4. Communities: Key Institutions and Relationships

Well, last time looking at the
household provided a point of entry to some of the basic
realities and priorities that shape people’s lives at the most
basic level in the sixteenth century.
But as is already apparent,
I hope, these households of course didn’t live in isolation.
On the contrary,
every family was conducting its affairs in the context of a
larger landscape of social institutions and relationships,
and what I want to do this week, in concluding the sort of
contextual introduction, is to talk about some of these
connections that bound people together and bound the country
together. And I’ll start by looking at
some of the more localized institutions and relationships,
those which bound them together into local communities.
But as soon as I use that word,
“community,” I have to pause because it’s a
very loaded term. Its use tends to beg an
important question about society in the period.
Put simply, people in
sixteenth-century England didn’t live in entities called
communities. They lived in places they
described as manors or parishes, villages or townships.
They very rarely used the term
“community” at all.
When we talk about communities,
as we often do, we’re actually introducing a
concept which is largely a construct of sociologists and
historians, and more than that we’re also
implying something about the nature and the quality of the
social relationships that existed in the manors and
parishes and villages and townships of the distant past.
The very word
“community” carries a great deal of warmth.
It’s a good word to co-opt in
the cause of any argument as we see constantly in political
life. It vibrates with a certain
moral resonance, and when that term gets adopted
by historians and sociologists it often also invokes a certain
nostalgia about the past. Community always seems to be
just out of reach, something that belongs to a
generation or two ago; just over the hill;
in decline or under threat. It’s sort of the before of
which we are the after; tantalizing,
warm, the attractive feature of a world we have lost.
And that shouldn’t surprise us.
The very term
“community” has very old roots derived from
the Latin and meaning literally the quality of being at one.
But the concept as it was
developed by nineteenth- and twentieth-century sociologists
was often used by them as a point of reference from which to
examine, and often to judge,
the rapid social changes taking place at that time.
So the traditional or the folk
community was very commonly envisaged by the founders of the
social sciences as being almost everything that modern European
and American society was ceasing to be.
It’s rural.
It’s small scale.
It’s economically simple.
It’s introverted and deeply
rooted and warm and personal and homogeneous in values and
stable– embodying indeed,
one could say, some of the traditions of
pastoral literature. I don’t know if you know Thomas
Gray’s eighteenth-century poem the “Elegy in a Country
Churchyard,” but it’s a good example of that
kind of literature. Gray envisaged what he called
the “rude Forefathers of the hamlet”
buried in the churchyard. He described them as having
bent themselves to “useful toil” and “homely
joys”, “far from the madding
crowd,” living in a “cool,
sequester’d vale of life.” These are all phrases from the
poem, many of which have become widely used.
Well, it’s easy to appreciate
why historians exposed to that long tradition of thinking about
small communities in the past are sometimes apt to imagine the
past and to assume certain things about the quality of life
in the past in those morally loaded terms.
To one historian,
for example, the late fifteenth- and early
sixteenth-century village was like–
he describes it as–“a family embracing and composed of
many families.” Another describes how,
to quote him, “the unchanging
traditional life of the peasant system flowed on uninterrupted
like a deep underground river.”
It had flowed thus for a
thousand years and it “would continue to flow for
another two hundred.” Now in contrast you get some
historians who react violently against what they see as a
sentimentalization of these rural communities.
One in particular has described
a Tudor village as being, to quote him,
“a place filled with malice and hatred,
its only unifying bond being the occasional episode of mass
hysteria which temporarily bound together the majority in order
to harry and persecute the local witch.”
So that’s how he sees it,
but both of these positions derive from a concept,
the concept of community, which is so emotionally
powerful that it tends to seduce some scholars into a kind of
sentimentality and on the other hand it enrages others into an
equally distorted cynicism about human relations.
Some have suggested that it
might be better if we just stopped talking about
communities altogether, but to do that would surely be
to throw out the baby with the bath water,
because the concept of community is very hard to do
without. It does describe a certain
aspect of social relationships in local society which is not
just a nostalgic myth; a certain intensity of
connectedness amongst people focused on their local
institutions; certain qualities of
recognition of one another, of reciprocity in relationships
with one another, of mutuality,
of identification, of obligation.
