I’ve often come across the term ‘knight’s fee’ in my reading and not known what it meant, so this week I decided to do some reading in order to find out. You’re probably already wondering how the picture of peasants working in a field above has anything to do with knights. I hope all will become clear.
Knight’s fee is a term that applied mainly in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and was the amount of land that came with the obligation of military service. All land in England was held, in theory at least, by the king. William the Conqueror gave large chunks of it to his tenants-in-chief in return for military service. The tenants-in-chief, in turn, gave bits of land to men further down the chain who owed them military service. This obligation was inherited and confirmed by their descendants. The military service was up to forty days a year, which is why you’ll occasionally read about men returning home on the forty-first day. This service was unpaid. It was, of course, the king’s option to pay for more. The knight wasn’t obligated to accept, but it probably wasn’t a wise move to turn the king down.
These knights should not be thought of in the same way as the knights who trained for war since childhood and went off to fight in armour on the backs of magnificent horses, although some of them were that sort of knight. Many of them turned down the opportunity to become a knight of this kind, as the costs were too high. They were, rather, the lowest level of the landholding classes and were sometimes not much wealthier than the peasants who worked their land.
These men usually had one manor from which they had to raise enough money to look after their family and meet their military obligation. Fairly quickly this requirement to go to war themselves was replaced by a tax or fine known as scutage. Henry II collected it as a tax every four years; under other kings it was simply a way in which the landowner could pay for a knight to fight in his stead, either by hiring a knight himself or paying the money to the king.. These men would not all have been trained knights, so paying the king so that he could employ trained soldiers was probably a good option for many of them.
Even in the twelfth century there was no realistic expectation that the tenants-in-chief would be able to call on as many knights as their landholdings indicated should be available. The knights themselves must rarely have performed military service as they might have been too old, too young, too ill or disabled. Scutage, the tax or fine, allowed them to pay for someone else to go in their place.
Towards the end of the twelfth century the size of a manor sufficient to require a knight’s fee was five hides. A hide was generally considered to be 120 acres, but in this context it was usually understood as an amount of money rather than the size of the land itself. A hide was the area that would support a family for a year or that could be ploughed by a team of eight oxen. Both measures would indicate different amounts of land in different parts of the country, since a family could live for a year on a smaller piece of land in an area where the soil was good than they could where it was poor. The hide was a taxation tool more than anything else.
Around 1300 there were about 1,100 to 1,500 knights who technically owed the knight’s fee. By the start of the Hundred Years War in 1327 the vast majority of soldiers, including knights, were paid. In 1352 Edward III stopped trying to call men for their obligatory service and all soldiers who served thereafter were paid.
When I was a child, we used to eat rabbit quite a bit, as it was cheap, being plentiful. Rabbits were so abundant that they were considered a pest and, in the 1950s, they were culled with myxomatosis. Not only did this make rabbits unfit for human consumption, but it also wiped out 99% of the rabbit population in England. They’ve made a comeback and rabbit meat, so I’m told, is trendy. I’m a vegetarian now, so I don’t know.
Until fairly recently, I assumed that rabbits had always been in England, but it turns out that, like many other things, they were introduced by the Normans and have been here less than a thousand years.
Rabbits, known as coneys or conyngs, were reared in warrens. In the Middle Ages this just meant land set aside for rearing small game. It was only later that it only referred to rabbits.
As with other game, only a small number of people had the right to hunt rabbits. Free warren was the right to hunt small game (which included rabbits and hares) and it could only be awarded by the king. Having a warren on your land was a privilege and also indicated to people around you that you were important. Status was everything in fourteenth-century England.
As well as providing food, rabbits were bred for their fur. Both could be very profitable to a lord of the manor who had the right to breed them. Free warren usually belonged to the person on whose land the warren was, but it could also be leased out to other people, which could cause problems, as we shall see later.
Rabbits didn’t do well in England to start with. They didn’t spread beyond the managed warrens for centuries, but when they did breed in the wild, they became a pest, hence the myxomatosis. They were despised as an animal to be hunted, but peasants hunted them anyway, since meat was meat. The most common technique was to send a ferret into the warren to chase the rabbits out into nets held by the hunters. The ferrets were muzzled so that they didn’t eat the rabbits themselves. In some parts of the country, ferrets were hired out to poachers of rabbits.
Ferreting wasn’t the only method used to catch rabbits. Smoke was also popular. What can only be described as a smoke bomb was made of yellow arsenic, sulphur and myrrh. It was set alight and dropped into the burrow. The escaping rabbits ran into the waiting nets. A less sophisticated method involved lighting a fire at a main entrance to the burrow. Spaniels were also used to chase rabbits into the nets.
