Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Book 5 - What the Things You Eat say about The Medieval You

They say you are what you eat. And it’s certainly true that you can tell a lot about people by what they consume, both nutritionally and in a broader sense, as I have discovered in the fourth of the five books that have been most influential to me in writing The Black and The White.

The subtitle of Christopher Dyer’s book Standards of Living in the Later Middle Ages (actually Social change in England c. 1200 – 1520) could, quite plausibly, have been ‘Seeing the Population as Consumers’.

Consumers: it’s a word with a modern feel, isn’t it? Smacks of the retail prices index and the FTSI 100 and market research. But, once we stopped being nomadic hunter-gatherers and got the hang of staying in one place and growing things we’ve had the leisure to make stuff. And, once you make stuff, you’ll soon find you make more than you can use. And the market is born.

OK, so that’s a bit reductionist. But the same could not be said of Standards of Living in the Later Middle Ages. By looking at very dry sources – invoices, account rolls, court records of fines, wills, bills of distraint etc – he paints for the reader a fascinating account of what life was actually like, on a day-to-day level, for the people of the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. What did they eat? What did they wear? What kind of houses did they live in? And, above all, why? Why that diet, why those clothes, why that style of house?

I don’t know whether any of you followed the recent series A History of the World in 100 Objects on Radio 4 (also available on iTunes as podcast) but I was an addict and, in one of the earlier episodes the point was made that writing didn’t develop as a literary tool – far from it, it was around for centuries before anybody thought to write down orally-transmitted stories – but for the purposes of administration. Once you begin trading you need to record what you’ve got, what has moved from whom, to whom, and in response to exactly what transaction. Otherwise you won’t know how much you should have and how much money there should be in your coffers as a replacement for the stuff you don’t have any more.

It’s that kind of record that Dyer is drawing on. The vast majority of the written material which survives from the medieval period is not literature but legal and administrative records – manorial rolls, court rolls, parliamentary rolls and, strangely enough, individual records – wills and contracts and leases and so forth, all kept with the manorial records. And all of these deal with stuff. Stuff that people possessed, stuff that they were entitled to, stuff they ate, stuff they wore.

I love nitty gritty details of people’s daily lives and, in Dyer’s book they are very exact. Unlike most general reference books which say infuriatingly generic things like ‘most people ate pottage’ without any attempt at stratifying ‘people’ or explaining the many and varied meanings of ‘pottage’, Dyer’s books is absolutely precise because he’s working from written sources from actual places, often referring to named individuals. A widow from Essex, for example, was known to have had a good amount of vegetables in her diet because the record of a maintenance agreement with a family member says that she was allowed ‘half of the garden for her own use’. (Nobody below the level of aristocrat sat about in a flower-garden in those days – her ‘use’ was growing food.)

Stereotypical views of the medieval world – promulgated by many a Robin Hood film and others of the same ilk – are regularly punctured. For instance, many tenants at Alrewas, Shropshire, were allowed, by customs written down in 1342, to catch fish from the Trent for their own use on the meatless days (Fridays and many, many other ‘fast’ days). So much for the stock medieval picture of the rapacious lord cutting off peasants’ hands for the smallest attempt to feed themselves from what he might consider to be his property.

And, being an economic historian, Dyer is keen to show trends over time. There’s a wonderful graph (OK, wonderful to me, the major medieval geek) showing how the diet fed to harvest workers on a particular estate changed over almost two centuries from 1250 to 1430. And there it is – the sudden rise in meat after the Black Death. In the decade following the calamity, when labour was scarce and therefore valuable, almost twice as much meat is being fed to workers as in the previous decade (or any of the decades before that excepting the boom years of the 1280s). Meat – good thick slices – was being used as an inducement. ‘Come and work for me, I’ll pay you well and feed you better’. I had read in other sources that, after the Black Death, villeins were refusing to do their customary service – work they were obliged to do for their lord – preferring to work for money elsewhere and pay the fine that would result from their defiance of manor law. And there it is, in Dyer’s book, in stark accountings, proof that workers were having to be treated better, proof that their standards of living were rising.

Though I’ve read the book at least twice and dipped in countless times for a detail here, a fact there, I’m going to read Chapter 7 - Urban Standards of Living - again, today. Because A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing is set, not in the countryside like The Black and The White, but in Salster, the city I invented for Testament.

I know that the Black Death changed things profoundly in the countryside – or at least that it speeded up change that had been slowly making itself felt for half a century or so – but it had just as big an effect on the towns. That’ll be another post, no doubt!


Tim Stretton said...

What happened to Book 4?

Delighted to see Salster on our pages again!

C. N. Nevets said...

Another fascinating book I have to pick up. lol

I used to love reading through ANE archaeology magazines because of things like Sumerian recipe tablets and market receipts. So much great info about life in that stuff.

Frances Garrood said...

This all sounds really fascinating, Alis. I think one of the things that intrigues me the most about life in the middle ages (and later) is sanitary arrangements and problems such as menstruation. These seem to be glossed over in less specialised history books. We learn about buildings, clothes, work, agriculture etc, but these less delicate (but equally vital) issues tend to be omitted. I'm sure you know the answers, Alis, but I wouldn't know where to start looking, and I have often wondered how women esepcially managed before all the aids (modern sewage disposal, for a start) that we now take for granted.

Alis said...

Tim - Yikes. Can't count. Has been a bad day for me, I'm afraid. My Dad smashed his knee up yesterday when he slipped whilst carrying one end of a pool table (yes, pool table, though not, I assume, full size...) and is in hospital waiting to have various tendons re-attached and something restorative done to his patella. So I'm not at my best. I'll have to do No 4 next!

Nevets - you are clearly a kindred spirit!

Frances - Yes, these are not subjects you see discussed in most history books. I think in Ian MOrtimer's book he said something coy about women only wearing drawers 'when nature made it necessary' or something like that. Women kept cloths for the purpose but it must all have been messy and unpleasant. Glad I live now!!

Frances Garrood said...

Alis - I'm so sorry about your dad. I do hope he recovers quickly.

And thanks for the info about rags and drawers. Hmmm.

Aliya Whiteley said...

Hope your Dad's okay.

Love the sound of this book! *adds yet another book to wishlist*