As historians,
we mustn’t assume uncritically that particular settlements or
localities in the past were communities in the classical
sense with all the positive characteristics traditionally
believed to go along with them. Community isn’t a thing or a
place. It’s a quality of living.
It varies.
It’s not always present.
It waxes and wanes over time.
It’s subject to change.
It exists in different forms
and it doesn’t simply, of course, belong to the past.
It’s a perennial aspect of the
human situation, but if you want to consider it
in the past then we can best do so by trying to carefully
reconstruct the actual ties, institutional and personal,
that linked people together, the ties through which they
mapped out their social world, so to speak;
the ties through which they made it legible and
understandable. Well, such relationships and
the institutions that embodied them could be thought of as the
connective tissue of society at the most basic level and they
were of many kinds. Some were relationships of
authority. We’ve already encountered these
in a social order imagined in terms of hierarchical ties of
obligation and differentiation. In rural society,
more broadly, the basic defining relationship
was a relationship of authority, the relationship of lordship
and tenancy. You can imagine
sixteenth-century England as being like a myriad of small
settlements, most of them of less than 500
people, scattered over a landscape of
considerable diversity. In the early sixteenth century
that landscape hadn’t even been mapped.
The first county maps,
which county by county attempted to survey and map
England, were actually produced by Christopher Saxton in 1576.
It was such an important
publication that as the maps were pulled from the press some
of them were taken still wet to Elizabeth I’s chief minister
Lord Burghley. He saw the political potential
of having accurate maps of the country for the first time.
But in the early sixteenth
century they didn’t yet exist. Nonetheless,
the landscape was mapped and structured in another sense by
the realities of lordship, the possession of the land and
the authority over tenants that went with it.
So, late medieval,
early sixteenth-century, social organization was
inscribed on the land through lordship and the characteristic
unit of lordship was what they called the ‘manor’,
a unit of land under the authority of a lord.
Some lords held only a single
manor, the petty gentlemen of the countryside.
Some of them held many.
One for example,
Lord Berkeley, which is spelled Berkeley as in
our college, pronounced “Barkley”
in England, Lord Berkeley owned so much of
the county of Gloucestershire down here that he was described
by one contemporary as being “embowelled into the soil
of that country.” But whatever the case,
whether their land holdings were small or great,
the fact of lordship over manors was fundamental to the
structure of local society. The people who cultivated the
land usually did so as tenants of such manorial lords,
and the forms in terms of their tenancies determined their
relationship to their lords and in many respects their
relationships to one another. Now these forms of tenancy were
many and varied but there were some general patterns.
The terminology is a little
tricky so I’ve put all the definitions on your handout.
You’ve probably got more
definitions of sixteenth-century land ownership and land holding
than you will ever need, but they’re down there in case
you ever want to refer to them. Basically, each manor was
divided into what was described as the demesne land and what was
tenant land. If you look at your handout,
there’s a map there of the manor of Laxton in
Nottinghamshire. That’s almost right in the
center of England. And you’ll see on one side at
the top the demesne land and the village and then around it the
great fields of the manor in which the tenants held their
land; the demesne and the tenant land.
Demesne land in the Middle Ages
had been mostly cultivated by serf labor,
that’s to say the labor of tenants who were not free and
who held their land from the lord in return for labor service
on his land. By 1500, serfdom had died out
in most parts of England. It died out in the course of
the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries,
still left to some extent over in parts of East Anglia but it
was mostly gone. By 1500, the demesne land
tended to be let out by lords in large units to yeoman farmers.
As for the tenant land,
some of it was held by freehold, probably about a fifth
overall. A freeholder owned his land,
he could leave it in his will, he could sell it,
but he owed the duty of ‘recognition of lordship’ to the
lord of the manor; he had to pay a small annual
sum to recognize such lordship. Most tenants,
however, held their land by what was described as ‘customary
tenure’. That’s to say the land was
granted out to them in the court of the manor,
which would meet two or three times a year,
and they held it on terms “according to the custom of
the manor”. “According to the custom
of the manor”; that’s a phrase that’s often
used. The custom of the manor laid
down their terms. These customary tenants were
usually described as “copyholders”.
