Phoenix Cottage, Stoneleigh, Warwicks, is an exceptionally well-preserved cruck house of 1480—2, given ceilings and upper storeys and a chimney in the 17th century. Today a picture of prosperous domesticity, the house was occupied in the 16th century by a series of peasant tenants who made their living by pasturing cattle and pigs on nearby common land and by brewing and selling ale (an activity that is often resorted to by the poorest of cottagers). An idea of their wealth can be gained from the fact that the most valuable possession of one tenant, Joan Hogkyns, a widow, was her spit, valued at 4d. Image: Nat AlcockIt used to be thought that only high-class houses had survived from the Medieval period. Radiocarbon and tree-ring dating has now revealed that thousands of ordinary Medieval homes are still standing in the English Midlands, many now incorporated into des res village homes. Chris Catling reports on how some peasants lived very well in the Middle Ages.

The term ‘peasant’ suggests poverty, ignorance, missing teeth and poor personal hygiene: Baldrick stuff, all threadbare rags, hunched shoulders and a life shared with pigs in a squalid hovel barely adequate to keep out the bitter winter wind. In fact, all that ‘peasant’ really means is that you live mainly off the produce of your own labour. Many a modern allotment holder leads a semi-peasant lifestyle, and there are plenty of contemporary peasants all over southern and Eastern Europe – not to mention those living in hippy communes in west Wales. For peasant, read ‘largely self-sufficient’.

A typical Midlands cruck house, showing pairs of cruck blades rising from the sill beam at ground level to the apex of the roof in one sweep. The central bay is an open hall, with service bay to the left and a two-storeyed chamber bay to the right. Drawing by Bob MeesonWho are you calling a peasant?
Chris Dyer, author of Making a Living in the Middle Ages, points out that some historians are reluctant to use the term because they think it too imprecise (yet they happily use equally broad terms such as ‘merchant’ and ‘artisan’. Professor Dyer thinks that ‘peasant’ is a very useful word and that nobody has yet devised an adequate substitute to denote people in the lower ranks of society, living in the countryside and gaining their main living from the resources available to them as a result of their own labours. Typically this is based on agricultural production on a piece of land held by customary tenure (common land) or copyhold tenure (in return for which the tenant had to render certain services to the lord of the manor).

Fifteen acres of arable land and pasture is just about enough to keep a family fed, and few peasant smallholdings exceeded 30 acres in extent up to the mid-14th century. One of the economic impacts of the Black Death and climate deterioration from the 1340s was to make more land available; population decline meant that those who survived were in demand as agricultural labourers, able to sell their services for hard cash, rather than land or kind. Peasant landholdings doubled in size in the period 1380 to 1540, enabling peasants to produce a surplus for sale in local markets. Many peasants were also able to supplement their income from pursuing such occupations as mining or fishing, or working as artisans or traders. Initially weak and vulnerable, surviving on a subsistence diet of very basic foods, peasants were increasingly able to afford better clothing, tools, utensils and foodstuffs after the difficult decades of the mid-14th century.

The four main types of Medieval timber-framed house found in the Midlands: A) a cruck truss; B) a box-framed truss; C) an aisled truss; D) a base-cruck truss in which the cruck blades rise to a tie beam and does not form part of the roof. Drawing by Bob MeesonThe ‘Great Rebuilding’
In the same way, peasant housing underwent gradual improvement. Once it was believed that Medieval peasant houses were so miserable and insubstantial that no housing from this stratum of society could possibly have survived the 500 years or so that separate us from the Middle Ages. Built of poor-quality materials scavenged from the immediate locality ‘fallen timber, mud and furze’ with animals and humans living in the same structure, they would have needed frequent replacement and would have turned to dark earth within a few years of abandonment.

The standard view was that no ordinary Medieval house could have lasted more than a generation, and this constant need to replace rotting structures was one reason why villages were not static, but moved about in the landscape until the so-called ‘Great Rebuilding’. This began around 1570 and continued into the early 18th century, and marks the era when more solid houses were constructed with chimneys, staircases, glazed windows and private chambers in place of an open hall.

Mill Farm, Mapledurham, Oxfordshire during re-thatching in 2004. This cruck-built three-bay house dated to 1335 survives almost in its original state, except for the insertion of the chimney stack in the late 15th or early 16th century and new doors and windows in the 18th century. Image: Nat AlcockThe ‘vernacular threshold’
The homes of higher-income social groups were the first to be rebuilt. Vernacular homes lagged by a few decades. Another phrase in common use among architectural historians is the ‘vernacular threshold’, used to describe the date after which the houses of ordinary people began to be rebuilt in a sufficiently robust form to have survived to the present day. Until recently, that threshold was set somewhere in the later 17th century, partly in the belief that the more substantial timber buildings that had survived from the 16th century or earlier must be the houses of superior types with larger landholdings and higher incomes, such as prosperous farmers and yeomen.

This kind of circular argument, whereby if it survived it could not be a peasant house because peasant houses did not survive, has now been comprehensively undermined by a study initiated by the late Bob Laxton and continued by Nat Alcock, Robert Howard, Dan Miles and Cliff Litton. Their Leverhulme-Trust-funded project set out to investigate cruck houses and to provide more accurate dates for this type of early building.

Crucks of the matter
Cruck buildings, referred to in Medieval documents by the Latin word furcae (fork) are built around pairs of timbers (cruck blades) that extend from the ground all the way to the apex of the roof in a single sweep, forming an arch-like truss. Typically these are houses of three bays, with a truss at each end and two internal trusses. The central bay forms an open hall, without upper floor or chimney, recognisable today by the fact that the surviving roof timbers are covered in soot and tar deposits from smoke rising from a central hearth on the floor below. One of the side bays was used as a service space while the other, the only one with an upper floor, reached by a ladder, provided rooms for sleeping.

