. (n. 9 above), B. passus 7, 1.99. For a discussion of the support afforded pensioners, see Elaine Clark, "Some Aspects of Social Security in Medieval England," Journal ofFarnily History 7 (1982): 307-20; Hanawalt, The Ties That Bound (n. 2 above), pp. 229-35; Richard M. Smith, "The Structured Dependence of the Elderly as a Recent Development: Some Sceptical Historical Thoughts," Ageing and Society 4 (1984): 409- 28; Peter Laslett, A Fresh Map of Life: The Emergence of tlle Third Age (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989), pp. 112-31.

41 Winslow, July 25, 1425; Codicote (date faded) 139617; Wells, February 18, 1379; Park, October 18, 1338.

feared the "abominable blemish" that disfigured the leper and marred the "beauty of his face."42 The monks of St. Albans confirmed the public's dread of leprosy when they judged it "the most loathsome of all in fir mi tie^."^^ Time and again, ecclesiastical as well as secular regulations urged the separation of lepers from the "communion of sound citizens" and warned anyone "smitten by the disease" not to share the "common conversation of mankind."44 In "dress and con- duct," authorities argued, lepers must appear "humble" and recall how "despicable" their malady was.45 It rendered them liable to con- finement in almshouses, hospitals, or segregated enclosures made up of small wooden cottages that were elevated on props and surrounded by fences.46 Everywhere the sick were suspect. In the countryside bailiffs and jurors along with spokesmen for the church sequestered lepers or expelled them from villages. The prior of Horsham St. Faith in Norfolk required his tenants to identify sickly folk, inform the manor court, and await its decision. When the prior's tenants called Matilda Breton a "leper" in 1288, the court directed the bailiff "to remove her from the vill" for forty days.47 At St. Neot, in the diocese of Exeter, soon after the rector was afflicted with leprosy, the bishop warned the man to stay in the vicarage and avoid the company of parishioner^.^^ Once secluded, the sickly priest was to shutter the entrance to his room (camera) and construct a new doorway so as to have separate "ingress and egress" to the hall and several outbuildings.

The medieval public saw that leprosy stigmatized and margin- alized its victims. At law they were the "living dead," barred from inheritance, denied the right to make gifts, unable to plead in court or negotiate contracts.49 In the rural world leprosy threatened peasants with the loss of property as well as exclusion from the community. The holdings of lepers reverted to manorial lords, who exercised a kind of guardianship over the movable and immovable chattels of afflicted tenants. When a lord allowed the segregation of lepers, as was the

42 Francis C. Hingeston, ed., John Capgrave's Chronicle of England, Rolls Series (London, 1858), 1:291. 43 Saul N. Brody, Tlze Disease of the Soul: Leprosy in Medieval Literature (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1974), p. 78.

44 Henry Thomas Riley, ed., Metnorials of London and London Life in the XIIIth, XIVth, andXVth Centuries (London, 1868), pp. 230-31, 365-66, 384; R. I. Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987), pp. 24-65, 73-80.

45 Brody, p. 78.

46 Ibid., p. 74.

47 Horsham St. Faith, February 5, 1288.

48 F. C. Hingeston-Randolph, ed., Tlze Register of Walter de Stupeldon, Bishop of Exeter, 1307-1326 (London and Exeter, 1892), p. 342. 49 Pollock and Maitland (n. 27 above), 1:480.

case at Heacham (Norfolk), officials and local cultivators became in- volved. In early September 1310, Heacham's court heard the sworn testimony of various "upright and lawful men," some free, others not, but all of the opinion that a bondman by the name of John Hardy "suffered from leprosy and due to his disease had been removed from the community and placed outside the village."" Another twelve men, all villeins, claimed that John was "healthy" and not a leper as alleged. The steward asked these twelve men to become pledges (manucaptores) for John and to hold in custody all his lands and chattels on this condition: should he be found to suffer from leprosy, John must withdraw from "the community of men" and depart the village by All Saints' Day (November 1) on pain of forty pounds payable by his pledges to the lord.