They held their land according
to a copy of an entry in the records of the manor court which
was given to them as a record. Sometimes if you go back
through the deeds of a very old house you will find,
by the time you get back to sixteenth- and fifteenth-century
deeds, a little strip of parchment
which is actually a copy of the original grant of the land on
which that house is built to a copyholder.
Copyholders paid a down payment
to their lord called a fine. They paid an annual rent.
They might hold their land for
a period of years like a modern lease or they might hold it for
a period of lives. That was a customary form by
which you would take land for the life of yourself,
your wife, and your eldest child.
The terms on which they held
their land might be fixed according to the custom of the
manor, in which case they were usually
very fortunate, or they might be ‘arbitrary’;
that’s to say they could be changed.
So lordship and the
relationship between lords and tenants was a defining
relationship in any rural community.
It created a local map of
rights and of obligations. The particular pattern
represented usually a particular local working out of a kind of
accommodation between the power of the lord and what his tenants
had been able to win with him– win from him–or negotiate with
him, and those terms were enshrined
in their local custom. So, given those realities,
custom, and the notion of custom, not surprisingly,
is another keyword of the period, a very important notion.
Custom, a word they use
constantly, was an accumulation of rules.
An accumulation of rules about
what was considered to be right and proper in a particular place
and the correct procedures for maintaining and enforcing those
rules. Custom laid down,
as I’ve already said, the respective rights of the
lord and the tenant over the land.
It also laid down the rules for
the use of the common grazing land of the manor.
It laid down the rules for the
settlement of disputes if they arose between the tenants of the
manor or between tenants and their lord.
It’s been described as a
lived-in environment of expectations which had grown up
slowly over time. Generally, people tended to
argue when there was any dispute that customs had existed
“time out of mind of man”;
that’s another phrase that’s often used.
Custom had governed their rules
in that locality “time out of mind of man”,
and when there was a dispute they usually recruited the
oldest tenants they could find in order to pronounce on what
they had known throughout their sixty or seventy years of life,
on what they’d heard from their fathers or their grandfathers,
and so on to confirm the customs.
In practice,
in fact, custom could be changed.
It was subject to gradual
modification over time if all the tenants consented and it was
malleable in accordance with changing circumstances.
it carried this aura of antiquity.
So at any one time the
operative custom in a particular place was the outcome of a kind
of adjustment amongst the tenants and between the tenants
and their lord. To this extent custom was seen
as being essentially the property of the tenant
community. It presupposed a community of
interest amongst them, and it set the pattern of
expectations that provided the criteria for judging their
relationships with one another and their relationships with
their lord. Was that relationship with
their lord equitable and legitimate according to custom?
The word they often used was
“reasonable.” Was it reasonable?
Was it maintaining custom or,
on the other hand, was it becoming oppressive or
exploitative? And as a result of all of this,
in times of economic stress, such as were to come later in
the sixteenth century, custom could very often become
a field of contest in which lords and tenants staked
competing claims about what the customs were or should be.
And this was very often to
happen in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as
we’ll see when we come to consider peasant rebellion and
popular protest in this period. Very often it revolves around
custom. Okay.
Well, let’s turn now to another
aspect of the tenant community, the community of neighbors.
If custom was one key word in
rural society, “neighborliness”
was emphatically another. Neighborliness was recognized
as being a critically important social virtue,
and the word is constantly used as a kind of norm of good
conduct. It was of course based on
residence near one another. The very word
“neighbor” derives from an Anglo-Saxon
word, “neah-gebur,”
which means “near dweller,”
literally “near dweller.”
Neighborliness was based upon
residence, then, and it was conducted and
developed through frequent interaction amongst those who
lived near one another and their mutual recognition of
obligations to one another of certain kinds.
In part it was created by the
institutions and the customs of the manor which fostered a sense
of place and a sense of identity associated with that particular
place. For example,
the manor court served as an instrument of self-regulation
especially in the organization of agriculture within the manor.