Many lords of the manor employed warreners, who were very well paid, to look after the rabbits. Poaching them became so lucrative that organised gangs got involved A warrener’s life was a dangerous one. Warrens were usually far from any villages on the manor, so the warrener was on his own.
The gangs were mostly led by members of the gentry. The Coterell brothers and the Folvilles were involved in poaching. The poaching itself was probably carried out under their direction by peasants, possibly because they were poor or had a grudge against the owner of the warren. Some of the men caught poaching claimed that they were the ones who really had the right to hunt there and that might often have been true, as warrens were sometimes leased out, and who had the right to do what could sometimes be obscure.
The fourteenth century was a time of social mobility and rabbit fur was very popular among people who wanted to climb higher. The white belly-fur of a rabbit could be taken, at a distance, for ermine, used by those at the top of the ladder. It was known as miniver, although the term included any non-specific white fur. You can see why having a rabbit warren could be very lucrative and why gangs of poachers might be interested in them. In an attempt to ensure that everyone knew their place, a series of sumptuary laws were made in the second half of the fourteenth century. The one in 1363 said that wives and daughters of esquires could wear miniver if the squire had an income of more than 200 marks (£133 6s 8d).
Rabbits could be hunted all year round. My favourite writer about hunting, John Cummins, writes dismissively, “The warren falls more into the field of livestock husbandry than hunting” and I think I agree with him. Worse, rabbits could also be a distraction to hunting dogs, causing them to chase after the rabbit rather than continue following the scent of the animal they were tracking.
Rather shamefully, I’d almost got to the end of this post before I remembered that there’s a part of Southampton not far from where I live called Shirley Warren. Sure enough, it turned out that this used to be the free warren of the lords of Shirley manor. It’s a long, thin strip of land with a stream in a narrow valley with fairly steep sides. These days it’s full of houses, a hospital and a cemetery. For my UK readers, Benny Hill is buried in the cemetery.
Last week we looked at religious hermits, who were allowed to leave the places in which they were based. Today we’re looking at anchorites and anchoresses, who were not allowed to wander; they had a fixed place where they lived and had to stay. When I write ‘anchorite’ in this post I also mean ‘anchoress’. I’m just too lazy to type both every time. When I write ‘anchoress’, though, I don’t also mean ‘anchorite’.
Anchorites were also known as recluses. Sometimes they were literally walled in and were not able to leave their cell. They had to have the permission of their bishop for this and he would officiate at a service, similar to the one for lepers entering a lazar house, during which they renounced the world. For both lepers and anchorites it symbolised that they were dead to the world and everyone in it.
To be walled up meant that there was no way in or out of the cell, only windows which looked out onto different parts of their, very small, world. The bishop was involved because he had to be satisfied that the anchorite’s character was such that he could survive spiritually and physically. Anchorages were usually attached to a parish church in a town, which meant that there were people around to look after them. Anchorites had one or two servants. One of them was for errands and one for protection. I’m not quite sure how that worked for anchoresses. Mother Julian of Norwich, for example, had two women, Alice and Sara. We’ll come on to Mother Julian in a moment.
A cell usually had three windows, an altar, a bed and a crucifix. Through one window the anchorite could see the altar of the church to which the cell was attached. Through the second window the servant passed food. This window connected to the servant’s quarters. Only one window looked onto the outside world. This was the parlour window (the smallest) and the anchorite could speak to visitors through it. It was small so that the anchorite could see very little and thus not be tempted by the outside world.
The three elements of the anchorite’s life were silence, prayer and mortification. In this instance, mortification means the subduing of the body’s desires. These might be for food, comfort, alcohol, sex or movement in the outside world. The requirement for silence wasn’t absolute, since the anchorite could speak to visitors and the servants. It was mental and spiritual detachment that were important rather than physical isolation.
Like the hermits who lived in their cells in a monastery, there was a sense of community among anchorites. Their servants carried verbal messages between them, so these were clearly not long and involved communications.
One of the earliest books written in English, the Ancrene Riwle, was written for anchoresses. It was written for three sisters and set out a rule of behaviour for anchoresses who were not attached to any particular order.
Probably the most famous English anchoress of the fourteenth century was Mother Julian of Norwich. She was the first woman to write a book in English. I have to add, that we know about, since books are such fragile things and someone else could have written a book that has since been lost or destroyed. Her book was Revelations of Divine Love, which was about some visions she had in 1373. All but one of them took place in a single night. She wrote them down and spent the next twenty years meditating on them. Her cell was attached to Saint Julian’s church in Norwich, and it’s possible that she took her name from the church. It’s just as likely, though, that it was her own name, since it was a common name for women at the time. Very little is known about her apart from what is in her book and what Margery Kempe included in her own writings about a visit she made to Julian.