The action of the steward reflected the court's concern to protect the interests of the community and also ensure that no villager made ill use of a leper's property during his segregation. For the lord, no less than his tenants, leprosy provoked questions about behavior since the leper, unlike the pensioner or orphan, was the object of censure. In villages, as in towns, authorities saw lepers as roughly all alike, as pitiful, corrupt, and lax? If, as the church taught, "sin was oftentimes the cause of bodily disease," then leprosy was both a moral problem and a matter of physical decline.52 It punished sin and excluded the leper from society because of the corruption he harbored and the infec- tion he spread.

Laborers and Vagrants

By the fourteenth century the plight of lepers paralleled the regula- tion of strangers and itinerant laborers in various ways. Neither va- grants nor lepers shared the public life of the countryside but together suffered from a certain placelessness. The leper, Henry de Bracton had claimed, resembled the excommunicate and was apart from the "communion of mankind."53 Just as noticeably, the stranger, the va- grant, and the outsider lacked a social identity and generated uncer- tainty as to where they belonged and to whom they owed respect.

50 Heacham, December 21, 1310.

51 Toulmin Smith, ed., English Gilds: Original Ordinances of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries, EETS no. 40 (London, 1870), p. 341; Michel Mollat, The Poor in the Middle Ages, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1966), p. 146.

52 Barnum, ed., pt. 1, pp. 128-29.

53 Pollock and Maitland, 1:480.

When, as often happened, strangers and laborers attracted suspicion, it was because they were perceived as "masterless" folk.54 None held land of a seigneurial lord or shared the obligations of the community of his tenants; none was "scot and lot" with the "men of a ~i11."~~ Most lived at the margins of rural society, either boarding with better- off peasants or occupying hovels situated at a distance from the center of a village where the homesteads of full members of the community were grouped. Long-established tenants certainly had no intention of including outsiders in the official business of the village and depended on the court and its officials to uphold membership norms. Lords, too, expected courts to enforce residency requirements. As early as 1268 in Horsham, a village near Norwich, jurors had the duty of keeping the lord informed of any tenants "harboring strangers against his prohi- bition." To ensure compliance, the bailiff summoned offenders into court and ordered them to pay fines ranging from threepence to six- pence. Failure to comply put villagers at risk of greater loss, particu- larly after 1284 when the court authorized the beadle to seize the keys of any house where strangers were lodged.56 At various intervals be- tween 1268 and 1292, officials had amerced thirty-four men and thirty- two women for sheltering outsiders in Horsham.

The regulatory activity of the court bespoke its concern to define communal boundaries in terms of entrance and exit as well as work. The problems a locality had in finding extra labor for harvest were largely resolved by migrant workers, although they never enjoyed the status of shareholders in the community. Economic insecurity and hardship plagued landless laborers, and none more so than the "anilep- imen" and "anilepiwymen" of the East Anglian countryside. Most were unmarried, although some lived with companions and children.57 All certainly were poor and economically vulnerable to seasonal shifts in employment. Many became "undersettlers," occupying cottages on the tenements of farmers for whom they labored in return for food.58 Others boarded in local households and there performed domestic and agricultural chores. To survive, anilepimen had to master the skills of making do and getting by, tactics that became increasingly difficult during the later thirteenth century when the supply of labor in the

'4 For a detailed discussion that includes the medieval background, see A. L. Beier, Masterless Men: The Vagrancy Problem in England, 1560-1640 (London: Methuen, 1985).

55 Castle Acre, August 1, 1310.
56 Horsham St. Faith, June 30, 1284.
"Horsham St. Faith, April 25, 1284, October 18, 1285.
5%oman~ (n. 37 above), pp. 136, 210-11.

countryside gradually exceeded available work. In Norfolk circum- stances were particularly bleak for women in need of housing and employment, and they more often than men were cited as illegal board- ers. Information collected at Horsham between 1266 and 1271 and 1282 and 1291 identified ninety-seven "strangers and outsiders," of whom 67 percent were single women. Estate officials reported a similar situa- tion in Salle (Norfolk) during the 1320s and again in the 1330s.~~