If you look at the other side
of the handout, you’ll see the portrayal by the
surveyor of Laxton of one of the fields,
and look at how those fields are–the field is divided up
into little strips of land, each of one is numbered–each
one of which is numbered. The tenants held their land
scattered in strips across the field.
The numbers are there so that
the surveyor could put down which pieces of land were held
by particular tenants in his survey book,
and there at the edge of the field is an area of common land
which was used by all the tenants for grazing their
animals. The surveyor has portrayed
various sheep grazing on it. It’s a particularly beautiful
map, this map of Laxton, which was done in the early
seventeenth century. Well, that kind of arrangement,
that kind of scattering of land around the field,
that sharing of common grazing land inevitably meant that there
had to be a good deal of cooperative organization of
agriculture in such a place, and the manor court provided
the opportunities to pass bylaws which enabled people to draw up
the rules for their cooperative agriculture.
Bylaws were described in one
contemporary law book as being made for the “common profit
and with the assent of all.”
Ideally, you should have
unanimity about what they were and they governed not only
cooperative agriculture but also the mediation of disputes which
arose and, if necessary,
the punishment of recalcitrant people.
The aim, as one manor court
book describes it, was that–I’m quoting
it–“all should concur in the keeping of good neighborhood
one with another in tilling, in laboring,
in sowing, in shearing, in pasturing and all other
things pertaining to good and thrifty neighborhood.”
That was the ideal.
Of course, it wasn’t simply a
happy world of peasant cooperation.
In any manor the bigger
tenants, the ones who held the most land, tended to dominate.
There were plenty of disputes
and arguments, but the constant stress that
they placed on the value of neighborhood,
the constant appeals that were made to that ideal,
were certainly part and parcel of ensuring that these arguments
got resolved. One historian of this period
has described community as being in one sense belonging to the
same argument and to the institutions which helped to
resolve it. There was a very strong
expectation that ultimately people would conform to a system
which was ruled by custom in the interests of ensuring the
sustainability of the agriculture of the community as
a whole and the subsistence of its component households.
Well, so much for the immediate
economic dimension of neighborhood,
but in addition neighborhood involved of course much more
than simply engaging in that kind of communal agriculture,
and in fact there were some areas of the country where that
kind of communal agriculture was much less significant.
Already in the sixteenth
century there were some counties in which land wasn’t held in
great open fields like at Laxton but was already divided up into
the kinds of fields we associate with the English landscape
today, enclosed with hedges and
ditches, each farmer owning a certain number of fields or
holding as a tenant a certain number of fields and farming
them according to his own wishes.
That kind of agriculture,
enclosed agriculture, was already widely practiced in
Kent, in parts of the north of
England, and in some parts of eastern England in the counties
of Suffolk and Essex for example,
long established there, and it was to become the norm
throughout the whole country, as we will see.
So the economic structure of
the manor and of neighborhood was of less significance in such
places, but everywhere neighborliness
also found its expression in other forms.
One form, a very important
form, was the ecclesiastical parish.
England was divided up not only
into units of lordship, the manor, but also into about
ten thousand ecclesiastical parishes which provided an
additional unit of identity expressed through people’s
collective worship in their parish church.
Duties to one’s neighbor were
of course a central element in Christian teaching.
They implied a certain
universal moral obligation. Children were asked when they
were taught the church catechism, “who is my
neighbor?” Everyone was your neighbor,
not only those who lived by you;
a universal moral obligation. And they were taught also that
the second part of the Ten Commandments,
four to ten, involved duties to one’s
neighbor; the second table were duties to
one’s neighbor just as the first table, the first few,
were duties to God. The church taught that one
should love one’s neighbor as one’s self,
which was of course exceedingly hard to do sometimes,
but the duty to try was reinforced in many ways.
At the ritual of the mass,
the kiss of peace was part of the ritual which expressed
symbolically being in charity with your neighbors.
Those who were known to be out
of charity with their neighbors could actually be excluded from
church services and in particular from the communion
service until they had reconciled themselves,
reentered charity with their neighbors and were then allowed
to take communion. The parish also stimulated
neighborly sentiments in other ways.
