Tag Archives: William Langland

Fourteenth century society


We’re often told that medieval society consisted of three groups: those who work, those who fight and those who pray. Even by the last quarter of the fourteenth century when Langland had Piers Plowman say to the knight “I’ll toil and sweat for both of us. I’m willing to work all my life because of the good will I have towards you. But this on condition that you, for your part, protect Holy Church and myself against those ravaging villains who destroy everything they come upon” it was no longer true.

Medieval society was far more complex than the concept of the three orders would have us believe. Chaucer reflected this at the end of the century, not only in the assortment of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury, but in the subjects of the tales they tell.  His pilgrims included a miller, a knight, a cook, a reeve and a pardoner. Characters in the tales include a carpenter, an alchemist and a priest. When most of us think about the fourteenth century, however, I’m sure that we think in terms of peasants, knights (and their ladies) and priests or monks.

Not only was there diversity within society, but there was also diversity within groups. Not all peasants were poor. Some lived very comfortably and employed other peasants. Some had a lot of land, others had just enough to live. Some, reeves, had authority over the others in their village, rich or poor. Not all knights were rich. Some could barely afford to buy armour or keep their horses. Some became wealthy by capturing and ransoming other knights. Some became poor because they had themselves been captured and had to pay a ransom. The church didn’t just consist of monks and priests, but friars, pardoners and summoners.  Some priests lived well in rich parishes or in the households of wealthy men, others struggled to live on the tithes of their parishioners.

Towns had their own structures and hierarchies. Merchants had apprentices and could aspire to high office. Richard Whittington (of Dick Whittington and his cat fame) was a mercer who became mayor of London. In the towns men practised trades: smiths, bakers, apothecaries, coopers, wheelwrights, bowyers and fletchers.  Some towns had universities, which grew in the fourteenth century, producing scholars and learned texts. Increased access to education meant that there were more people, in towns at least, able to read the texts. Education gave commoners the opportunity to rise in the church or in government.

Fourteenth century society was not static. Women could rise in society by marriage and men could advance through their own efforts and by patronage.


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Books and their Readers

Chained books

There was a growth in reading books through the fourteenth century in England. At the beginning of the century books were written in French or Latin, but English passages were included in them around the middle of the century. Educated people were taught Latin and French, but everyone spoke English. Towards the end of the century books started to appear that were written entirely in English. It wasn’t until then that English was considered a literary language and it was at this point that works by Langland, Gower, Chaucer and the Gawain Poet became available.

Unsurprisingly I read fiction set in the fourteenth century and I have come across too many novels in which books are treated as small, everyday objects. They weren’t; they were large and tremendously valuable. Someone had to be very wealthy to own even one. If you owned a book, no one else had one exactly the same.

I have occasionally read novels in which the heroine wafts into her bedroom where she had earlier left an unfinished book on the bed and picks it up to read, as if it were a  modern paperback. We’ll get on to reading in a moment, but books would not have been left lying around; they were far too valuable.

A book was written and illustrated by hand. Each page was made from animal skin prepared by hand. Once completed they had to be sewn together and bound by hand. Even in a labour-intensive age, the labour of making a book was immense and this made them expensive. If a private person owned a book it was more likely to be locked safely away in a chest than left out on display.

Mention of a library in a medieval house or even a castle in a historical novel always gives me pause when I’m reading. Very few wealthy people had many books. Edward III had about 340 books and his youngest son had about half that number. There is even a picture of Edward III receiving a book as a wedding gift. It was such an extravagant present that its giving was recorded.

In my own novels I’ve occasionally used books to show the wealth or aspirations of a character. In The Winter Love, for instance, Edward owns three books when we first meet him. He appears to be wealthy. When those books disappear and Edward denies ever having owned them it’s a sign to the reader that Edward’s fortunes have changed and that he might not be what he seemed at first.

Popular literature included treatises on warfare, hunting, histories and stories about King Arthur and the deeds of the Knights of the Round Table. There were also religious books: prayer books and sermons. Few individuals owned a complete Bible, although Edward II’s queen, Isabella, had one. Bibles were the province of cathedrals and monasteries. Not all priests could read, so it’s no surprise to learn that complete Bibles were rare in churches.

The greatest concentrations of books were in monasteries and abbeys, where they were often kept chained to the shelves. Books were sometimes inscribed with curses against anyone who had the temerity to steal them.

Reading, or being read to, was a communal activity. Books would be read aloud to the household gathered in the hall (the main room) of the house. Private reading didn’t mean that someone read a book themselves, but that the book was read to the lord and his family in the solar (their private room). Reading, save for study, was not a solitary occupation. Reading alone for any other reason was considered anti-social and odd.

As illustrated in this wonderful post by Erik Kwakkel books were so valuable that they were a target for thieves and their owners had to take measures to ensure that their books were kept safe and secure. The post is worth looking at for the pictures alone.


Filed under Fourteenth Century