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VILLAGE COMMUNITY AND PEASANT SOCIETY INT MEDIEVAL ENGLAND
A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
MASTER OF ARTS
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
I would like to thank my parents for always pushing me to search out the answers to my
questions. I would also like to thank my advisors, especially Dr. Florin Curta for constantly
helping me to hone my academic skills. Throughout my undergraduate and graduate years at U
of F, Dr. Curta has served as a mentor to me and i will always be indepted to him for serving as
an example of the best practices of a teacher and researcher.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ACKNOWLEDGMENT S .............. ...............3.....
AB S TRAC T ..... ._ ................. ............_........5
1 INTRODUCTION ................. ...............6.......... ......
2 ANCIENT COMMUNITY VS. MODERN SOCIETY .............. ...............8.....
3 THE NEXT GENERATION ............ ..... ..__ ...............12..
4 ENGLAND IN THE NINETEENTH AND TWENTIETH CENTURIES ............................17
5 GROWTH OF THE SOCIAL SCIENCES ................. ...............19...............
6 THE VILLAGE COMMUNITY AS AN ECONOMIC ENTITY .............. .....................2
7 MARXIST SCHOLARS AND PEASANT ECONOMY............... ...............30
8 ECONOMIC HISTORIANS OF THE WEST .............. ...............37....
9 VILLAGE SETTLEMENT: PHYSICAL LAYOUT AND ORGANIZATION...................42
10 A SOCIAL CONSTRUCT .............. ...............46....
11 NEW APPROACHES TO PEASANT SOCIETY ....__ ......_____ ...........___........6
12 MEDIEVAL SOURCES AND THEIR USE .............. ...............68....
13 CONCLUSION ............ ..... .._ ...............73...
LIST OF REFERENCES ............ ..... ..__ ...............76...
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH .............. ...............79....
Abstract of Thesis Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts
THE VILLAGE COMMUNITY AND PEASANT SOCIETY INT MEDIEVAL ENGLAND
Chair: Florin Curta
Major Department: History
This thesis provides an overview of the scholarship examining the nature of the village
community in medieval England. Beginning my analysis in the late nineteenth century I discuss
the socio-political context within which the first studies of village communities emerged and I
examine the influence of Romanticist traditions on the scholarship. I then look at the emergence
and development of the social sciences in the early and mid-twentieth century, especially the rise
of a more interdisciplinary approach within the social sciences as evidenced by a number of
developments including the Annales School in France. Turning to the last two decades of the
twentieth century, I describe the development of new theoretical models of community, which
were developed by social scientists during the second half of the twentieth century. When
applied to the study of the medieval village community, these models suggest that scholars must
begin to move away from simplistic, binary conceptions of the village community. Finally, by
examining how a few of the authors made use of the medieval documentary evidence I argue that
scholars until very recently drew only upon those sources which fit their preconceived notions,
which emphasized the communal organization and solidarity of the village community.
The structure of peasant society in medieval England has long been a subject of interest for
scholars from many disciplines within the social sciences including history, sociology,
economics and archaeology. The earliest authors who discussed peasant society, such as Sir
Henry Maine, emphasized the communal, collective nature of the village community, and later
generations of authors continued in this vein. Indeed, the maj ority of the scholars have until very
recently been focused on describing various aspects of peasant life and community without ever
critically analyzing their own basic conception of the rural community. Rather, they have
continued to rely on old descriptive approaches and binary conceptions of the village
community, which posited a basic dichotomy between the communal rural past and modern
society organized around the individual.
The first of these approaches has involved examining the basic structure of society through
the lens of social and judicial interactions. Scholars using this approach have focused on
communal lawmaking, kinship networks, and legal activities both in the manor and village
courts. The second approach has focused on the economic interactions within the community,
and authors have therefore relied on manorial and other documents to paint the picture of the
economic life of the rural community. This approach has emphasized the role of the rural land
market and the growth of a market based economy, and the impact of these economic
developments on the social status and interactions of medieval villagers. Finally, and primarily
since the middle of the twentieth century, archaeologists and scholars from disciplines such as
geography have argued for the importance of studying the basic structures of the physical
landscape and settlement remains.
In the last decades of the twentieth century, however, a number of scholars from a range of
disciplines began to go beyond simply searching for evidence of the organization and structures
of the rural community. Indeed these scholars began to analyze fundamental assumptions about
the very nature and meaning of community in medieval times and to apply these new theoretical
models to their analysis of the village community and peasant life in medieval England. These
scholars also proposed new models with which they hoped to uncover the full variety of peasant
experience, models which emphasize the multiplicity and fluidity of community. Within this
thesis I trace the development of our current conceptions of rural society in medieval England,
and in so doing, shed some light on what I consider to be fundamental issues with regard to the
study of the community and the nature of belonging in medieval society.
ANCIENT COMMUNITY VS. MODERN SOCIETY
The earliest authors to discuss peasant society focused on the ancient village community,
and they established two of the most basic models thereafter applied to examinations of the
village community. These authors maintained that peasant society was in its most basic form
united through common need and obligation. Furthermore, they believed that the basic
communal framework of rural society had eroded over time and had ultimately been replaced by
a model based upon individual obligation and profit. This basic dichotomy between the ancient,
rural community and a modern, individualized society was first proposed by Henry Maine, an
English jurist and historian who wanted to illustrate how many of the basic structures of modern
society were derived from ancient law.
In his work Maine argued that, historically, the community had served as the basic unit of
legality. He proclaimed the "immense antiquity" of the village community, and contended that
with regard to social obligations, the history of society had been uniform in one respect, namely
the "growth of individual obligation" in place of family and communal dependency.2 It was in
his next publication that Maine dealt explicitly with the topic of the rural community. Village
Communities in the East and West drew on Maine's knowledge and experience from his service
in the colonial administration in India. In this book, he discussed the village community's role in
society and argued that the similarity of the community's organization and function within both
India and England was evidence of the truth and historical importance of the village community.
Maine believed that agricultural necessity was the primary or initial reason for the community's
existence and that the community held the land collectively and cultivated the arable "in lots
SHenry Maine, Ancient Law, its Connection with the Early History of Society and its Relation to M~odern Ideas
(London: John Murray, 1861; reprint, London: John Murray, 1912), p. ix.
2 Maine, Ancient Law, pp. 172, 272.
appropriated to several families."3 The community was organized around the most basic concept
of ownership in common, and Maine noted that this ownership was based on the law of
"Authority, Custom, or Chance."4
Moreover, Maine argued that it was only in more recent times that the contract had
replaced both custom and community as the basis of law. He went on to explain the emergence
of the manor and its lord. The manor he characterized as an entity separate from and in
opposition to the village community. Here we see the emergence of another basic concept
regarding the village community, namely that the community of the village existed in opposition
to the manorial system. Maine believed that over time the manor replaced the village and the
bond that kept the manor together was the manor court, not communal necessity. Maine used his
experience in India to draw a comparison between how this process developed in the West and
how it was developing in the East. In fact, he argued, such a change could be beneficial to
eastern society because in the face of growing population and modernization only the manor
under the lord was able to apply the necessary methods of agriculture needed to keep up with a
developing society. Indeed he wrote, "For this work society organized in village-communities is
but little adapted."' Maine further championed such a change by stating that even in village
groups, though the population might be free of feudal services it was also "enslaved by
custom."6 Furthermore, he believed that because village groups were not true democracies but
oligarchies, there was in principle no real loss of freedom under a feudal lord for the community
3 Henry Maine, Village Communities in the East and West (London: John Murray, 1871; reprint, New York: Arno
Press, 1974), p. 78.
4 Maine, Village Communities, p. 110.
5 Maine, Village Communities, p. 162.
6 Maine, Village Communities, p. 164.
as a whole. Thus the impact of the feudal lord and manorial structures on the villagers' life was a
positive, economic one.
The next author to discuss the village community took a more pessimistic view regarding
the development of modem society. Tiinnies accepted the basic dichotomy of the ancient village
community vs. modem contract based society as proposed by Maine. However, Tiinnies
proposed a more idealized vision of village communal action and he admired the functioning of
that ancient community. Tiinnies named the positive relationship of social groups based on
mutual affirmation and collective terms such as union, fraternity, and association, Gemeinschaft
(Community).7 Tiinnies believed that Gesellschaft (Society), which he defined as everything
modern, individualized and outside the public sphere, had meanwhile come to replace the old
communal form of organization. He also drew a connection between Gemeinschaft and rural life
and contrasted this with Gesellschaft, which was for him synonymous with urban life.8
Tiinnies is perhaps responsible more than any other scholar for establishing enduring ideas
about the rural community, which persisted throughout the twentieth century. Indeed Tiinnies
believed that village life meant mutual possession and enj oyment of property held in common,
and he also linked the organization of village life to agricultural necessity and family life.
Drawing evidence from Maine's work on village communities in the East and West, Tiinnies
compared the villagers to the organs of a body, and he suggested that since the villagers acted
together to regulate the commons, the entire community should thus be viewed as constituting a
household economy, wherein the household functioned along a "communitarian or communistic"
SFerdinand Tdnnies, Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, trans. and ed., Jose Harris (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2001), p. 17.
"Tdnnies, Conununity, p. 19.
model. 9 He concluded that since Gesellschaft was based on individual will, Gesellschaft and
Gemeinschaft were "two diametrically opposed systems of law: one in which people are related
to each other as natural members of a whole, and one in which individuals are entirely
independent of one another," and he was thus describing two contrasting systems of social
or er. 1
9 Tdnnies, Community, p. 48.
10 Tdnnies, Community, pp. 187, 247.
THE NEXT GENERATION
Although both Maine and Toinnies laid down the basic conceptual framework with regard
to the study of the village community, the next group of scholars was the first to apply such
concepts to the study of medieval village communities. Moreover, this group of scholars viewed
the switch from village communities held together by communal obligation and necessity to a
more modern society based around the individual, as a basically positive development. In 1883
Frederic Seebohm presented his thesis to the Society of Antiquaries, one of England' s oldest
learned societies, whose mission remains "the encouragement, advancement and furtherance of
the study and knowledge of the antiquities and history of this and other countries." 1 Seebohm
noted that he was approaching the question of the village community from the perspective of an
economic historian. He was interested in explaining the amazing feat of English economic
history and thus needed to determine whether this amazing development began with freedom or
with serfdom. His basic question was whether or not medieval village communities were "free
village communities or communities in serfdom under a manorial lord?"12
Like Toinnies, Seebohm believed that the need to organize the Hields and agricultural
practices led to the creation of the commons. For Seebohm though, the open-field system
wherein property was apportioned equally to members of the community was "absurdly
inefficient."13 Additionally, he suggested that by the time of the Norman conquest the open-field
system and the institution of serfdom were one and the same in their general features. He
contended that within this manorial system the community was divided into two classes, the
'' Society of Antiquaries of London, "Mission statement," http://www.sal.org.uk/ (accessed March 15th, 2006).
12 Frederic Seebohm, English Village Community (London: Longmans, Green, Co., 1883: reprint, New York:
Kennikat Press, 1971), p. ix.
13 Seebohm, English Village Community, p. 15.
villein and the cottar. Yet, he proposed that in essence these classes were indistinguishable from
one another, for "the services of each class were equally servile."14 He also examined the
evidence for free village communities in late Saxon documents, specifically the use of the suffix
ha~n and tun in connection with descriptions of donations of property to the Church. Seebohm
concluded that the property granted in such donations was already manorial and therefore, "there
seems to be no room for the theory that the Saxons introduced everywhere free village
communities on the system of the German mark." He concluded that the manorial system,
rather than being an innovation introduced from the Continent, simply developed out of the
Roman villa. Finally, Seebohm argued that communities of serfs, and not of free villagers,
populated the ha~ns and tuns of late Saxon England. With regards to the loss of village
communities in the face of modernization, Seebohm suggested that the new order of society had
triumphed, "by breaking up both communism of serfdom and the communism of the free
Two scholars went even farther than Seebohm in praising the results of modernization.
Both G. Coulton and his student H. Bennett viewed the old system of society based on the
village community as an archaic entity, and one which when combined with the power and role
of the medieval Church kept the maj ority of the population in horrible conditions. In the preface
to Medieval Village, Coulton justified the introduction of the new Cambridge Studies in
Medieval Life and Thought, with the hope that the new series would redress the imbalance in
medieval history, which he believed had for too long focused on constitutional and social
'4Seebohm, English Vi llage Conununity, p. 79.
15 Seebohm, English Vi llage Conununity, p. 179.
16 Seebohm, English Vi llage Conununity, p. 439.
theory. 1 In this book he focused on the legal status of the peasant in medieval life and
throughout the work he relied on manorial documents to describe the medieval serfs' disabilities
and abilities as defined by manorial law. In fact his work was the first to examine the medieval
peasant not just as a member of the village community but also as an individual. Coulton began
by drawing a comparison between the lot of the medieval peasant, at least half of whom were un-
free, to the American plantation (Black) slaves.l
Like Seebohm, Coulton viewed the open-field system of shared agriculture work as a
restraint on peasant initiative, for everything had to be done within that cooperative system of
collective farming. Again and again he emphasized the lack of stability in the peasants'
economic and legal status and painted a grim picture of their life as violent and uncertain.