Anchorites either had to have enough wealth to pay their own expenses or have someone who paid for them. Edward of Woodstock, later known as the Black Prince, supported an anchorite in Cornwall, of which he was the duke, who said masses for Edward’s ancestors.
We’re still with the church this week, but on a smaller scale. The church wasn’t just the pope and senior clerics in important secular jobs; it was also priests working in parishes trying to do what they could for their parishioners. Parish priests weren’t paid a wage, but received a tithe from their parishioners. Essentially the tithe was ten percent of a harvest or general agricultural produce. The tithe was quite a bit more complicated than I’m going to represent it as being.
There were two types of tithes: greater tithes, which were wood, corn and hay, and lesser tithes, which were flour, fish, salt and young animals. We saw last year that the clergy in Southampton parishes received a tenth of the pigs born in their parishes.
One of the reasons why this is more complicated than I’m suggesting is that the tithe didn’t always go to the parish priest. Sometimes parish priests were monks and the tithe went to their abbey. For the purposes of this post, though, we’ll assume that all tithes went directly to the priest.
Tithes weren’t the only way of ensuring that priests had enough to live on. Priests also tended to have glebe lands. This was land within the parish used to support the priest. They were on average 100 acres of various kinds of land and about three-quarters of it was demesne land, i.e. it was farmed by the villeins of the person who owned it and was not rented out. Some priests had much more than 100 acres. In 1305 the rector at Carisbrooke on the Isle of Wight had 600 acres of land with a dovecote and a mill. He also received rents from tenants and the normal tithes. He received more income from his glebe lands than from his tithes, but for most priests it was the other way round. Just as some priests had much more than the average, so many would have had much less, or none at all. For them their tithes were their only source of income.
Glebe lands became increasingly unpopular as lay people were worried that their priests would spend more time studying agriculture and managing their land than they would looking after the spiritual health of their parishioners. In some cases this was not an unrealistic fear.
You’ll have spotted that this was all very well for rural priests, but what about those in urban parishes and what did the priests in Southampton do with all those pigs, because it turns out that almost every household in the town would have had at least one, so there would have been a lot of pigs born each year.
In towns, priests were supported by tithes on commerce, probably money rather than goods. Although tithes were much more suited to rural areas, they were mostly accepted in towns as well. There were very few complaints about how they were calculated.
For most priests, who were, obviously, single men, the tithe gave them more than they needed of those particular items, so they sold the excess to buy other things that they needed, but weren’t included in the tithe, furniture, for example, or non-local foodstuffs or labour.
In some parishes the parishioners could give money at a set rate instead of a young animal. There were only so many chickens, calves or sheep a single man could use or manage, and giving money instead meant that the parishioners had the use of animals they would otherwise have lost for eggs, milk and wool, as well as for breeding, while the priest had the money to buy what he needed.
I don’t know how much of a context this is, but in 1302 a priest in the Meon Valley in Hampshire received 150 lambs in tithes. If he kept them, he would soon have a huge flock, so it’s understandable that they were sold. He still might have had a small flock, but he would have had to pay someone to look after them.
Tithes were amongst the things attacked by the Lollards at the end of the fourteenth century. Once again, they were ahead of their time, but this time by several centuries. Tithes were finally abolished in England in 1836.
Last week I wrote about John Wyclif as a man who articulated views that were not terribly unusual in his time and I want to look this week at others who held similar views, but were not as fortunate as Wyclif when church and state began to crack down on those they considered heretics after the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 showed them how dangerous those views might be. It was one thing for an Oxford theologian like Wyclif and his aristocratic/royal supporters to call for the church to be dispossessed of its property and for clerics to give up their secular positions, it was quite another for “uneducated peasants” to take matters into their own hands.
The Lollards, as those who agreed with Wyclif’s teachings were called, were not an organised group; they didn’t even come from the same social strata. They were nobles, clerics and laymen. The only common denominator was that they all wanted to reform a church that had become corrupt.
Depending on who you believe, lollard either derives from a Dutch word meaning ‘to mumble’ or from ‘lolium’ the Latin for weed. I don’t really understand why a Dutch word would be used for a group of English heretics, but I can understand why a Latin word could.
It was used in a letter from the pope to the chancellor of Oxford University in which he said the university had allowed itself to become infected with weeds (lolium) by which he meant heresy. He was referring to the parable of the wheat and the tares in St. Matthew’s Gospel, in which a farmer sows wheat in his field and his enemy sows weeds. The farmer decides not to dig up the weeds in case he pulls up the wheat with them, thus reducing his harvest, but when harvest time came he would dig up the weeds first and burn them. At that time heretics weren’t burned in England, but they were in France and Italy. It was, however, a practice that was taken up with enthusiasm in England in the sixteenth century.