Rural authorities thought that itinerant laborers and strangers threatened disorder and warranted close supervision. When manor courts undertook the task of surveillance, what mattered was not the welfare of workers, or the private and singular concerns of the poor, but the expectations which the village community had of common laborers and hired men. The court called landless laborers to account if they appeared "dishonest" and "faithless," if they were "rebels," if they flaunted communal norms by engaging in what officials consid- ered to be the shameful behavior of promiscuous and idle folk.60 The regulation of conduct was, of course, not limited to the poor but ex- tended to farmers and village householders as well. Whenever a culti- vator failed in "neighborliness" to his fellows, and refused to share in the communal duties incumbent on landholding, he found himself at the mercy of the court and threatened with the forfeiture of property unless he agreed to behave "like his neighbor^."^' Although the court had no interest in imprisoning recalcitrant tenants, it did claim the right to banish or expel suspect laborers and strangers. At Horsham, exclusion from the village was a tactic of last resort used by officials to enforce bylaws regulating illegal residents. Between 1282 and 1290, the court ordered the expulsion of twenty-one men, women, and chil- dren. Specifically, this number included six men and nine women, all single, of whom four were poor mothers struggling to support six little children. The status of the exile, in every case, was determined by the consensus of the community as expressed by jurors and sanctioned by the court.

59 At Salle the activities of anilepimen and anilepiwymen as well as strangers were reported yearly in May and July or August. See, e.g., courts for July 25, 1328, August 1, 1330, May 19, 1332.

Horsham St. Faith, June 30, 1284, May 19, 1285, June 30, 1285. The problem of social behavior in the late fifteenth century is discussed by Marjorie K. McIntosh, Autonomy and Community: The Royal Manor of Havering, 1200-1500 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 250-52, and "Local Change and Community Control in England, 1465-1500," Huntington Library Quarterly 12 (1986): 230-33; Chris- topher Dyer, Lords and Peasants in a Changing Society: The Estates of the Bishopric of Worcester, 680-1540 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), p. 359.

Pollock and Maitland (n. 27 above), 1:625; Warren 0.Ault, Open-Field Farming: A Study of Village By-Laws (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1972), pp. 60, 70-71.

From the court's point of view, vagrants, strangers, and landless laborers were rootless, unimportant people, cut loose from their origi- nal homes, lacking social ties, and without a fixed role in village or town. Neither restricted by the boundaries of place nor subject to the restraints of lords and masters, these itinerant workers tested the bonds of community and became the focus of concern and official anxiety, particularly in the period following the Black Death (1348-49). This was a time of economic dislocation and general rebelliousness during which Parliament was determined to outlaw vagrancy, regulate employment, and set maximum wages rates. By the later fourteenth century, there was hardly a feature of labor law and policy that was not debated in the precincts of Westminster and at gatherings of knights, lords, and "great men" of the employing and landowning class. All discussed ever-new complaints against what they believed was the growing lawlessness of peasants and laborers. Chroniclers and social critics expressed the conventional attitude of employers to labor when they told stories of servants becoming "so arrogant and hostile" in postplague years that "if anyone wanted to employ them, he was obliged to pay whatever they asked . . . or lose his crops."62 Moralists pointedly reminded landlords of the "servant or bondman" always ready "to run away unless you put him in prison or in stocks."63 The rich and the powerful complained to government officials of servants traveling out of their "own district, wandering from county to county, hundred to hundred, vill to vill," carefully avoiding places where they were known.64

Time and again, landowners petitioned Parliament to pass legisla- tion that would help keep a sense of community strong and employers in control. If laborers were insolent, surly, and grasping, then the law must make them "well willed" and "serviceable," submissive and fearful.65 Should servants "run from master to master," and laborers refuse to "remain for certain in any place," should "rogues and staff- strikers" flee the law, then the law would "pursue, prosecute, and imprison" them.66 Legislators and landowners uniformly wanted an immobile labor force and envisioned employment laws as an important tool in regulating behavior. By the 1370s employers knew from experi-

" Chronicon Henrici Knighton, Rolls Series (1889-95), 258-65, in The Peasants' Revolt of 1381, trans. R. B. Dobson (London: Macmillan, 1970), p. 62. Brandeis, ed. (n. 21 above), p. 186.""Commons' Petition against Vagrants, 1376," Rotuli Parliamentorum, 2:340-41, in Dobson, trans., p. 73. " Hilton (n. 7 above), p. 24; Rosamund Sillen, ed., Records of Some Sessions of the Peace in Lincolnshire, 1360-1375, Lincoln Record Society (1937), 30:241. "Dobson, trans., pp. 73-74.

