History of England

Lecture: High Middle Ages

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Castle and Manor Work: The Role of Women

Noble women

For a noble woman, real life at the castle and on the manor was far from its chivalric ideal. Her duties were many within the feudal system, where men were often gone at war, and women were left in charge of producing the revenue. (An exception to this would be a small bookMonastic Manor, where monks ran the estate.)

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Nobles playing chess

A noble woman engaged in stewardship and household management over hundreds of people. She might have to organize a last-minute feast for 200 warriors, keep track of and purchase spices, and have experience and expertise in all household tasks (as any manager knows, you can't supervise someone else doing a process you can't do yourself). Minimum qualifications were knowing how to prepare and spice all dishes, teach cooks, brew ale, make wine, butcher animals, make mattresses of straw, sew, make bread, make cheese, make butter. Spices were valuable and were usually locked up; the noble woman had to keep track of them and arrange their purchase. With help from a steward, she managed all accounts and payments, including the purchase of her husband's weapons. She usually tended the vegetable and herb gardens.

She was also involved with the tenant families outside the castle walls, settling disputes, arranging defense, and letting the tenants into the castle when war threatened. The herbal knowledge that she used for the health of her family was expected to be at the disposal of tenant families too, and she collected their rent. Just as she was considered responsible for her own family's spiritual well-being, it was expected that she would be active in the church or local monastery.

And, of course, she was a mom. Her fertility ensured the carrying on of her husband's lineage. When pregnant, she was pampered with special food, although she had to be publicly "churched" to re-enter society upon her baby's delivery. Her babies were swaddled and wet-nursed and tended by other staff (despite advice from the 13th century against such practices). Having a nurse for each child was considered the ultimate thing you could do for them, and "rockers" were often hired so that mother could do household management full-time.

Peasant women

Peasants at home

Peasants were the backbone of the manorial system, farming strips of land for the noble and themselves. During heavy times of agricultural labor, like harvesting, the entire family had to work in the fields. Women with babies swaddled them and left them in baskets by the sides of the fields; some may have carried them on their backs, stopping work to breastfeed them. Children over the age of four helped in every way, foraging for food in the woods, feeding and tending poultry and other animals, collecting firewood, gathering weeds for rabbits and goats, and minding babies. Even in the household the older children helped, while their mother was doing cooking, cleaning, child-care, mending, washing, preparing herbs, smoking and storing meats for winter.

Historians have noted that productive labor (that which increased household wealth) was assumed as a household task, and thus women were also working in other ways. They spun and sold yarn, marketed cloth, manufactured items for trade. There are many pictures of women spinning while tending children. Any task which could be interrupted for child care was done by peasant women, with the help of their kids.

The Rise of Towns

The first question that has to be answered about medieval urbanization is: why? The Celts were into agriculture, the Roman towns had been abandoned, and both Anglo-Saxon and Norman life were agriculturally based. So why did towns emerge and expand from the 11th century?

Some possiblities are:

  • Better climate. There was a warming trend in Europe that made agricultural production easier, creating a surplus that could be sold.
  • Population increase. Wars were limited to nobles, instead of preying on and raiding the local population. This further increased agriculture, which decreased mortality and thus increased population (i.e. market opportunities).
  • Increase in international commerce. Because of the better climate and agricultural surplus on the continent , this era saw a boom in coastal towns, benefiting from the international trade .
  • Increased manufacturing. Regions specializing in certain products pushed for access to markets, increasing the number of annual fairs.
These annual fairs, some historians suggest, became bi-annual, then seasonal, monthly, weekly, etc. Beer and food sellers began to establish permanent taverns, then put up merchants for the night, then the week. The makeshift stalls became permanent and, according to some historians, turned into the first real towns. Urban woman selling bread

As towns grew, they had to determine their legal position. All were, naturally, first created on the land of some lord or other. Towns could choose to be unchartered, and thus pay to the lord whatever taxes he asked, with their court presided over by a royal magistrate. If they became chartered (as in the small bookIpswich Town Charter), they made a contract with the lord or king to pay a set annual fine (which the town's council collected themselves) in return for liberty from the lord's domination. In return for the annual fee (which could never increase), the town could elect its own leaders. It's likely that the lords gave up protecting such towns, which then built walls and hired watchmen.

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small bookLondon was a good example. Henry I gave the city some limited rights, but Henry II revoked them. Richard and John chartered many towns to raise money for their wars, including London. Over the years, the right to collect ones own taxes led many towns on the path to self-government, as noted in your textbook.