Examples in this respect can be seen by the captions of just two of the illustrations he included in
his text, namely the "Overseer Rod" and "Cottage and Skirmish."19 In describing the uncertain
and unpleasant nature of peasant life Coulton insisted upon the role of the Church as landowner.
He argued that "serfdom lingered longest on ecclesiastical and especially on monastic estates,"
and he noted that canon law did much to hinder manumission of those in serfdom.20 For Coulton
the monk and the churchman were not the pioneers of peasant freedom. In connection with his
discussion of ecclesiastical lords he briefly summarized the image of the peasant as presented in
medieval literature. He suggested that by the late Middle Ages the peasant was the pariah of
medieval society. Coulton noted how peasants were often described as prone to bestiality and
'7 G. Coulton, The Adedieval Village, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, vol. 1 (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1926), p. ix.
's Coulton, Adedieval Village, p. 27.
19 COulton, Adedieval Village, pp. 50, 324.
20 Coulton, Adedieval Village, pp. 162-168.
portrayed as gooses or capons. 21 Finally, Coulton believed that the "condition of the medieval
peasantry as a whole...is quite sufficient to account for a great agrarian revolt," the implication
herein being that the great peasant revolt of 1381 was neither surprising nor unjustified.
Therefore, he argued that the modern rosy image of the medieval peasants' life must be
abandoned, and concluded that the "modern laborer is better off."22
A student of Coulton's H. Bennett, published Life on the English Manor A Study of
Peasa~nt Conditions 1150-1400, in that same series that Coulton had founded. As can be seen
from the title, Bennett, like Coulton, examined the ways in which peasant society and life were
affected or controlled by the manor lord and his administrators. Yet, he did not rely exclusively
on manorial documents, for Bennett also drew on ballads and fabliaux in order to paint a richer
picture of peasant life. He began his book with a description of the weekly life of an average
peasant family. In this description Bennett emphasized the role of the Church as well as the
burdensome obligations peasants had to their lord. For Bennett the life he described was not a
pleasurable one, and he stated "the remainder of the book will show clearly enough the difficult
existence which was all that most peasants could hope for."23
Bennett insisted on the negative impact of the medieval Church on the population of the
village, it was he believed not a passive entity for the Church imposed itself on its parishioners.24
He believed that the medieval peasantry lived an isolated life; for them the village was their
whole world. Although Bennett acknowledged that the manor and the village were not the same
21 COulton, Medieval Village, pp. 235, 520.
22 COulton, Medieval Village, pp. 334, 392.
23 H. Bennett, Life on the English Manor a Study of Peasant Conditions 1150-1400, Cambridge Studies in Medieval
Life and Thought, 2, ed. G. Coulton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948), p. 25.
24 Bennett, Life on the English Manor, p. 30.
entity he believed that many of the conditions of peasant life were determined by the manorial
system. With regard to the purported communal nature of peasant society, he argued little was
known about the functioning of the village community outside peasant interactions with the
manor. However, he did acknowledge that "just the term common fields points to the fact that
much of medieval farming was cooperative."25 Like Coulton, Bennett believed that the medieval
methods of agriculture were very inefficient and he suggested "that the waste might in fact have
been vital to the livelihood of many peasants."26
Examining the economy of subsistence, Bennett analyzed the importance of livestock in
feeding the peasantry and argued that a minimum of five to ten acres was needed for a family to
achieve some basic level of subsistence. Therefore, "a considerable number of peasants in the
medieval village lived very near the border line of actual want."27 Moreover, because of the
continued exaction of heavy labor dues as well as the continued growth of royal obligations in
the thirteenth and fourteenth century, Bennett believed that the peasants' lot only grew worse
over time. He therefore concluded that the end of the manorial system was a progressive step
forward in history, for "when the manorial system ended so too did a system of personal
subj section and all its humiliating consequences."28
25 Bennett, Life on the English Manor, p. 44.
26 Bennett, Life on the English Manor, pp. 49-59.
27 Bennett, Life on the English Manor, p. 96.
28 Bennett, Life on the English Manor, p. 317.
ENGLAND IN THE NINETEENTH AND TWENTIETH CENTURIES
What was the domestic political and social situation in England during these first decades
when scholars such as Maine, Seebohm, Coulton and Bennett began to study the medieval
village? What was the cultural milieu and what if anything can it tell us about these scholars
agendas or biases? Specifically two questions come to mind. Why were men like Maine and
Toinnies yearning for the good old days of rural life, and what or whose rosy image of the
medieval past was Coulton arguing against?
By the nineteenth century, England's transformation from a rural based society to a more
heavily industrialized one had already begun. As Pamela Horn has explained, by 1851 the
maj ority of English men and women had ceased to dwell in rural areas and by the last decades of
the nineteenth century industrialization had swept aside the centuries' old predominance of rural
life.29 The decline of rural populations and the growth of urban industrial centers contributed to
the growth of the Romantic and Neo-Romantic movements, which rejected this new modern
industrialized society.30 Both of these movements idealized the peasantry and the rural life and
contrasted the simple pleasures of rural life against the evil and corruption of the city. This focus
on peasant culture and the rural life also led to the rise of Medievalism, which became an
important form of dissent within Victorian England. The new growing middle class was the first
to take up this philosophical call for a return to a simpler life, as evidenced by the rise of two
phenomena: the Arts and Crafts movement and the rambling movement. As exemplified by its
early proponent and practitioner William Morris, the Arts and Craft Movement sought to
29 Pamela Horn, The ( As to s;,~ Countryside in Victorian and Edwardian England (London: Athlone Press, 1984),
30 Michael Lowy, "The Romantic and the Marxist critique of Modern Civilization," Theory and Society 16 (1987):
concentrate its activities in the countryside, to move away from obj ects machine-produced at an
industrial scale and instead encouraged the handcrafts and arts associated with rural village life.31
Indeed in his utopian novel News f~om Nowhere, William Morris proposed an ideal society of the
21"t century that would be modeled after that of fourteenth century rural life in England, a society
based on agrarian communism without classes, state, private property, or money.32 The ramblers
also emerged in this same period and were made up of generally middle class urban dwellers that
on weekends and holidays would travel to the countryside and hike and camp in an attempt to
soak up the rural simple life.
As we can see, when placed within this context the work of Maine and Toinnies, both of
whom longed for a return to simpler village life, is not in the least bit surprising. Their work fits
into the larger context of anti-industrial and anti-modern feeling which had developed in the
upper and middle classes at the time, and which gave birth to such phenomena as the Arts and
Craft and ramblers movements. At the same time we see men like Seebohm reacting against the
spread of rural nostalgia and chic. These scholars instead set out to accurately examine the
medieval rural past in order to show their peers the harshness and poor quality of life in the
medieval past and championed the progressive development of modern industry and society.
31Horn, The ( As to s;,~ Countryvide, p. 225.
32Paul Thompson, The Work of William Morris (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 258-272.
GROWTH OF THE SOCIAL SCIENCES
By the middle of the twentieth century an enormous growth in the social sciences had
resulted in the establishment and development of a number of social science disciplines such as
sociology and anthropology. At the same time many of the scholars in these newer disciplines
began to propose a more interdisciplinary approach within the social sciences. Some of the
biggest proponents of this new interdisciplinary approach were the French scholars Lucien
Febvre and Marc Bloch, who in 1929 founded a journal Annales d'histoire economique et
social. With this journal they stated their intention to create an open forum for interdisciplinary
research. They hoped to promote a more concrete, collaborative work. This new interdisciplinary
approach emphasized the whole dimension of the human experience and therefore looked at how
humans interacted with their economic, cultural, environmental and geographic surroundings. 33
One result of this interdisciplinary move was the growth of what came to be known as social
history. The initial move towards such interdisciplinary scholarship within the field of Medieval
Studies can already be found in the writings of Coulton and Bennett who championed a new
direction within medieval history. The goal of these authors was not to understand legal, royal or
constitutional history. Febvre was an early proponent of this new social or total history, indeed
he believed that historians must invite their comrades and brothers in the social sciences to work
together in the proper spirit, and he wrote "Down with all barriers and labels."34 During the
twentieth century peasantry and peasant society also came into focus. Primarily, this was due to a
number of contemporaneous developments; including the growing importance of the Third
World and the concomitant encroachment on rural and indigenous cultures. Indeed the conflict
33 Lynn Hunt, "French History in the Last Twenty Years: The Rise and Fall of the Annales Paradigm," Journal of
Contemporary History 21 (1986): 213-215.
34 Lucien Febvre, 4 New Kind ofHistory, ed. P. Burke, trans. K. Folca (New York: Harper Collins, 1973), p. 31.
between the Soviet, Marxist, Neo-Marxist ideologies and the Western capitalist paradigm, as
well as numerous peasant and indigenous struggles like those in Vietnam and South and Central
America, were also directly responsible for this new interest in peasant economics and culture
One of the earliest examples of this new interest in peasant society was the sociologist
George Homans' book English Villagers of the Thrii ideathrl Century. Published in 1941, this book
was Homan' s attempt to examine the social order of medieval English villages. His work
focused on champion England, which is the part of England home to the classical manorial
system of open-fields and three-Hield rotation.35 He defended his choice by noting that it was
only in champion England that one could Eind nucleated villages, for in all other areas of the
country, settlement was dispersed. Like the earlier scholars Homans emphasized the cooperative
nature of village society. Within the medieval village, "cooperation in farm work was the basis
of village life" and Homans pointed out the especially collective nature of village bylaws, which
regulated agricultural life within the village.36 Indeed for Homans, these by-laws were proof of
the community's existence and independence. Moreover, kinship both formal and informal was
key to the communal nature of village society. In this context he discussed the use of the phrase
"the blood of the village" in medieval documents.37 With regards to the villagers' relationship to
the manorial system Homans suggested that although social rank, legal status, and economic
status intersected, the main distinction was a legal one between freedom and villeinage, For
Homans the medieval lord was not the all powerful figure envisioned by Coulton and Bennett.
He argued that custom played an important role in structuring the relationship between the manor
35 George Homans, English Villagers of the Thirteenth Century (New York: Russell and Russell, 1960), p. 17.
36 Homans, English Villagers, pp. 81-104.
37 Homans, English Villagers, p. 122.
and the peasant. The lord was not free to do what he liked, rather "he had to make use of customs
of collaboration."38 Homans further believed that the lord dealt with the villagers more often
collectively, as members of a community, than as individuals.
In a later article entitled "The Rural Sociology of Medieval England", Homans continued
his exploration of village society and also made clear his thoughts about new interdisciplinary
methods and approaches. Discussing the new social history, Homans encouraged the continued
fusion of the historian and sociologist. Specifically, he believed that by studying society as a
system of interrelated institutions, "we shall be close to the systematic scientific history some of
us...have looked forward to."39 In fact he compared the new social history to archaeology and
more traditional types of history and contended that the distribution of custom was as good a
basis for historical scholarship as was the distribution of broaches and burials.40 Within this
article he also expanded upon his view of custom, and the role it played in regulating the
relationship between the village and the lord. Homans suggested that the manorial system was
not a new system imposed upon the villagers by the lord. Rather, he believed there was little
disconnect between the bonds of the village community and those of the manor. He noted the
fact that the administration of the manor and its lands was heavily reliant upon the members of
the village community. For him the manorial lord was simply a new type of village chief, and he
agreed with the French historian Marc Bloch' s view that the role of the manorial lord was "less
that of a modern landlord that that of first citizen of the commune."41
38 Homans, English Villagers, pp. 323-346.
39 George Homans, "The Rural Sociology of Medieval England," Past and Present 4 (1953): 33
40 Homans, "Rural Sociology," 36.
41 Homans, "Rural Sociology," 41.
Taking his cue from Homans, Warren Ault focused exclusively on the collective actions of
the village community, as embodied in the creation of bylaws. For Ault the medieval village was
a unit of agriculture, a self-sufficient community. Ault believed that simply because of the
practical requirements of medieval agricultural methods no man could work his field by himself.
Bylaws, he argued, allowed the villagers "to regulate their agricultural way of life and to devise
ways of policing those engaged in it."42 Such laws did not come from the manor court, but were
created and enforced by the village community. He pointed out that the maj ority of bylaws used
phrases that alluded to their communal creation, such as "it is ordered by consent of all tenants"
or "(by common consent."43
In an article published in 1954, Ault stressed the importance of bylaws in any attempt to
understand the village community. He believed that it was through the analysis of bylaws that
one could study the village community outside of the framework of the manorial system. The
earliest bylaws dealt with agricultural practices, and initially they concentrated on problems of
the harvest. These earliest bylaws were apparently enacted to make sure that all in the village
who could work did and for a reasonable price.44 Eventually, the focus of bylaws changed and
the maj ority began to deal almost exclusively with rights of the common and pasture. Looking at
the development of bylaws Ault argued that more exist in the fourteenth and fifteenth century
than in the thirteenth. This he attributed to the fact that when the lord broke up his demesne and
42 Warren Ault, The Self~n .... r, ;S Activities of Village Communities in Medieval England (Boston: Boston
University Press, 1952), p. 8.