ence how precarious their hold on labor was. To regain a measure of control, Parliament entertained discussion of how to regulate and po- lice labor at the local level. The parliamentary commons in 1376 put it this way, referring to wandering workers who became beggars so as to lead an "idle7' life: "They are able-bodied and might well ease the commons . . . if they were willing to serve . . . their bodies should be placed in stocks or led to the nearest gaol, until they show themselves willing . . . to serve their neighb~rs."~' In 1388 the statute of Cam- bridge forbade laborers to leave their districts unless they carried a "letter patent" stating the cause of their travel and the date of their return.68 Poor folk unable to work, the statute said, must remain where they were or in locales near the places where they were born or, failing this, suffer relocation at the hands of the authorities.

No one doubted that the self-interest of employers informed this legislation. Always at issue was the question of how to maintain social order in a period marked by the disruptive effects of plague, epidemic disease, and social protest. As far as landowners were concerned, compulsory employment was an important force in structuring individ- ual lives and patterns of group behavior. Parliament correspondingly prohibited begging for any person capable of work.69 In the eyes of the law, beggars appeared little different from laborers traveling without a passport or testimonial letter. Statutes passed in 1383 and 1388 implied that vagrants and beggars had the same face, the same stance; both ignored the discipline of work and posed a political problem unless incorporated into the society of township and village." When Parlia- ment allowed constables and bailiffs to return "wandering laborers" to their home parishes, it made poor relief a community's burden, and unemployment a locality's problem.
Commonality with Others

Statutory laws mattered in the countryside but never superseded the traditions of mutual aid and private justice that villagers created on their own initiative. During postplague years, as in earlier days, peasants knew hard times and had a sense of rural society in all its variety, its opportunities and constraints, its inequalities and like- nesses, its burdens, strengths, and possibilities. Countryfolk hardly needed powerful lords to remind them of what they already knew: no

67 Ibid.

Statutes of the Realm (London, 1890, 1896; reprint, 1963), vol. 2, 12 Rich. 11, c. 3.

Statutes qf the Realm, vol. 1, 23 Edw. 111, c. 7; 12 Rich. 11, c. 9.

'"bid., vol. 2, 7 Rich. 11, c. 5; 12 Rich. 11, c. 7.

group of farmers and laborers achieved solidarity if they failed to share the work by which a community prospered. Although identification with neighbors seldom altered economic circumstances, commonality with others helped mediate the myriad difficulties that marked agricul- tural life. When Walter of Henley wrote about estate management, he addressed a privileged audience but realized that everyday responses to adversity depended on the way ordinary people perceived social ties. "Have the love of your neighbors," he counseled, "for whoever has a good neighbor has a good m~rrow."~'

To know the rural world, as Walter of Henley did, was to see that a villager must live by the friends he made. A similar sentiment framed the clerical argument that to care for neighbors was a virtue and a way to offset greed. Ecclesiastical thinkers sharply denounced the avarice that frayed the bonds of community, although some wondered why God had not enjoined charity to neighbors as one of his Ten Command- ments. Did the omission mean that "none shall suffer retribution for not giving alms?"72 In manuals of moral advice, the question elicited a telling response: the command "to honor the Sabbath" bound the faithful to use the Lord's day to "relieve neighbors in want."73 Keep- ing the Sabbath holy, commentators taught, required more than a morning of "prayer and holy thought." The day was long. Use the afternoon, a Franciscan wrote, to visit neighbors, poor men and women, as well as bedridden folk who are "God's prisoners"; sit with them and comfort all. To "increase love and charity," the Franciscan counseled, spend the evening in the company of friends: after vespers "join a neighbor, two or three, or as many as you can. Have them to your house or go to theirs."74

This advice had a gracious albeit conciliatory tone, encouraging the public to value neighbors and assist needy folk. To do any less violated the scriptural injunction to "help others as we help our-selves."75 A man without charity, churchmen warned, was a man tainted by sin. By withholding alms, he "robbed the poor" and was

