A Short History of Social Life in England/Chapter 7

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Circa 1250—1348


"For each age is a dream that is dying
    Or one that is coming to birth."

NOTWITHSTANDING the barrenness and discomfort of the homes of the fourteenth century, a strange luxury marks the dress of the period. The journeys of the Crusaders to the East affected the social life of all Europe. Rich silks, costly embroideries, cloths of gold, silver girdles, and that mysterious material called samite, found their way into England and played a large part in the quaint garments of our ancestors of this period. Variety was the order of the day; brilliant colours and fantastic shapes characterised the dress of the motley crowds that sported in Medieval England. There were no short cloth skirts and thick boots for the women of those days, though the conditions of life were such as to make such a fashion most desirable, for there were no carriages to drive in, and the mud and the ruts of the country roads must have been truly appalling. But the lady of those days bravely trailed her long skirts over the dirty rushes in the hall, and picked her way over the muddy roads and tracks in long pointed shoes of some bright coloured material, stretching some inches beyond her toes and with ridiculously high heels. They were both unlovely and unserviceable. So inconvenient, indeed, were they, that the knights, who also indulged in this fantastic shoe, found the long toes so sadly in the way that it was no uncommon sight to see the points fastened up to the knee by chains of gold or silver. These shoes were known as "Crackowes," after the Polish city where they originated. With them the men wore bright coloured stockings crossed up the legs with garters—not unlike the old Saxon leg-bandage—but with their love of colour and variety they often wore one stocking green and the other blue, which contrast must have looked curious enough below their short coloured tunics. Both men and women seem to have been as much the slaves of fashion in those old days as we are to-day. In their long peaked shoes they went to church, but their devotions were seriously disturbed thereby:—

"When other knelis
 Thei stonde on here helis
 For hurtying of here hose
 I trow, for her long toes."

The clergy were not above wearing these long peaked shoes themselves; so the fashion passed unrebuked for a time. The gorgeous tunics worn by the nobles came from the East, with jewelled girdle and dagger, more for ornament than for use, and over this lavish costume hung a splendid mantle, literally shining with gold thread—a fine-weather garment, one would suppose, and wholly unsuited to our gloomy English skies and torrents of autumnal rain. They had no umbrellas or parasols, for which reason, perhaps, they wore somewhat elaborate headgear. While the men wore their hair long and carefully curled, the ladies mostly gathered theirs up into nets of gold thread, or plaited it with gold wire to make it stand out more stiffly under the bright kerchief with jewelled pins or the odd frames which often enough encircled their heads. With this and the throttling wimple round their necks, they were amply protected. Hoods with long points were worn by the poorer classes, or flat caps made of fur. The dull uniformity and sombre hues of our modern dress were left for monk and merchant, for each profession had its distinctive costume, each social grade was distinguished by the cut and texture of its garments. To-day the workman can dress as the duke, the tradesman's wife as a Royal Princess, but in the fourteenth century this was utterly impossible. Thus, loitering about the streets of an old medieval city one might recognise the young noble with tippet and long jagged sleeves, short tunic, piebald legs and pointed shoes, followed perhaps by a servant carrying his mantle; the hooded merchant in his long gown of brown or grey, girded at the waist; the workman in his russet smock and flat cap; the monk in his sombre frock, and the pilgrim distinguishable by his long beard and staff in hand. Some of the most extravagant fashions were adopted by the clergy, whose vestments and robes were magnificently embroidered with flowers and figures and lined with costly furs. Gloves were a great feature of ecclesiastical dress, and often bequeathed as valuable legacies. But for all their extravagances, the clergy were a great power in the land. Our ancestors attended church regularly and methodically on Sundays and holydays; they sat in pews according to their rank, which remains of feudalism have survived in country churches to this day, while the retainers and servants stood in the "alleys." The walls of the churches were bright with fresco, so that the most ignorant could glean lessons from the stories of the Saints. There were no pulpits yet, and sermons were rare, but the Sacraments of the Church were duly administered, and the faith of our medieval forefathers was touching in its extreme simplicity.

Simple indeed were their lives altogether. They still went early to bed—sleeping between the sheets with nothing on but a nightcap—and rose with the sun. They started off on their hunting and hawking expeditions when the labourers were starting for their work in the fields. Men and women went hawking together, sometimes on horseback, sometimes on foot, but this sport was reserved for the King and nobles, and no poor man might even keep a hawk. The birds were chosen, bred, and trained with the greatest care and skill; they had perches in the bedroom and hall of their owners, whom they accompanied everywhere—even to church. They were attached to the wrist by a leather or silk strap, called a jesse, which passed between the fingers of the owner's left hand.

Perhaps this account of an old Royal hawking expedition will serve to explain the sport: "The King rode in front, attended by his seneschal, marshal, constables, chamberlains, falconers and other household officers, to a neighbouring wood, where there was a noted eyrie of herons, and there in a marshy meadow by the woodside they could see in the distance several of the great birds of which they were in quest. The King was desirous of proving a magnificent Norway hawk of a snowy whiteness. As soon as the falconers with their dogs arrived, the noble falcon, already unhooded, was thrown off upon the track. Then, although the heron flew as stoutly as could have been wished, the falcon, cutting the air with her strong pinions, closed in upon him and overtopped him in ever narrowing circles, when, having gained her distance, she swooped upon him like a thunderbolt, and down they fell together, through a cloud of feathers, into the tree tops on the edge of the wood, where the falcon was secured."