43 Ault, The SelfD,,...re is Activities, p. 11.
44 Warren Ault, "Village By-Laws By Conunon Consent," Speculum 29 (1954): 378.
began to farm it out, the village became more self-governing due to a "loosening of seigneurial
Examining the role of bylaws in the relationship between the manor lord and village, Ault
also believed that the lord was simply the leading member of the community. As a member of
the community, the bylaws were in his interest as well; his interests were not paramount to the
interests of the community. Therefore, Ault suggested that bylaws were not services the manor
exacted from its tenants. Rather, Ault conceived of them as legislation in the common interest.46
Arising as they did from village custom, bylaws were not easily ignored. Even the lord did not
often overrule village custom. As evidence of their importance, Ault pointed to a number of
court cases in manorial documents wherein the lord's desire was overruled in the face of custom.
Even more amazingly, Ault discussed cases wherein the court treated the lord as if he was one of
his own tenants, a member of the village community. Analyzing the phrase "by common
consent", Ault acknowledged that in medieval society not all heads were counted the same, and
that the lord' s wishes held more weight in the decision making process. Yet, he concluded that
"common consent" still referred to all "shareholders in the agrarian enterprise be their status free
or servile, and whether they be landlord or tenant."47
By the 1950 's there was a growing public and scholarly interest in all things peasant and
rural. I. Chivas published his work, which consisted of an overview of work on rural
communities, through the UN publishing house. Rural Communities was envisioned as a tool for
methodological guidance. Chivas defined the rural community "as a small social unit, living in a
given area and drawing its livelihood from the working of the territory in a more or less enclosed
45Ault, "Village By-Laws," 380.
46 Ault, "Village By-Laws," 384.
47Ault, "Village By-Laws," 394.
economy ."48 Describing the history of the subj ect, he noted that although initially studied by
Europeans in order to deduce the nature and origin of property, the emphasis had now shifted
from the juridical obj ects of ownership to the social unit owning the land. This shift had
furthermore led to an emphasis on "analyses of structure and functions" and to attempts at
establishing "typological classifications."49 Discussing communal organization within the rural
community, Chivas suggested that the level of communal organization of territorial property and
economic activities within the community corresponded to the communities' degree of
structuration. For Chivas the "technique of organizing the land belonging to rural communities is
essentially a social one," so much so that Chivas spoke of "a spatial proj section of society."so He
also noted that the rural community was not just a physical community but an economic and civil
community. Peasant law, Chivas believed, was based on a concept of community. Therefore the
rights and duties of the individual were also based on membership in that community. He
concluded that as the individual replaced communal organization within the economy, all the
various communal aspects of society declined."
Approaching peasant society from the perspective of an anthropologist, Robert Redfield
attempted to define peasant culture as something different from the rest of civilization. To him
the main characteristic of the peasantry was the fact that agriculture was a way of life, "not a
business for profit."52 Redfield also believed the peasantry to be the rural dimension of old
48I. Chivas, Rural Coiniunities: Problems, Methods and Types ofResearch (Paris: UNESCO Publications, 1958),
49 Chivas, Rural Conununities, p. 8.
"0 Chivas, Rural Conununities, pp. 12-13.
51 Chivas, Rural Conununities, pp. 21-24.
52Robert Redfield, Peasant Society and Culture: 4n~inite...' i J.'-ge.Alpproach to Civilization (Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 1956), p. 27.
civilizations. Understanding kinship and family ties were key to understanding that dimension. In
fact, Redfield argued that peasant societies could only be understood in terms of their connection
to larger cultural influences coming from the elite. He emphasized that peasant culture should be
thought of "as a small circle overlapping with much larger and less clearly defined areas of
culture".53 What is interesting to note is that many of the new generation of scholars who came
to the study of the village community in the last decades of the twentieth century, would take up
this approach, and would argue for studies which emphasized regional networks and the villages'
connections with the outside world. Much of their work would consist of analyzing the local and
supra-local networks, both economic and social, which the peasant interacted with and within.
53Redfield, Peasant Society, pp. 66-69.
THE VILLAGE COMMUNITY AS AN ECONOMIC ENTITY
One very significant trend in the study of the village community throughout the twentieth
century was the development of models, which could be applied to the study of the community's
economic networks and relationships. A key point which many scholars explored is the
distinction between legal status and economic or social status in the village. One could legally be
either a serf or villein and still belong to a variety of economic and social groups. Robert Hoyt
discussed the status of the peasantry as determined primarily by two facts. Peasant status he
contended, was a factor of both the land, stocks at their disposal and the rights and duties
enjoyed by or denied to them. Hoyt began by contrasting two models of communal, self-
governing activity. In one the community of the vill was a voluntary community of neighbors.
The other the farm of the manor, was a type of communalism imposed upon the peasantry by
financial obligations owed to the lord.54 Although one might leap to the conclusion that villagers
were "self-governing" because of their farming activities he cautioned, that the nature and
significance of this farming activity had not yet been thoroughly explored. 5
Hoyt began by reviewing evidence from the Domesday Book as he hoped to discover
evidence for the farming of the manor by groups of peasants. He noted that in the few cases
where there is evidence for a community of the vill or manor arising from voluntary economic
activity, the community is not an egalitarian union of all peasants. In these cases, where there is
at least some communal activity being undertaken by an organized peasantry, it is being carried
out by the "peasant aristocracy"56 Drawing on the Domesday evidence Hoyt contended that "the
54 Robert Hoyt, "Farm of the Manor and Community of the Vill in Domesday Book," Speculum 30 (1955): 148.
55 Hort, "Farm of the Manor," 150.
56 Hort, "Farm of the Manor," 165.
vill as a unit of economic purposes is revealed by Domesday only under two circumstances;
when the manor and vill coincide, and when the right to meadow or pasture of a vill is called into
question." Yet, he also acknowledged that this was a misleading low result, for the Domesday
Book was not primarily concerned with either manorial values or economic organization.
Hoyt proposed that we distinguish between two types of communalism. The first, which he
defined as economic communalism, was the result of the peasants' willingness to assume a
common financial responsibility and was found primarily in the more heavily manorialized south
of England. The second form of communalism was agricultural, and was the result of the need
for cooperation, which arose from the open-field system and accompanying agrarian
techniques." Hoyt concluded it was only in northern and eastern Anglia where the manorial
system was less developed, that both types of communalism existed. He suggested that due to the
scattered nature of settlement in those regions, the vill was the "essential form of rural
organization". Yet, he cautioned that in such instances the vill or community of peasants was a
juridical not an economic community and therefore did not farm its manor. 5
Reginald Lennard was one of the first scholars to emphasize the economic differentiation
of the peasantry. In the preface to his book Rural Englan2d 1086-1135, he wrote that one of the
most surprising things he learned from his research was the amount of economic differentiation
that existed within the peasantry.59 He believed that the basic unit of rural life was the village
community, and that the average Englishman did not live an isolated individualistic life.
57 Hort, "Farm of the Manor," 168.
58 Hort, "Farm of the Manor," 169.
59 Reginald Lennard, Rural England 1086-1135: 4 Study of Social and agrarian Conditions (Oxford: Clarendon
Press, 1959), p. v.
Examining the evidence from the Domesday Book, for the practice of leaseholds and the
farming out of the manor, Lennard agreed with Hoyt' s assertions. Lennard noted that it was
generally impossible to know whether one "ought to think of a small manor held at farm by a
village community or only of a few peasants paying a rent individually for their holdings."60
Lennard believed that by this period money rents had become fairly common and the economy
had also become basically monetary. Discussing the various types of leaseholders he was clear to
distinguish the farmer from the peasant. The farmer may have controlled the agricultural services
of the peasantry and even held the right to sublet portions of the demesne, yet he did not
"become the substitute of the lord in all respects."61 Ultimately the lords' will was still dominant
in the affairs of the manor.62 Turning his discussion towards the peasant and their obligations,
Lennard noted that the village was the prevalent form of social organization.
Lennard pointed out that within the manorial documents, two discrepant criteria were used
to classify the rustic population, namely legal and economic status. Yet, in spite of the variety of
economic and social groups Lennard argued "Peasants of various classes or groups of peasants of
the same class with holdings of different sizes" can be found together in almost every vill in the
country.63 Finally, with regards to the overall position of the peasant population he doubted any
basic disposition towards revolting against their lord. As a population, the peasantry was too
legally and socially diverse, to have any sort of class-consciousness. In fact he suggested that if
60 Lennard, Rural England, p. 154.
61 Lennard, Rural England, pp. 198-199.
62 Lennard, Rural England, pp. 105-110.
63 Lennard, Rural England, pp. 330-334.
anything, the peasantry was more animated by envious feelings or anger, "against their richer
neighbor or the encroachments of the next village on his land."64
64 Lennard, Rural England, pp. 387-390.
MARXIST SCHOLARS AND PEASANT ECONOMY
Soviet research into peasant society and especially on the peasantry as an economic unit
and force was very important in the second half of the twentieth century. The work of men like
E. Kosminsky was widely influential especially for a younger generation of English economic
and social historians, including M. Postan. Yet, even before Kosminsky's work was published in
the 1970's, a Soviet economist named Anatoli Chayanov had released two treatises in which he
advanced new models for studying peasant economies. In his review of Chayanov' s theories
Peter Gatrell explained that although Chayanov's main work was known to specialists when it
was first published, it was only after his work was circulated in English in the 1960's that his
models became extremely influential
A. Chayanovs' two principal treatises were; On The Theory ofNon-Capitalist Economic
Systems published in 1924 and Peasa~nt FarmFFFFF~~~~~~~FFFFFF Organi~zation published in 1925, both of which
were republished in a new volume entitled A. y. Chayanov On the Theory ofPeasa~nt Economy
by David Thorner. Although Chayanov based his models on research collected in Soviet Russia,
he believed that they described the true nature of any peasant economy, whether in Tsarist Russia
or medieval Western Europe. To begin with, Chayanov conceived of the peasant family farm as
the basic, non-wage, familial economic unit of agrarian production.66 More importantly, he
proposed that the peasant family farm as an economic unit constantly strove to maintain
equilibrium between family demand satisfaction and the drudgery of labor itself, when making
decisions regarding their level of self-exploitation. Comparing the economic flexibility of the
65 Peter Gatrell, "Historians and Peasants: Studies of Medieval English Society in a Russian Context," Past and
Present 96 (1982): 44.
66 A. Chayanov, "On the Theory of Non-capitalist Economic Systems," A. K Chayanov On the Theory of Peasant
Economy, ed. A. V. Chayanov (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986), pp. 1-2.
feudal lord to that of the peasant family, Chayanov concluded that the family farm was better
able to adapt to market conditions because the lord faced significant barriers with regards to
In Peasant FarmFFFFF~~~~~~~FFFFFF Organi~zation, Chayanov began by emphasizing the fact that the peasant
family farm would never hire wage labor. He noted that he was not describing a theory of
peasant agricultural production; rather he was outlining the basis of peasant family labor, which
was one of the factors, which influenced the organization of peasant agricultural conditions.
Next, Chayanov expounded upon the model of peasant labor equilibrium, he had proposed a few
years earlier. He believed that due to their desire to maintain the labor equilibrium the members
of the peasant family farm actually had substantial amounts of unutilizedd time."68 Moreover,
Chayanov argued that on a peasant family farm the labor is Eixed, because it is connected to
family size. Therefore, peasant farms are naturally structured to conform to the optimal degree of
self-exploitation. Chayanov's basic point was, that since the peasant placed great importance on
certain non-economic factors, they often engaged in inefficient economic activity. The peasant
family farm could thus in certain instances, continue to operate as a unit and support the peasant
family, in situations that would be untenable for a capitalist farm.
The next Soviet scholar to have a serious impact on the study of peasant society was E.
Kosminsky. As Peter Gatrell explained, "The appearance of Kosminksy's book on the English
village during the thirteenth century constituted something of a landmark."69 What was so
remarkable about Kosminky' s book Studies in the Agrarian2 History ofEnglan2d in the Thrii ideathrl
67 Chayanov, "On the Theory of Non-Capitalist," p. 21.
68 A. Chayanov, "Peasant Farm Organization," 4. E Chavanov On the Theory of Peasant Economy, ed. A. V.
Charanor (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986), p. 75.