7_2_Dene_recreatedTo the hovel born
This reconstruction drawing by Pat Hughes shows the house of Robert Dene (who died in 1552) at 2 Church Lane, Stoneleigh, Warwicks, based on the inventory of his possessions attached to his will. This names four rooms: the hall, chamber, solar (upper room) and kitchen, and the contents of each, including trestle table, benches, chairs, cupboards, painted clothes, cushions, tablecloth, wooden chests, beds, bedding, basins, candlesticks, pots, pans, hooks, chains, gridiron, spit, pewter and earthenware dishes, wooden trenchers, mortar, lead weights, and sides of bacon. Further insights into life in a peasant house come from 13th- and 14th-century coroner’s inquests, which tell of children scalded by pots falling over on the open heath, chickens setting fire to the straw on the hall floor, a candle falling over and setting fire to bedding and a thief falling from a ladder while trying to steal a ham hanging from a beam.

 

Crucks are not the only structural form found in the Midlands. There are also aisled buildings, base crucks (in which the cruck blades only rise as far as a tie beam) and box-framed structures, but these are all minor components among the older timber buildings of the region. With some 3,086 documented examples, crucks are by far the most common type to have survived. Plotted on a distribution map, cruck houses are mainly found in the western Britain and are completely absent from large parts of eastern Britain. This sharp boundary was recognised a long time ago, but has never been explained.

Centuries older than expected
The evidence for a smoke louvre was discovered when Mill Farm, Mapledurham, was re-thatched, in the form of empty mortice holes and fractured tenons. Smoke louvres, used to draw smoke up and out of the hall, are usually located directly above the open fire and thus help locate the position of the hearth, Painting: Lynn CourtenayFor this study, some 120 houses were examined in great detail in the counties of Buckinghamshire, Leicestershire, Oxford and Warwick, with a few also in Gloucester and Nottinghamshire. Of these, 83 were found to have primary timbers suitable for carbon dating and dendrochronology. The results, to everyone’s surprise, showed that nearly all the cruck buildings sampled were built during the 300-year period from the 1260s to the 1550s: in other words, a long time before that 17th-century vernacular threshold.

But can we really claim that these buildings are vernacular, and do they justify the term ‘peasant house’? The authors of the study answer this by turning the old argument on its head: in place of the doctrine that all early houses must be high status, they say that so many of these houses have survived that they cannot possibly all be of manorial status or the houses of the wealthiest members of the community. ‘When a village has ten or even twenty such houses, it is a safe deduction that they were the homes of ordinary people including… the whole hierarchy of rural society, from substantial and middling peasants down to a few smallholders’, they conclude. In other words, these may not be the houses of the very poorest peasants, but they are of peasant status, nonetheless.


This article is an extract, but you can read the full text in CA 279

5 Comments

  1. shon
    August 3, 2013 @ 2:16 am

    It is so hard to find anything about peasants it is almost as though history has been rewritten and no one is descended from peasants.Our music,food and style all originated from our peasant roots ,refined and evolved into what and who we are today.It is harder for migrants to colonies to get in touch with their roots as they were transported and transplanted into new lands.Migrants tend to be more interested in fitting in than retaining their history.

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  2. Christopher Webbe
    September 10, 2013 @ 12:19 pm

    I have not read the full article (which appears no longer to be available), and while I have no problem with testing well-accepted but insufficiently supported assumptions, some questions arise in my mind. Firstly, the assumption that those houses that have survived belonged to (relatively) wealthy (but manorial ? really ?) families must at least in part be supported by the substantial investment in materials and work that such houses represent. Wages went up but did not inflation also ? Did people build their own houses or did they have to pay for labour ? Wood and other materials may have cost less but what was the cost of getting them ? Secondly, stating that “When a village has ten or even twenty such houses, it is a safe deduction that they were the homes of ordinary people” begs the questions a) 10 or 20 out of how many (or were villages all the same size ?), b) over what time span were such buildings built (a small number of families may decide to built new houses from time to time, leaving their old ones to the less advantaged, who might end up living in a nice house but with “coal in the bath”) and c) did such well provided villages have some special economic advantage that would skew the statistics (fair, mines, shrine etc).
    Incidentally, the Robert Dene example would be of greater significance if we were to know something about his social background – was he a peasant ? And this raises a further question. If you broaden out the definition of peasant so that it is loosened from the fetters binding it to the quality of housing, perhaps all you have done is now allow yourself to say that even peasants lived in nice houses. It does not, at least for me, necessarily support the contention that actually the housing of the lower stratum of society was nicer than we thought

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  3. Go Fish Dating Review Warwickshire | boys
    March 25, 2015 @ 7:18 pm

    […] Current Archaeology – Peasant houses in Midland England: How … — May 2, 2013 … Go Digging! … Radiocarbon and tree-ring dating has now revealed that thousands of ordinary Medieval homes are still standing in the English Midlands, many now … such occupations as mining or fishing, or working as artisans or traders. …. REVIEW: Home: A Time Traveller's Tales from Britain's Prehistory. […]

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  4. Joe Sweeney
    March 24, 2016 @ 8:07 pm

    A fascinating article but difficult to read because of the non-ASCII characters – possibly the result of a copy/paste from MS Word into an HTML environment. The author needs to be more careful.

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    • CA
      March 31, 2016 @ 2:41 pm

      Dear Joe,

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article but sorry you had trouble reading it. I have now fixed the page.

      We had some webhost trouble a little while ago and when we restored the older pages some of the characters were lost. We are still working to rectify this, so thank you for pointing this page out.

      Best wishes,

      The CA Team

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