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Gild Merchant, Merchant Guilds and Craft Guilds

Town councils were actually controlled by the Gild (or Guild) Merchant, the association of all merchants and craftspeople in the town. These men and women organized to create common action on commercial matters, not to govern, but high-ranking members of the Gild Merchant were the logical candidates for government. In some towns, like Bury St. Edmunds and Reading, the Guild Merchant and town government were identical. By 1216, there were Gild Merchants in 40 towns, protecting their members, controlling prices and wages, ensuring their own monopoly, and recruiting. They had long lists of rules to abide by (as you can see in the small bookSouthampton Merchant Guild Charter, and no merchants or craftspeople from outside the town were permitted to sell or manufacture in the town without their permission.

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In the larger towns, all this was too much for one organization to manage. In other towns, there were one or two industries that were large enough to require special managment. Either way, the solution was to separate the merchants, who sold products, from the craftspeople, who made them. Due to specialization, London and Oxford had guilds of weavers, Coventry had one for iron, and Newcastle one for coal. Craft guilds were usually seen as lower or less important, although among them the weavers were dominant. There was often jealousy and power struggles. In London, merchants tried to pay Henry II to dissolve the weavers' guild because it was getting too powerful. Townspeople at home

Craft guilds controlled manufacturing. They used an apprenticeship system, with 7 years to learn the "mystery" and 7 years at journeyman status. A series of exams, rules and regulations controlled who became a "master". The approval of the other masters in the craft was also needed.

Women played a prominent role in urban crafts. In some industries (brewing, silkmaking, spinning) they dominated the guilds. Some had legal femme sole status, and were masters of their craft. Most often, they were partners of their husbands in the workplace (the shop was downstairs on the street, while the family lived upstairs). Even in male-dominated industries, wives controlled the sales and purchasing of materials. Whether husbands were gone or home, women often supervised the workshop in addition to duties as homemaker and mother. Some used wet-nurses for the children, particularly in dangerous industries where children might be injured in the shop (boiling water vats for silk, forges, looms). Older children were apprenticed out to other masters at age 7 or 8.

Merchant women's households were often huge, containing servants and slaves from abroad. Their husbands were often on buying and selling trips for months, and urban law codes provided for these women so they could conduct business. Many could write and dealt with tax collectors and lawsuits as well as signing contracts, all rare activities for women. The business contracts of the day show both mother's and father's names in joint ventures with their children.

Cathedrals and Universities

Although most people would consider cathedrals to be a religious buildings, they are also extraordinarily large symbols of urban pride. The building of a cathedral was unbelieveably expensive, taking several generations and an array of skilled craftspeople. Architects, stonemasons, glassworkers, sculpters, sawyers, woodcarvers, could all find generations of work for their families with the building of a cathedral. It was a feather in the cap for the local bishop who organized it, assuming it didn't go over budget. The building would rise above the town, advertising to all the wealth of the community and encouraging trade. If the cathedral contained relics of a saint, it could become a center of pilgrimage, adding further wealth as people came to pray, eat and shop. Nave of Norwich Cathedral

Cathedrals were also centers of learning, and often formed the core of the new "universities" (centers of "universal" learning). Originally, the university was not a place, but rather a guild of masters in arts which established a curriculum and charged students directly. In many ways, English universities are still like this; Americans wander around looking for the "campus" and have trouble finding it. The masters taught in rented halls, and a representative of the Bishop awarded the degree. 12th century universities had trouble with town government, which couldn't decide whether universities were church or guild, since they weren't making or selling anything tangible.

In the 13th century, the new religious orders of Franciscans and Dominicans took over the universities, founding Oxford and Cambridge. There were four "faculties" taught: arts, law, medicine, and theology. Most students majored in theology to become priests and bishops. Benefactors (often lords and rich merchants) founded the colleges and buildings, and teachers created the "schools". For example, the university of Oxford has the college of Christchurch and its school of arts. The course of study was 6 years to the master of arts, with the first few years based on the trivium of Aristotelian logic, then the quadrivium (Aristotle, civil law, canon law, theology). You can see the technique of applying logic to faith in the document by small bookAdelard of Bath, an earlier scholar. The contention, conflict, commentary and debate required to truly study these fields was controversial, and it took persistant friars and scholars to maintain scholarship when many believed that issues of religious faith should not be examined intellectually. But the increasingly sophisticated church appreciated that scholarship could be used to convince people of the correctness of Christian orthodoxy, particularly in a time when the rise of international trade was bringing in dangerous new ideas.