69 Gatrell, "Russian Studies of Medieval English Society," 40.
Century, was that he drew on new sources such as the Hundred Rolls and used the evidence he
collected therein to point to clear signs of stratification in medieval peasant society. Kosminsky
accepted that such stratifieation was not a new phenomenon in the thirteenth century, though he
believed that during this period that stratifieation became greatly accelerated due to the growing
monetization of the economy
Early in his book Kosminsky acknowledged that he had written the book on the basis of
the Marxist-Leninist method. Even the editor Rodney Hilton, noted that Kosminsky had laid
great stress on the human factors role in history "in the sense of the more or less conscious
pursuit of social aims by the principal contending classes."70 Yet, this was not a case of
mechanically applied Marxism.n Kosminsky began by laying out a few key points with regards
to his main body of evidence, the Hundred Rolls. First, he noted that the rolls were only meant to
provide descriptions of estates in terms of arable land. There is in them no mention of the
common lands of the village community. Kosminsky also accepted that the rolls were not
representative of the conditions in all of England, for they provide evidence only for the most
fertile, most commercially productive lands. The rolls therefore, represent only the Hields of
He pointed out that there was little evidence in the rolls for the communal organization of
the village and the manorial system, which was described, had been superimposed upon the
village community. Therefore, he contended the two systems of economic organization were far
from coterminous.72 The basic unit of agricultural production was the village, not the manor and
70 E. Kosm11insky, Studies in the Agrarian History of England in the Thirteenth Century, Studies in Medieval History,
vol. VIII. ed. R. Hilton (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1956), p. xxi.
71 Gatrell, "Russian Studies of Medieval English Society," 40.
72 Kosm1insky, Studies in the Agrarian History, pp. 69-74.
he believed that only within champion England did large, classical manors dominate the
countryside. In fact Kosminsky stated, "The organization of the large manor is characteristic of
the large scale feudal landed property, which played the leading role in thirteenth century
English society and government."73 For Kosminsky the fundamental factor for determining the
structure of the manor was the form of exploitation and appropriation to which the peasant was
subj ected. In other words, what was the predominant form of rent?
Based on a close examination of the evidence from the rolls, Kosminsky argued that by the
thirteenth century money rent predominated. Although, there was clear economic stratification
with the peasant population, he still believed that the medieval peasantry was characterized by
"the anti-feudal direction of its interests and its class struggles."74 What was the root cause of the
growing stratification within the village? Kosminsky made a clear connection between this
process and the increasing contact and interaction of the peasant economy with the market. The
growth of this connection was especially true in those parts of England where freeholders
predominated. In these areas, where money rent also predominated, this weakening of customary
links to the lord increasingly led to a small section of freeholders coming close to the position of
small landowners. This small section of freeholders could thus speak of personal property and
many of them came to hold small manors. Kosminky argued that it was this group of peasants
who required cheap, hired labor, which became the actors in a new mode of production. This
new mode of production was in essence an embryonic form of the capitalist mode of
73Kosminsky, Studies in the Agrarian History, p. 130.
74 Kosm1insky, Studies in the Agrarian History, p. 198.
75Kosm1insky, Studies in the Agrarian History, p. 258.
Finally, Kosminsky returned to his description of the manorial system. Again he
emphasized the pre-manorial existence of the village community; indeed he felt that the manor in
fact strengthened the organization of the village community. Upon examining the economic
requirements of the manorial system Kosminsky concluded, "Villein services, then, were
inadequate for the demesne economy."76 He proposed that the deficit was filled through the use
of hired laborers who came from the ranks of the peasantry, for much of the population could not
support themselves off their own land and thus relied on those wages for subsistence." In his
Einal chapter Kosminsky explained why this topic was important from a Marxist perspective. It
was because England was the first country to carry through a bourgeois revolution. It was in
England that men first came to rely on wages earned as laborers as a result of the increasing
stratifieation within peasant society. Moreover, it was due to this increased stratifieation and
their increasingly tenuous economic and legal position after the thirteenth century that peasants
eventually revolted in 1381. Indeed for Kosminsky in spite of the differentiation, which existed
within peasant society the peasantry was still a single class, one that acted together for the
common good, in a "single anti-feudal movement."
However, scholars influenced by Marxist theory did not focus only on the economic
aspects of medieval rural life. Indeed scholars such as the anthropologist Eric Wolf took as a
starting point Redfield's assertion that the peasantry be viewed not as an autonomous unit but
instead, as a small circle overlapping with a much larger and less clearly defined areas of culture.
76 Kosm1insky, Studies in the Agrarian History, p. 290.
77Kosm1insky, Studies in the Agrarian History, pp. 294-296.
78Kosm1insky, Studies in the Agrarian History, pp. 358-359.
Therefore, Wolf emphasized that the peasantry always exists within a larger system.79 Basing his
work on field research conducted in modern times Wolf focused on the networks, which connect
the peasantry to the larger world. He began by defining the peasantry as rural cultivators whose
surpluses are transferred to a dominant group or class. He then wrote, "peasant needs...will often
conflict with the requirements imposed by the outsider."so He believed that Chaynov's theory on
the peasant economy was critical to understanding the peasantry because the constant search for
labor equilibrium was the result of the need to balance the demands of the external world with
the peasantries own needs.8
Wolf particularly focused on outlining the variety of exchange relationships, which existed
within the peasantry as well as those, which connected them to the larger outside world. These
included local and regional market networks with both horizontal ties within the peasant
community and vertical ties between the peasantry and the non-rural (urban) regions. He
believed that because of this variety of ties the peasantry was often stratified and did not take one
form. He argued that there were generally different grades and levels of cultivators as was the
case in medieval Europe.82 With regards to organization of the peasant community he believed
that there was more than one possible axis of organization. The community could be organized
as a corporate entity or horizontally with single strands of association. Moreover, Wolf argued
that the more the community was organized along corporate lines the less flexible it was with
regards to change.83 He concluded with a discussion of contemporary peasant movements around
79 Eric Wolf Peasants, Series on Modem Anthropology, vol. XII. ed. Marshall Sahlins (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice
Hall, 1966), p. 8.
so Wolf Peasants, p. 13.
81Wolf Peasants, pp. 14-15.
82Wolf Peasants, p. 49.
83Wolf Peasants, p. 93.
the world in places like Vietnam, China, and in South and Central America. Here he noted,
"Peasant movements like peasant coalitions are unstable and shifting alignments of antagonistic
and autonomous units, borne along by a millennial dream." He believed it was due to this
inherent weakness of the peasantry that the Communist party was needed. Only the Communist
party organization he suggested was able to provide "the staff of professional revolutionaries
whose entire function is to provide the long range strategy of which the peasantry itself is
84 Wolf, Peasants, pp. 108-109.
ECONOMIC HISTORIANS OF THE WEST
Following the in the footsteps of Chayanov and Kosminsky, many scholars began to focus
on problems of the manorial economy and peasant society. Although, many of these scholars did
not share the Soviet authors' taste for Marxist economic theory they continued to rely on and
make reference to the works of the Soviet authors. Early on in his book Essays on M~edieval
Agriculture, M. Postan described society of the later Middle Ages as one where agriculture
predominated and wherein the population consisted primarily of peasants. s5 He also laid out a
fairly progressive view of history. Discussing long-term trends in the economic history of
Western Europe, Postan argued that when viewed over time there has been a general trend
towards economic growth. Distinguishing between the rise of money and the rise of a money
economy, Postan noted that money had always played a variegated role in the economy of
medieval Europe. However, he believed that it was only in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries
with the growth of money rents and markets that one finds the growth of a monetary economy
throughout Europe. Postan contended that it was "out of this breeding ground" that English
One interesting piece of evidence used by Postan was a charter, the Calrte Nativorum.
What was so unusual about this charter was that the parties mentioned in it are of peasant status,
and range from villein to freemen. Postan believed that although this document discussed land
transfers and sales among the peasant population, one should be careful not to date the document
with the subj ect. s7 He argued that the economic and social relations of the village would not have
85 M. Postan, Essays on Medieval Agriculture and General Problems of the Medieval Economy (Cambrid ge:
Cambridge University Press, 1973), p. 12.
86 Postan, Essays on Medieval Agriculture, p. 47.
87Postan, Essays on M~edieval Agriculture, pp. 110-111.
changed so quickly. Therefore, he dated the beginnings of a land market to sometime prior to the
twelfth century. He suggested that the Carte Nativorum was simply evidence of a new attitude on
the part of the landlord, who was legitimating previously undated and unlicensed transactions
through the granting of the cartulary.s
Finally, with regards to the village community Postan accepted the reality of economic
stratifieation as proposed by Kosminky. Yet, he cautioned against applying the term class to all
these various groups. He believed that it was dangerous to speak of the rise of a middle or even
middling class in the medieval period. Rather, he claimed that peasant society was a single class,
forming "a common universe of social discourse."89 Because the peasantry was differentiated
primarily along economic lines, one could Eind villeins at the highest layer of the village; or
freemen at the lowest layer.
Like Postan, Edward Miller and John Hatcher considered expansion the dominant theme of
the economic history of England in the late Middle Ages. However, they felt that the whole
community did not benefit from this expansion. They contended that prior to the eighteenth
century; high population levels made low standard of living the reality for much of the
population. In their book M~edieval England: Rural Society and Economic Change 1086-1348,
they defined the manor "as a block of landed property managed as a single unit from a particular
structure", and agreed with Kosminsky that the manorial system of organization had been
superimposed upon the village community.90 Miller and Hatcher also believed that because the
88Postan, Evsays on Adedieval agriculture, p. 131.
89 Postan, Evsays on Adedieval agriculture, p. 279-280.
90 Edward Miller and John Hatcher, Adedieval England: Rural Society and Economic C 1,,;..-, 1086-1348 (London:
Longman, 1978), pp. 19-20.
peasant community was both a community of tenants and small-scale producers, it was not a
community of equals.
In Miller and Hatcher' s view, the basic framework of the medieval economy set natural
limits on how far the economy could grow and eventually as the population increased, more and
more of the peasantry were forced into becoming what amounted to a "rural proletariat". They
were essentially compelled into wage labor in order to sustain themselves.91 The result of all this
combined with significant population growth was that by the late Middle Ages a progressively
larger proportion of villagers had been pushed to the margins of subsistence, or even below.
Examining the obligations and relationships of the village community, Miller and Hatcher
argued that there existed much evidence for the communal nature of the peasant community. To
begin with they pointed out the cooperative nature of medieval agricultural methods and
emphasized that in the face of a growing population, the villagers' control of the commons
became especially important. Moreover, membership in the community was especially
significant because it gave one use rights over the commons, something denied to those from
outside the community.92 They believed that the community could also act collectively in non-
agricultural matters. Villagers could band together to endow or found a church and they often
had communal obligations to their parish. In fact, Miller and Hatcher stressed that the Church
generally played a key role in defining and re-enforcing bonds of community throughout the
year. Chiefly this was by serving as the spiritual and material center of the village, on festival
and saints' days.
91 Miller, Medieval England, p. 49.
92 Miller, Medieval England, pp. 98-101.
As a number of the works above have indicated, many economists who studied the
medieval period pointed out the role played by the land market in the economic development of
Western Europe. James Masschaele took a slightly different but complementary approach and
instead examined Peasa~nts, Merchants, and2arkets. With this book Masschaele hoped to
explain how English economic life had become substantially more sophisticated in the fourteenth
century when compared to the twelfth. One example of this sophistication was the fact that by
the fourteenth century, "virtually all peasants paid at least some of their rent in money".93 In his
book, Masschaele examined medieval commercialization, but with special attention given to the
connection between urban and rural markets and economies. With regards to the rural producers
of the commodity goods, he argued that the peasants were the primary producers; in his model
the lords took a back seat to their tenants.94
Examining economic data from the records of Ipswich, Shrewsbury and Colchester,
Masschaele concluded that there was a critical symbiosis between the town and country. Not
only did the basic subsistence commodities of towns, such as grains and meats etc originate in
the countryside but also the basic commodities required for the maj or medieval urban industries,
such as wool and hides. Although, some scholars have acknowledged the importance of rural
commodities to the town, he noted that they generally chalked it up to necessity. However,
Masschaele claimed that this was a false assumption based upon their use of the model of labor
equilibrium proposed by Chayanov. He proposed a new model for peasant production; namely
simple commodity production, because unlike Chayanov he viewed peasants as economic
93 JalleS Masschaele, Peasants, M~erchants, and Markets: Inland Trade in M~edieval England 1150-1350 (New York:
St. Martins Press, 1997), p. 2.
94 Masschaele, Peasants, M~erchants, and Markets, p. 7.
maximizers not simply economic satisfiers.95 He contended that production, at least on a small
scale was an intrinsic part of peasant production. In fact, he noted that the production of cereals
and wool were mainstays of the peasant economy.