I wrote last week that the papacy had fallen into disrepute after the move to Avignon in the early fourteenth century, but in the middle of the century, the Black Death had harmed the church as a whole. Monks, priests and bishops, including an archbishop of Canterbury, had died along with everyone else. If God had withdrawn his protection from the church, it could only mean the church didn’t please Him. If it didn’t please him, things needed to change.
Oxford, where Wyclif taught, was seen as a hotbed of heresy and archbishops of Canterbury had been trying to bring the university to order for years and it wasn’t until the 1390s, when the religious atmosphere in England had fallen more in line with what was required by the pope, supported by Richard II and Thomas Arundel, a very strong-minded and powerful archbishop of Canterbury, that they succeeded.
The closet followers of Wyclif were Nicholas Hereford, Philip Repingdon, John Aston and Laurence Bedeman. They were students and masters at Oxford and were also theologians. When church and state began to clamp down on heretical beliefs about the mass, they, unlike Wyclif, were still young men, who had quite a lot to lose, and they hadn’t spent as much time as he had mulling over the theology.
In 1382 they were persuaded on threat of excommunication to recant, which they did, not only in private to the church authorities, but also in Oxford in front of other scholars and masters. Philip Repingdon eventually became bishop of Lincoln and a persecutor of Lollards.
Nicholas Hereford, however, had to recant a second time, having run away to appeal to the pope, who put him in prison. He escaped, but was arrested in England in 1386 and escaped again. In 1388 he was captured again and (probably) tortured. He then recanted.
Some Lollards were probably bribed with money to retract what they had formerly believed. Even the chronicler Henry Knighton, an enemy of Wyclif’s, could see that these confessions changed nothing for the people who made them, as they were not dissuaded from their beliefs. What was important to the church at this point, though, was that the confessions were made publicly in front of people who knew the people confessing and who knew what they had done. This priority changed as time went on, however.
By the time John Pulvey, probably Wyclif’s closest follower and the man who wrote down his treatises and who translated the Gospels into English, was asked to recant in 1402, the threat was no longer excommunication, but burning. He had been in prison since the late 1380s and had been tortured. Just to make sure he understood that the threat was real, a priest called William Sawtre was burned alive, the first Englishman to be burned for heresy. After Purvey’s recantation many Lollards followed his example. Some did not and were burned.
At least eight knights in the royal household and possibly Richard II himself were Lollards. The king was certainly slow to come to the aid of the church against them and Queen Anne received a copy Purvey’s English Gospels. The regent, Richard’s uncle John of Gaunt was, of course, Wyclif’s protector. Richard’s attitude changed after the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 when the church emphasised the links between Lollardy and popular unrest. By the end of the 1380s he had become an unyielding defender of orthodoxy. For the same reason support for Lollardy lessened among the landholders and the wealthy.
In January 1395 Richard was in Ireland. A parliament was held in Westminster while he was away and Lollards nailed their manifestoes to the doors of Westminster Hall, where the parliament was being held, and St Paul’s, where important sermons were preached to the people of London. Richard’s council asked him to return, which he did as quickly as possible. He immediately set to work in support of orthodoxy, starting with those closest to him. One of the Lollard knights in his household was made to swear an oath recanting his heresy. Once he had done this, Richard told the knight he would be executed if he went back on his word. The knight concerned had given loyal service to Richard’s grandfather and father, and had been one of the executors of his mother’s will. More junior members of the household were also made to renounce their beliefs.
It’s no accident that the real persecution of the Lollards began soon after Henry IV usurped the throne from his cousin Richard II in 1399. One way of making his reign appear legitimate was to be ultra-orthodox in religious matters. It might also have been an act of deflection. If people were worried about being burned for their religious beliefs, or their friends being burned, they were less likely to draw attention to the illegitimacy of Henry’s reign. As the son of John of Gaunt, he probably also wanted to ensure that no one ever thought to suggest that he also might be tainted by Lollardy.
It is generally thought that Geoffrey Chaucer, who was friendly with many highly-placed Lollards and was also a protégé of John of Gaunt, wasn’t one himself, but Lollardy certainly informs The Canterbury Tales, which was written at this time.
Lollardy eventually died out in the second half of the fifteenth century, or went far enough underground to be left alone. It was over a hundred years before calls for the church to reform were heard all over Europe.
Having avoided political controversy last week, I thought I’d have a go at religious controversy this week. I apologise in advance, because I know that I’ll be using terms that aren’t in everyday use and I won’t always remember to define them. Please call me out in the comments section if anything isn’t clear.
