It 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’.
Who 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 ‘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.
The ‘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.
To 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
For 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.