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There were several different types of students who attended these universities. Wealthy students rented nice rooms in town, wore nice clothes, and bought their books. The poor copied books from others by hand. The idle students drifted in their studies and spent time in town making trouble, abusing women, and causing "town vs gown" riots. For example, in 1354 students threw a pot at a tavern-keeper because the wine was sour, starting a full week of rioting in which 63 scholars died. There were also students unsuited for scholarship who were sent by their parents to "improve" the family name, and serious students who actually attended the lectures.

Colleges and universities today retain much of the structure of English medieval universities--just take a look at the cap and gown.

The Woollen Industry and the Magnificent Mill

This was my area of expertise in graduate school, but I'll try to reduce it to the essentials. The background is the belief that the "Middle Ages" are also "Dark Ages" in terms of technology, empirical research, and economic production. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have hinted several times that the history of England is often the history of wool. Wool and woollen cloth production began as far back as the Celts, but during the Middle Ages many aspects of the process were improved and mechanized.

Sheep wearing short-staple wool

It's important to understand the steps in woollen production. Start with the sheep. England had several kinds of sheep. Breeds with "short-staple" wool had short curly coats; their wool made for a very soft fabric and, because of more intensive labor in production, more expensive cloth. Breeds with "long-staple" wool had longer, less curly coats; their wool was more suitable for a rougher, cheaper cloth often called "worsted".

After shearing, the next step in production is either carding (for short-staple) or combing (for long-staple). Carding involved wooden cards or paddles, imbedded with wire points. When the wool was pulled or combed between two paddles, it created a roving, a mesh of fibers that looked somewhat like a cotton ball. Combing, on the other hand, involved straitening the fibers so they lay parallel. Although their work was not terribly complicated, carders and combers often had their own guilds in towns where wool was a specialty.

The carded or combed wool was then spun, usually on a traditional hand spindle. One hand pulled out the fibers, and the spindle was twirled by hand to twist the fiber into a strand of yarn. Medieval towns always had a spinners' guild, and often it was run by women (the term "spinster" originally just meant an unmarried spinner of wool). Since spinning wheels were not invented until the 16th century, spinning by hand was a specialized skill, although many women spun their own wool at home. Sheep wearing long-staple wool

After being spun, the yarn could be dyed ("dyed in the yarn"), but more often it was washed and then woven. Weaving was the most complex task, and involved the greatest capital investment because looms were expensive. Threading a loom, weaving an even cloth, adding patterns and colors -- all were special skills. As noted above, the weavers' guild was usually the most powerful craft guild in a town.

After weaving, the cloth underwent fulling. "Foot fulling" involved laying the cloth in a shallow flat bath of water, alum or other astringent, and urine (yup, that's right) and walking on the cloth. The chemical bath broke down the fibers and meshed them together; the resulting cloth was warm, water-proof, and soft. It also shrunk the cloth and thickened it. This made "tentering", stretching the cloth on tenter-hooks, necessary as one of the finishing steps. Medieval fullers' and finishers' guilds had regulations on just how much a cloth could be tentered, in order to assure quality and avoid overstretching. Brest waterwheel

The key step in the process was fulling. It was time consuming, and how well it was done determined the final quality of the cloth. During the 11th century, fulling became the first industrial process to be mechanized. Fulling mills enabled fulling to be done by machine, using water power.

Water power itself was far from new. The first waterwheels date from ancient Persia, India, and Mesopotamia and were used to raise water into irrigation canals. Since ancient times, all uses of the waterwheel had been agricultural. The Romans created elaborate mills for grinding grain, lining up water wheels on hillsides and producing hundreds of pounds of flour a day to feed the city of Rome. They developed gearing, which could slow down a river which ran the wheel too fast, or speed up one which was too slow. But this was the only use for the mills, or the waterwheels, until the Middle Ages.

The change occurred with the invention of the cam, a simple protrusion from the waterwheel shaft that could push down the back end of a hammer, letting the front drop in order to pound things. The cam/trip-hammer system made in possible for water power to pound things, including iron, coins, and cloth. Yards and yards of cloth could be laid out in a bin and fulled for hours into a quality product.

Here's a peek at the new technology, and how it affected production. This clip is from James Burke's "Connections" series.



Overshot waterwheel Many urban fullers' guilds resisted the innovation. Machinery, they said, could never do the job as well as they could by hand (well, by foot really). The mills were expensive; the slow rivers that provided towns with water had to be dammed and diverted to run a waterwheel. A river pushing a wheel from underneath (an "undershot" wheel) was not very efficient. Damming to raise the water so it could hit the middle of the "brest" wheel helped somewhat, but the best solution was an "overshot" wheel, where the water fell on top of the wheel. Overshot waterwheels were far more efficient, but they were terribly difficult to build in towns. And if the guild said no, it just didn't happen.