In a very rare post about a single historical person, I’m looking at the proto-Protestant John Wyclif. He was probably born in the late 1320s or the early 1330s in Yorkshire. For a short time he was a fellow of Merton College, Oxford in the 1350s. In 1360 he was Master of Balliol and he received his doctorate in theology in 1372. By this point he was considered the leading master of theology at the university. Even his many enemies admired his intellect, but they were nonetheless his enemies and worked against him.
It’s easy to understand why he is often considered a proto-Protestant, as many of the things that he advocated were core beliefs of Protestants in the sixteenth century and for the same reasons. He believed that being part of the church did not necessarily mean that one was a member of the elect. He said that even the pope might not be saved. In fact, he was even more outspoken, but we’ll come to that.
Like the reformers of the sixteenth century, he read the Bible thoroughly and studied the Church Fathers. This led him to challenge the church’s view of what happened in the mass and he said that there was no reason to believe that the bread and wine physically became Christ’s body and blood, a doctrine that had only been confirmed in 1215 at the Fourth Lateran Council. Wyclif’s view was fairly commonplace and was not considered problematic even in the middle of the fourteenth century. By the 1370s it made him a dangerous man.
Wyclif lived in a time in which the church was letting the laity down. They were being urged to confess, but the church couldn’t deal with the spiritual concerns that arose from the concomitant self-examination. Increasing literacy meant that lay men and women were reading the Bible and spiritual works and were becoming more evangelical at the same time as the church was becoming more legalistic. It wasn’t a good combination. Thanks to Wyclif and his followers, the Bible was being translated into English and many theological works were written in English, which made it accessible to people who weren’t members of the clergy.
Wyclif himself wrote in Latin for an educated and learned audience, but a group of his followers went out preaching in English about his teachings. Despite this, he believed that the Bible and any discussion about it should be in English. The church wanted to keep both the Bible and any discussions in Latin, which few people understood.
Henry Knighton, a contemporary chronicler expressed the church’s view, “This Master John Wyclif translated into the Anglic (English) -not Angelic-tongue, the Gospel that Christ gave to the clergy and the doctors of the Church, that they might minister it gently to laymen and weaker persons, according to the exigence of their time, their personal wants, and the hunger of their minds; whence it is made vulgar by him, and more open to the reading of laymen and women than it usually is to the knowledge of lettered and intelligent clergy; and thus the pearl of the Gospel is cast forth and trodden under the feet of swine.” This was a view that continued to hold sway even two centuries later when the Reformation was finally making it possible for people with no understanding of Latin to read the Bible. As an aside, the Gospels were originally written in a form of Greek that was widely spoken around the Mediterranean in the first century, that is, it was written to be read/heard and understood by as many people as possible, not a select few.
Wyclif wanted the church to be reformed and, like many at the time, thought it was being corrupted by wealth and power. Redistribution of the church’s wealth through taxation and other means was a popular demand. If the clergy held a third of the land in England, it made sense to many people that they should pay a third of the taxes. He also said that the monastic orders should be abolished.
He was the protégé of John of Gaunt, which was a double-edged sword, since John of Gaunt was really unpopular, partly because he wasn’t his father, Edward III, or his brother, the Black Prince. He, John of Gaunt, had made an enemy of William Courtenay, the Bishop of London, and the country as a whole. He was regent for his brother’s son, Richard II, and was widely suspected of wanting to be king himself. It is, of course, not known whether John of Gaunt supported Wyclif because he believed what Wyclif was saying or whether there was a large element of self-interest. Wyclif’s supporters included men who had served in the households of Edward III and the Black Prince, so it’s possible that he did agree with Wyclif.
Less pleasing to John of Gaunt, doubtless, Wyclif questioned the concept of the just war, espoused by St Augustine, at least as far as the Hundred Years War was concerned. John of Gaunt wanted to continue the Hundred Years War, possibly to emulate his older brother, the Black Prince, who had been a very successful commander in the 1340s and 1350s. He was however, not the man his brother had been and nor were the times the same.
In 1374 Wyclif negotiated with the pope on Edward III’s behalf when the pope wanted to tax English clergy to pay for wars he was fighting in Italy. In that year he was given the living of Lutterworth in Leicestershire, which was in the gift of the king.
On 19th February 1377 John of Gaunt rescued Wyclif from William Courtenay, the bishop of London, and others when he was called to appear before them in St Paul’s accused of seditious preaching. John of Gaunt had become Courtenay’s enemy when he persecuted William of Wykeham, who was Courtenay’s own protégé. Courtenay was very keen to retain the privileges and liberties of the church, the very things against which Wyclif was preaching.