Sometimes a whole party of ladies would go hawking or hunting alone, so keen were they on sport in those days. Accompanied by greyhounds, they hunted stag and rabbit, shooting them with bows and long-headed arrows. Not infrequently they roused the game by means of beating on a tabor. Partridges, quails and woodcocks were usually hawked. One cannot help feeling that the women must have looked very unsportsmanlike with their long gowns trailing behind them and coloured kerchiefs on their heads; but they could ride astride their horses as well as on side-saddles,[1] they could wind a horn as well as any man, and use their spurs without compunction. They joined with men in all out-door sports, which were of a somewhat boisterous description, and lacking in that refinement and delicacy of which we think so much to-day. But those were days of light hearts and merry faces, when responsibility sat less heavy than it does in this twentieth century, and sorrow was faced with a firm, unwavering faith that neither doubted nor despaired. Like happy children—if uncouth and ill-mannered—they played their riotous games of Blind Man's Buff or Hoodman Blind, as they called it, Hot Cockles, Battledore and Shuttlecock, Prisoner's Base, and Frog in the Middle; they danced and they "tumbled"; they played with balls, with whipping-tops, with ninepins, with bowls; they revelled in cock-fighting and bull-baiting, and derived amusement from many another pastime.

Martial sports, too, were developing, and the knightly tournament played its part in the lives of the English nobility. Perhaps the spirit of knightly chivalry attained its highest development in the fourteenth century. Its effect on the minds of Englishmen was distinctly good. It "inspired a thousand generous thoughts and heroic actions, and laid the foundation of that most perfect character, the true English gentleman;" but too often the spectacle degenerated into odd extravagances and added fire to passions already fierce and uncontrolled, so that the splendid arena was defiled with brutal and regrettable incidents. Magnificent indeed was the armour of the knight as he tilted at the tournament, rich with ornament and literally sparkling with jewels while the seats of the spectators were heavy with gold and silver embroidery, and the dresses of them that sat therein were extravagant in fantastic freak and reflected untold wealth. The presentation of rich prizes, distributed by the fairest in the land to the victorious competitors, completed the entertainment, and the night was spent in feast and dance.

Nevertheless, there must have been many long, dark evenings indoors between the months of November and February, when the dim lights in hall and bedroom made work impossible. Chess was still the favourite game with the upper classes, as it had been with their forefathers. The game was played for money, often for very high stakes, and it is no matter of surprise to learn that in those days of strong passions and lack of self-control feeling ran high, and the game gave rise to constant quarrels and hot disputings, ending not infrequently in bloodshed. The chessmen were elaborately carved and large enough to be formidable when hurled at an adversary in rage. Indeed, there is more than one instance in history of an opponent being brained with a chess-board, of knives being drawn and men slain in the heat of the game! Backgammon, under the name of "Tables," was played with double boards and dice, even as it is to-day, as also was the game of draughts, which came over from France under the name of "Dames." There was no card playing as yet, for cards were not introduced into England till quite the end of the fourteenth century, and they did not become universally popular till later, when chess went out of fashion.

Even during the playing of chess and draughts it was no uncommon thing for the domestic jester to enliven the family circle and for troops of jugglers, tumblers, rope-dancers, buffoons, with attendant apes and dogs, to crowd the hall in gay confusion. There was no privacy in those days. In public they ate and drank and talked and played and slept, in public they were punished for their crimes, both great and small. Thus a man would sit on the village green with his feet in the stocks; a scold would sit in the village street on the cuck-stool, to be derided by all who passed; a fraudulent baker or butcher would stand with hands and neck in the pillory, with his name writ large above him, while the disputed goods were burnt under his nose or hung round his neck. Every village had its whipping-post, every town had its gallows for hanging, and public disgrace played a prominent part in the punishments of medieval times. The derision and scorn of the populace must have been hard to bear, however well it may have been deserved. But, after all, it must be noted that the lighter punishments fitted the crimes of those days, and were in some cases more wholesome than the solitary confinement of the modern prison. The heavier crimes were over-severely punished. From the days of Edward I. theft was punished with death in some form or another, and treason by hanging, drawing, and quartering. The low value set on life in the fourteenth century marks a strange contrast to that of the twentieth century, and it is instructive to mark the want of concern at the public death of a medieval criminal as though it were an everyday occurrence. On the other hand. Englishmen were revolted by the idea of the Inquisition, with its attendant tortures, that was making its way over the Continent at this time, and, though torture was used later as a means of extorting confession from the criminal, yet it is ever to the credit of our forefathers, in a rough and barbarous age, that they had the humanity and strength to stand out against the merciless and excruciating tortures which characterise the European punishments of these times.

  1. Introduced by Anne of Bohemia.