71 E. Larnond, ed., Walter of Henley's Husbandry (London, 1890), p. 5.
72 Barnurn, ed. (n. 9 above), pt. 1, p. 354.
73 Ibid., pt. 1, pp. 275, 289; James F. Royster, ed., A Middle English Treatise on

the Ten Commandments: Studies in Philology (1910), 6:20-22; W. Nelson Francis, ed., The Book of Virtues and Vices: A Fourteenth Century English Translation of the Somme le Roi of Lorens D'Orleans, EETS no. 217 (London, 1942), pp. 323-24; C. Horstrnan, ed., Richard Rolle of Hampole and His Follon~ers (London: Swan Sonnenschien, 1895), 2:343; William C. Greet, ed., The Reule of C~ysten Religioun by Reginald Pecock, EETS no. 171 (London, 1927), pp. 290, 303.

74 Royster, ed., pp. 20-21.

75 Barnum, ed., pt. 1, p. 354.

no better than a "thief."76 He sinned all the more if his neighbors suffered deprivation and want. For every beggar who perished from hunger "shall he be guilty and a murderer before the throne of the eternal J~dge."~' None of the faithful escaped this threat. It was an ancient one and became part of the sermons and religious lore de- nouncing the disorder that resulted from covetousness and greed. The English clergy had long believed that poverty, if unrelieved, brought "theft, rapine, and pillage."78 Misfortune drew the needy to "lech- ery," to "backbiting, murder, and lies," even to accusations of "iniq- uity against God."79 What people needed, the clergy believed, was a way to understand "lack of charity" so as to make this sin, which clearly was one of omission, a matter of confession. To foster feelings of remorse, handbooks of spiritual guidance counseled introspection. The penitent was to examine past acts and recall if he had "spoken sharply" to neighbors "asking good at his door."'O Had he despised the recipients of his alms? Had he comforted beggars with prayer and "fair words"? It seems any penitent was at fault once he hardened his heart against neighbors in need. And this, after all, was the point of the clergy's advice to the laity. Charity played a role, indeed a crucial role, in promoting the neighborliness that "made all one" and held a community together. When Bishop Thomas Brinton preached in the 1370s, he reminded his audience of the commonality of interests shared by rich and poor and argued as Augustine had that wealth and poverty, although seemingly opposites, were "necessary each to the other." "If all were poor, no one would have the support of another. If all were rich, none would labor and immediately the world would fail." God permitted poverty, Brinton argued, so as "to test the rich and learn whether they were the friends or foes of the poor."81

For Bishop Brinton and his clerical colleagues charity fostered a sense of fellowship that placed "others" before self and brought rich and poor together in a community characterized by a hierarchy of stations. "To give was the rich man's duty," Brinton taught; "to beg,

76 bid., pt. 1, p. 159.

77 R. Morris, ed., The Blickling Homilies, EETS no. 58 (London, 1874; reprint, 1967), pp. 52-53; Henry Sweet, ed., King Alfred's West Saxon Version of Gregov's Pastoral Care, EETS no. 50 (London, 1871), p. 335; Furnivall, ed. (n. 21 above), p. 176; Gustaf Holmstedt, ed., Speculum Christiani: A Middle English Religious Treatise of the 14th Century, EETS no. 182 (London, 1933), p. 26.

78 Barnum, ed., pt. 1, p. 57; Mary Aquinas Devlin, ed., The Sermons of Thomas Brinton Bishop of Rochester (1373-1389), Camden Society (1954), 85: 195. 79 Devlin, ed., p. 195. Morris. ed. Ayenbite of Inwyt (n. 10 above), pp. 194-95; Brandeis, ed. (n. 21 above), pp. 122, 166. Devlin, ed., pp. 194-96; Barnum, ed., pt. 1, pp. 51, 63.

the poor man's lot."" For friendship to prevail, Pauper told Dives, the wealthy need not dispose of all worldly goods but only become wise dispensers of alms.83 William Langland's view of social welfare reflected Pauper's counsel but was more subtly nuanced. It set a high value on the qualities of decency, dignity, and commitment to hard work that countryfolk brought to bear on the struggle to survive. Lang- land's compassion for the plight and sensibilities of humble "peasants and herdsmen" led him to describe the social dynamics and boundaries of the rural world, noting, as he wrote, the troubling combinations of bad luck, bad choices, and hard times that complicated the lives of ordinary folk. Disparities in wealth bred "misery and woe," Langland believed, so that the best hope anyone had for villagers living in want was the charity of neighbors.84 But to help all who asked was not an economic decision. Instead, charity to the poor diminished boundaries between self and other and became, Langland thought, a way to do something that is "useful to the comm~nity."~~