Wyclif addressed the Commons in 1378 to say that debtors did not have the right of sanctuary and that the king could take the property of the church in time of war. The papacy, and by extension the church, was damaged in the fourteenth century by the move to Avignon in 1305 and by the fact that the popes were French and very partisan. This made them less than trustworthy when they were supposed to mediate between the French and the English in the Hundred Years War. In 1378 things became even worse when two different popes were elected, one in Rome and one in Avignon. It’s no surprise that Wyclif identified the pope with the Anti-Christ, another belief of the Protestants.
In 1379 he wrote De Eucharistia which covered his beliefs about the mass.
In 1381 he was blamed by the church for sparking the Peasants’ Revolt, during which the Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Sudbury, was beheaded. Wyclif’s old enemy, William Courtenay succeeded him. Wyclif condemned Sudbury’s murder, since there had been no trial and the punishment exceeded the crime, in Wyclif’s eyes, of a cleric exercising a secular job: Sudbury was England’s chancellor (the medieval equivalent of prime minister). He also asked for mercy for the rebels as they had grievances that needed to be resolved. None of this helped his cause with the church.
In May 1382 he appeared before the Commons advocating that the church be broken up. He said that England should stop obeying the pope, churchmen should be removed from secular positions and the church’s property taken over by the king. This was his undoing, for they were also amongst the things demanded by Wat Tyler during the Peasants’ Revolt the year before. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the leaders of the revolt had been influenced by Wyclif, simply that Wyclif didn’t hold views that were particularly unusual. The danger with Wyclif was that he could articulate them and back them up with years of studying theology.
Courtenay called him to a council of carefully selected bishops in Blackfriars in that month in order to declare his teachings heretical. Wyclif defended twenty-four points of his teaching. Ten were declared heretical and the rest erroneous. He was banned from preaching until he had renounced his heresy and done the necessary penance, which he didn’t do. Despite this, he wasn’t excommunicated and he wasn’t made to give up his parish.
Wyclif died in December 1384 after a stroke while he was saying mass in the parish church at Lutterworth, doubtless still believing that Christ was not physically present in the bread or the wine.
Early in the fifteenth century the study of his works was forbidden, as was the translation of the Bible into English. The church in England and the state were so worried about the fuse that Wyclif had lit that a law was made in 1401 that allowed them to burn heretics at the stake. In 1415, Wyclif himself was declared a heretic. It wasn’t a good sign.
It’s not often that something that happened in the fourteenth century causes controversy in the twenty-first, but that’s exactly what happened this year when the New Year’s Honours List was announced. A word of explanation for those not in the UK. There are two Honours Lists every year, one announced in January and one in June, on the Queen’s official birthday. Another word of explanation. The Queen, like me, was born in April. Her official birthday celebrates the date of her coronation.
The Honours Lists name people who have been awarded honours, that is they become things such as a Companion of Honour, a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath, a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, an Officer of the British Empire, a Member of the Order of the British Empire and so on. As you can tell from the word ‘empire’, the honours originated some time ago. Recipients are nominated by the government, but many are nominated by members of the public. They’re usually awarded in recognition of the recipients’ services to a specific area. This year one of the awards went to the Chief Medical Officer for England for services to public health. Others were for services to cycling and sailing, for services to drama, for services to the food supply chain, for services to glaciology and climate change research and for services to literature. I hope you’re starting to get the picture.
It is not with these honours that this year’s controversy arises, however, but with the Queen’s decision to admit ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair to the Order of the Garter. A petition was immediately set up to ask the government to rescind the award, showing that the signatories hadn’t done much research. The government can do nothing about it, since the award is entirely within the Queen’s gift.
The Order of the Garter is one of the most exclusive clubs in the world. It only ever has twenty-four members plus the monarch and the Prince of Wales, if there is one. At the moment it doesn’t even have twenty-four members. Now we’re ready for the history.
The order was instituted by Edward III in 1348 (possibly 1349) after the Black Death arrived in England. Edward was good at uniting those who served him and fought beside him, and the Order of the Garter was very successful in this regard. He had a keen interest in King Arthur and a previous attempt to create an order of chivalry had focused on the Round Table. The Round Table pictured above was not King Arthur’s, but was created at the behest of Edward III’s grandfather, Edward I, probably to be used for feasting during a tournament in Winchester held to celebrate the conquest of Wales.
