Medieval English society
Domesday Book provides a wealth of information about English
society in 1086. It lists about 13,000 towns, villages and
tiny hamlets. The basic unit in Domesday Book was the manor - since
this showed who owned the land and controlled its inhabitants.|
At the time of Domesday Book, more than 90 per cent of
the English population (of about two million) lived in the countryside. Even
with the vast mass of the population engaged in agriculture, almost all the
cultivable land had to be farmed because output was so low - about four times
the amount of seed sown. (To feed one person for a year on wheat required
about two acres of land - today's yields would produce the same from 1/3 of an
The average holding of a peasant family
during the 14th century was about 12 to 15 acres, but many poor cottars
survived on less than five acres - supplementing their income by working as
Wheat was preferred for human food
consumption, but other crops were also sown: barley - the
basic constituent of ale; oats - for the livestock that manured the land; peas - both as a source of protein and
because they increased the soil's fertility if alternated with grain
Fish also played an important part in the
medieval English diet. No place in England is more than about 100
miles from the sea, and its many rivers also provided
Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweth sed, and bloweth med,
And springeth the wude nu —
Lhouth after calve cu;
Bulluc sterteth, bucke verteth,
Murie sing cuccu!
well singes thu, cuccu:
Ne swike thu naver nu;
Sing cuccu, nu, sing cuccu,
Sing cuccu, sing cuccu, nu!
|[Summer is arriving,
Loudly sing cuckoo!
Seeds are growing, meadows blowing,
And woods renewing —
bleat after lambs,
Cows low for calves;
Bullocks are shying, bucks are leaping,
Merrily sing cuckoo.
Cuckoo, cuckoo; well may you sing cuckoo,
You should never stop singing cuckoo].
One of the earliest surviving
examples of English verse, dating from the early 13th century, The Cuckoo song shows the
rural concerns of an agricultural country.
Land and social structure in Medieval
[The column on the left shows the approximate proportion in the
population; the column on the right, the rough proportion of land held
or farmed (though not necessarily owned; villeins held their land from a lord who owned it); slaves have no right hand
column as they had no land]
The other class of freemen were "sokemen" (or socmen.)
Roughly one in six of the population were sokemen, and they owned
about twenty per cent of the land. They were especially numerous in East Anglia.
Sokemen held in socage; they had security of tenure provided they carried out
certain defined services often including light labor services and paying a fixed
rent. Their land was heritable.
|The largest class of the population were villani.
(Those born to servile status were also called nativi.) About
four in ten people were villani tied to the land. They did
not own the land but farmed their own holdings (about 45 per cent
of all English land,) which they were allowed to occupy in
exchange for labor services on the landowner's demesne.|
|The exact services required from villani varied in
accordance with local customs and agreements. A common arrangement
was three days work each week (more in harvest time). During the
12th Century the villani were keen to have their labor
services commuted to money rents, but labor services remained widespread.|
||A lower class of villeins were known as bordars or
cottars. These occupied very small plots of land for personal
use, which like the villani they did not own, but for which they had to pay rent
and/or labor services. Although they constituted about one third of
the population, bordars only occupied about five per cent of
||At the very bottom of the social scale were slaves who owned no
land at all. These constituted slightly less than one in ten of the
population at the time of Domesday Book. During the 12th Century
many of these slaves were given holdings and became bordars.
|Social and economic change meant that these classes were far
from fixed - villeins could buy free land, and freemen could slip
|In the course of the Middle Ages the tendency was for the peasants to
become freer but poorer - as population expansion outstripped the growth of
agricultural productivity, reducing the size of average landholdings; this
also had the effect of reducing the price of hired labor; lords could find it
more efficient to hire cheap labor (paid per task) than to enforce labor
services on reluctant serfs/ villeins (paid per day).|
The Medieval English economy
The economy was overwhelmingly
agricultural. Towns functioned as commercial centers, but long
distance trade was still undeveloped.