In order to better understand peasant wealth and economic activity Masschaele drew on
two unique sources of information. First, he analyzed royal purveyance records drawn up during
wartime. His analysis of these records led him to conclude that particularity with regards to
foodstuffs, "peasants bore the brunt of most purveyance campaigns."96 Relying on this data as
well as data drawn from Kosminsky's book, Masschaele concluded that the maj ority of wealth in
medieval England belonged to the peasants.97 Additionally, he claimed that it was problematic to
view the manor as primarily market oriented. Next, Masschaele looked at guild records from the
three towns and arrived at the stunning conclusion. Namely that as early as the thirteenth century
there were members of the village community making regular trips to the towns to sell their
goods. He was able to pick out these men, because their foreignness (in relation to the residents
of the town) was mentioned in the guild records. These men were noted in the guilds because
they had been given the right to conduct business within the town walls.98 Masschaele
concluded, it was the peasant producers and merchants who turned "dirt paths and winding rivers
into commercial thoroughfares...the lords simply knew how to ride coattails."99
95 Masschaele, Peasants, Merchants, and Markets, pp. 33-34.
96 Masschaele, Peasants, Merchants, and Markets, p. 37.
97 Masschaele, Peasants, Merchants, and Markets, pp. 47-50.
98 Masschaele, Peasants, Merchants, and Markets, pp. 156-161.
99 Masschaele, Peasants, Merchants, and Markets, p. 230.
VILLAGE SETTLEMENT: PHYSICAL LAYOUT AND ORGANIZATION
One discipline within the social sciences, which achieved a huge boost in England
following the end of World War II, was archaeology. There were a number of factors responsible
for this including; the development of a number of new techniques and methodologies, as well
the socio-political climate of post-WWII England. In the area of urban archaeology, post-war
rebuilding booms resulted in a number of fairly large scale and long-term urban excavations such
as those in the Cheapside neighborhood of London, and the still ongoing excavation of medieval
and Viking Age York. However, it was the developments, which occurred in the archaeology of
rural settlements that I will focus on for the purposes of this paper. Much of these developments
centered on the work of Maurice Beresford and John Hurst who excavated numerous deserted
medieval villages. The work of this generation of archaeologists was greatly aided by the
application of new technologies and methods, especially aerial photography and whole site
excavation. In fact, the first whole site excavation within England occurred at the famous
deserted village of Wharram Percy. Additionally, much of the archaeological work, which came
out in this period, was influenced by the multi-and inter-disciplinary approach that Hurst and
Maurice Beresford's The Lost Villages ofEnglan2d has long since become the classic
treatise about English deserted medieval villages. Yet, in reality although the book provided a
brief sketch of the medieval village, as it existed in the Middle Ages, Beresford was primarily
concerned with two tasks. The first was to provide a list of and description for the phenomenon
known as deserted villages. His second task and the one, which took up most of his book was to
analyze the factors, which led to the creation of the deserted villages. He also hoped to uncover
the contemporary knowledge or lack thereof with regards to this phenomenon. This portion of
his book provides more of a window into the political and legal activity of Tudor and
Elizabethan England however, as opposed to an analysis of the medieval village community.
Beresford noted early on, that the maj ority of the deserted villages are found in highly
fertile, highly cultivated champion England. He declared, "Every village represented a
community organized for work". 100 Although only preliminary evidenced had been collected, he
also noted that the evidence suggested that each settlement site actually consisted of multiple
phases of planning and habitation. With regards to the impetus behind the desertions, Beresford
clearly laid the blame at the feet of the lord. He noted that even in the seventeenth, eighteenth,
and nineteenth centuries long after the medieval desertions, it was understood that desertion was
due to lords converting land from corn to grass because the raising of sheep paid better. 101
Beresford noted the depopulating effects of the Black Death and acknowledged that post-plague,
some villagers might have left voluntarily. Yet, he concluded that by the fifteenth century the
maj ority of the depopulations were not voluntary, at least not according to contemporary
opponents of the depopulation. 102
While Beresford was trained as an economic historian, Hurst was the archaeologist. In his
article entitled "The Changing Medieval Village in England", he claimed that village plans had
not remained stable through Anglo-Saxon and medieval times. Not only did housing designs
change over the centuries, but settlement layout and plans also changed over the generations. He
further stated, that not only was the peasant house rebuilt a least once a generation but that when
'00 Maurice Beresford, The Lost Villages of England (New York: Philosophical Library, 1954), pp. 41-41.
10' Beresford, The Lost Villages, p. 178.
102 John Hurst, "The Changing Medieval Village in England," Men, Settlement and Urbanisin, ed. Peter Ucko, Ruth
Tringham and G. Dinbley (Gloucester: Duckworth, 1972), p. 531.
rebuilt, it was often done on new foundations and along new village axeS. 103 He also pointed out,
that many times manorial building can be found to be resting on top of earlier peasant houses.
Hurst concluded, "The medieval village was not planned only once...settlement organization and
Archaeology was not the only discipline to turn its attention to the physical organization of
the peasant community. Brian Roberts set out to explore the rural roots and settlement patterns of
Britain with his book, Studies in Historical Geography. He stated that the history of rural
settlement could be seen in one of two ways, as characterized by a state of continuous change or
by periods of rapid innovation separated by phases of relative stability. 1os
Based on evidence from the Domesday Book, Roberts divided the peasantry into three
groups, dependent on the amount of land they farmed, With regards to the actual location of the
village site he pointed out, that continuity of settlement did not mean continuity of site. The
peasant community was the original, basic unit of social organization, and therefore he claimed
that the parish and the estate or manor was superimposed upon this most basic unit of
agricultural production at a later date. 106 Next, he outlined the three forms of evidence for village
settlements; archival, archaeological, and morphological. After reviewing the variety of village
plans and layouts, Roberts cautioned his reader, to remember that village plans were always
changing. Indeed, he concluded, "Movement may be as much a characteristic of 'permanent'
settlement as change."io7
103 Hurst, "The Changing Medieval Village," p. 533.
104 Hurst, "The Changing Medieval Village," p. 540.
'os Brian Roberts, Studies in Historical Geography: Rural Settlements in Britain (Kent: Dawson, 1977), p. 23.
106 Roberts, Studies in Historical Geography, p. 89.
107 Roberts, Studies in Historical Geography, p. 138.
Like Hurst and Beresford, Christopher Taylor also approached the study of rural society
from the perspective of the villages' physical layout. For Taylor there was little continuity
between the morphology and position of medieval villages and those of the Saxon period. 10s In
the eleventh century England was not a land of nucleated villages, though he noted that nucleated
villages predominated in champion England by at least the thirteenth century. A number of
features were typical of a nucleated village, but usually they included a planned village layout
with houses on either side of the street, a centrally located parish church. The neighboring fields
were typically organized according to the open-field method of organization. In spite of its
planned nature the nucleated village was often transitory and would often last for less than a few
generations. Therefore, Taylor concluded that patterns of medieval settlement were far more
complex than previously believed. 109
10s Christopher Taylor, Village and Farinstead: a History ofRural Settlement in England (London: George Philip,
1983), pp. 122-124.
109 Taylor, Village and Farinstead, p. 200.
A SOCIAL CONSTRUCT
Out of all the conceptual approaches applied to the study of medieval peasant society, the
one most favored by modern scholar, was one, wherein peasant society was defined by the social
and juridical interactions of its community. Much of the early work in this vein can be divided
into two groups; those authors who believed the village community had existed but that the
communal bonds, which held it together, had died out after the plague, and those who believed
that the communal bonds remained strong even after the plague. The first group came out of the
Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies (PIMS) in Toronto and the second approach can be
associated with the English scholars Rodney Hilton and his student Christopher Dyer. Outside
England, PIMS at the University of Toronto was the main school for studying all things medieval
and rural during the last half of the twentieth century and under the leadership of J. Raftis
students such as Edward Britton were produced. These scholars from the Toronto School hoped
to make use of the vast amount of data on rural life, which they had gradually made available
through the translation and archiving of court rolls. They eventually came to believe that as a
result of the Black Death, rural society in England underwent a number of changes all of which
dramatically affected the cohesion and solidarity of the communal group.
Edward Britton studied at the PIMS and in his book The Community of the Vill he explored
family and community relationships in the medieval village. Britton started from F. Maitland's
remark, that "the Norman clerks responsible for the compilation of the Domesday Book tore the
villages of England into shreds and depicted the country as one consisting of manors."Ilo
Britton' s principal aim was to reconstruct life in the village of Broughton using data gleaned
110 E. Britton, The Community of the Vill; a Study in the family and village life in fourteenth-century England
(Toronto: MacMillan, 1977), p. 2.
from court rolls. After describing the various social and economic divisions evident within the
community, he noted, "although there was certainly inter-peasant cooperation in Broughton, such
cooperation was quite in keeping with the social and economic hierarchy of the village"'" He
went on to point out that the court rolls rarely describe someone in terms of social status,
especially in terms of free or un-free, rather they generally describes them as peasants or as
belonging to the community of the vill. 112
Britton argued that the court rolls indicate that there were two different but not always
separate levels of reality operating in Broughton; one was the manor, which was by and large a
legal and administrative entity and the other the village community, the social and economic
reality in which the villagers lived every day. The court rolls indicate that a very definite village
community lay beneath the manorial structures and Britton suggested that the place of the lord
and the manor must be viewed within this context. 113 He concluded his section on the village
community by stressing its importance. He wrote, "if the social historian is to fully appreciate the
life of the villager he must attempt to view the manorial system within its proper context, and
realize that within such a context the village community occupied a position of primacy."11
At the same time in England, scholars such as Rodney Hilton were contending that at its
most basic level, rural society functioned as a collective unit. For these scholars the question was
not whether the village community, organized around communal obligations had ever existed.
Rather, the question was if this communal based organization had ever disappeared? Perhaps the
greatest or at least the most influential of these authors was Rodney Hilton. His book Bond Men
III Britton, The Community of the Vill, p. 114.
112 Britton, The Community of the Vill, p. 167.
113 Britton, The Community of the Vill, p. 168.
114 Britton, The Community of the Vill, p. 178.
Made Free looked at medieval peasant movements, especially the uprising of 1381. Hilton
argued that already, in medieval times there existed social classes and he suggested that the
peasant movements of the Middle Ages were attempts by the peasant class to pursue their
economic interests. As one of his students Christopher Dyer pointed out in the introduction to the
new 2003 edition of Hilton' s work, this belief is a little outmoded. Dyer noted that this idea of a
unified peasant class does not hold up in light of new work, which shows that peasants were
much more closely integrated into medieval society. Yet, he noted that scholars had still not
come up with a satisfying alternative.""'
For Hilton a common feature of peasant life was the association of peasant families in
larger communities and he wrote that the "solidarity of peasant communities is a well known fact
of medieval social history, at any rate from the twelfth century onwards."11 This sense of
community showed itself especially in times of opposition to outsiders, invaders, or oppressors.
He followed the line of earlier scholars such as Ault and Coulton, who emphasized the
agricultural necessity of common action as the basis for any other communal solidarity. 11 Hilton
acknowledged that the community was stratified; it was not a community of equals. Furthermore,
he accepted that this stratification only increased with time. Yet, he contended that this
stratification could only go so far, it could not create a new class. While there may have been
rich and poor peasants they were still part of the same group. Besides rich and poor, peasant
society was also divided between those who were free and those who were still obliged to
perform labor services for the lord, those who were obliged to pay chevage, taille, and merchet.
To Hilton however, regardless of these various categories "what provided the best protection for
11' Christopher Dyer, "Introduction,' Bond Men Made Free, ed. Rodney Hilton (New York: Routledge, 2003), p. xv.
116 Rodney Hilton, Bond Men Made Free (New York: Routledge, 2003), pp. 28-29.
1'7 Hilton, Bond Men Made Free, pp. 29-31.
peasants, rich and poor, free or un-free, was the strength of common action in the local
communities. Il It was this common action, which served as the basis for peasant movements.
Hilton saw the demand by peasants for more freedom as one of the maj or factors behind
their communal organization. He looked specifically at the Italian and French rural communal
movements and claimed that the control of village commons provided an important early focus
for the development of self-administrations in northern Italy. Control of the commons was
however, only the first step towards a form of autonomy. Hilton believed that it was in the
eleventh and twelfth centuries that the village communal movement really began. 119 Hilton also
examined the peasant movement towards enfranchisement in England. The results in England
were not as successful as their continental counterparts though. Hilton wrote, "The nearest
approach by village communities to the continental achievement of a charter of enfranchisement
was the legal definition of fixed custom."120 He also examined village bylaws and discussed the
ways in which the creation of these laws resulted in a form of self-government. Hilton pointed to
the example of the village of Staines in Middlesex which in 1276 passed an ordinance against
strangers being brought into the glean. This ordinance was "passed by the community of the
whole village."12 Although Hilton discussed the village community and its communal
organization in terms of agricultural need along lines similar to W. Ault, he did not detail what
form the village community may have had prior to its attempts to gain independence. It is clear
from his work that there must have been some communal organization and action prior to their
attempts to gain freedom. Yet, the village does not really coalesce for him, into a community,
"8 Hilton, Bond Men Made Free, p. 61.