A Place at the Table

Although no medieval commentator developed a conclusive the- ory on poor relief, many cared deeply about the practical problem of helping the hungry. Through sermons and spiritual counsel, the clergy spoke to the faithful about rituals of inclusion that gave beggars, if only momentarily, a place at the table. Insofar as the sharing of food reflected and symbolized the boundaries of community, the etiquette of a monastery's mid-day meal afforded secular society the cloister's standard of fellowship with the poor.86 The meal tended to a simple decorum that included impoverished folk as regular, albeit unseen, guests. During dinner the monks reserved portions of bread and drink for beggars at the monastery's gate, then put a dish of food at the place of any brother lately deceased for him to give as alms to the poor. The monastic manner of sharing food with outsiders reappeared

82 Devlin, ed., p. 194.

'' Barnum, ed. (n. 9 above), pt. 2, pp. 160, 293; Sweet, ed. (n. 77 above), p. 324; Richard Morris, ed., Cursor Mundi: A Northumbrian Poem of the XlVth Century, EETS no. 68 (London, 1878), pp. 1567-69.

84 Skeat, ed. (n. 9 above), C. passus 10, 11.96-97; Pearsall, ed. (n. 15 above), passus 9, 11.88, 96-97. 85 Pearsall, ed., passus 5, 1.20; Goodridge (n. 15 above), p. 257. For further empha- sis on charity and community, see Barnum, ed., pt. 2, p. 293.

86 F. A. Gasquet, English Monastic Life (New York: Bensiger Bros., 1904), pp. 92, 139-43; Knowles, ed. (n. 21 above), p. 42; A. H. Davis, William Thorne's Chronicle of Saint Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1934), p. 93.

under various guises in the secular world. An elaborate protocol gov- erned the conduct of aristocratic meals, requiring lords and ladies to pause between courses and remember the poor. As the banquet began, the host bid his carver to fill an alms dish with bread "to serve God first."" In the interval before the second course, the carver replen- ished the alms dish with meat, and afterward the marshal invited all guests to follow suit. The stately banquets of princes and nobles, like the company feasts of great merchant guilds, represented exclusive affairs designed and elaborately staged to enhance the bonds of privi- lege and rank.88 Guests neither welcomed nor ignored beggars who gathered outside of halls but instead offered paupers the "broken meats" of communal feasts.

The annual banquet of parish guilds was differently planned. It celebrated in the view of guests a spirit of solidarity, friendship, and peace. Boundaries of status mattered little since in many villages and towns guild members believed it an "act of kindliness" to invite poor folk to yearly banquets in honor of patron saints.89 The practice was fairly common in Lincolnshire where the guilds of Gedney traditionally welcomed thirteen paupers to share annual feasts.90 The guild of St. Lawrence enhanced the gathering of its members by inviting to ban- quets in Lincoln as many paupers as there were brothers and sisters in the guild. All enjoyed "good bread and ale" as well as meat and sometimes fish. At Yarmouth and Upwell in Norfolk, paupers took the place of any brethren absent from guild feasts."

The ceremonies and devotions created by parish guilds deepened many villagers' sense of connection and common cause with neighbors in need. No matter how stratified the countryside was, the parish formed a world where generosity counted and fellowship prevailed. Year after year, rituals of fasting and abstinence brought parishioners to a larger sense of community, reminding the faithful that "the food

87 R. W. Chambers, ed., A Fifteenth-Century Courtesy Book, EETS no. 148 (Lon- don, 1914), pp. 12-13, 19; Frederick J. Furnivall, ed., The Babees Book, EETS no. 32 (London, 1868), pp. 322-26.

XX For merchant feasts, see Cornelius Walford, Gilds: Their Origin, Constitutions, Objects, and Later History (London, 1879), pp. 192-200.

