Did a villein ever rise to the nobility in Medieval England?

Did a villein ever rise to the nobility in Medieval England?

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I know that there are tales of burghers and other commoners getting rich through trade. Was it unknown for villeins to climb the social scale?

I share everyone else's concerns about the assumptions embedded in this question, but I also think this is the kind of thing that H:SE is built for - to give the context to undermine flawed assumptions.

A villein is neither slave nor free; legally bound to the land, and to the feudal overlord. This is a society that measures wealth in land, and the villein by definition owns no land, so by definition it is not possible for a villein to be rich. (to accumulate wealth would mean to own land, which would mean that you are not a villein).

The economy is based on land rent and food rent - in the modern era we conceive of wealth as money, but the medieval economy didn't have much money. Debts and dues were settled in food and goods. There is effectively no way to accumulate food, and there are no coins to trade food for coin. Technically I suppose you could engage in a form of capital deepening, but if you started to accrue tools to increase your production, your feudal overlord would increase your rent. Given that the feudal overlord had full power of justice over you, the rent increase was automatically legal and supported by the state.

Is it, perhaps, worth also mentioning the Medieval belief in the 'Scala Natura' which was held to maintain that the class structure of society was ordained by God? @sempaiscuba

Finally, OP mentions Jews - I'd be very surprised if a Jew could be a villein. While there may have been edge cases, rural medieval society was not tolerant of diversity. Judaism is (in the general case) largely urban. (Keeping Kosher demands a community). I may be dead wrong on this, but my discussions with my Jewish friends have led me to believe that "Jewish villein" is statistically very improbable.

Mr. Geerkens is correct that Russian peasant life includes Jews, but I think that they were serfs, not villeins, and therefore even less likely to become rich. I think the chance of a Russian Jewish peasant gaining wealth is effectively zero.

I'm less convinced that the distinction between money and specie is relevant to the question. The question asks whether a villein ever got rich - "rich" would have been measured in land, not in specie. I think that the definition of "rich" is really important here. Certainly there were peasants whose peers perceived them as "rich" - relative wealth, having a better crop yield than a neighbor, or a better harvest, or whatever. But objectively "rich"? That has to do with property rights and social institutions that recognize a person's ability to control wealth and direct power. And for a villein to control wealth or direct power greater than his feudal overlord would have been such a threat to social order as to have merited drastic action. Kind of like if a nine year old were wandering down the street with a machine gun. Everyone would take action to stop that as a danger to publi order. Villeins with wealth would be like nine year olds with machine guns.

Extortion. Pure and simple.

You're a strong man with a retinue. What do you do? You set up a toll somewhere. Preferably a spot where people have to pass. Such as a fort in a river, or on a defensible busy crossroad. Fortify it, as passers by won't be much amused. Now you have money in the bank. Everyone passing your toll will have to cough up. Not much chance of them being able to storm your fortress.

That's what Dirk III did in Dordrecht. He set up a toll booth plus castle on the Merwede river (tributary of the Rhine river). Merchants had to pay a toll to pass. They weren't amused, and complained to the emperor. It took a while, but the emperor send an army to remove the toll. That imperial army was defeated. And Dirk collected happily ever after. Many nobles along the Rhine and other rivers ran a similar scam.

With regard to Jews lending money, that's a bit more complicated. Christians weren't allowed to levy interest on loans. Consequently nobody lent money. Until someone got the bright idea to force Jews to go into the money lending business. It's a bit like all gays being hairdressers or artists. Gays aren't all hairdressers or artists, but those were among the few professions open to them.

I think your mean the modern meaning of villein: villain. A villein was a poor peasant who was tied to the land of his lord. Those guys didn't get rich. They had no time for it, they had to work - hard. Some of course looked for criminal ways to get rich, but medieval justice was harsh if they got caught. Otherwise they had very little opportunity to get rich in one generation.

Their lucky break came when the Black Death ravaged Europe. If they survived, that is. The Black Death created a huge labor shortage. If the lord wanted them to keep working for him, he had to cough up for it. If not, plenty of better jobs elsewhere.

Maybe Ivaylo of Bulgaria?

According to some sources Ivaylo began his life living humbly and herded swine for payment. Other sources indicate he was a peasant farmer with no land of his own.

But… later…

This caused an alliance between Ivaylo and Maria Kantakouzena, and Ivaylo married the widowed empress and was recognized as Bulgarian emperor in 1278, without deposing or disinheriting her minor son. Michael Asen III.

Villein Was Obligated To

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The Knights of the Early Middle Ages and Medieval Period

During the Early Middle Ages , which lasted from around 500 to 1000, knights were considered to be violent brutes by most people. In exchange for their military service, the knights were given land or allowed to plunder the villages where they did battle. It was due to the latter that the knights of this period gained such infamy, as they looted, raped, and burned as they pleased.

Things began to change, however, during the 11 th century. Around the time of the Norman conquest of England in 1066, the knight began to take on the form we are familiar with today, i.e. heavily armored, mounted warrior from a noble background. In addition, it was also around this time that the famous chivalry , came into existence.

Before chivalry came into existence knights were considered violent brutes and were allowed to plunder. (Rama / Public Domain )

Basically, chivalry was the professional code of conduct that the Medieval knights adhered to. While the contents of this code differed from one commander to another, some of the most common elements include courage in battle and loyalty to one’s feudal or military superiors and comrades. These were values that were practical from a military point of view.

Nevertheless, the code of chivalry developed further to include such values as piety, generosity to the poor, and mercy for defeated foes. These were values endorsed by the Church and found their way into the romantic literature of that era, which was targeted at the young men who were training to be knights.

During the Early Medieval period, knights did not necessarily have to hail from the nobility. As long as a warrior could maintain the cost of his horse and arms, he could be a knight. During the succeeding High Medieval period, however, nobility and knighthood gradually merged, and knighthood became a hereditary privilege of the nobility. Therefore, the first step to becoming a knight during this period was to be born into a noble family.

Knighthood changed with the code of chivalry and became a privilege of nobility. ( grape_vein / Adobe)

In general, it was the sons of knights and lords who were eligible to become knights. Interestingly, while the majority of Medieval knights were men, there were exceptions to the rule. The Knights Templars and the Knights Hospitallers , the two foremost military orders during the Crusades, are said to have had warrior nuns in their ranks.

Did the nobility about your pedigree in the middle ages?

If you were in the middle ages and were born, say, the son of a blacksmith. And let's say that you were educated by your father, managed to get ahold of a solid set of armor, and became a good warrior and commander. Would the nobles of the era grant you land as a fief? Or would they scoff at you for your upbringing?

