Medieval Life in Rural Worcestershire: Hard, Brutal and Short?
by Deborah Overton
Thursday 28th January 2016
The inhabitants of Worcestershire are fortunate in having such a well-preserved medieval rural landscape, as we were informed by Deborah Overton in the Society’s first talk of 2016.
Using Throckmorton and Grafton Flyford as examples, Deborah illustrated the social structure and landscape of a typical rural settlement. This would consist of a manor house (probably moated), a church, a cluster of cottages and (often) a mill; the village would be surrounded by fields. It was the great nobles who lived lives of luxury in splendid castles. On the smaller estates, the Lord and Lady of the manor might have a lifestyle akin to that of a prosperous farmer. Elsewhere, furniture and chattels were scarce, even in the manor house, while the peasantry were lucky to own a table and a couple of stools with a few pieces of pottery. A wealthier neighbour might own an item of value, an iron cauldron, for example, which could be lent out (or hired out in exchange for the loan of a ladder or an axe, or some other item of scarce equipment).
What was astonishing was the number of social divisions amongst the peasantry. About 12% of peasants were free men who rented their land and owed no service to their lord; then there were sokemen: free men who also rented but also owed service. Of the unfree peasants, the villein was quite high up in the order and held a reasonable amount of land; below him were cottars; and the lowest of the low were slaves, who owned nothing at all, had few rights and depended on the kindness of their owners.
The prosperity of the settlement depended on the fertility of the land, the weather and the incidence of disease amongst humans and animals. A couple of bad harvests in succession could lead to famine, whilst the epidemics which occasionally swept the countryside (the most famous of which was the Black Death in 1348) could bring about the total abandonment of villages. However it was the introduction of sheep for the production of wool which was the main cause of depopulation. Lords of the manor evicted their tenants to turn the land over to grazing. The poor tenants became vagabonds (possibly even outlaws – many of whom were ordinary people turned off their land).
In Worcestershire alone there are more than 200 abandoned medieval villages. All that remains today of Grafton Flyford (apart from the church ) are a few lumps and bumps to be seen in the fields.
This was a wonderful talk on an interesting, but enormous topic. There was subject matter for a host of further lectures in even one aspect of the material Deborah had to cover in a single hour. That she had fired the imaginations of her audience was evident from the lively discussion which ensued.