8y Smith, ed. (n. 51 above), p. 138: "vain is the gathering of the faithful without some work of kindliness is done." For discussion of how "a community becomes materi- ally and spiritually conscious of itself" through the sharing of food, see Pierre Dupare, "Confraternities of the Holy Spirit and Village Communities in the Middle Ages," in Lordship and Communitjl in Medieval Europe, ed. Frederic L. Cheyette (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1968), pp. 341-56.

"H. F. Westlake, The Parish Gilds qf Medieval England (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1919), pp. 160-61. 9' Ibid., pp. 212, 218.

forsaken when we fast, we ought to distribute to the poor."" Everywhere the waste of foodstuff was deplored; gluttony was a sin, and the hoarding of grain for profit equally wrong." Within the small society of a village, the failure to share, many thought, threatened the welfare of all and represented a preoccupation with self that Langland compared to the mean behavior of dogs in a kitchen." To restore friendship and community, he observed, "invite neighbors in for a meal." Not only Langland but many learned contemporaries voiced this counsel, all variously concluding that the public interest depended on private virtue.

The extent to which public policy was shaped by Langland and socially minded thinkers is obviously impossible to say. But, it is rea- sonable to assume that sermons, confessional ritual, and priestly ad- vice worked powerfully to legitimize those social arrangements whereby villagers enjoyed a measure of mutual support. Throughout the countryside few peasants escaped the adversity occasioned by failed harvests and epidemic disease. Many farmers and laborers suf- fered from periodic want and certainly appeared poor when compared to the seigneurial lords on whose estates they toiled. Tensions existed in almost every village, although by Langland's day rural householders had a long tradition of working together to mediate the effects of eco- nomic hardship and loss. Not only friendship and neighborliness but contractual ties enhanced local systems of support. Insofar as villagers had property, they cooperated in the sharing of resources and chan- neled the revenues derived from land toward the welfare of pensioners, orphans, and disabled folk. The desperate face of poverty was not so much theirs as it was worn by landless cottagers and workers. Some suffered from a lack of jobs; some had too many children or came from broken homes. None possessed the material resources needed for participation in the cooperative endeavors designed by and for propertied peasants. Yet, the plight of the landless was, as Langland knew, only part of the story. A great many factors contributed to the design of social welfare in the rural world. The demands of lordship, the expectations of family and kin, the requirements of religion and customary law, all enhanced an ethic of mutual obligation that influ- enced people's understanding of the web of relationships that defined

''Sweet, ed. (n. 77 above), p. 316; Edward Peacock, ed., .John Myrc's Insti.uctions for Parish Priests, EETS no. 3 1 (London, 1868; rev, ed., 1902), p. 49.

93 Brandeis, ed. (n. 21 above), pp. 121, 141-42, 212; Frederick J. Furnivall. ed.. Political, Religiorls, and Love Poetns. EETS no. 15 (London, 1866). p. 30 (Proverbps of Howsolde-Kepyng).

94 Skeat, ed. (n. 9 above), B. passus 5, 11.259-62; Goodridge, p. 69.

a community. Throughout the countryside there was, too, a broad consensus concerning the value of almsdeeds and an equally firm con- viction that a preoccupation with personal satisfactions undermined cooperation and reciprocity. To notice others, however, was to notice the many and ultimately to see that during hard times a village's great- est resource was its sense of community.


Manor Courts

The manor courts cited in this essay are noted here with reference to record offices. The Holkham Hall material is on microfilm at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library.

Abbots Langley. Cambridge University Library, MS Al. 1.
Castle Acre. Holkham Hall, bundle 1, no. 2.
Codicote. British Library, MS Stowe 849.
Heacham. Norfolk Record Office, DA 1-2.
Hindolveston. Norfolk Record Office, DCN 4814, 4869.
Horsham St. Faith. Norfolk Record Office, 19495-19507.
Iselworth. Greater London Record Office, ACC 137911-8.
Park. British Library, Add. MS 40625.
Plumstead. Norfolk Record Office, 48 15.
Salle. Norfolk Record Office, 260511-5.
Toynton. Lincolnshire Record Office, ANC 31 18161 1.
Wells. Holkham Hall bundle 1, no. 2.
Winslow. Cambridge University Library, MS Dd 7.2.

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