Would your chances vary in different areas in Europe? Would you have a better chance of rising to nobility in say, war torn Spain than in England?

You actually did not always need to be granted land, if you were filthy rich you just buy it. Part of the road to ennoblement was living the part. So for example merchants would often buy seigneurial lands, paving the way for rising in the ranks and acquire letters of nobility down the road, if not for you, possibly your offspring. The prerequisite here is of course wealth. The nobility was for that matter always in need of ‘new blood’ - such a small group had a hard time to maintain itself demographically, so there was a continuous influx from below. And the older lineages always tended to look down on newcomers.

As an extra, ‘middle ages’ is a 1000 years and was far from a static period . Knights in our classic sense did not exist from the beginning, in fact before mounted warriors became ‘knights’, this was one of the most fluid groups in society, with a high degree of social mobility. It’s only by the 9th century that things began to change, and the classic knight as we know it - that is, the lowest tier of the nobility - crystalized across Europe on the 10-12th century.

So would it be significantly easier to rise in areas like Reconquista Spain or the Holy Land than England or France?

There were cases of people rising in social classes, but it was rare. If you were a good enough soldier and weren't a serf you might get knighted and given some land, but you also might get sent back to the smithery.

Thanks. I've been trying to educate myself a little bit more on the Kingdom of Jeruselem lately and saw that pretty much everyone who was educated and a good commander was given land, but that was probably just due to massively high mortality rates.

If you were not of nobility, the best you could shoot for was typically a man at arms. You would still likely have a regular job in you town/village, but the lord who owned both your village and all the people in it could call you into military service. For the most part anyone of peasant class was expected to work typical agrarian jobs like farming, fishing, mining, logging, etc. If your parents were craftsmen or merchants, you would likely do the same. There was very little social mobility.

Knights where always either lords themselves mostly, or knighted by and serving a lord and having come from noble blood. Everyone else on battlefields were conscripts or men at arms, sometimes free mercenary companies which was sort of a social class if its own, and occasionally there were professional paid soldiers in a standing army, usually in service to a king, as hardly anyone else could afford to pay for standing armies.

The equipment that you needed to be armored cavalry knight was too great for anyone other than lower nobility and up to pay for. You needed mulitple sets of armor and weapons which also needed to be maintained by a squire, you needed multiple horses for traveling and fighting, and someone to care for those horses. The cost was way beyond the reach of anyone who didnt already own a large piece of land and peasants work the land for money to pay for all that.

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32 A Relation or Rather a True Account of the Island of England… , ed. Sneyd , C. R. ( Camden Soc. , 1847 ), p. 37 Google ScholarPubMed . Even the power of the Welsh Marcher Lords has been exaggerated as far as the fifteenth century is concerned. Disorder in Wales and the Marches seems to have increased in the middle of the fifteenth century when the great landlords, who were mainly absentees, proved unable to give sufficient personal attention to the area, and more or less abdicated their power to a corrupt Welsh squirearchy. They failed to keep control of their estate revenues and to raise money allowed the cancellation of the sessions of many of the marcher courts in return for collective fines—with the most adverse effects upon the level of public order. Pugh , T. B. , The Marcher Lordships of South Wales, 1415-1536 ( Board of Celtic Studies, University of Wales , History and Law Series No. XX, 1963 )Google Scholar , Pt. I, Griffiths , R. A. , “ Gruffyd ap Nicholas and the Rise of the House of Dinefwr ,” The National Library of Wales Journal , XIII ( 1964 ): 256 –68Google Scholar , “ Gruffyd ap Nicholas and the Fall of the House of Lancaster ,” Welsh History Review I ( 1964 – 1965 ): 213 –31Google Scholar , The Principality of Wales in the Later Middle Ages: The Sturcture and Personnel of Government, I, South Wales, 1277-1536 , ( Board of Celtic Studies History and Law Series 26 , Cardiff , 1972 ),pp. 27 ffGoogle Scholar , “ Patronage, Politics and the Principality of Wales, 1413-1461 ,” in British Government and Administration: Studies Presented to S. B. Chrimes , ed. Hearder , H. and Loyn , H. R. ( Cardiff, University of Wales Press , 1974 ), pp. 67 – 86 Google Scholar , Pugh , T. B. , “ The Marcher Lords of Glamorgan, 1317-1485 ,” in Glamorgan County History , Vol. III Google Scholar , The Middle Ages ( Cardiff , 1971 ), pp. 202 –3Google Scholar , see also R. R. Davies, “The Social Structure of Medieval Glamorgan Bro Morgannwg and Blawnau Morgannwg,” in T. B. Pugh, “The Marcher Lords of Glamorgan,” pp. 302-4. Pugh , T. B. , The Marcher Lordships of South Wales, 1415-1536 , pp. 1 – 48 .Google Scholar

33 It is doubtful if a complete exception can be made even for the Percies, powerful as they undoubtedly were in the north. After all the royal revenues which they received as wardens of the East and Middle Marches were an immensely valuable addition to their revenues ( Storey , R. L. , “ The Wardens of the Marches of England towards Scotland, 1377-1389 ,” English Historical Review , LXXII [ 1957 ]: 593 – 615 .CrossRefGoogle Scholar ) Their northern estates lay cheek by jowl with those of the Nevilles, the Dacres and the Cliffords and they derived a fair proportion of their income from estates in Lincolnshire, Sussex, Somerset, Dorset, Devon, and Wales.

34 e.g. In 1459 Sir William Skipwith accused three of York's councillors, Sir John Neville, Sir James Pickering and Thomas Colt of putting him out of the stewardship of the duke's manor of Hatfield (Yorks) and the constableship of the castle of Conisbrough for refusing to follow York to the first battle of St. Albans (1455). Armstrong , C. A. J. , “ Politics and the Battle of St. Albans, 1455 ,” p. 27 .Google Scholar

35 Three Books of Polydore Vergil's English History… , ed. Sir Ellis , H. (Camden Ser., 1844 ), p. 199 Google Scholar . Buckingham was betrayed by a servant, Humphrey Bannister, in whose house he had gone into hiding “whether for feare or money yt is soom dowt.” Ibid., pp. 199,201. Also in 1460 when the Neville earl of Salisbury (Warwick's father) had been captured by the Lancastrians after the battle of Wakefield “the commune peple of the cuntre whyche loued hym nat, took hym from owte of the castelle [Pontefract] by violence and smote of his hed.” An English Chronicle of the Reigns of Richard II, Henry IV, Henry Vand Henry VI , ed. Davies , J. S. ( Camden Soc. , 1856 ), p. 107 Google Scholar . The comment is all the more significant as this chronicle is decidedly pro-Yorkist in tone.