The founding members of the order were chosen, according to what you believe, either because of their acts on the battlefield or because they were originally the members of two tournament teams, one made up of members of the king’s household and his friends and the other made up of members of the household of the Prince of Wales and his friends. I suspect that it was a mixture of both. Either way, rank wasn’t important at first. One of the founding members was the Prince of Wales’s standard-bearer at the battle of Crécy, who probably saved his life there. Another founding member was Henry Grosmont, second cousin to the king, whose preparation to go and fight in southwest France we learned about here. Not all of them were English, either. Jean de Grailly was a Gascon, Eustace d’Ambrecicourt was a Picard and Henry Eam was Dutch.
Although the original members were knights, the requirements of the order were mainly religious. If they were in Windsor, they had to hear Mass in the Garter Chapel and they were to celebrate the feast of St George together. Sometimes this celebration included a tournament.
A great deal of trust arose between these men that was lacking among the leaders of most of the armies they faced. Many of them were friends and they spent a lot of time together. This enabled them to make decisions when on campaign in the knowledge that they would be supported by one another, and was probably one of the reasons why English armies were so successful in the first few years of the Hundred Years War.
Then, as now, a new member could only be admitted after the death of an existing member, something that happened to three of the original members within a year or so, probably due to the Black Death.
The order was founded at Windsor Castle, birthplace of Edward III. Legend had it that the castle had been built by King Arthur, although this legend is unlikely to predate 1348.
This is another error that I come across often in historical novels, especially in the type that I write: romances. ‘Error’ is probably the wrong word to use here, though, as I’m fairly certain the novelists know that what they’re doing is misrepresenting what really could or could not happen in the Middle Ages. The heroine of a romance novel, in this case of noble birth, will often be alone, sometimes even travelling away from home unaccompanied by a maidservant, and, as I discussed last week, sleeping alone in a bedroom.
It’s easy to see why a novelist might do this, as the heroine has to meet the hero and get to know him somehow, and the purpose of the maidservant is to prevent just this kind of thing from happening. For my part, I quite like the challenge of working out how they can meet despite the maidservant.
The maidservant was supposed to be with the noblewoman day and night, which usually meant sharing a bed with her, although there might not be much room if there were sisters and female cousins in the household. It was a great responsibility, so the maidservant had to be someone of good character. We’ll see, though, that maidservants, and servants in general, were only human.
What was the point of this? The daughter of a nobleman or a king was really a political object. Her marriage would confirm or deny an alliance with another family and her sons would be noblemen. No nobleman really wanted to take the chance that he was bringing up someone else’s child as his heir, and, given that women in this class usually married when they were little more than children and might be easily led astray, there had to be someone to keep an eye on daughters of noblemen at all times.
It clearly was possible for young women to meet and to be alone with a man despite having a maidservant, though. The wealthy heiress Joan of Kent famously met, married and, according to her later testimony, was bedded by, Thomas Holland when she was twelve years old and a member of Queen Philippa’s household. This had all been done so secretly that no one believed her when she said that she was married and she was forced to marry the heir of the earl of Salisbury. I wonder how much it cost her or Holland to bribe the servant who was supposed to keep an eye on the woman who wasn’t just the richest woman in the country, but also the king’s cousin.
I’m afraid some dreadful things have happened to maidservants in my novels, not because I want to get them out of the way so that the heroine can spend time with her beloved, but because they’re characters who inhabit a world where dreadful things happen sometimes and I like them to be something other than a generic servant.
Following last week’s little foray into historical inaccuracies in novels set in the fourteenth century, I thought I’d look at another example. This time I am (to an extent) one of the guilty parties. This particular error is something I’ve come across in more than one novel set in the fourteenth century, so I’m far from alone. The main character, often the daughter or son of a minor lord, reads a book alone in their bedroom. There are a few things wrong with this, but we’ll start with the mistake that I’ve made in at least two of my novels, just to get it out of the way.
No one had a bedroom in which they slept alone and those people who were able to afford a bed usually shared it. I’d like to be able to say that I got this wrong for artistic reasons, that is that I knew what the historical reality was and changed it for the sake of the plot, but the truth is that I didn’t know and hadn’t done enough reading about the fourteenth century at that point to know what did happen. There were undoubtedly exceptions to the general rule that no one slept alone. An elderly, widowed lord might sleep alone in his bed, but there would still be servants and dependents sleeping in his bedchamber, and male dependents were as likely to share his bed as not. On the whole, though, there just wasn’t enough space for anyone to have their own bedroom. If the family was wealthy enough to be able to afford a separate bedchamber, they all slept in it. In all cases, the servants and other members of the household, almost entirely male, slept in the hall, the room in which meals were eaten and guests received.
We’ll move on to the question of the book. Books were expensive, so it’s unlikely that a minor lord would be able to afford one. If he did own such an object, it would probably be kept under lock and key in a chest or strong cupboard. It certainly wouldn’t be something that a son or daughter would be able to remove without permission and take somewhere else to read.
