TOGETHER WITH the rest of Europe, England suffered during the fourteenth century a terrible outbreak of plague (commonly known as the Black Death), which was followed by a wave of peasant unrest.
These events produced important social changes. English society then was based upon the principle that there were three main classes of people, each with its own purpose to fulfil. These were the clergy, the nobility, and the peasants—in other words those who prayed, fought, and worked.
The peasants were by far the largest group; it was accepted that they supported the other two classes by their labours. Even the saintly Raymon Lull could write: “It is seemly that men should plow and dig and work hard that the earth may yield the fruits from which the knight and his horse will live; and that the knight who rides and does a lord’s work should get his wealth from the things on which his men are to spend much toil and fatigue (1).”
The Church and the nobility owned great estates, to which the peasants were bound as serfs. In return for their own small plots of land, these serfs had to do work on their lord’s land. The French chronicler Jean Froissart explained: “It is the custom in England, as in other countries, for the nobility to have great power over the common people, who are their serfs. This means that they are bound by law and custom to plough the fields of their masters, harvest the corn, gather it into barns, and thresh and winnow the grain. They must also mow and carry home the hay, cut and collect wood, and perform all manner of tasks of this kind. The peasants have to perform these duties by law, and they are more numerous in England than anywhere else. Thus the nobility and clergy are served by right (2).
So far was serfdom accepted, that it was upheld not just on practical grounds but also for moral and religious reasons. An early twelfth-century French writer said: “Servitude is ordained by God, either because of the sins of those who become serfs, or as a trial, in order that those who are thus humbled may be made better. For servitude is of great help to religion in protecting humility, the guardian of all virtues It would seem to be pride for anyone to wish to change that condition which has been given him for good reason by the divine ordinance (3).”
The medieval Church told the serfs to look on their life as a calling from God. They must accept it as willingly as any other men in different positions in the world. One day, a certain monk decided to rescue his sister from being a serf. St. Anselm of Laon told him not to: “What concern is it of monks—men who have resolved to flee the world—what does it matter to them, who serves whom in the world, or under what name? Is not ever man born to labour as a bird to flight? Does not almost every man serve either under the name of lord or serf? And is not he who is called a serf in the Lord, the Lord’s freeman; and he who is called free, is he not Christ’s serf? So if all men labour and serve, and the serf is a freeman of the Lord, and the freeman is a serf of Christ, what does it matter apart from pride – either to the world or to God – who is called a serf and who is called free? (4)”
Landlords were supposed to treat their serfs fairly and protect them from injustice; but many did not. Cardinal Jacques de Vitry wrote: “Many say nowadays, when they are rebuked for having taken a cow from a poor peasant: ‘Let it suffice the boor that I have left him the calf and his own life. I might do him far more harm if I would; I have taken his goose, but left him the feathers’ (5).
Despite its high ideals, medieval society was marred by a streak of cruelty and callousness. This was displayed even by those who innocents should have upheld those ideals. Froissart told how Edward, the Black Prince – believed to be a model of chivalry in warfare – mercilessly sacked the French city of Limoges in 1370, furious that the city had been betrayed to the French: “It was great pity to see the men, women and children that kneeled down on their knees before the Prince for mercy. But he was so inflamed with ire that he took no heed to them, so that none was heard, but all put to death, as they were met withal, and such as were nothing culpable. There was no pity taken of the poor people, who wrought never no manner of treason, yet they bought it dearer than the great personages, such as had done the evil and trespass.