36 Pugh , T. B. , The Marcher Lordships of South Wales, 1415-1536 , pp. 239 –61.Google Scholar

37 Sir Fortescue , J. , The Governance of England , ed. Plummer , C. , ( Oxford , 1885 ), p. 130 .Google Scholar

38 Dictionary of National Biography , XIV : 295 Google Scholar . Major's phrase was “regnum creator.”

39 Armstrong , C. A. J. , “ Politics and the Battle of St. Albans, 1455 ”, p. 11 Google Scholar , Pugh , T. B. , “ The Marcher Lordships of Glamorgan and Morgannwg, 1317-1485 ,” in Glamorgan County History , Vol. II , ed. Pugh , T. B. ( Cardiff , 1971 ), pp. 195 –6.Google Scholar

40 Lander , J. R. , “ Marriage and Politics in the Fifteenth Century: The Nevilles and the Wydevilles ,” Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research , XXXVI ( 1963 ): 125 –8Google Scholar , Head , C. , “ Pope Pius II and the Wars of the Roses ,” Archivum Historiae Pontificiae , VIII ( 1970 ): 139 –78.Google Scholar

41 Lander , J. R. , “ Marriage and Politics ,” pp. 128 –9.Google Scholar

43 Calendar of State Papers and Manuscripts Existing in the Archives and Collections of Milan , Vol. I , ed. A. Hinds , B. ( London , 1912 ), pp. 120 –1Google Scholar , Calmette , J. et Périnelle , G. , Louis XI et l'Angleterre ( Paris , 1930 ), pp. 69 n. 5, 104 Google Scholar , Pièce Justificatif, No. 28, Ross , C. D. , Edward IV ( London , 1974 ), pp. 114, 146 .Google Scholar

44 As C. D. Ross (Ibid. pp. 155-8, 164-6) points out Warwick's co-operation with the most prominent Lancastrians was distinctly uneasy and that, although popular feeling had swung towards him, his basis of support amongst the greater landowners and amongst the merchant classes was extremely narrow. Even the loyalty of his own brother, Marquess Montagu, was not above suspicion.

45 The dukes of Exeter and Norfolk, the earls of Devon and Wiltshire, Lords Bonvile, Cobham, Cromwell, Egremont, Grey, Moleyns and Say, Storey , R. L. , The End of the House of Lancaster , p. 79 Google Scholar and Appendix IV, “John Benet's Chronicle for the years, 1400-1462,” ed. Harriss , G. L. in Camden Miscellany , Vol. IX ( 1972 ): 199 – 217 Google Scholar . In 1450 York had also imprisoned Somerset in the Tower of London, ostensibly for his own protection.

46 The earl of Devon, Lords Cobham, Clinton and Grey of Powys. Lord Clinton was probably the poorest of the English barons. The status of Lord Grey of Powys was ambiguous. He was twenty-two at this time. Neither he nor his father had ever been summoned to parliament (or, at least, no writs survive). The son is held to have become a peer by taking the special oath of fidelity to Henry VI on 24 July 1455. Mr. C. A. J. Armstrong has also described Lord Cobham as impoverished. Lander , J. R. , “ Marriage and Politics… ,” pp. 123 –5.Google Scholar

47 Those marked (*) were either killed or executed. Humphrey Stafford, duke of Buckingham *, Henry Holland, duke of Exeter, Edmund Beaufort, duke of Somerset*, Henry Beaufort, duke of Somerset, Thomas Courtenay, earl of Devon*, Henry Percy II, earl of Northumberland*, Jasper Tudor, earl of Pembroke, John Talbot, earl of Shrewsbury*, James Butler, earl of Wiltshire*, John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester, John, Viscount Beaumont*, William, Viscount Beaumont, Lords, Audley (James)*, Audley (John), Berners, Clifford (John)*, Clifford (Thomas)*, Dacre of Gillesland, Delaware, Dudley, Egremont*, Fauconberge (William Neville), Fitzhugh, Grey of Codnor, Greystock, Harrington*, Hungerford, Latimer, Lovel, Neville (brother of the earl of Westmorland), Roos of Helmsley, Rougemont-Grey*, Scales (Thomas)*, Scales (Anthony Ryvers), Sudeley, Vesci, Welles, Willoughby. John, Lord Audley, Lord Berners and Lord Fauconberg went over to the Yorkists. Full references are given in my book, Crown and Nobility, 1450 to 1509, pp. 301-2.

48 Lander , J. R. , “ Marriage and Politics… ,” pp. 125-9, 151 –2.Google Scholar

49 See T. B. Pugh, “The Magnates, Knights and Gentry,” in Fifteenth Century England, 1399-1509, ed. S. B. Chrimes, C. D. Ross and R. A. Griffiths (Manchester, 1972), pp. 90, 116-117. Edward created seven new barons in 1461, another six between that date and 1470 and during the same period also created a dukedom, a marquessate and eight new earldoms.

50 Exeter, Oxford, Hungerford, Roos and Jasper Tudor, earl of Pembroke. Although Lord Clifford's attainder was not reversed until 1485, he received a pardon in 1472. Somerset and Devon died without direct heirs, but the earldom of Devon was recreated for the earl's nephew in 1485.

51 The earl of Oxford and Lord Fitzhugh, both of whom were married to sisters of Warwick, Lord Scrope of Bolton, Lord Welles and Willoughby. Warwick's own Srother, the earl of Northumberland (later Marquess Montagu) tried to suppress Fitzhugh and sided with Warwick only during Henry VI's Re-adeption. Lander , J. R. , “ Marriage and Politics… ” p. 147 , n. 4.Google Scholar

52 Warwick-Lancaster peers 1470-71. In 1470 Lord Fitzhugh led a small insurrection in Yorkshire to divert Edward's attention from Warwick's invasion. Between Edward's landing at Ravenser (14 March 1471) and the battle of Tewkesbury (4 May) the following are known to have been in arms against him: Henry Holland, duke of Exeter Edmund Beaufort II titular duke of Somerset* (the attainder of 1465 was still unreversed) John Neville Marquess Montagu (Warwick's brother)* John Cour-teney titular earl of Devon* (the attainder of his brother Thomas, of 1461, was still unreversed) John de Vere earl of Oxford Warwick. Jasper Tudor, earl of Pembroke is included as he was recruiting troops in Wales although he did not get them to Tewkesbury in time to fight. Just before Edward's landing Lord Stanley was beseiging Hornby Castle on behalf of the Lancastrians, and also as part of his own personal feud against the Harrington family. Lord Sudeley was in London with the Lancastrians, but apparently did not fight. When Edward arrived in London he ordered him to be arrested. The Historie of the Arrivait of Edward IV in England and the Finall Recouerye of His Kingdomes From Henry IV. A. D. M. CCCC. LXXI , ed. Gairdner , J. ( 4 Vols Edinburgh , 1910 )Google Scholar , (Camden Soc., 1838), pp. 8, 24, 27, 29-30,45 The Paston Letters , III : 9 Google Scholar “ A Chronicle of Tewkesbury Abbey ,” in Kingsford , C. L. , English Historical Literature in the Fifteenth Century , ( Oxford , 1913 ), pp. 376 –7Google Scholar . The Arrivall p. 8 also mentions a Lord Bardolf but the Complete Peerage does not list a Lord Bardolf living at this date. Several modern works state that William, Viscount Beaumont, was in arms in 1470-1, but I know of no contemporary authority for this statement.