Medieval Europe had very poor roads:
potholes could be large enough to overturn a cart. In wet weather,
the roads became extremely muddy - not until the late 14th century
were city streets cobbled with stones. Consequently, shipping by sea or river was far more efficient than land carting.
|Some developments in shipping did occur. In
particular, the introduction of the cog - a
transport ship that rode low in the water. Cogs were steered by
a side oar and powered by a combination of oars and one yard
sail. Its strong cross beams allowed for the transportation of
greater quantities of cargo than earlier ships.
These ships were short and stubby by modern standards, and the
relatively large breadth to keel ratio made them difficult to
The introduction of the magnetic compass
during the 12th Century considerably improved navigation. Although England's maritime trade grew during
the 13th Century, international trade and commerce was dominated by
the cities of Italy. Their commercial expertise and loan facilities
enabled them to obtain special concessions from the English
|England's main export was wool.
During the later Middle Ages, England increasingly exported
finished cloth, but
raw wool was the primary export during the 13th Century.
long haired sheep whose wool dominated English medieval output.
The population of Europe as a whole grew in the
period 1000 to 1300. This coincided with the so-called "Medieval Warm
Period," when the average temperature of Northern Europe was warmer
than for 2000 preceding years, and far warmer than in the "Little Ice
Age" that followed it. England's population increased from somewhere
between 1.25 and 2.25 million at the time of the Norman Conquest, to
at least 4 million (and possibly well over 6 or even 7 million) by 1300.|
The Growth in English population
Much of the growth in population took place in
the North of England. This area recovered from the devastation
inflicted by William I, helped by the warmer temperatures and a longer
A number of new towns were founded - including Leeds
(1207) and Liverpool (1229.)
English medieval towns were very small by
modern standards. Only London with a population of about 35,000 by
1300 was a large city. England's second city, Norwich grew from about
6,000 inhabitants in 1086 to about 10,000 in 1300.
Population expansion and social conditions
Because the number of people was growing while
agricultural yields remained stagnant, people had to expand onto
marginal land to increase food production. Forests were felled,
marshes drained and arable crops planted in poor soil that had
previously been used as pasture. Existing land was sowed more
frequently and left fallow less often.
These techniques expanded production initially,
but yields tended to fall over time. The cutback in the area available
for livestock decreased the volume of manure obtainable for
fertilizing the soil.|
More people meant smaller acreage of land per
person and this led to "harvest sensitivity." In years of poor harvests (such as the wet summers of
1315-1316) insufficient grain was grown and the poor starved.
More people also meant more laborers and low
wages. Landowners therefore had no reason to enforce servile labor. By
1300, slavery had died out and unfree tenures were becoming
less common. (About one in two peasants was a villein in 1300, where
two in three of those in Domesday Book were villeins.) However, there
were still considerable variations in different areas of the country,
and even within regions. In the North-west, for example, servile
tenures predominated, while in Kent wealthy free peasants were the
A medieval peasant's house
|Wood was in short supply in medieval England
so only the frame of the house was constructed of timber.
There were no foundations, but the timbers were sometimes
placed on stone supports to discourage damp and rot.
The spaces in the walls were filled with branches and twigs, caked
together with mud, and the whole surface was then coated with a
limestone wash to render them waterproof. This system was called "wattle
The roof was generally thatched with straw.
The floor was simply earth, which was covered with straw
(periodically thrown out and replaced) to reduce dust and
|The internal floor-plan tended to
be very simple - the house was divided into a byre for
livestock and supplies, and a living area for people with a
central hearth. Generally, there was no chimney - smoke merely
escaped through a hole in the roof.
Increased population made peasants freer but
poorer. By the late 13th Century, however, the evidence is clear that
peasants preferred free tenure, even in areas where many free
smallholders were very poor. Peasant uprisings from the mid 1200s
almost always included demands for free status.
High food prices and low wages made landowners richer,
especially if they applied efficient management techniques. Accounting
procedures grew more sophisticated, and new
literature on agricultural improvement appeared.