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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Social Life in the Fifteenth Century
By William Stubbs (1825–1901)
From the ‘Constitutional History of England’

OF the social life and habits of the citizen and burgher, we have more distinct ideas than of his political action. Social habits no doubt tended to the formation of political habits then as now. Except for the purposes of trade, the townsman seldom went far away from his borough: there he found all his kinsmen, his company, and his customers; his ambition was gratified by election to municipal office; the local courts could settle most of his legal business; in the neighboring villages he could invest the money which he cared to invest in land; once a year, for a few years, he might bear a share in the armed contingent of his town to the shire force or militia; once in his life he might go up, if he lived in a parliamentary borough, to Parliament. There was not much in his life to widen his sympathies: there were no newspapers and few books; there was not enough local distress for charity to find interest in relieving it; there were many local festivities, and time and means for cultivating comfort at home. The burgher had pride in his house, and still more perhaps in his furniture: for although, in the splendid panorama of mediæval architecture, the great houses of the merchants contribute a distinct element of magnificence to the general picture, such houses as Crosby Hall and the Hall of John of Salisbury must always, in the walled towns, have been exceptions to the rule, and far beyond the aspirations of the ordinary tradesman; but the smallest house could be made comfortable and even elegant by the appliances which his trade connection brought within the reach of the master. Hence the riches of the inventories attached to the wills of mediæval townsmen, and many of the most prized relics of mediæval handicraft. Somewhat of the pains for which the private house afforded no scope was spent on the churches and public buildings of the town. The numerous churches of York and Norwich, poorly endowed, but nobly built and furnished, speak very clearly not only of the devotion, but of the artistic culture, of the burghers of those towns. The crafts vied with one another in the elaborate ornamentation of their churches, their chantries, and their halls of meeting; and of the later religious guilds, some seem to have been founded for the express purpose of combining splendid religious services and processions with the work of charity. Such was one of the better results of a confined local sympathy. But the burgher did not, either in life or in death, forget his friends outside the walls. His will generally contained directions for small payments to the country churches where his ancestors lay buried. Strongly as his affections were localized, he was not a mere townsman. Nine-tenths of the cities of mediæval England would now be regarded as mere country towns; and they were country towns even then. They drew in all their new blood from the country; they were the centres for village trade; the neighboring villages were the play-ground and sporting-ground of the townsmen, who had in many cases rights of common pasture, and in some cases rights of hunting, far outside the walls. The great religious guilds just referred to, answered, like race meetings at a later period, the end of bringing even the higher class of the country population into close acquaintance with the townsmen, in ways more likely to be developed into social intercourse than the market or the muster in arms. Before the close of the Middle Ages the rich townsmen had begun to intermarry with the knights and gentry; and many of the noble families of the present day trace the foundation of their fortunes to a lord mayor of London or York, or a mayor of some provincial town. These intermarriages, it is true, became more common after the fall of the elder baronage, and the great expansion of trade under the Tudors; but the fashion was set two centuries earlier. If the adventurous and tragic history of the house of De la Pole shone as a warning light for rash ambition, it stood by no means alone. It is probable that there was no period in English history at which the barrier between the knightly and mercantile class was regarded as insuperable, since the days of Athelstan; when the merchant who had made his three voyages over the sea, and made his fortune, became worthy of thegn-right. Even the higher grades of chivalry were not beyond his reach; for in 1439 we find William Estfield, a mercer of London, made Knight of the Bath. As the merchant found acceptance in the circles of the gentry, civic offices became an object of competition with the knights of the county: their names were enrolled among the religious fraternities of the towns, the trade and craft guilds; and as the value of a seat in Parliament became better appreciated, it was seen that the readiest way to it lay through the office of mayor, recorder, or alderman of some city corporation.  1
  Besides these influences, which without much affecting the local sympathies of the citizen class joined them on to the rank above them, must be considered the fact that two of the most exclusive and “professional” of modern professions were not in the Middle Ages professions at all. Every man was to some extent a soldier, and every man was to some extent a lawyer; for there was no distinctly military profession, and of lawyers only a very small and somewhat dignified number. Thus although the burgher might be a mere mercer, or a mere saddler, and have very indistinct notions of commerce beyond his own warehouse or workshop, he was trained in warlike exercises; and he could keep his own accounts, draw up his own briefs, and make his own will, with the aid of a scrivener or a chaplain who could supply an outline of form, with but little fear of transgressing the rules of the court of law or of probate. In this point he was like the baron,—liable to be called at very short notice to very different sorts of work. Finally, the townsman whose borough was not represented in Parliament, or did not enjoy such municipal organization as placed the whole administration in the hands of the inhabitants, was a fully qualified member of the county court of his shire, and shared, there and in the corresponding institutions, everything that gave a political coloring to the life of the country gentleman or the yeoman.  2