Books were mostly very big and heavy, and they weren’t generally read by someone holding them in their hands, not for long, anyway. They would usually rest on some kind of support. Think something the size of a church Bible on a lectern and you’ll be close. Books were written by hand on calf or sheepskin that had been scraped both to remove hair and flesh, and stretched to make it thinner. Despite this processing, velum was still quite thick, so books were thick.
Unless you were a monk or looking up something specific, reading wasn’t something you did on your own. It was a social activity: someone read aloud and everyone else listened. This didn’t just apply, as you might think, to works of fiction and poetry. It also applied to non-fiction, such as histories and hunting treatises. In a world where the main forms of entertainment were what could be provided by the members of a household in terms of singing or telling stories, almost any book would interest almost everyone.
Just as minor lords wouldn’t be able to afford books generally, they definitely would not be able to have a library, something which, again, I’ve come across in more than one novel. Libraries were for monasteries and the royal family. It took an immense amount of wealth to be able to afford enough books to make it necessary to dedicate an entire room to them. Books in libraries were often chained to prevent them being stolen, as in the photograph at the top of the post, making the initial premise of someone taking a book away to read it even more unlikely.
I recently read a novel set in England in the mid-fourteenth century in which one of the characters routinely gets drunk on brandy and Madeira. I sighed. It’s not the first time I’ve come across this, the brandy, that is. I haven’t read a book in which Madeira has been drunk before. Madeira wasn’t permanently settled until the 1420s, so no one would have been drinking Madeira wine seventy years earlier.
Brandy is a slightly different matter, though. I’ve had characters drink brandy in one of my novels, The Mercenary’s Tale, set in 1366. It’s not referred to as brandy, though, and it’s distilled by an alchemist. Yes, what (much) later became known as brandy wasn’t a drink but a medicine.
Wine was first distilled towards the end of the thirteenth century and was certainly being distilled on a regular and competent basis in Avignon in the 1320s. It was believed to have medicinal properties, but no one quite knew how to make the best use of it. John of Rupescissa was a Franciscan friar and an alchemist. He was a Spiritual Franciscan, which meant that he embraced the ideals of poverty set out by St. Francis. The Spirituals thought that the order was moving away from its roots and wanted to return to them. In some, more powerful, quarters they were viewed almost as heretics. If you’ve read Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose or Stephen O’Shea’s The Friar of Carcassonne, you’ll know that sometimes there really was very little difference between the Spirituals and the heretical Cathars.
By 1344 John was in prison in Avignon. The early years of the fourteenth century were not a good time to be a Spiritual Franciscan. He was allowed to continue with his alchemical experiments, though, and it was probably here that he learned about distillation. He was almost certainly the first alchemist to think about alchemy in terms of health. Alchemy was originally about turning substances considered impure, such as lead, into pure substances, such as gold. John thought about how his alchemical skills could help people to live longer. Along with many others he was expecting the Antichrist to arrive at any moment and he thought Christians would need to be in the best of health to deal with him, so he was searching for a medicine that would achieve that. In the “burning water” or the “water of life” (acqua vitae) created by distilling wine he found something that he thought could protect the body from illness and, for a while, aging.
He thought he had discovered something different from the four elements of fire, air, water and earth that were believed to inhabit all substances, and described it as the fifth essence of the wine, or quinta essentia in Latin. We still consider the quintessence of something to be its purest and most concentrated form.
His belief that alcohol could prolong life was not without foundation. He noticed that meat placed in the liquid didn’t rot. Wine would turn into vinegar fairly quickly, but distilled wine continued unchanged for a very long time. Something that seemed to be incorruptible also appeared to be capable of sharing that property with other substances.
John was also the first to discover that alcohol extracts the useful compounds from plants more effectively than water, which made them more useful in medicines. Somewhat more controversially, he developed medicines using metals such as gold, mercury and antimony.
Brandy didn’t properly become a drink until the fifteenth century. Is it possible that it was appreciated as an alcoholic drink in fourteenth-century England? Of course, but distillation was a fiddly and dangerous process and an alchemist who knew how to make the precious liquid would not have made it in large enough quantities for it to be used for anything other than to continue his experiments for the improvement of mankind and for medicines for a few local people. There certainly would not have been a ready supply to allow people to get drunk on it.
In my own novel, the female protagonist is the daughter of an alchemist and she has learned how to distil wine and how to use it as a medicine, but, like the philosopher’s stone before it, the water of life had a reputation that made it sound extremely powerful and it became an object of desire for those who wanted its power rather than its alcoholic pleasures and she finds herself in trouble as a result.