Yorkist Peers 1470-71. Anthony Wydeville, Earl Ryvers, Lord Cobham, Humphrey Bourchier, Lord Cromwell, Lords Grey of Codnor, Hastings, Howard and Say. Arrivall, p. 31. Henry Percy IV, whom Edward had recently restored to the earldom of Northumberland, provided no active support, though his presence probably prevented other northerners from attacking the king. Pugh , T. B. (“ The Magnates, Knights and Gentry ” in Chrimes , , et al. , Fifteenth Century England, 1399-1509 . p. 109 Google Scholar ) suggests that Northumberland could not support the king because the majority of his tenants were still Lancastrian in sympathy.

53 The duke of Norfolk and the earl of Surrey (Father and son) and the earl of Nottingham (Berkeley) had received the lands of the Mowbray dukes of Norfolk (through co-heiresses) which Edward IV had denied them as well as other valuable grants, Viscount Lovell, Lords Scrape of Bolton and Dacre of Gillesland had also profited financially from royal grants. The others were Lord Ferrers and Lord Zouche. (“Magnates, Knights and Gentry” in Chrimes, et al., Fifteenth Century England, 1399-1509: Studies in Politics and Society, p. 109).The earl of Northumberland, who had also profited from grants came to the battlefields but did not fight. Lander , J. R. , Conflict and Stability p. 99 and n. 1.Google Scholar

Early education

Even the children of serfs would be taught the skills needed to survive by their parents. The boys would be taken out into the fields to observe and to help their parents with easy tasks, while the girls would work with the animals at home, in the vegetable garden with their mothers, or watch them weave.

Young boys of noble birth would learn how to hunt and swing a weapon, while the young ladies of nobility would learn how to cook.

Children of craftsmen and merchants were educated from a very young age in the trade of their fathers. Trade secrets rarely left a family and they had to be taught and understood by all male (and unusually, female) heirs, in order to continue the family legacy.


At the top of Celtic society were a class of nobles headed by a king or chieftain. Below them were the craftsmen (of whom metalworkers were the most important). Then came the farmers who provided the food supply and also fought for the chief. The Celts were divided into tribes. There was no political unity among them and a great deal of fighting.

After the Roman Conquest, upper-class Celts adopted the Roman way of life. They built villas modeled on Roman buildings and they enjoyed luxuries such as mosaics and even a form of central heating called a hypocaust. Wealthy Romans also had wall paintings called murals in their houses. In their windows, they had panes of glass.

However Roman rule probably made little difference to most poor Celts, especially in the north and extreme southwest of England. For them, life went on much as it had before. Their houses remained simple huts.

Like the Celts before them and the Saxons after them the Romans kept slaves. A slave was simply a piece of property and could be bought and sold like an animal. Most people probably treated their slaves reasonably well simply to keep them working efficiently. However, no doubt some masters were cruel. Probably slaves who worked in mines were the worst off. However, some slaves managed to gain their freedom or were given their freedom by their masters.

Kinship (family ties) were very important in Saxon society. If you were killed your relatives would avenge you. If one of your relatives was killed you were expected to avenge them. However, the law did provide an alternative. If you killed or injured somebody you could pay them or their family compensation. The money paid was called wergild and it varied according to a person’s rank. The wergild for killing a thane was much more than that for killing a churl. Thralls or slaves had no wergild. If the wergild was not paid the relatives were entitled to seek revenge.

At first Saxon, society was relatively free. There were some slaves but the basis of society was the free peasant. However, in time Saxon churls began to lose their freedom. They became increasingly dependent on their Lords and under their control.

English Society in the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages society was like a pyramid. At the top of the pyramid was the king. Below him were the barons or tenants-in-chief. The king granted them land and in return, they had to provide so many soldiers to fight for so many days a year. They also had to swear an oath of loyalty to the king and they became his vassals. The barons granted land to knights. In return, they had to fight for so many days a year.

However, this system proved awkward. If a knight had to fight, say, 40 days a year when the 40 days were up he would return home even if the king were in the middle of a campaign. Kings began to allow the barons to pay ‘shield money’. They used the money to pay soldiers when they needed them.

At the bottom of society were peasants. Most were serfs or villeins. They were not free and could not leave their land without the lord’s permission. Furthermore, as well as working on their own land they had to farm the lord’s land for 2 or 3 days a week. They also had to work extra days for him at busy times like harvest. (Although in time more and more lords allowed them to pay money rents instead of doing labour service).

Villeins also had other burdens. For instance when a villein died his son had to give the lord the best animal before taking over his father’s land. Usually, peasants had to grind their grain to flour in the lord’s mill (and give him a portion of their grain). In some places, they also had to bake their bread in the lord’s oven.

However if you could escape from your village to a town for a year and a day you then officially became free. Moreover, the Black Death severely weakened the villeinage system. At the time of the Domesday Book, the population of England was around 2 million. By the end of the 13th century, it had probably risen to about 6 million.

However in the early 14th century the climate deteriorated and there were a series of famines. The population began to fall. The Black Death of 1348-49 killed about one-third of the population of England. So many people died there was a serious shortage of labor and lords were willing to ‘poach’ workers from other lords by offering them higher wages. Parliament tried to fix wages by law to prevent them from rising but this was impossible to enforce. By the 15th century, the system of serfdom or villeinage had broken down in England.

The Church also owned vast amounts of land and livestock. Furthermore, the peasants had to give a tithe or one-tenth of everything they produced (crops, eggs, animals) to the church. Many bishops and abbots were rich and powerful.

In the Middle Ages, the king ruled by divine right. In other words, people believed that God had chosen him to be king, and rebellion against him was a sin. However, that did not stop rebellions!

Kings had limited power in the Middle Ages and rebellion was easy. A great deal depended on the personality of the king. If he was a strong character he could control the barons. If he were weak or indecisive the barons would often rebel. Warrior kings who fought successful wars were the most powerful as they were popular with the nobility.