119 Hilton, Bond Men Made Free, pp. 76-77.
120 Hilton, Bond Men Made Free, p. 89.
121 Hilton, Bond Men Made Free, p. 90.
until its members set themselves in opposition to the lord. In Hilton's model, it was their
common actions towards this end, which shaped them into an independent entity, separate from
the lord and his manor.
The next author to examine the social organization of the village community was Richard
Smith. In his essay "Modernization and the Corporate medieval Village Community in England:
Some Skeptical Reflections" argued that the medieval village community did not split and
disintegrate during the late Middle Ages. The modern view, which he attributed to the work of
social historians, argues that market integration, regional specialization and other forces created
serious social differentiation and dislocation within the village community. 122 Smith looked at
the issue of juridical jurisdiction and the movement from away from local courts to county or
royal courts. He agreed that as the royal government instituted stronger local control the focus of
legal activities moved from the village community to county communities. 123 Smith did argue
however, that the change was one of intensity or degree rather than a maj or transformation of
social structures. He did not accept the incorporationist view, according to which, local
communities were eventually absorbed into wider political entities. 124 Rather, Smith proposed
that certain categories of business had simply moved from one court to the other.
Christopher Dyer was a student of Rodney Hilton, but unlike his teacher Dyer focused
more exclusively on the communal organization of the village. In his article "The English
Medieval Village Community and its Decline" Dyer examined two key aspects of the village
community. Dyer first wanted to define and locate the community's role in society and
'22 Richard Smith, "Modernization and the Corporate medieval Village Community in England: Some Skeptical
Reflections," Explorations in Historical Geography, ed. A. Baker and D. Gregory (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1984), p. 144.
123 Smith, "Modernization and the Corporate," p. 145.
124 Smith, "Modernization and the Corporate," p. 177.
government and secondly to establish whether or not the communal unity and activity of the
village ever deteriorated. 125 Dyer wrote that the structures and settlements were less important in
defining a village than the people, their land, and the requirements of the state. He also made a
clear distinction between the manor as an administrative unit and the village, which although it
was a part of the manor was a separate entity. 126 According to Dyer the basis for the village
community was the need to manage resources and control individual action for the common
He began by examining the various forms of self-administration and collective action that
the village community engaged in. Dyer first looked at attempts by peasants to gain formal
privileges both in England and on the Continent. He explained that while the English villages
were never granted the formal privileges of the continental communes they still had the ability to
hold property corporately. 127 Moreover, the community was required to act collectively in order
to fulfill various obligations to its lord and the state; such as collecting rents and tax quotas,
producing representatives to sit on inquests and payment of collective amercements. To Dyer,
"all the functions depended on the existence of machinery for choosing individuals to act on
behalf of the community, to make assessments of neighbors, and to cajole them into making
Financial contributions"128, and the fact that there are very few records of disputes over this sort
of collective action made him believe that it must have functioned smoothly.
'25 Christopher Dyer, "The English Medieval Village Conununity and its Decline," Journal of British Studies 33
126 Dyer, "The English Medieval Village," 408-409.
127 Dyer, "The English Medieval Village," 410.
12s Dyer, "The English Medieval Village," 412.
Involvement in the parish was another area in which Dyer believed evidence for the village
community's ability to act collectively could be found. The villager's obligations to the parish
were very similar to their obligations to the lord and the state. The community was required to
raise monies for the upkeep of the church and the purchasing of various necessary items such as
the vestments and books. Dyer believed that the proof of their ability to act collectively can thus
be seen in the numerous and splendid medieval church buildings and halls found throughout
England, as well as the lack of friction evident in the documentary evidence, or rather the lack
thereof. 129 To those who would argue that in these cases of self-administration the requirement
for village government may have been imposed upon the village community and thus cannot be
used as evidence of the community's communal action, Dyer answered that all one needs to do is
look back to earlier centuries. While such tasks as collecting subsidies and taxes may have
evolved quite late, the tasks of managing fields had a much longer history and although the
evidence for this is not conclusive, "it remains only a balance of probability that the self-
government of the village-initially mainly for agricultural reasons-preceded the use of that
organization by the lords and the king."130 Dyer also drew on the work of his mentor Rodney
Hilton adding one need only look at episodes of popular rebellion to find instances where
villages organized themselves on their own initiative for their own reasons. Dyer concluded; "the
village community had a real and practical existence. The village had its own internal hierarchy
and traditions of self-regulation." 131
Dyer believed that the notion of the village community's decline assumes that there was
some golden age before the rot began. Relationships in the village were never harmonious; there
129 Dyer, "The English Medieval Village," 413.
130 Dyer, "The English Medieval Village," 415.
131 Dyer, "The English Medieval Village," 416-418.
were always tensions between families or between the rich and poor, old and young. Dyer noted
that, "Such social variety warns us against emphasizing the egalitarianism of medieval rural
society but need not detract from us regarding villages as cohesive."132 Yet, in spite of this social
disparity the difference between peasants was not as great as that between peasants and their
lords, and opposition to their lords and to others who encroached on their land or their rights
served to unit the peasantry. Dyer believed however, that village communities were held together
not by some cooperative idealism, but simply by the need to survive in a harsh environment.
Dyer declared that the peasant elite played a key role in keeping the larger community together
and in defending the common good even if they did sometimes act in their own interest. 133
Examining the period after the plague in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Dyer
discovered that when the villagers suffered greatly under the strain of higher taxes, debt and
reduced agricultural productivity, they increased the number of community organizations and
strengthened the structures of formal government. 134 As a result, Dyer argued that in fact the
community did not decline, it became more active and was strengthened "there is no irony or
contradiction in this. The village community had never been a community of equals. Its
effectiveness in government had depended on hierarchy and the exercise of control. This was
enhanced, not diminished, by the social differentiation of the late Middle Ages."135
Z. Razi earned his Ph. D. working under the supervision of Rodney Hilton and along with
Hilton's other students such as Christopher Dyer he was interested in examining rural society.
However, Razi focused on the role of kinship and family ties within the community. In his article
132 Dyer, "The English Medieval Village," 419.
133 Dyer, "The English Medieval Village," 424.
134 Dyer, "The English Medieval Village," 428-429.
135 Dyer, "The English Medieval Village," 429.
"Family, Land, and the Village Community in Later Medieval England" he used evidence
garnered from the court rolls of Halesowen manor to examine whether the village' s communal
bonds were weakened in the period after the Black Death. Razi first outlined the two models of
peasant society that he was arguing against. One school, exemplified by the works of Alan
Macfarlane and Martin Pimsler, which I examine below, believed that the village community had
never been a close-knit communal entity. Rather, they believed that individualistic farmers had
populated medieval England. The second model, characterized by the work of scholars from the
Toronto school claimed that the communal ties which had held the community together
disappeared in the post-plague period, because the ties between families and their holdings had
Razi began by stating that the phrase tota communita~s villatae, which was used in the court
rolls to describe the people who resided in the twelve townships on the Halesowen manor, is a
sign that contemporaries viewed the community as a cohesive entity. The community's functions
included regulating the use of the open and common Hields and common use rights, sometimes
serving as a collective tenant, keeping the peace of the village, and the collection of various
community wide levies and taxes. 136 Razi constructed his argument for cohesive action along the
same lines as Dyer. He believed that in order to perform these various functions the village must
have had well-organized internal machinery for governing the community. Razi argued that for
the individual, the village community was the most important local organization, because in no
other period of English history were more disputes over property and rights resolved within and
by the local community. 137 He concluded that in the period before the plague, the village
136 Z. Razi, "Family, land, and the village community in later medieval England," Landlords, Peasants and Politics
in Medieval England (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 370-371.
137 Razi, "Family, land and the village community," p. 372.
community was characterized by a high degree of cohesiveness, cooperation and solidarity as
necessitated by the realities of agricultural life, that this solidarity was maintained by a highly
developed corporate organization and by the community's continual active resistance to its
Razi then turned to the period following the plague; a period, which he acknowledged, was
characterized by very different economic and demographic conditions. Using data from the court
rolls he argued that the village community during the years 1350-1430 continued to fulfill its
communal functions. The community continued to elect official, supervise the use of these
common lands, collect money for taxes and other collective payments to the lord and church and
work together to keep the communal peace. 139 Razi believed that this continued functioning of
the community's numerous institutions corresponded to the survival of the old cohesion and
solidarity. Despite the increased economic competition in the village the community's solidarity
and cohesion remained. He concluded, "Despite the growing polarization of village society its
cohesion and solidarity were maintained as a result of a rise in economic interdependence and
cooperation in the village after the plague and the intensification of the struggles against the
Besides the two groups discussed above there was another small group of scholars perhaps
the most famous of whom was Alan Macfarlane, author of 7hze Origins of English Individualism.
Macfarlane and other scholars such as Martin Pinlser believed that there had never been strong
communal bonds between villagers, and that medieval society had in fact been made up of
'3s Razi, "Family, land and the village conununity," p. 373.
139 Razi, "Family, land and the village conununity," p. 386-387.
140 Razi, "Family, land and the village community," p. 388.
In his article, "Solidarity in the Medieval Village? The Evidence of Personal Pledging at
Elton Huntingdonshire" Pimsler argued against W. Ault who saw in the communal bonds of the
medieval village the basis for a communal solidarity. Pimsler believed that although such
writings state or imply, the important truth that economic reality necessitated a degree of
cooperation among medieval peasants, they tend to offer little or no evidence to justify the
romantic notion that the medieval village possessed a spiritual cohesiveness, that it represented a
harmonious society with close emotional bonds between neighbors. 141 The aim of his article was
to question this standard assumption of village solidarity and to do so using the evidence on
pledging from court rolls for the village of Elton.
Pimsler began his argument by treating solidarity as if loyalty were an essential part of its
definition. The pledging that Pimsler examined was a practice by which medieval courts ensured
the appearance in court of those accused of a crime. Pimsler disagreed with E. DeWindt' s take
on personal pledging. In his 1972 book, DeWindt had used the large number of entries for
personal pledging in the period prior to the Black Death to argue that society was close-knit, and
had concluded that the decline in pledging entries after the Black Death showed a breakdown of
the social fabric of the community. 142 Pimsler agreed with DeWindt that most pledging occurred
not between family members but was in fact extra-familial. He pointed out however, that most of
the pledging was not reciprocal-wherein person A pledged for B and then person B pledged for
A. 143 The cornerstone of his argument was that almost all the people who pledged were officials
within the village and generally belonged to the wealthier segments of society. He argued that
'41 Martin Pimsler, "Solidarity in the Medieval Village? The Evidence from Personal Pledging at Elton
Huntingdonshire," Journal of British Studies 17 (1977): 1.
142 E. DeWindt, Land and People in Holleywel-c; ,I, ~.;... Jr e ig n ... th (Toronto: PIMS, 1972).
143 Pimsler, "Solidarity in the Medieval Village?," 6.
this clearly did not correspond to the picture painted by DeWindt. Pimsler claimed that if the
pledging was evidence for the spirit of cooperation as DeWindt suggested, "We might have
expected the Elton villagers to use each other, rather than officials such as the reeve and the ale-
taster." Furthermore, Pinlser contended that DeWindt' s hypothesis made it difficult to explain
why so little reciprocal pledging occurred. Indeed, if there were close ties among the various
members of the community, we should expect a great deal of reciprocal pledging."144
In the following year Alan Macfarlane released 7he Origins of English Individualism. In
this work he stated that he had become interested in the nature of the rural community when
studying the rise of witchcraft accusations in the sixteenth century. What str-uck him about the
evidence was that those making the accusations were not the nouveaux riches. Rather it was the
poorer villagers who were accusing the nouveaux riches. His basic argument was that when
looking at English parishes between the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries it was impossible to
use models of community based societies, such as those which have been generally applied. In
fact, he believed that "a central and basic feature of English social structure has for long been the
stress on the rights and privileges of the individual."145 Macfarlane believed that medieval rural
England was basically a peasant society, which he defined as one wherein the basic unit of
production was the small family farm. However, he noted that this was not a community in
which common ownership, even of family property, was the norm. 146 He suggested that the
historical model for Western Europe views history as a progression from small isolated
communities inhabited by peasants bound together by communal obligation, towards the market
144 Pimsler, "Solidarity in the Medieval Village?," 11.
145 Alan Macfarlane, The Origins of English Individualism: The Family, Property and Social Transformation (New
York: Cambridge University Press, 1978), p. 5.
