A Short History of Social Life in England/Chapter 6

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Circa 1204—1250


"To none will we sell or deny or delay right or justice."

Magna Charta.

EMERGING from the dark days of turbulence after the Norman Conquest, when the Englishman's castle was in very deed and truth his home, we turn to the thirteenth century to find considerable development in the social life of our forefathers. The days of warfare past, the English home no longer required the strong defensive construction of the castle, with its frowning battlements and towers. Smaller dwellings with less gloomy surroundings now succeeded the fortress home, and the English manor-house sprang into existence. The Norman hall still played a large part in its construction. Though no longer built over dark dungeons for the imprisonment of human foes, it was, nevertheless, built over strongly vaulted cellars. It was dark and it was draughty. True, the long narrow windows of the castle had been enlarged, and wooden shutters constructed to cover them, but glass was still too dear for anything but Royal palaces. It cost six shillings a foot, and it was risky work carting it over the rough roads of this period. Hence we get a Royal command in 1238 to place a window of white glass in the Queen's bedroom at Winchester, "so that the chamber be not so windy as it used to be," but the houses even of the rich barons were exposed to all the winds of heaven.

Tapestry covered the walls as of old, worked with patience and ability by the English ladies, who had plenty of time on their hands—plenty of imagination and sentiment too, to cover their walls with inspiring representations of noble deeds and knightly heroism. There were few carpets as yet, and the floors were strewn with rushes, which were not changed so often as might have been wished. One vast improvement took place. The piled up fire in the middle of the hall gave way to a regular fire-place built against the side of the room, with a canopy constructed over it to draw away the smoke, which was led to escape through a hole in the wall. Chimneys were rare in the halls of the Middle Ages, which makes the law prohibiting the use of coal quite intelligible. Next to the hall, and hardly second in importance, was the kitchen, for these were days of immoderate use of food and drink. Indeed, the splendour of the baronial dinners is a matter of history. Minstrels and troubadours loved to dwell on the magnificence of these "domestic pageants," where the gross display of food impressed the guests with the wealth of their host.

Ten a.m. was the dinner hour, somewhat akin to the modern breakfast hour in the houses of those who have no need to work. The tables literally glittered with gold and silver, for the accumulation of household plate at this time was equivalent to the modern practice of banking, as it could take the place of money in times of necessity. The most important feature of the table was the salt-cellar, which was sometimes of gold and fashioned in strange devices. It was treated with exceeding reverence and placed midway on the table as a boundary of distinction; all seated between it and the head of the table being guests, while those of inferior rank sat below. Our modern superstitions about salt date from early days; many of our forefathers threw a pinch over their left shoulder as they helped themselves, while others muttered a blessing, for it augured ill to spill it or to help another to it. The company, having washed their hands in bowls of water perfumed with sweet extract of herbs and flowers, seated themselves at table, and the tablecloth was laid with great ceremony. The chaplain then asked a blessing and placed the alms-dish on the table. "To serve God first," no food was touched until a loaf had been placed in the alms-dish, to which contributions were constantly added, to be distributed to the poor who assembled daily at the gate.

Then to the joyous strain of clarion and trumpet the procession entered from the kitchen, headed by the marshal of the ceremonies bearing the cup and spice plate belonging to the head of the house. He was closely followed by cooks and yeomen bearing their savoury burdens. Huge pieces of meat were served on slices of bread, which slices, sodden with gravy, were placed in the alms-dish for the poor. Roasts and birds were carried to table on their spits, and each guest tore off as much as he wished. Fearsomely greedy were the men and women of the thirteenth century. There is a story which tells of a man and wife who sat down to a roast fowl. Tearing from the spit joint after joint, the woman greedily devoured the whole bird. "Lo," cried her wrathful husband, "you have eaten the whole bird yourself, and nothing remains but the spit; it is but right you should taste that also."

Thereupon he took the spit and beat her severely with it.

Forks had not yet arrived in England from Venice, and our ancestors ate, as their fathers had eaten, with their fingers.

"Your meat genteelly with your fingers raise,
 And as in eating there's a certain grace,
 Beware with greasy hands lest you besmear your face."

It was the custom of the Middle Ages for a man to bring his own knife to table, and a whetstone hung near for him to sharpen it from time to time. Ladies and gentlemen sat side by side, so that they might share the same plate.

"If you eat with another," runs an old book on etiquette, "turn the nicest pieces to him, and do not go picking out the finest and largest for yourself"—words that would be applied to children to-day rather than to grown-up folk.

It is amusing to note, in passing, the evolution of the modern pie. The medieval cook was fond of serving up birds in their coffins. Thus a peacock, still retaining the glory of its plumage, was brought to table in a coffin of paste with neck erect, tail expanded above the crust, and comb richly gilded. Brought into the hall on a silver dish, heralded by the blast of many trumpets, it was placed before some knight whose prowess had won the laurels of the day. Rising, he broke the crust, vowing the while that he would rescue some captive lady from some mythical monster or die, though his vows, like the pie-crust before him, were made to be broken.