The fifteenth and the early
sixteenth centuries saw a remarkable flowering of what’s
been described as parish communalism;
a whole world of activity centered on the church.
It involved the rebuilding and
beautification of many churches. Some of the most beautiful
parish churches surviving today were actually reconstructed in
this period, a period of relative prosperity
in which parishioners invested in their parish churches.
It was a period of the founding
of many parish religious guilds. These were associations of
parishioners sometimes drawn from the entire community,
sometimes particular sections: associations for the women,
associations for the young, associations for those
associated with particular manors and so forth,
who maintained altars in the parish church,
maintained candles on those altars,
had patron saints and owed duties to one another.
They prayed for one another.
They looked after one another.
It was also a period which saw
a flowering of elaborate ritual and festive life.
A great many of the traditional
seasonal festivals which are recorded in early
sixteenth-century England had actually emerged in the course
of this relatively prosperous late medieval period.
If this kind of aspect of
traditional popular culture interests you,
there’s a wonderful book on the subject by Ronald Hutton called
The Rise and Fall of Merry England in which he goes in
to a great deal of detail on these matters.
So whatever the framework,
whether we’re talking about the manor or the parish or just
living close to one another, neighborhood found expression
and it found expression also of course in persistent
face-to-face daily contact. The neighborhood was a primary
group. People knew each other
exceedingly well. They knew one another’s
business exceedingly well as was often revealed when they were
called upon to give evidence in court.
Households interpenetrated one
another in all kinds of ways: assisting one another,
borrowing from one another, lending to one another,
and a host of small-scale buying and selling.
We get constant glimpses of
these interactions in the records that survive to us.
One I recently saw for example
involved a woman who described how on one day she went ’round
to her neighbor to borrow a bowl of flour because she’d run out
and couldn’t get any at the mill.
On another day she went ’round
to see her neighbor to get some burning coals from her fire so
that she could start her own fire more easily,
this kind of constant little small change of daily
interaction. We know about these things
because she happened to notice on her visits that her neighbor
was a little over-friendly with her lodger which resulted in an
adultery case in the church courts,
and these little details of their relationship,
both positive and negative, are revealed.
We find neighbors involved in
arbitrating quarrels, in child minding,
in visiting one another when sick,
in giving one another advice, in gossiping with one another,
in reproving one another. It’s all well documented,
involved in one another’s business to an extent which
would be very unfamiliar today. It all adds up to a tangled web
of interpersonal obligation. Christopher Dyer,
who has written a wonderful book about part of the west
Midlands, over here on the border with
Wales, did one study of the wills of
fifteen families in a village in that region between 1513 and
1540. He found that of the fifteen
families some of them were linked to as many as seven of
the others by ties of debt and credit,
of god parenthood, of witnessing one another’s
wills, of leaving things to one
another in their wills, all adding up,
as he describes it, to “a close web of
friendship, of mutual regard,
and of shared responsibility”–
and those are just the relationships which happen to
have left recorded evidence for historians to see.
Well, drawing on these ties
could be crucial at times of particular need.
This is a period which lacks,
as I’ve said before, any form of life insurance or
other forms of insurance. Neighbors could provide a kind
of social insurance. You find them backing one
another up. For example,
when a couple were to be married it was common for the
neighborhood to gather to hold a ‘bride-ale’.
Ale would be brewed,
people would come along, they would pay for the ale and
the proceeds would be given to the new couple.
You also get ‘help-ales’ when
someone was in need in another way.
One from the late sixteenth
century for example describes how a help-ale was organized for
a widow whose cow had died to provide her with a new animal,
which was important to her family economy.
Because these ties could be so
supportive, at best, there was a strong
imperative amongst people to maintain what they described as
their “credit”, to maintain their credit in the
neighborhood, by which they meant their
reputation in general, their reputation for
reliability, for honesty, for good conduct.
It involved much more than
simply a sort of credit rating in a financial sense as we are
familiar with it today. It was a form,
as I’ve said, of social insurance in an
insecure world, and the price of good credit,
the price of that element of security,
was conformity, conformity to the standards of
the neighborhood. So ties of neighborhood were
something which one could also extend from the countryside in
to urban communities. In the town of Folkestone,
which is down here on the south coast in Kent,
for example, one young woman who had been
recently married and was coming to the town with her husband for
the first time found that in the street where they were going to
live the neighbors were gathered.