English Society in the 16th Century

Tudor society was divided into four broad groups. At the top were the nobility who owned huge amounts of land. Below them were the gentry and rich merchants. Gentlemen owned large amounts of land and they were usually educated and had a family coat of arms. Most important gentlemen never did any manual work that was beneath their dignity.

Below the gentry were yeomen and craftsmen. Yeomen owned their own land. They could be as wealthy as gentlemen but they worked alongside their men. Yeomen and craftsmen were often able to read and write. Below the yeomen were the tenant farmers who leased their land from the rich. There were also wage laborers. They were often illiterate and very poor.

In the 16th century, about 50% of the population lived at the subsistence level. In other words, they had just enough food, clothes, and shelter to survive. However, it was possible to move from one class to another. With hard work and luck, a husbandman could become a yeoman. A yeoman could buy a coat of arms and become gentlemen. It was possible for an ambitious young man to rise in the world.

English Society in the 17th Century

During the 17th century, the status of merchants improved. People saw that trade was an increasingly important part of the country’s wealth so merchants became more respected. However political power and influence were held by rich landowners.

At the top of society were the nobility. Below them were the gentry. Gentlemen were not quite rich but they were certainly well off. Below them were yeomen, farmers who owned their own land. Yeomen were comfortably off but they often worked alongside their men. Gentlemen did not do manual work! Below them came the mass of the population, craftsmen, tenant farmers, and laborers.

At the end of the 17th century, a writer estimated that half the population could afford to eat meat every day. In other words, about 50% of the people were wealthy or at least reasonably well off. Below them, about 30% of the population could afford to eat meat between 2 and 6 times a week. They were ‘poor’. The bottom 20% could only eat meat once a week. They were very poor. At least part of the time they had to rely on poor relief.

By an act of 1601 overseers of the poor were appointed by each parish. They had the power to force people to pay a local tax to help the poor. Those who could not work such as the old and the disabled would be provided for. The overseers were meant to provide work for the able-bodied poor. Anyone who refused to work was whipped and, after 1610, they could be placed in a house of correction. Pauper’s children were sent to local employers to be apprentices.

On a more cheerful note in the 17th century in many towns wealthy people left money in their wills to provide almshouses where the poor could live.

English Society in the 18th Century

In the early 18th century the population of Britain was about 6 1/2 million. In the late 18th century it grew rapidly and by 1801 it was over 9 million.

Owning land was the main form of wealth in the 18th century. Political power and influence were in the hands of rich landowners. At the top were the nobility. Below them was a class of nearly rich landowners called the gentry. In the early 18th century there was another class of landowners called yeomen between the rich and the poor. However, during the century this class became less and less numerous.

However other middle-class people such as merchants and professional men became richer and more numerous, especially in the towns. Below them were the great mass of the population, craftsmen, and laborers. In the 18th century probably half the population lived at subsistence or bare survival level.

In the early 18th century England suffered from gin drinking. It was cheap and it was sold everywhere as you did not need a license to sell it. Many people ruined their health by drinking gin. Yet for many poor people drinking gin was their only comfort. The situation improved after 1751 when a tax was imposed on gin.

British Society in the 19th Century

In the early 19th century Britain was an oligarchy. Only a small minority of men (and no women) were allowed to vote. The situation began to change in 1832 when the vote was given to more men. Constituencies were also redrawn and many industrial towns were represented for the first time. The franchise was extended again in 1867 and 1884. In 1872 the secret ballot was introduced.

However, in the 19th century, at least 80% of the population was working class. In order to be considered middle class, you had to have at least one servant. Most servants were female. (Male servants were more expensive because men were paid higher wages). Throughout the century ‘service’ was a major employer of women.

In the 19th century families were much larger than today. That was partly because infant mortality was high. People had many children and accepted that not all of them would survive.

Organised religion was important to many people in the 19th century. Nevertheless, in 1851 a survey showed that only about 40% of the population were at church or chapel on a given Sunday. Even allowing for those who were ill or could not make it for some other reason meant that half the population did not go to church. Certainly many of the poor had little or no contact with the church. In 1881 a similar survey showed only about 1/3 of the population at church on a given Sunday. In the late 19th century organised religion was in decline.

Poverty in the 19th Century

We know more about poverty in the 19th century than in previous ages because, for the first time, people did accurate surveys and they made detailed descriptions of the lives of the poor. We also have photographs and they tell a harrowing story.

At the end of the 19th century, more than 25% of the population was living at or below the subsistence level. Surveys indicated that around 10% were very poor and could not afford even basic necessities such as enough nourishing food. Between 15% and 20% had just enough money to live on (provided they did not lose their job or have to take time off work through illness). If you had no income at all you had to enter the workhouse.

The workhouses were feared and hated by the poor. They were meant to be as unpleasant as possible to deter poor people from asking the state for help. However during the 19th-century workhouses gradually became more humane.

British Society in the 20th Century n British society changed greatly during the 20th century. In 1914 only about 20% of the population was middle class. By 1939 the figure was about 30%. In the late 20th century the number of ‘blue-collar’ or manual workers declined rapidly but the number of ‘white-collar’ workers in offices and service industries increased rapidly.

In the 1950s large numbers of West Indians arrived in Britain. Also from the 1950s, many Asians came. In the late 20th century Britain became a multi-cultural society.

There was another change in British society. In the late 20th century divorce and single-parent families became much more common.

In the early 20th century it was unusual for married women to work (except in wartime). However, in the 1950s and 1960s it became common for them to do so – at least part-time. New technology in the home made it easier for women to do paid work. Before the 20th-century housework was so time consuming married women did not have time to work. At the same time, the economy changed. Manufacturing became less important and service industries grew to create more opportunities for women.

Also, in the 1950s young people had significant disposable income for the first time. A distinct ‘youth culture’ emerged, first with teddy boys, then in the 1960s with mods and rockers, and in the late 1970s with punks and also with rock music. A revolution in music was led by Elvis Presley and Bill Haley.

From 1348 to 1351, in Europe alone, the population diminished by 25-60%. Some estimates are as high as 2/3 of the population. The exact death toll from primary sources is hard to pinpoint due to the area and the source. Some sources exaggerate the death toll, but it is estimated to be around 75 to 200 million people. Sources say that the Black Death started in Central Asia and made it&rsquos way up the Silk Road, affecting the Middle East and Europe. Genoese ships traveling the Black Sea to Messina, Sicily carried dead and dying soldiers that were affected by the plague. All that was alive on the ship died within days. From Sicily, it took three years to spread through Europe and moved as far as Greenland and Iceland. The plague and climate change eradicated coastal European colonies in Greenland.