Our ancestors loved strong flavours. Porpoise or sea swine, whale, and sea wolf were favourite dishes at this time; but, while the tables of the thirteenth century were literally loaded with flesh, fish, and fowl, vegetables were so scarce that it was customary to salt them for keeping. Potatoes were of course unheard of, and cabbages were imported for the next 300 years, as much as 20s. being paid for six cabbages or a few carrots. The consumption of spice was enormous—every dish was flavoured with it; cinnamon was handed on a golden salver, and sugar was originally treated among the spices, till about this time it began to be used more liberally in the houses of the wealthy, taking the place of honey.

There was little refinement in these rough days. Books of etiquette throw light on the coarseness of table manners. "Set never on fish, flesh, or fowl more than two fingers and a thumb." "Look thy nails be clean, lest thy fellows loathe thee." "If thou spit over the table thou shalt be considered discourteous." There are requests not to use the tablecloth as a handkerchief—handkerchiefs not being in use nor for cleaning the teeth; suggestions that the mouth should be wiped before drinking, lest grease go into the wine, which is very unpleasing for the person who drinks from the same cup.

If such suggestions were necessary in high life, what of the labouring classes? Their condition was pitiable indeed. Their primitive hovels were as squalid as an Irish cabin of to-day Covered in with turf and thatch, they had no windows and no chimneys, neither were there any tapestry or hangings to keep out the bitter cold The labourer could not read or write; his bread was black, and tough as his shoe leather. He had no pipe to smoke, nor had he any gin, rum, or whisky—for those spirits which have become the curse of modern England were as yet undiscovered. Only little "ardent spirits" known as cordials, were made in well-appointed houses and dealt out by the lady of the house in thimblefuls. Money was scarce; the silver penny was the chief coin of the realm till halfpennies and farthings were first coined in 1276. But what did the agricultural labourer want with money? He paid his "rent" in hens and eggs and forced labour. For it will be remembered that England was as yet entirely an agricultural country, and the holder of much rich land was the man of wealth. At the same time we must note the industrial progress of the period, with its germs of that great mercantile development, which has played such an immense part in the history of social life in England. Each village practically supplied its own wants in these days, and what could not be made was done without There was no dumping down of foreign goods—the Englishman valued his own too highly for that. Local wool and hemp supplied the coarse material to be woven into the loose tunics worn by all alike in varying degrees of quality; the village tanner supplied the skins of leather for boots and sandals; the hunter procured wolves and cats for fur caps and other garments. There were no factories. The medieval shop and factory were in one. Goods were made within and displayed in the porch without, while the family slept in the upper part, when there was one—truly a much more snug arrangement than the vast factories of to-day, with the specialising of work, whereby a man may make screws year in, year out, ignorant of the part they are to play in the whole.

The industrial life of the towns was controlled by "gilds"—unions of traders to regulate trade and exclude foreign rivals. It was the business of these gilds to punish short weights and measures, to censure "shoddy" material, to reprove unskilled workmanship—in short, to insure commercial morality, a subject under close discussion to-day. It was this early insistence on honest dealing which made the English merchant respected throughout the commercial world, and finally helped to raise him to a position unequalled by European traders. The head of the gild was a very important person, who was practically the head of the town, presiding over the gild-hall or centre of commercial administration. He, too, had the organisation of the great markets and fairs which were such a feature of the thirteenth century. The fairs depended for their success on the local trade of each centre. Here, in wooden booths arranged on either side the narrow streets, the men from the neighbouring villages displayed their wares. All shops were closed for the two or three weeks of the fair, and merchants from all parts of England and Europe exchanged their goods. It was dangerous work getting to and from these fairs, for the merchant class were unpopular, and heartily despised by barons and nobles.

"Nobles and gentlemen," they were wont to say, "do not carry packs, nor go about trussed with bundles. It belongs to beggars to bear bag on back, and to burghers to bear purses." Indeed, the young nobles were not above plundering markets and fairs, or waylaying the heavily burdened merchant to deprive him of his goods.

Nevertheless, it is to the merchant class of England that we owe the "full tradition of Teutonic liberty." The right of self-government, the right of free speech in free meeting, the right to equal justice at the hands of equals, were brought safely across the ages of tyranny by the burghers and shopkeepers of our towns. "They have done more than knight and baron to make England what she is to-day," by their sturdy battle with oppression, their steady, ceaseless struggle for right and freedom.

Their influence can be traced in the Great Charter signed by King and barons in 1215, this "earliest monument of English freedom … to which from age to age patriots have looked back as the basis of English liberty."

The same feeling for liberty made itself felt in other ways. A new impulse, gained from the Crusades, was spreading through the country; a spirit of restlessness and inquiry was abroad, of "impatience with the older traditions of mankind," rousing scholars to crowd to the few seats of learning, where teachers were gathered together. The rise of the Universities was a triumph over the rule of brute force of past ages, a movement which, unlike the feudal system, recognised no distinction between man and man. It formed a new society, resting on a democratic basis, where knowledge alone gave superiority, and ancestry counted for nought. Masters and poor scholars began to discuss matters hitherto taken for granted, and the attitude of the Pope towards England was eagerly disputed. But, at the same time, a great religious "revival" was in process, instituted by the friars who now poured across the seas into England. The Dominican and Franciscan brothers played no small part in the social life of the people. They not only preached a higher life, but they taught sanitation and ventilation; they nursed the outcast leper and ministered to the sick and needy; they fought the hideous crime of the thirteenth century, and pierced the darkness that had gathered over the country.