When she arrived they called
out, “where is she that will be our neighbor?”
and drank to her.
They had a barrel of beer ready
to welcome her. It matters in towns too,
often at the level of the street.
The towns also had distinctive
institutions which you wouldn’t find in the countryside.
Most towns had a very strong
sense of identity as autonomous, self-governing communities,
especially those of them which actually had a charter from the
king which laid down their rights of self-government,
those which were chartered boroughs.
The core members of these
communities were the citizens who held the freedom of the city
and as freemen of the city were enabled to participate in civic
government. So in the city of York for
example, up here in the north,
about half the male household heads of the city had the status
of freemen and were able to participate in the city’s
political institutions. In the city of Norwich,
over here in the east, it was about a third of the
male household heads. Citizenship was usually
contingent on having served an apprenticeship in a craft or
trade, having served it to its end,
become a member of a craft fellowship or guild and
consequently being admitted to the full freedom of the city.
And the great men in the
political life of the cities were usually the chief officers
of those craft fellowships or guilds,
especially the most powerful ones.
Guilds varied in number.
The city of York had sixty-four.
The much smaller city of
Carlisle over here in the northwest only had eight.
It all depended on the size and
complexity of the urban economy, but their functions were
essentially the same. They regulated particular
trades. They governed the taking on of
apprentices, how many apprentices could be admitted to
the trade. They tried to keep nonmembers
of the guild out of practicing the trade.
Such people were usually
described as foreigners, those who were not members of
the guild and were trying to get in on its particular activity.
They controlled the business
practices of masters. They laid down the rules for
good business practice and they controlled labor relations and
labors– and wages–between masters and
those who worked for them. But in addition the guilds had
a host of social and religious functions.
Members of the guild were under
obligation to relieve other members of the guild who fell
sick. They provided them with medical
care. They were under obligation to
relieve members of the guild who became unemployed.
They provided for widows and
orphans from charitable funds that they maintained.
It was obligatory for members
of the guild to attend one another’s funerals and weddings.
They were obliged also to pray
for the souls of dead brothers and sisters of the guild and
they were obliged to attend annual feastings and
“drinkings” at which members of the guild
would assemble to celebrate their common fraternity.
All of this fostered a very
strong sense of fraternity or brotherhood.
They constantly referred to one
another as brothers and sisters of the guild,
the sisters being the wives and daughters of members of the
guild, and it created a strong sense
of identity both within a particular sector of urban
economies and in the citizen body as a whole.
And in the citizen body as a
whole it would be periodically displayed in processions on
important feast days in which the members of the guild arrayed
in their liveries– the colors of their guild,
gowns in particular colors– would parade in order;
generally in order with their, of their, precedence and
importance within the city. When Queen Elizabeth I made her
first entry into the city of London in 1559,
for example, the streets were lined by the
city guilds all in their liveries to greet the new queen.
Finally, the fraternity and the
brotherhood which was much stressed by the guilds and the
friendship which was fostered amongst neighbors,
ideally, could both be described as being extensions
into social relations of the idiom of kinship.
was often used in the sense we use it, a personal friend,
but it also in the sixteenth century meant a relative.
It’s still used in that sense
in parts of Ireland today. A friend was commonly a cousin,
a brother-in-law and so forth. Brotherhood and fraternity
obviously involve comparison to a bond of kinship.
When one turns to actual
kinship, be it by birth or be it by marriage, that was,
of course, another bond that held together local society.
The gentry of the countryside
were much linked together within particular counties by
intermarriage. A close social network can
often be uncovered amongst gentry families who not only
lived within easy reach of one another but also sometimes
formed, through their marriage
alliances, political alignments within the politics of their
counties. And we get the same sort of
thing going on in the cities too especially amongst the elite of
the cities. In the city of Coventry,
which is the greatest city of the Midlands at this time,
in Coventry there were twenty-four men who served as
sheriff of the city between 1517 and 1547.