146 Macfarlane, The Origins of English Individualism, p. 33.
driven, open social structure of the eighteenth century. Although, this is a convincing and
comforting story, which we may find hard to abandon, he argued that it was not an accurate
picture of medieval England. 147
Macfarlane began his examination of peasant social organization in the sixteenth century
and moved backwards from there to the thirteenth. For the sixteenth century he drew upon the
diary of the vicar of Earls Colne (who was also a farmer) as well as those of other farmers from a
range of economic strata for evidence. He claimed the diary made clear that in the sixteenth
century the basic unit of ownership was the individual. Neither ownership nor production was
based on the household unit. 148 The peasant village at this time was highly stratified and neither
production nor consumption was communally based. The community was highly mobile both
geographically and socially and Macfarlane argued that family size did not limit the holding size
because of easy and regular access to wage laborers. Looking back towards the thirteenth century
Macfarlane wrote that in principal, primogeniture and peasantry as a joint ownership unit were
opposed. How far back did primogeniture predominate as the main rule of inheritance? He
claimed that primogeniture and individual property were closely linked, and that primogeniture
was "firmly established in England by the thirteenth century" even amongst the lowest levels of
Turning his discussion to the period after the Black Death, Macfarlane emphasized the
emergence of a rural land market. He believed that given the strong link between land and family
group in a classical peasant society the emergence of the land market could not have occurred, if
the members of the village had a strong communal identity. Thus, he declared that peasant
147 Macfarlane, The Origins of English Individualism, p. 55.
148 Macfarlane, The Origins of English Individualism, p. 64.
149 Macfarlane, The Origins of English Individualism, p. 87-88.
society at least in the classical sense of the term did not exist after the Black Death. 1so Discussing
Razi's examinations of Halesowen manor, Macfarlane believed that Razi's description of a
society penetrated by cash, production for the market and the use of hired labor did not conform
to the classical model of peasant society. Moreover, he wished to deemphasize kinship's role in
the community. Looking through the court rolls and other documentary evidence led Macfarlane
to conclude that neither parents nor children could depend on the goodwill of the other in
contractual matters. In fact he claimed in this regard, "There was no enforceable customary
expectation."" For Macfarlane then, thirteenth century English rural society was not based
around the idea of community. Rather, it was a highly individualized and mobile society, in
which the "maj ority of ordinary people...from at least the thirteenth century were rampant
individualists, highly mobile both geographically and socially".152 He declared that scholars
must therefore abandon the long standing chronology of development as proposed by Maine and
Toinnies, though he cautioned that he did not want to suggest that England in the thirteenth
century was capitalistic. Indeed he drew a distinction between the spirit of capitalism and its
manifestation in the physical world. 153
'50 Macfarlane, The Origins of English Individualism, pp. 95-101.
'51 Macfarlane, The Origins of English Individualism, p. 143.
152 Macfarlane, The Origins of English Individualism, p. 163.
153 Macfarlane, The Origins of English Individualism, pp. 195-196.
NEW APPROACHES TO PEASANT SOCIETY
In the last two decades of the twentieth century a number of scholars began to try and
approach the study of peasant society by first redefining what community meant within the
context of medieval society. Authors, such as Anne DeWindt, Miri Rubin and others, began to
enlarge our understanding of the village community by examining the community's relationship
to other local or regional communities and they began to develop new conceptual approaches to
understanding the community and its function within rural society.
Anne DeWindt in her article "Redefining the Peasant Community in Medieval England; The
Regional Perspective" argued that "the village community must now give way to the larger
regional community"15 Peasant horizons were not limited to the boundaries of one parish or
village and historians must release peasants from the confines of a single community. 1 She used
evidence from the court rolls for Huntingdonshire to show how the various economic and familial
ties of individual peasants required regular involvement in the affairs of more than one village. 156
Marriage, trade, the owning of property all these activities extended the horizon of the peasants in
the Ramsey region to a distance of at least ten miles.
DeWindt was careful to point out however, that generalizations should not be made, writing
that "the size of the Ramsey region varied with the social and economic strata of the population
involved as well as with our definition of 'region' as a catchment area for immigration or as an area
within which regular social intercourse takes place individuals." She believed that for those
'5 A. DeWindt, "Redefining the Peasant Community in Medieval England: the Regional Perspective," Journal of
British Studies 26 (1987): 164.
'5 DeWindt, "Redefining," 165.
156 DeWindt, "Redefining," 165.
157 DeWindt, "Redefining," 188.
peasants who were on the lower end of the strata their region may have been geographical
smaller. 1 DeWindt concluded that we must abandon "our identification of'peasant community'
with any single vill, parish or market town. Medieval peasants participated in a regional
community ".159 Nevertheless, she did not argue for the wholesale abandonment of the concept of
village community. Indeed she acknowledged, "The physical layout of peasant homes alone would
preclude such a possibility." 160
In an article entitled "Small Groups; Identity and Solidarity in the Late Middle Ages", Miri
Rubin sought to explore the complexities of membership in communities during the medieval
period. She noted that although historians are generally wary of social theories they have readily
embraced the concept of community. She wanted to emphasize however, that while scholars who
study medieval society have adopted the concept of community they have done so without being
aware of some key aspects of the concept. Specifically, Rubin believed that scholars must be aware
of the fact that "community, like all coins of social and political explanation is and always has been
discursively constr-ucted and is always laden with aspirations and contests over interpretive
power."161 COmmunity she contended was and is always constr-ucted in order to persuade, include
or exclude. Therefore we must not think of community as being a stable and enduring category.
Instead scholars must in any analysis of community emphasize, who was being excluded or
included and why.
'5s DeWindt, "Redefining," 191.
159 DeWindt, "Redefining," 191.
161) DeWindt, "Redefining," 192.
161 Miri Rubin, "Small Groups: Identity and Solidarity in the Late Middle Ages," Enterprise and Individuals in
Fifteenth Centwry England, ed. Jennifer Kermode (Clouchestershire: Alan Sutton, 1991), p. 134.
Rubin noted that anthropology has proven the importance of ritual especially religious ritual
in shaping concepts of community and she argued that ritual's role in medieval society should be
studied in depth. 162 Finally, she applied such an analysis of ritual to the Corpus Christi processions
in medieval towns examining the role played by fraternities and guilds. She argued that the
procession was used to articulate both collective and individual identities. At the collective level
the procession was used to articulate both the identity of the town as arising from a mythical past
and also to express community wide aspirations for good fortune and virtue. At the level of the
individual, the procession articulated the identity of individuals as members of crafts and guilds
or even the wishes of the town' s elite for a rigid corporate hierarchy. 163 Ultimately, she
concluded that we must not get trapped into binary conceptions of belonging when studying the
medieval period for then as now, social relations were "as infinitely creative, pragmatic,
subversive, and manipulative, sometimes confused, at least as much as our own associations,
friendships, and alliances are."164
As Andrew Lewis wrote in his review of Kingdoms anzd Communities in Western Europe,
Susan Reynolds primary obj ective was to argue that the organization of the laity was pervasive in
medieval Europe and that government consultation with the various lay communities was the
universal feature of medieval society between nine hundred and thirteen hundred. Thus any
changes in society that occurred in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries built on pre-existing patterns
of behavior and attitudes. 165 In her book Reynolds examined the variety of medieval communities
162 Rubin, "Small Groups," p. 135.
163 Rubin, "Small Groups," p. 146-147.
164 Rubin, "Small Groups," p. 48.
165 A. Lewis, Ri\l not of Kingdoms and Communities in Western Europe 900-1300 by Susan Reynolds," Speculum
62 (1987): 467.
including; communities of the parish, of the countryside and those of urban areas. In chapter five of
her book, entitled "Villages and Rural Neighborhoods" she examined rural communities and
outlined a number of the maj or questions and problems surrounding their study.
Reynolds defined villages only as those settlements that consisted of nucleated farms and
open-fields, which existed in many areas of England by at least the eleventh century. 166 She
believed that it was in the legal sphere, specifically its involvement in providing justice for the
local community and in being responsible to a higher authority for justice, that the peasantry's
most important collective action was taken. 167 Addressing the lack of strong evidence for this sort
of collective action before the eleventh or twelfth centuries, Reynolds wrote "We cannot assume
that the when the evidence starts to improve in the twelfth century that it was because the new
str-uctures of government had united local communities for the first time, so that a new 'spirit of
association' had appeared, any more than that it was because people were then living in new forms
of settlements." 168
From 1050 onwards, the evidence for collective action and organization becomes clearer,
because by this time the use of the classic open-field system with strict regulation and rotation of
the commons had become widespread. Reynolds argued that this shift and the increasing regulation
of agricultural production that followed were both the cause and result of the increasingly close
community. 169 She cautioned that the trend towards village charters tends to give the impression
that settlements and their organization were much more recent than they really were. Additionally,
166 Susan Reynolds, Kingdoms and Communities in Adedieval Europe 900-1300 (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1997), p. 106.
167 Reynolds, Kingdoms and Conununities, pp. 113-114.
168 Reynolds, Kingdoms and Conununities, pp. 121-122.
169 Reynolds, Kingdoms and Conununities, pp. 124-25.
although she acknowledged that the struggles between lords and the village community, over the
community's attempts to gain these privileges and charters did serve to unify the community, she
believed that these formal liberties were not necessary for the creation of a sense of unity. 170
Reynolds argued for a flexible view of the community because although people in rural
society were highly collective in their habits and attitudes, they were very flexible about the units
in which they acted. 1 Furthermore, Reynolds saw the development of lordship and government as
an essential part in the building of a communal identity, because this development provided a
framework within which the community could continue its tradition of public action. 172 Reynolds,
like A. DeWindt believed that effective membership in the local community varied according to its
economic, social and political structure. Yet she also suggested that in spite of this, the peasantry
did act collectively in various capacities, as villagers and tenants of the manor. 173 Reynolds
summed up her view on community with two points. While there were, some new forms of
collective action that appeared in the twelfth century not all collective action was new and none
reflected entirely new ideas. 174 Secondly, she proposed that between the tenth to fourteenth
centuries there was no part in Western Europe in "which collective activity appears to have been
organized in rigid categories, which excluded the community from making choices. Because
village custom was so largely unwritten it was more flexible and gave more scope for change-for
instance in field systems-than contemporaries themselves realized"" Yet Reynolds also
170 Reynolds, Kingdoms and Communities, pp. 130-135.
171 Reynolds, Kingdoms and Communities, p. 139.
172 Reynolds, Kingdoms and Communities, p. 140.
173 Reynolds, Kingdoms and Communities, p. 143-148.
174 Reynolds, Kingdoms and Communities, p. 152.
'75 Reynolds, Kingdoms and Communities, p. 153.
concluded that despite the fact that villages were never places of complete democratic harmony
there did exist a shared ideal of harmony through cooperative action. 176
Phillip Schofield in his book Pea~san2t anzd Community in M~edieval England 1200-1500,
hoped to prove that the social structures of the medieval peasant community were not as rigid, well
defined or exclusive as many scholars have portrayed them. In his introduction he laid out the
theoretical outlook he hoped to bring to his study. He conceived of membership in communities as
"fluid and insecure, determined by a variety of motives, agendas, and exogenous forces. He also
believed that individuals are capable of multiple memberships, they are able to belong to numbers
of communities." 7
He began by defining the village community. Schofield believed that within the context of
the medieval village community referred to means of self-regulation, mutual support and
resistance, as well as insularity and shared assumptions. Schofield made clear that in order to
develop a more nuanced view of the medieval peasant community he believed scholars first needed
to acknowledge the differences within the community. They must also understand the reasons for
these differences. 1 Schofield suggested a number of causes for this social differentiation. The
thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were characterized by the morcellization of landholding, an
increase in the number of small landholders. Together these processes resulted in an inevitable
polarization of landholding and the emergence of a proto-yeomanry. 179 Local communities played
an important role in modifying and storing custom through their resistance to excessive demands
176 Reynolds, Kingdoms and Communities, pp. 153-154.
'77 Phillip Schofield, Peasant and Community in Medieval England 1200-1500 (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan,
2003), pp. 4-5.
17s Schofield, Peasant Community, p. 5.
179 Schofield, Peasant Community, p. 26.
of their lords, in the form of rent strikes and rebellion. Such measures helped them to play a key
role in determining levels of rent. Iso In his discussion of the peasant land market, Schofield noted
that peasants were members of a number of different economic, political and familial communities,
an argument that shares much with the work of A. DeWindt. He therefore cautioned that scholars
must be careful not "to think of 'peasants' or 'tenants', even within the same community, as, in some
way, a single group with common interests." s
As peasants became more market oriented during the later Middle Ages the village
community became increasingly stratified and Schofield believed that the existence of these
various interest groups heightens the feeling that the community of the village was not a level
playing field, in which all members actions were for the greater good. There were winners and
losers.18s2 Discussing the community of the church Schofield wrote "even in the most remote of
English farmsteads, there were tenets of belief which its inhabitants shared not only with
neighboring villagers but with villagers as far afield as the Baltic and the Mediterranean."18s3 Even
in this community of faith, collective action was the norm. Yet, Schofield made clear that in his
eyes this religious community really consisted of more than one community. Peasants were
members of the community of the parish, the greater Church of Rome, or various lay organizations
and these and other communities required from the peasant, obligations and acts of collective
action.18s4 In his conclusion, Schofield wondered which peasant community scholars had in mind?