The plague was also carried by the military. English soldiers traveling back from France was a cause of the spread in England. Some estimates claim that the plague killed as much as 75% of the population in some areas. Closed communities and nunneries were extremely vulnerable to the Black Death. If one became infected, the entire community was at risk. Since friars and nuns tended to the sick, infection among them was common. Gherardo, brother of the famous humanist Petrarch and monk in the monastery of Montrieux, was the only survivor of the pestilence in his monastery. The only other survivor was his dog, and they buried the 34 other monks.

Elizabethan Life

High Society
Society began to form along new lines in the Tudor years. If feudal England was an age of community, Tudor England was one of individuality. Nobility and knights were still at the top of the social ladder, but the real growth in society was in the merchant class.

Nobles old and new
Within the nobility there was a distinction between old families and new. Most old noble families were Catholic, and most new noble families were Protestant. The upper classes were exempt from the new oaths of allegiance to the Church of England, and many Catholic families maintained private chaplains.

Noble obligations
It is easy to think of the nobility as the idle rich. They may have been rich (though not necessarily), but they certainly weren't allowed to be idle. Often, high office brought debt rather than profit. Honorific offices were unpaid, and visiting nobles to England were the responsibility of the English nobility to house and entertain at their own expense. Appointment to a post of foreign ambassador brought with it terrible financial burdens. The ambassador was expected to maintain a household of as many as 100 attendants.

Elizabethan progresses
The most expensive "honour" of all was that of housing Queen Elizabeth and her household. Elizabeth hit on the clever scheme of going on constant "progresses" about the country. Aside from the benefit of bringing her into closer contact with her subjects, she saved a great deal of money by making the nobles with whom she stayed foot the bill for her visit. Many nobles begged off the honour of her stay for fear of bankruptcy. Incidentally, the "progresses" of Elizabeth account for the fact that there are so many places today that advertise "Queen Elizabeth slept here". She slept just about everywhere.

Nobility had other expenses besides the monarch. They maintained huge households, and conspicuous consumption and lavish entertainment was expected.

The new merchant class
The Tudor era saw the rise of modern commerce with cloth and weaving leading the way. A prosperous merchant class emerged from the ashes of the Wars of the Roses. The prosperity of the wool trade led to a surge in building in the active wool areas. "Wool churches" can be seen today in the Cotswolds, Lavenham, Leominster, and Stamford, among others. The importance of the wool trade in late medieval and Tudor England cannot be overstated. Witness the inscription carved on a monument in a wool church, "I thank God and ever shall, it was the sheep that payed for all".

House designs became more balanced and symmetrical, with E and H shapes common, (possibly as a tribute to Elizabeth and Henry VIII). For the first time, greater attention was paid to comfort and less to defence. Battlements disappeared, arches became flattened, and bay and oriel windows grew in size.

Houses were often built around an inner courtyard. The hall was still the centre of life, though now space was made in lofts for servants to sleep. The winter parlour appeared, a forerunner of the modern dining room. It acted as a family retreat area, and privacy began to be more prized. The walls were commonly decorated with linenfold panelling and adorned with freshly cut boughs for scent.

Tudor houses were generally timber-framed. The oak timbers were usually left to the weather rather than tarred black as is commonly seen in modern restorations and imitations. A new feature of manor houses was the long gallery running the length of the upper floor. It was a place for walks, games, and displaying art. There were few passages one room opened directly into the next. This also meant that privacy tended to be a foreign concept to most people.

Houses began to be built with many more windows. Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire was known by the rhyme, "Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall". Elaborately carved oak staircases began to be featured in houses, replacing circular stone stairwells.

Gardens were a vital feature of Tudor life. Both flower and herb gardens were popular, with formal layouts of straight lines and walks. Topiary made an appearance.

Meals were elaborate and large. Breakfast was simply a light snack, while the main meal of the day was dinner, which began at 11 o'clock and lasted for three hours. A smaller supper was usual at 6 o'clock. The lower classes had dinner at noon and supper at 7 or 8 in the evening. The poor ate off wooden vessels, or pewter, the rich off silver, glass, or delft from Holland. China ware was unknown.

Food was cooked over open fires. Meat was cooked on a spit which was sometimes turned by a dog running on a circular treadmill attached to the spit end. Baking was done in iron boxes laid on the fire or in a brick oven set into the side of the fireplace.

House Interiors
If the medieval period was one of beautiful work in stone the Tudor period was one of beautiful woodwork. The movement began in the 15th century with church carvings (screens, stalls, and pulpits), and by Elizabeth's time, the carvings had spread to house interiors. Walls were heavily panelled and furniture grew more elaborate, though it was still heavy and sparse by modern standards. Sideboards became fashionable as a way to display plate.

were few chairs stools or chests were used instead. Rushes, loose or plaited together to form a rug, were used on the floors. These rushes were swept or replaced haphazardly, if at all, early in Tudor times. They accumulated layers of filth and fleas over the years. By the end of Elizabeth's reign, however, things changed, and the English acquired a reputation for cleanliness.

Great attention was paid to beds. The feather bed made an appearance, replacing the straw mattress. Elaborate four-poster beds were the mode, and were so highly valued that they are given special mention in the wills of the time.

Latin was still the language of literacy, despite the success of Geoffrey Chaucer. In 1589 Spenser's Faerie Queen was a revelation of the possibilities of the English language in prose.

Plays and playwrights proliferated after 1580, notably Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare. Plays were originally performed in the courtyard of inns, whose galleried design influenced the later design of playhouses such as Shakespeare's The Globe (1599). These theatres were open to the air in the centre, or pit. Performances were given in daylight, due to the difficulty of lighting the stage and the unsafe nature of travel after dark.

Popular games included bowls, paume (the ancestor of tennis), tilting at quintain, bull and bear-baiting, and cockfighting. Medieval tournaments were replaced by masques, a sort of play or spectacle full of allegory. Sometimes fireworks, which had just been invented, were a part of the masque.

Practice with a longbow was still encouraged despite the advent of gunpowder and cannon. Accuracy was expected a law of Henry VIII decreed that no one 24 years of age or older should shoot at a target less than 220 yards away. Early guns were incredibly slow and proved useless in wet weather. Bowmen could afford to laugh at them.

Click here for a look at places to visit in England associated with Elizabeth I.