On closer examination,
it turns out that six of them were either fathers,
sons or brothers of others who served as sheriff,
nine of them were interlinked by marriage into one another’s
families, and another four were
interlinked by ties of godparenthood.
They’d acted as godparents of
one another’s children, establishing a bond of fictive
kinship. And more generally,
as you know from the reading for this week,
the extent to which people in any given settlement were
actually related to one another was limited.
People moved around a good deal
more than used to be thought. In most rural communities one
finds little knots of people related to one another but
within the context of a larger neighborhood of unrelated
people, and beyond that there would be
a scattering of kin over a significantly larger area.
if it wasn’t the case that most village communities were heavily
interrelated, those close kin scattered
around over what can be described as a social area
around a particular settlement undoubtedly possessed quite a
strong sense of obligation to assist one another.
And across even larger areas
one’s kin could form a broad resource of people who could be
called upon with some expectation of a positive
response. If you hoped to apprentice one
of your sons to a nearby city for example,
one of the best ways of doing that was to activate kin living
there who could help to prepare the way by finding a master to
whom the boy could be apprenticed.
Kin also helped one another in
finding suitable marriage partners and so forth.
So kinship was also one of the
bonds which tied together social areas into communities.
To give just a small,
petty example of the way in which kinship could function,
we have the record from the 1550s of an old lady called
Christian Hatton. In her old age when she was
unable to take care of herself fully,
she was cared for in turn by kinsmen who lived in a number of
settlements within walking distance of one another.
They shared the responsibility
and periodically she walked between the different households
where she was going to live for a few months at a time,
taking with her her two cows. She had two cows.
They were called Browny and
Fillpale. Fillpale was presumably a very
good milker. We know about these
arrangements about Christian Hatton and her two cows because
after her death the relatives who had been helping her fell
out over who was going to get the cows,
and so by this little accident of human frailty Browny and
Fillpale have entered the pages of history.
So let’s put all this together.
It’s been said that in late
medieval and early modern society “the most
fundamental of all bond… was that of mutual
obligation.” That’s what I’ve been talking
about obviously. We have been looking at the
realities of those bonds. The institutions and the
relationships that I’ve been surveying provided the basic
coordinates of people’s identities beyond the household.
They bound them together into
networks of relationships in guilds,
in manors, amongst neighbors, amongst kinsmen,
which provided those coordinates of identity.
Those ties were mostly local
and they gave a strong flavor of local particularity to the
society and the culture of the time;
a particularity of place, a particularity of custom in
that place, a particularity of known faces
and those with whom you regularly interacted,
a particularity of assumptions about shared values and proper
behavior. In such a context people’s
everyday dealings were very closely bound up with these
direct, face-to-face personal relationships.
They were rarely anonymous.
Indeed, they can be said to
have taken on a very strong moral character implicitly,
sometimes explicitly. People were expected to meet
their obligations. They were enjoined to live in
charity with one another. They were reproved if they
failed to do so. In many ways it’s a very
attractive ideal and has some features,
which clearly bear out some of the assumptions of the
sociological notions of community.
But one should also never
forget that it could also be very demanding,
very restrictive, very excluding as well as
including, and it was something which
certainly couldn’t be taken for granted.
Community insofar as it existed
was always threatened with potential conflict.
It had to be worked at.
It has been described as being
a form of constantly negotiated community amongst a set of
well-known people. Well, that’s a very important
aspect of the world I’m trying to introduce to you.
We should certainly never
sentimentalize it. If it was attractive in some
ways, it could be very demanding, very restrictive.
It wasn’t an idyllic pre-modern
world. There was plenty of conflict.
There was personal rivalry and
of course there were differences of power.
But at the same time it was a
world that gave priority to the needs of these collectivities as
well as to those of individual households,
and the restraining bonds of these interpersonal obligations
could have a very powerful influence on how people
conducted themselves and could have a very powerful influence
on how they understood and perceived and responded to
various of the changes which were to come in the course of
the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
I’ll leave it there,
and next time I’ll go on to look at urban society more fully
and the network of connections which bound together the kingdom
as a whole.

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