“There was not so hard a heart within the city of Limoges, an if he had any remembrance of God, but that wept piteously for the great mischief that they saw before their eyen: for more than three thousand men, women and children were slain and beheaded that day. God have mercy on their souls, for I trow they were martyrs . . . (6)
This was an extreme case of brutality; but life as a whole was not peaceful. Death and suffering were frequent in everyday life. The common people felt a contempt for the law, and would often resort to violence. On the death of the great-uncle of Geoffrey Chaucer in November, 1336, a London coroner remarked: “The jurors say that Simon Chaucer and one Robert de Upton, skinner … after dinner, quarrelled with one another in the high street opposite to the shop of the said Robert, in the said parish, by reason of rancour previously had between them, whereupon Simon wounded Robert on the upper lip; which John de Upton, son of Robert, perceiving, he took up a ‘dorbarre’, without the consent of his father, and struck Simon on the left hand and side, and on the head, and then fled into the church of St. Mary of Aldermarichirche; and in the night following he secretly escaped from the same. He had no chattels. Simon lived, languishing, till the said Tuesday, when he died of the blows, early in the morning. . . The Sheriffs are ordered to attach [arrest] the said John when he can be found in their bailiwick. . . (7)”
Medieval writers often said that Englishmen were exceptionally violent. John Trevisa held that their aggressiveness won them victory in overseas wars at the cost of unrest and disorder at home:
“English men may not be overcome in strange lands, but in their own country they be lightliche overcome. These men despise their own, and praise other men’s, and never be content with their own estate. What befalls and belongs to other men, they will gladly take to themselves. That is why a yeoman dresses himself as a squire, a squire as a knight, a knight as a duke, and a duke as a king (8).”
Not only was death everywhere common, but the chances of saving life were generally slender. Medical science did not flourish in the Middle Ages. The efforts of most doctors were usually ill-informed and futile. This was the stock-in-trade of the alchemist in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (9):
Water in rubefaction; bullock gall,
Arsenic, brimstone, sal ammoniac,
And herbs that I could mention by the sack,
Moonwort, valerian, agrimony and such.
Nor were qualified doctors any better. This is one of their remedies for a wound: “Take 4 lb. of virgin wax and resolve it in a woman’s milk that beareth a knave child and do thereto afterward an ounce of mastic and an ounce of frankincense, and let them boil well together till it be well y-mellyd [mixed], and then do it off the fire and in the doing a down look thou have y-broke half a pound of tormentille well y-powdered all ready, and cast therein, and stir all-a-way without boiling till it be cold, and then take up that floateth above and smear thine hand with oil or with fresh butter and bear it again to the fire as thou wilt bear wax, till it be well y-mellid, and do therewith as thou wilt (10).’
Medicine was hopelessly mixed up with magic. Ritual was common, much of it surviving from ancient pagan leechcrafts. The Church condemned all who observed certain rites, or made incantations “in the gathering of medicinal herbs; save only with the Creed and the Paternoster in honour of God and our Lord”. But this is an example, taken from an old medical treatise in the British Museum, of the sort of incantation that doctors used:
“Mighty art thou, Queen of the Gods! thee, 0 Goddess, I adore in thy godhead, and on thy name do I call; vouchsafe now to fulfil my prayer, and I will give thee thanks, O Goddess, with the faith that thou hast deserved. Hear, I beseech thee, and favour my prayers; vouchsafe to me, 0 Goddess, that for which I now pray to thee; grant freely to all nations upon earth all herbs that thy majesty bringeth to life, and suffer me thus to gather this thy medicine. Come to me with thy healing powers (11).”
Medieval medicine little understood the causes of disease or its cure. Disease was often seen as God’s punishment for sin. When an individual fell ill, he was thought to have deserved it because of his past misdeeds; if plague killed thousands of people, it must surely be due to the special wickedness of the age.
Henry of Knighton, a canon of Leicester, wrote of the days before the coming of the Black Death: “In those days  there arose a huge rumour and outcry among the people, because when tournaments were held, almost in every place, a band of women would come as if to share the sport, dressed in divers and marvellous dresses of men—sometimes to the number of forty or sixty ladies, of the fairest and comeliest (though I say not of the best) among the whole kingdom. Thither they came in party-coloured tunics, one colour or pattern on the right side and another on the left, with short hoods that had pendants like ropes wound round their necks, and belts thickly studded with gold or silver—nay, they even wore, in pouches slung across their bodies, those knives which are called daggers in the vulgar tongue; and thus they rode on choice war horses or other splendid steeds to the place of tournament. There and thus they spent and lavished their possessions, and wearied their bodies with fooleries and wanton buffoonery, if popular report lie not.
“But God in this matter, as in all others, brought marvellous remedy; for He harassed the places and times appointed for such vanities by opening the floodgates of heaven with rain and thunder and lurid lightning, and by unwonted blasts of tempestuous winds… That same year and the next came the general mortality throughout the world (12).”
How terrible this mortality would be, few people can have guessed.