The Rise of the Middle Ages

J ohan Huizinga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages, as it was once known, is a hundred years old and has just been awarded the accolade of a magnificent centenary edition in a superb, fresh English translation. This lavishly illustrated volume marvelously enhances the reader’s encounter with a historical classic by presenting alongside the text a mass of the ­visual evidence the author discusses. Not many history books of the modern era have seen so many editions in so many different languages, and fewer still have enjoyed so long a run. How often, after all, does a book by a professional historian get a centenary edition, let alone such a luxurious one? The appearance of this latest version is a justly deserved tribute to a great work of history that is also a great work of literature.

The observant reader will have noticed, of course, that the English title has changed&mdashagain. The Waning of the Middle Ages, though agreed to at the time by the author himself, was never a literal translation of the Dutch Herfsttij der ­Middeleeuwen (which lacks even the definite article). After it had held the field for several decades, “­Waning” was challenged as importing connotations of decline and decay not found in the noun Herfsttij, a word derived from the Dutch for autumn (Herfst compare the German Herbst). So, it was replaced for a few decades by “Autumn.” Now we have “Autumntide,” which has the merit of being absolutely literal, but which, to this reader at least, seems a rare false move in what is an almost impeccable translation. The quality of the translation I take on trust (knowing no Dutch) from the excellence and grace of the English, and from the care evidently taken by the translator, Diane Webb, and the scholars who assisted her. (The only slip I noticed in the text was a rendering from Latin, where the validi mendicantes so regularly denounced in late medieval and early modern social comment become “healthy beggars” the phrase is more forcefully and customarily conveyed in English as “sturdy beggars.”) But however the elusive Herfsttij may sound in Dutch, “Autumntide” is a poetaster’s dodge, a nineteenth-century coinage, a little too precious to serve the purpose here. It just doesn’t work.

The reason The Waning of the Middle Ages worked so well&mdashand surely that perfect line, with its lovely falling cadence, had a great deal to do with the initial appeal of the book in English&mdashis that, though not a precise translation of the original title, it captures so precisely the leitmotif of Huizinga’s work, which is an epitaph for a dying culture. Huizinga intends to bury the Middle Ages, not to praise them. So for me, this book will always remain The Waning of the Middle Ages. If we wanted to do more justice to the autumnal connotations of ­Herfsttij, we might consider The Fall of the Middle Ages, exploiting the ­ambiguity of “fall” in American as distinct from British usage.

What gives Huizinga’s account of the later Middle Ages its poignant appeal is that although he is not sorry to see them go, he is nevertheless seized from time to time, despite himself, by a moment of nostalgia, a grudging sympathy (rarely admiration) for what is passing. Autumntide is not, as it might have been in the hands of a medievalist, a protest against the Burckhardtian myth of the ­Renaissance. On the contrary, Huizinga is a man of the Enlightenment (as implied by his job description at the time, Professor of Universal History). His dying Middle Ages are awaiting the breath of new life that will stir with the Renaissance, and his analysis is not so much a refutation of Burckhardt’s grandiose conception as a reflection of it. By Huizinga’s time, some historians had developed the concept of a “­Burgundian” or “Northern” Renaissance, sprinkling a little of Burckhardt’s glitter on the ­glorious artistic productions of the Low Countries in the fifteenth ­century. But Huizinga insists that, no, for all the color, ­delicacy, and realism of the School of van Eyck, the cultural achievement of the ­Burgundian and French world of that century remained “essentially medieval.”

Professor of Universal History Huizinga may have been, but his Autumntide is something very ­different&mdashwhat would today be called cultural history. It is not at all universal. It is the cultural history of a particular but ill-defined region, the contested area occupied by France and by the “Burgundian” polity of the fifteenth century. This latter assemblage of inherited and conquered territories, bundled together under the aegis of the Dukes of Burgundy, curving down from Flanders and the Netherlands along the eastern bank of the Meuse to the duchy as such and the borders of the Swiss Confederation, might itself have become an early modern nation state. It is only the inevitability of hindsight that sets “France” on the path to modern statehood while seeing “Burgundy” as a gloriously romantic, but short-lived, experiment. But we hear only snatches of the political history of the region in Autumntide.

There is a paradox in Huizinga’s approach to the later Middle Ages. The dominant motif, from start to finish, is decline and fall, the “end of the Middle Ages.” The rhetoric is of the “weary,” the “empty,” the “dead.” The book presents itself as the story of a worn-out culture, its creative resources spent, living on borrowed time, waiting for something new. Yet Huizinga’s eyes are open to the boundless vitality and vibrancy of what he strangely insists is little more than a corpse&mdashcaput mortuum, the useless residue in the alembic. Thus the saints, he says, “lived in the minds of the people like gods,” yet two pages later the cult of the saints is declared dead on its feet because it was to be overthrown so swiftly by the Reformation. This tension alerts the reader to something else. The editors rightly attribute a recent quickening of interest in Huizinga’s work to the fact that his venture in cultural history appeals to the “new cultural history” fashionable in the now vastly expanded historical profession. Like the new cultural historians, Huizinga makes much use of “theory”&mdashin his case, late-nineteenth-century anthropology, comparative religion, and ideas of ethnic or national character. This shows up in all sorts of odd comments and judgements, many of them featuring the notion that this or that aspect of fifteenth-century culture was “primitive,” a term bandied about by early anthropologists. Thus, the elaborate rituals of chivalric orders such as the Order of the Golden Fleece are “no different from groups of men bonding in savage societies,” and the extravagant vows that knights sometimes swore are “barbaric.” Fascinating and richly rewarding though Autumntide is, its theoretical apparatus, a bizarre amalgam of Burckhardt and early anthropology, is now very dated, at best an annoying distraction and at worst deeply misleading. One is driven to conclude that Huizinga, though a peerless observer, was a poor analyst. This could offer a salutary lesson to contemporary scholars who solemnly invoke “the latest developments in critical theory” (that maelstrom of bombastic jargon).

Huizinga is at his best, then, when he shows, rather than when he tells. He shows us how fifteenth-century culture reveled in rules and formalities and etiquette and how supreme was the place of allegory in its imagination and how its verse could achieve marvelous effects in recondite forms. He shows us, moreover, a culture dominated by its aristocracy, who were at once its masters and its trendsetters. He is less convincing when he tells us that the paramount position of the nobility was just an illusion, no doubt because the “real” center of gravity was now with the bourgeoisie (to whom, incidentally, he gives surprisingly little attention). The claim does not sit well with what he is showing us. And however much the bourgeoisie may have been on an upward trajectory, it would be many centuries before the European nobility surrendered their ascendancy. The relative positions of aristocracy and bourgeoisie are better expressed when Huizinga shows that the “artist” of the later Middle Ages was not the creative individualist of modernity but an artisan providing goods and services to affluent patrons. Art itself, likewise, was no matter of abstract aesthetics, but a severely practical business. Jan van Eyck, no less, was sent by the Duke of Burgundy to “take a picture” of the daughter of the King of Portugal, so that the duke could get an idea of what he might be taking on in a marriage contract.