  Many of the points here enumerated belong, it may be said, to the rich merchant or great burgher, rather than to the ordinary tradesman and craftsman. This is true; but it must be remembered always that there was no such gulf between the rich merchant and the ordinary craftsman in the town as existed between the country knight and the yeoman, or between the yeoman and the laborer. In the city it was merely the distinction of wealth; and the poorest apprentice might look forward to becoming a master of his craft, a member of the livery of his company, to a place in the council, an aldermanship, a mayoralty, the right of becoming an esquire for his life and leaving an honorable coat-of-arms for his children. The yeoman had no such straight road before him: he might improve his chances as they came; might lay field to field, might send his sons to war or to the universities: but for him also the shortest way to make one of them a gentleman was to send him to trade; and there even the villein might find liberty, and a new life that was not hopeless. But the yeoman, with fewer chances, had as a rule less ambition; possibly also more of that loyal feeling towards his nearest superior, which formed so marked a feature of mediæval country life. The townsman knew no superior to whose place he might not aspire: the yeoman was attached by ties of hereditary attachment to a great neighbor, whose superiority never occurred to him as a thing to be coveted or grudged. The factions of the town were class factions, and political or dynastic factions: the factions of the country were the factions of the lords and gentry. Once perhaps in a century there was a rising in the country: in every great town there was, every few years, something of a struggle, something of a crisis,—if not between capital and labor in the modern sense, at least between trade and craft, or craft and craft, or magistracy and commons, between excess of control and excess of license.  3
  In town and country alike there existed another class of men, who, although possessing most of the other benefits of freedom, lay altogether outside political life. In the towns there were the artificers, and in the country the laborers, who lived from hand to mouth, and were to all intents and purposes “the poor who never cease out of the land.” There were the craftsmen who could or would never aspire to become masters, or to take up their freedom as citizens; and the cottagers who had no chance of acquiring a rood of ground to till and leave to their children: two classes alike keenly sensitive to all changes in the seasons and in the prices of the necessaries of life; very indifferently clad and housed; in good times well fed, but in bad times not fed at all. In some respects these classes differed from that which in the present day furnishes the bulk of the mass of pauperism. The evils which are commonly, however erroneously it may be, regarded as resulting from redundant population, had not in the Middle Ages the shape which they have taken in modern times. Except in the walled towns, and then only in exceptional times, there could have been no necessary overcrowding of houses. The very roughness and uncleanliness of the country laborer’s life was to some extent a safeguard: if he lived, as foreigners reported, like a hog, he did not fare or lodge worse than the beasts that he tended. In the towns, the restraints on building, which were absolutely necessary to keep the limited area of the streets open for traffic, prevented any great variation in the number of inhabited houses: for although in some great towns, like Oxford, there were considerable vacant spaces which were apt to become a sort of gipsy camping-ground for the waifs and strays of a mixed population, most of them were closely packed; the rich men would not dispense with their courts and gardens, and the very poor had to lodge outside the walls. In the country townships, again, there was no such liberty as has in more modern times been somewhat imprudently used, of building or not building cottage dwellings without due consideration of place or proportion to the demand for useful labor. Every manor had its constitution, and its recognized classes and number of holdings on the demesne and the freehold, the village and the waste; the common arable and the common pasture were a village property that warned off all interlopers and all superfluous competition. So strict were the barriers, that it seems impossible to suppose that any great increase of population ever presented itself as a fact to the mediæval economist; or if he thought of it at all, he must have regarded the recurrence of wars and pestilences as a providential arrangement for the readjustment of the conditions of his problem. As a fact, whatever the cause may have been, the population of England during the Middle Ages did not vary in anything like the proportion in which it has increased since the beginning of the last century; and there is no reason to think that any vast difference existed between the supply and demand of homes for the poor. Still there were many poor; if only the old, the diseased, the widows, and the orphans are to be counted in the number. There were too in England, as everywhere else, besides the absolutely helpless, whole classes of laborers and artisans whose earnings never furnished more than the mere requisites of life; and besides these, idle and worthless beggars, who preferred the freedom of vagrancy to the restrictions of ill-remunerated labor. All these classes were to be found in town and country alike.  4

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