Here's where several forces came together to change history and put England in the lead in the woollen trade, and thus in the lead globally as well. Guilds were very restrictive; both merchant and craft guilds controlled all aspects of trade in towns and tended to resist innovation. But there was much money to be had with the expansion of trade, fairs and towns. Merchant-entrepreneurs began to emerge, people who made money through trading but did not belong to a guild, worked in rural areas, or quit the towns because they were so restrictive. These folks began to "farm out" work to peasants in villages, who could spin and weave in their spare time at far less cost.

Merchant-entrepreneurs invested in the building of fulling mills where they made the most sense: the high hilly and mountain areas of England, where falling water was abundant and the land unused by local lords. They bought wool from sheep raising nobles at a better price than the towns could offer, got it spun and woven cheaply in villages, then mass-produced cloth using the fulling mills. Some renegades even tried to sneak out woven cloth to get it fulled outside the town (we know this because there are laws against sneaking unfulled cloth out of the town). The spinners', weavers', and fullers' guilds in the town were furious. Map showing fulling mill distribution

Eventually, the guilds will fall apart, and by the 17th century almost all woollen cloth production will be done in rural areas, cutting the cost with cheap labor and mechanization. This will give England an advantage against all other European nations, and will make her obscenely rich.

The discipline of historical geography gives us the evidence for the shift to rural production. Take a look at the map. Fulling mill distribution is based on archaeological and documentary evidence for medieval fulling mills, many of which have long since been destroyed or changed over during the 19th century Industrial Revolution. They are mainly located, logically, near sources of falling water. They are also located, not coincidentally, near areas that became the center of woollen production. So the towns, except for wool merchants working internationally, eventually lose out in the production of woollen cloth, and guild restrictions in all areas will eventually be threatened by others willing to work outside the system.

The fulling mill is, however, only one aspect of what some historians have called the Medieval Industrial Revolution. The adoption of water power created mass production in many areas, because the cam was able to change the rotary motion of the wheel (which was suitable mainly for the rotary motion of grain grinding stones) to reciprocal motion. Iron production increased with water-powered forges, where the cam could push the back end of the bellows down. Coins and other products could be stamped using the same trip-hammer technology. Crankshafts changed the motion in another way, making possible water-powered sawmills. By the 16th century, waterwheels will be running sugar mills and grinding stones for sharpening blades. By the 19th century, the other "Industrial Revolution", waterwheels will power spinning and weaving machines. But even during the Middle Ages, mills of all kinds were important sources of power, in both the technological and political sense. Lords built them to make money off their tenants, as you saw in the small bookMill Dispute document; having a mill built on your land could make you rich.

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SurnamesClick here for Audio Part 7List of some medieval crafts

During the Middle Ages, only the nobility had "surnames" in the sense that their last name defined their estate or domain, like John of Salisbury. In manor villages, peasants who had the same first name were usually referred to by the "son of" designation: Robin's son (eventually Robinson) or John's son (Johnson). The emerging "middle" class of merchants and craftspeople often acquired their surnames from their profession: Richard the Weaver, Philip the Fuller.

So if you know someone with the last names of Fuller, Walker (for "walking the cloth" or fulling), Weaver, etc., they might have had an ancestor in the English cloth industry. Here's a posting from a geneaology listserv for the name "Stapleton". I have two friends with medieval last names: one is Cooper, the other Tanner. The tradition of using vocations as last names was even broader in Wales, where many family names are the same (Jones, Williams, etc.). Well into the 20th century, people were referred to as Williams the Baker or Williams the Mail. I have a Welsh children's story where the main character is a steam engine, run by Jones the Steam.

Check your Knowledge

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You can take the assessment as many times as you wish, but you need to reclick ALL your answers, even the ones you got right!

1. A town might want to be chartered for all of the following reasons except:
a) self-government
b) increasing the control of the guild merchant
c) paying a lump sum tax to the lord
d) increasing the control of the lord over the town

2. Which of the following is LEAST likely to have been a factor in the rise of towns?
a) increased population
b) better relations with the Church
c) the convergence of trade fairs
d) greater manufacturing of goods

3. Which is not a step in wool production?
a) tentering
b) carding or combing
c) weaving
d) cloistering

4. I developed an idea that the end of the power of the medieval guilds was partly due to:
a) people wearing less woolen cloth
b) their own organizational inadequacies
c) capitalists who moved fulling to rural regions
d) the resistance of the monasteries

5. My friend Richard Fuller probably had an ancestor who was in the:
a) medieval Church
b) leather tanning business
c) cloth-making industry
d) agricultural sector

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All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.