Huizinga has more in common than he realizes with what he likes to call “the medieval mind,” and himself displays symptoms of some of the ailments he diagnoses in it. In the illuminating essay that Graeme Small provides as an afterword, this remark is cited from Huizinga’s working notes: “Bourgeois realism . . . was strong in new observations . . . but not in thought content.” Much the same, as we have seen, might be said of Autumntide. Again, Huizinga comments in passing that “the medieval mind is prone to generalize from a single case.” Yet he opines elsewhere that “there seems to have been a popular belief that, since the Great Schism [of 1378], no one had been admitted to paradise.” This ludicrous claim turns out to be based on a single source, in which an eccentric popular preacher called Jean de Varennes, who had made many enemies with his relentless critique of clerical abuses, is recorded defending himself against a host of charges, many of them transparently malicious. On this specific charge, he flatly denied ever having said such a thing. A moment’s thought suggests that if anyone ever did say this, it was not so much a “popular belief” as a wry comment on a situation in which two rival popes, having split Christendom between them, excommunicated each other.

H uizinga seems to reveal his own method in his penetrating exposition of the method of Jan van Eyck. For the historian, like the painter he describes, homes in on detail after detail, endlessly catching the mind’s eye, filling the pages or the panel almost beyond capacity. As he marshals his materials, he reminds us of those fifteenth-century authors who rejoiced in the particularity of their endless lists and inventories. Huizinga is as visual as van Eyck and as verbal as Villon, but for all his theoretical devotion to theory, his practice is not quite aligned with it. The architecture is not coherent: Jeeves might even have judged the book “lacking in significant form.” For Huizinga himself, as for the later Middle Ages, form turns out to be ornament. One of the lasting lessons of Autumntide is that perhaps the defining characteristic of the culture he describes is what we might call, to borrow a concept coined by ­David Cannadine for the very different ­context of British imperial rule in India, “ornamentalism.” Cannadine’s idea of ornamentalism, “hierarchy made visible,” a world of “chivalry and ceremony, monarchy and majesty,” is peculiarly well-suited to the world of display and spectacle ­Huizinga recreates.

The fifteenth century was the great era for the ornamentation of parish churches. The magnificent artistic achievements that we see in elite culture, on which Huizinga based his analysis, are the tip of a lost iceberg, preserved in galleries and libraries and museums. The submerged mass has long since melted away, except to the extent that it survives in the structures of those churches themselves, buildings that have now become, for most of the people who live around them, strange, dark, and mostly quiet monuments, far from the gaudy, busy, noisy places they once were. ­Huizinga engages with the religious dimension characteristically: The observer cannot but be struck by the scale of late-medieval Catholic devotion, but the analyst, heir to Dutch Calvinism, can scarcely credit it as Christianity. In recent times, Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars (1992) has offered a fuller, more sympathetic, and more compelling account of fifteenth-century Catholicism, which was more culturally dominant than ever on the very eve of the Reformation that would shake it and split it. Even the supreme technological achievement of that century, the invention of printing with movable type, was driven forward by Catholic religious culture, by the surge of investment in endowed prayer for the dead and in education. The texts that provided printers with their business model in those early decades were missals, psalters, breviaries, books of hours, grammars, primers, and&mdashof course&mdashindulgences. Though within a couple of generations it had outgrown the cradle, it is hard to imagine how this industry could have established itself without the intercessory machinery of late-medieval Catholicism. Where else was the demand for it to supply?

A widespread misapprehension about Europe after the Black Death is that the catastrophic mortality of the fourteenth century left deep, traumatic scarring that somehow marked or overshadowed the remainder of the “Middle Ages” until the dawning of “the Renaissance.” This is not a theme of ­Huizinga’s Autumntide, but his lengthy discussion of death has certainly contributed to it, as has his insistence that late-medieval culture was characterized by “dreadful depression and profound pessimism.” Death was much more familiar to people in medieval Europe than to their successors today, even in Europe under ­COVID. But they were neither obsessed with it nor oppressed by it. The idea that they were is a misreading of the abundant evidence of their concern for the soul after death, which is not at all the same thing. Europe after the Black Death did what human society ­usually did after such terrible ­mortality: It went on, it rebuilt, it recovered. The fifteenth century was a century of growth. In most pre-industrial societies, economic growth is a function of demographic growth, and the fifteenth century was an era of long demographic recovery that in many places saw a rise in real incomes for ordinary people. In France, this era has been called le beau quinzième siècle, “the fair fifteenth century.” In England, at least, the period 1450–75 saw the real income of working people reach levels from which it would fall away in the sixteenth century, and to which it may not have returned until the nineteenth. This is why there was so much to spend on the decoration of churches and chapels and on intercession for the faithful departed. Our dearly held cultural myths of “Renaissance” and “Reformation” predispose us to see the sixteenth century as a century of “progress,” and in some ways there is truth in that. Yet for ordinary people across much of Western Europe, the sixteenth century saw things worsen amid resurgent epidemics, religious division, endemic warfare, and an increasingly extractive State apparatus.

Huizinga seems to forget that, though we view their age as “the end of the Middle Ages,” the people living then did not&mdasheven if some of them thought it was, in a general way, the end of the world. Intellectuals of that time saw themselves as “moderns”&mdasha word, we should note, that they popularized. Likewise, though Huizinga persists in regarding them through the lens of late-nineteenth-century anthropology as “primitive,” that is not how they imagined themselves. In their modernity, they compared themselves, to their own disadvantage, with the glory that was Rome or the grace that was the “primitive church”&mdashanother concept, we should likewise note, of late-medieval origin. Those comparisons were, precisely, the inspirations of Renaissance and Reformation. For the Renaissance was nothing more nor less than the fulfilment of the medieval ambition to recover ancient Rome, even if the classical humanism required to fulfil that ambition also revealed the ambition in its fullest sense to be unattainable. But the hankering after the ancient world is what the Renaissance inherited from the Middle Ages. The “Middle Ages” were of course the invention of “the Renaissance,” and all the pejorative connotations of “medieval” can be traced back to this little piece of “Renaissance self-fashioning.” Yet as Huizinga himself shows in practice at many points, the boundary ­between the two eras is not so clear-cut as his theory seems to demand. The fifteenth century was not some shadowy underworld from which Renaissance and Reformation emerged, blinking, into the light. It was the springboard from which they vaulted. When all is said and done, we should probably be talking about the rise of the Middle Ages, not their fall.

Richard Rex is professor of Reformation history at the University of Cambridge.

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