An experience that I have now and again with the number of seminars and conferences to which I go is that I find somebody speaking or present whom I know from reading lists and bibliographies but had no idea was still active in research. This happened to me on 9th December 2014 when the speaker at the Medieval Seminar of Birmingham’s Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages was none other than Jean Birrell. I knew her name primarily because of her rôle as a translator of various important French works on peasantry and agriculture, not least Pierre Bonnassie’s selected papers, and she was able to give me some personal impression of those people in questions afterwards, but her own research (still very much active) is more homegrown, and her title was “‘And he shall stand there all day with a rod’: peasant farmers and their farm-workers in thirteenth-century England”.1
The quote comes from the custumal of Burton Abbey, a lengthy document seeking to record for definite the obligations of the abbey’s peasant tenants to provide labour on the abbey’s estates. Working with a number of these documents, Dr Birrell was looking at how that kind of labour was managed across the English high Middle Ages.2 It could be split into two categories, week-work, due throughout the year on an days-per-week basis, and boon-work, when something sufficiently big needed doing that all able bodies (and their families in support) were called to muster, for harvests, shearing of sheep or similar, sometimes with free ale and meals laid on if the institution in question was generous enough. All this I sort of knew, very vaguely, but I hadn’t gathered how much this relied on a hierarchy of managers within the peasantry.
On the occasions when everyone was called in, such work (which was fairly unwilling, as all these householders had their own plots to harvest or sheep to shear too) was often watched over by overseers from the lowest levels of the nobility, and that was fairly straightforwardly coercive, but as the title shows the peasants themselves could be relied on to an extent to drive their fellows, or rather their immediate lessers, by force too. A hierarchy in which ‘yardlanders’, tenants with lands and dependants of their own, or ‘sokemen’ in the areas where a different law had once held sway, organised working parties of those with less or no land, even perhaps setting up the food but if not then probably getting more and better of it from those who did, and kept discipline among those parties. A few were even given very minor judicial rights so that they could if necessary hold a ‘field court’ to punish bad workers, and even more detailed orders of precedence were visible in seating arrangements at the meals on the occasions where the custumals specify them (and it shows you something that anyone had thought that needed to be fixed in writing to prevent disputes).
A Marxist perspective might see kulaks or similar here, the régime’s stooges co-opted by insignificant crumbs of status that left the lords safely above the hurly-burly of massed labour, and I’m not sure that would be wholly wrong, but the deceptive element of that perspective seems to be missing a point to me. Firstly, the mere existence of these custumals shows that the peasants were under no illusions about who the big boss was; they may well have negotiated with the yardlanders too but the abbey was the guarantor and more-or-less grudging grantor of all their rights, greater and lesser. That seems to me to leave space to appeal against or demand reduction of over-mighty intermediaries. Instead I wonder if the operative concern here wasn’t the democratic concern for the general good that our modern perspectives sometimes assume in such cases and more the early parliamentary thinking whereby one wanted one’s representative to be as influential as possible, so better that he be of high status (and it would be a he, usually though some of Dr Birrell’s boss peasants were in fact women). Look if you like at the different rôles played by Wat Tyler and Sir John Newton in the Peasants’ Revolt as reported by Froissart; Tyler got ignored as soon as he wasn’t a present threat, because of being too uncourtly to be taken seriously, whereas Sir John, while very unwilling to be involved, was still compelled to speak for the rebels, carried out his promise more or less honourably and was heard as a man of honour too.3 Obviously that is Froissart’s report and his perspective was not a peasant one; but this kind of sensitivity to status was, I think, a realistic one rather than one addled by the opiate of small amounts of power. Probably terribly naïve and some Rodney Hilton would doubtless disabuse me but nonetheless these were the thoughts I got from this paper, and I quite like them.
1. The works I knew her name from were, specifically, Pierre Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe, transl. Jean Birrell (Cambridge 1991); Guy Bois, La mutation de l’an mil (Paris 1989), transl. Jean Birrell as The Transformation of the Year 1000: the village of Lournand from Antiquity to feudalism (Manchester 1992); Domninique Barthélemy, “Debate: the feudal revolution. I”, transl. Jean Birrell, in Past and Present no. 152 (Oxford 1996), pp. 196-205; Georges Duby, Dames du XIIe siècle, I : Héloïse, Aliénor, Iseut et quelques autres (Paris 1995), transl. Jean Birrell as Women of the Twelfth Century volume one: Eleanor of Aquitaine and six others (Cambridge 1997); and Jean-Pierre Devroey, “Men and Women in Early Medieval Serfdom: the ninth-century Frankish evidence”, transl. Jean Birrell, in Past and Present no. 166 (Oxford 2000), pp. 3-30; but a quick Regesta Imperii search shows that much more could be added.
2. She had, indeed, at this point just published what must be related work, “Manorial Custumals Reconsidered” in Past and Present no. 224 (Oxford 2014), pp. 3-37, DOI: 10.1093/pastj/gtu007, so if the material here intrigues you that’s where to go to look for more!
3. Working here from the quick and easy resource of Froissart, Chronicles, transl. Geoffrey Brereton (Harmondsworth 1968), pp. 211-230 esp. pp. 214-216 (Sir John’s embassy) and pp. 224-229 (the fate of Tyler).