Saturday, December 6, 2014

Life in a Medieval Village by Joseph and Frances Gies


Why I Read It: Aside from latent Anglophilia, one of my earliest passions centered on medieval history.

Summary: A snapshot view of the village of Elton, Huntingdonshire, England in the Middle Ages, representative of the village system as it stood at that time.

My Thoughts: The Gies just had a way of simplifying the history of the Middle Ages for broad public consumption through their light, easy-flowing writing style. But I think there is a hidden secret to their success.

They are among the greatest medievalists to ever work in the field, the irony being that they lived in Michigan (which has become a hotbed of medieval studies in the United States). The time period they study in this book, the 11th to 14th centuries or so, represented "pre-history" in the United States, as ugly a term as there ever was. But in England it was decades, then centuries after the invasion of William the Conqueror. New forms of governance were coming to light, the first steps on the road to modern types of government. The open field village was one of those steps.

That said, enter the sauciness.

Many of the documents available to medievalists studying small communities like Elton consist of court records, in whatever form the "courts" were in those days. Little about daily life was recorded - do you like to journal about your laundry? and if so, have you sent a copy to the local historical society? - so much of what we know about the norms of medieval life are drawn from records of the abnormalities. Murder, rape, theft, drunkenness, hamsoken (assaulting someone in their own home), all of these items were recorded in sometimes lecherous detail. And it makes for great reading.

This book centers on one representative village, and is almost a screenplay unto itself. The first houses are built, the roads laid out, the church constructed. Harvest fairs are held, taxes are paid, livestock are stolen, crops rotated. The community gathers at hallmote ("hall meeting") and decides what's best for the village, knowing that the lord always has final say. Births, marriages, deaths race past until that fateful day when the Black Plague strikes the countryside. There are not enough people left to harvest the fields. The mills fall to pieces, with no one to repair them. The village we came to know and love is all but lost, to arise again and become today's community. Wooden buildings fall, hardier stone-based structures rise. The main road that ran through town became today's B671; Middle Street ran west to the manor house of the lord.

One of the most intriguing notions I gained from this book is the possibilities of aerial archaeology, using photography from planes to locate ancient villages, like that at Wharram Percy. With Google Maps and Google Earth, we have greater resources at our own fingertips to do this at any time we like. The Gies wrote this book in 1990, after 21 years of other work in the field, and did not have access to such technologies at the time. But it's a race against development, as our bulging population continues its inexorable march to the decimation of the countryside.

Their overarching premise that the village system was unique in history is well-stated. One can hardly imagine living under the system as it was, but then, we weren't there then. It might have seemed as natural as small-town life feels to us today.

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