Whether talking about the village, parish or family community, scholars must understand that the
'soSchofield, Peasant Community, pp. 41-44.
'81 Schofield, Peasant Community, pp. 75-76.
182 Schofield, Peasant Community, pp. 139-140.
183 Schofield, Peasant Community, p. 187.
184 Schofield, Peasant Community, pp. 186-212.
label of peasant hides "multiplicities of experience." l Thus Schofield concluded, "the lives of
these individuals were integrated into complex, long-standing and broad social, cultural, political,
economic, and demographic systems and, what is more, their own actions within these systems
1ss Schofield, Peasant Community, p. 213.
186 Schofield, Peasant Community, p. 215.
IVEDIEVAL SOURCES AND THEIR USE
In this last section I discuss a number of authors and examine the ways in which they used
their medieval sources. There are three basic typologies of medieval sources which scholars have
relied upon, in order to study the medieval village community and peasant society. These three
typologies correspond to three levels of examination; namely the local or village level, the
regional or manorial, and royal or state. Within these groupings there are a variety of documents
to be found, however the maj ority used fall into the following categories; by-laws found in court
rolls but concerned exclusively with matters of interest to the village community, court rolls,
charters and other manorial documents detailing sales and transfers of land, Eines etc, as well as
state or royal documents such as hundred rolls, which although similar to court rolls in content
differ from them in scope. As I have outlined above one of the most significant shifts within the
scholarship was the shift from viewing the communally organized village community as the most
important unit of analysis towards a more holistic approach which sees the peasant as belonging
to a number of communities, none of which exclusively defined their experience.
The old approach is perhaps best exemplified by Ault' s work on village by-laws. In
"Open-Field Husbandry and the Village Community" Ault linked the agricultural needs of the
open-Hield system to the establishment of village by-laws and he stated his belief that the by-laws
were the best evidence for the viewing the communal organization of the village. ls He noted
therein, that although by-laws can be few and far between, for anyone who was prepared to turn
over a good many court rolls they could be found. He further pointed out that sometimes there
was no record of the actual by-law but reference to one would be made in a court case. For
1s? Warren Ault, "Open-Field Husbandly and the Village Conununity: A Study of Agrarian By-laws in Medieval
England," Transactions of the 4merican Philosophical Society 55 (1965): 12.
example, in August 1326 the Court Roll of Ely records that at the manor of Littleport, "Mabel
Beucosin absented herself from the harvest and would not reap the corn of her lord and her
neighbours for her wages, but quitted the vill, against the ordinance of the bylaw." I The by-
laws covered all aspects of the agricultural year including sowing, harvest and gleaning. Many of
the laws were set up to protect the crops once harvested or to regulate the use of common
pasturelands. For example, Ault cited a passage from September 1319 wherein the jurors
presented, "that John of Stretham, servant of the Brethren of the Hospital gave away one sheaf of
beans in the field against the by-law."18s9 Here again we see an example of the by-laws being
used in a legal proceeding although we do not have the actual by-law.
Ault argued that in fact the by-laws were often simply unwritten customs, which over time
were included into the court documents as necessary. Ault acknowledged that manorial court
rolls reflected the interests of the lord; however he noted that when the rolls actually record a by-
law and not just their use in court the scribe always included some reference to the community of
the vill.190 Since Ault believed that the creation and enforcement of the by-laws were an essential
part of the village community, he argued that by-laws generally arose from custom. Therefore,
he concluded that villagers could and did assemble on their own without the prodding or
presence of the lord in order to draft ordinances and elect wardens to enforce their by-laws. 191
Although I did not have access to the variety and number of medieval sources that Ault
and the other authors did I believe that the authors' conception of the rural society and the village
community did play a role in their selection or emphasis of sources. For example, while I was
Iss The Court Baron, ed. Frederic Maitland and William Baildon (London: Selden Society,
1891), Record 14.
189 The Court Baron, Record 128.
191) Ault, "Open-Field Husbandry," 40.
191 Ault, "Open-Field Husbandry," 40.
able to read only a few of the numerous by-laws that Ault cited it became clear from even a
cursory glance over the footnotes, that his conception of the village as communally organized
was a result of his reliance and focus on by-laws. In similar ways later authors including
members of the Toronto school such as DeWindt made use of court rolls to find evidence for
personal pledging in order to illustrate the harmonious organization and structure of the village
Although not interested in proving the communal nature of the medieval village, M. Postan
did want to prove the existence of a flourishing land market in the medieval countryside. He was
also interested in discovering the impetus for the growth of this land market, which he believed
to be one of the key engines of economic transformation and progress in the Middle Ages. He
thus relied on manorial documents in order to find evidence of land transfers between members
of the community. He was especially lucky because during his research he came across a
peculiar document namely, the Calrte Nativorum which is a manorial cartulary recording sales or
purchases of land between both free and un-free peasants within the lands of Peterborough
Manor. This was a highly unusual source because it was believed that villeins could not own or
transfer property. However, he pointed out a number of passages, which detailed transactions
between various fr~eman (freeman) and liefs (serfs). For example, "Grant by Robert Freeman of
Glinton to Arnold le lief of Werrington and his heirs of 3 roods in Glinton on the hill".192 Postan
argued that the charter must be about villein business because included within it were a number
of documents of manumission for a number of villeins and their land, including the following
passage "Confirmation by Abbot Alexander (1222-6) and the convent of the manumission of
William son of Ralph of Thorpe, late husband of Cecily, and their sons and daughters and
192 Carte Nativorum: A Peterborough Abbey Cartulary of the Fourteenth Century, ed. C.N.L. Brooke and M.M.
Postan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961), p. 274.
descendants, as granted and confirmed by Abbots Andrew and Acharius, with their lands in and
out of Thorpe" 193
Postan believed that the evidence from these and other court rolls showed that as far back
as the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries there was an active land market in which villeins as
well as freemen took part. 194 He noted that many of the earliest references to land sales in
manorial courts relate to mostly villein land and he pointed to the following entry in the Court
Rolls of the Manor of Wakefield, dated to 1274 as evidence of unlicensed sales going on,
"Wakefeud-William the Tanner sold certain native land to Thomas le Ragged by charter, and
because he could not warrant it as free, according to his charter, without license of the Court, he
is in mercy". 195 Based on an overwhelming amount of evidence showing early land transfers
between villeins, Postan concluded that the Calrte Nativorum was not evidence of a new
phenomenon. Rather he believed the unique charter was a response by the lord to the new
realities of the land market. Specifically, as the thirteenth century came to a close, a growing
shortage of land forced the lord to recognize the increasing value of such previously unofficial
transactions. Therefore, the lord sought to make them official so that he could profit from such
Historians are always told not to let the sources shape their analysis, for good reason. As I
attempted to point out in the paragraphs above, the early generations of scholars were strong
193 Cat NatiFOTum, "Omnibus Christi fidelibus ad quos presents scriptum peruenerit, Alexander Dei permission
abbas de Burgo et eiusdem loci conuentus, salutem in Domino. Noerit uniuersitas uestra nos ratam et
gratam habere manumissionem Willelmi filii Radulphi de Thorp quondam mariti Cecile et
filiorum et filiarum suarum... cum terries suis tam in uilla de Thorp quam extra," Charter 530.
194 Postan, Essays on M~edieval agriculture, p. 122.
195 COurt Rolls of the Manor of Wakefield, vol. 1, ed. William Baildon (Yorkshire: Yorkshire Archaeological
Society, 1901), Roll 88.
196 Postan, Essays on M~edieval agriculture, p. 122.
believers in the fundamentally communalistic nature of the village community. Although, it may
be correct to argue that agriculture as practiced in medieval times necessitated cooperation, one
must carefully avoid letting such a preconceived notion of the community's structure and
organization shape their scholarly inquiries. The key point is not that Postan and Ault, along with
their predecessors and peers used the documentary records they did, but rather that they allowed
their biases and preconceived notions, which all scholars have, to influence their academic
inquiry. Therefore, the goal of their studies was too often to uncover proof of this communalistic
behavior, as opposed to asking more fundamental questions about the very nature of community
and group identity in the medieval village.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century scholars such as Maine and Toinnies constructed
the basic framework for modern scholars' conceptions of medieval rural society, which remained
in place for most of the twentieth century. Generally, scholars accepted the notion that the basic
unit of medieval rural society was the village community. Moreover, they believed that this
community was based on agriculture and that out of agricultural and social necessity it
functioned as a communal entity. Thus, modern scholars focused primarily on describing the
functioning of this communal based society, and its relationship with that other key structure in
rural society the manor and the accompanying manorial system.
I believe that it is very important to focus on the basic conceptual structures applied by the
earliest scholars, because as I have tried to make clear, the main interest of these authors was to
explain the basic organizational features of society and its causes. Such an approach however,
presents a number of problems. First and this is a point to which many of the authors alluded,
much of the documentary evidence from this period comes from and deals with the manor and
not with the village community. Additionally, as has been pointed out the manor and the
accompanying manorial system did not often or ever correspond, especially geographically and
physically to the village. This means that we cannot talk about the village as if it was the manor.
The village was its own community. However, an author can if careful make out the village
community from the impressions its members made on these larger systems. The result is that we
are often studying the village community through what amounts to a mould or even a mirror and
we must take care not to add our own pre and misconceptions to the mix.
The generation of scholars, such as Reynolds and Rubin, who were influenced by a
number of new theoretical approaches developed in disciplines such as anthropology and
sociology, began the task of moving the research beyond such descriptive methods. They
approached their work with an understanding of the complex reality of belonging. These authors
insisted on a larger more fluid understanding of community. Some like Rubin even prompted us
to move beyond older conceptions of community and to describe not only the community but to
analyze the contemporary construction of the community's identity. The work of this generation
of authors when compared to the work of Ault or even Postan does not rely on new, previously
unknown evidence. However, because new models of peasant society such as those proposed by
Redfield and Wolf influenced these authors, they were able to use the old evidence to come to
new conclusions. For example, if one looks at Schofield' s footnotes he cited many of the same
court rolls, and cartularies used by Ault, Postan or members of the Toronto school. Yet, he did
not arrive at the same conclusions.
Two reasons for this come to mind. First, Schofield and his peers were not approaching
peasant society from a perspective, which placed supreme importance on the communal
organization of the village. Rather they were interested in the whole of the peasant experience.
They therefore viewed the village community as just one of the many communities to which the
peasant belonged. They were much more interested in studying the interaction between the
various communities. Schofield and his peers emphasized the multiple economic, social and
political networks with which the peasant was engaged. That is not to say that they denied the
importance of communal action out of agricultural necessity, or the ability of the peasants to act
as a unified group against their lord. These authors simply avoid defining and categorizing the
peasant and his/her community based upon this one facet of his/her life.
Who then was considered a member of the village community and what did membership in
the community mean to them? A number of authors have noted that the community did not look
kindly upon outsiders. Who was considered an outsider and what were the ways in which
membership was ritualized or constructed? The church would have played a key role in such
matters. It has already been noted by some that the community of the parish was a key element in
village unity, but were the two communities the same? Many of the authors have acknowledged
economic stratifieation within the community, but have still held on to the belief that the
villagers were still more united than divided, especially in actions against the lord.
We now know that at least some villagers had regular interaction with market networks
and could even belong to town guilds. What all this means, I believe, is that we must continue to
explore rural society not in order to Eind proof of the commonality and communality of the
peasant experience. Rather, we must analyze and emphasize the multiplicity of communities to
which the villager belonged and the numerous networks within which they acted. Only by so
doing can we hope to uncover the complex reality of social and economic interactions in the
village as well as the variety of relationships which they produced. One key point that needs to
be explored in future work is how archaeology can help the historian arrive at a more complete
picture of rural society. Up till now the archaeological research in England has focused on
excavating whole villages and on unlocking the story behind the rise of the nucleated village or
on understanding the processes which led to many villages ultimate desertion. Unfortunately as a
result of this focus on the overall plan and layout of the Hields and villages, archaeologists have
forgotten the individualss. Therefore, the individual must be brought back into focus, for if we
combine the best of what archaeology has to offer as a discipline with the new models of peasant
community developed in recent years by historians we will Einally be fulfilling the dreams of
those scholars who championed an interdisciplinary approach so many years ago.
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Although born in New York City, I spent most of my formative years living in a rural farm
community. This led to a lifelong interest in rural life in modern and pre-modern times.
Moreover, being brought up within a minority religious community in America has also led to a
lifelong interest into questions about identity and belonging. Both factors I believe are
responsible for my general interest in social history and specifically community and identity
studies. Finally, during my undergraduate and graduate studies, exposure to modern theoretical
approaches to understanding ethnicity and other identities under the tutelage of Dr. Curta led me
to the topic of my undergraduate honors thesis Identity in the Danelaw/, as well as my current
Master of Arts thesis.