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Peasants and Production in the Medieval North-East

Peasants and Production in the Medieval North-East: The Evidence from Tithes, 1270-1536

Copyright Date: 2007
Edition: NED - New edition
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 220
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  • Book Info
    Peasants and Production in the Medieval North-East
    Book Description:

    The peasant economy in north-east England, and indeed throughout the country as a whole, underwent many changes during the later middle ages, but owing to the lack of evidence it has been difficult to come to definite conclusions. This pioneering survey uses previously unexploited sources, principally from tithe data, to offer new interpretations of the patterns for change and the scope for adaptability. The author argues that the peasant economy in this region of England was profoundly affected by war in the early fourteenth century and then disease with the arrival of the Black Death in 1349, calling into question the orthodox theories of overpopulation in explaining the 'crisis' of the late middle ages: even at its medieval peak, the population of northeast England was sparse by comparison with areas further south. Nor did the availability of land and improved living standards lead to demographic recovery in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. He also shows that despite their vulnerability to crises, peasant cultivators were highly responsive to change. Far from being primitive subsistence farmers oblivious to the market and its signals, medieval peasants in the Durham region were subtle and successful decision-makers regarding the production and marketing of their output. BEN DODDS is Lecturer in History at the University of Durham.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-579-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. List of maps
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. List of tables
    (pp. vii-vii)
  5. List of figures
    (pp. viii-x)
  6. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xi-xi)
  7. Notes on Referencing
    (pp. xii-xii)
  8. 1 Tithe and History
    (pp. 1-13)

    Little is known about the humbler inhabitants of the medieval countryside as individuals, although mentions in various types of document provide tantalising snippets of information. For example, nothing is known about the fate of Preciosa, the daughter of the vicar of Kirk Merrington, who was fined 6d. for fornication in the early 1330s.¹ Her life was almost certainly very different from that of the respectable (as far as is known) widow of Thomas Strangeways, leaseholder of the manor of Newton Ketton in 1495–6, whose rent was paid and land presumably farmed by other family members.² Some peasants were fortunate,...

  9. 2 The Tyne Tees Region
    (pp. 14-44)

    The work of theAnnalistestraditionally begins with an elegant description of landscape and physical geography. In the first edition ofLa MéditerranéeBraudel even expressed the hope that ‘a great deal of Mediterranean sunshine will shine from the pages of this book’.¹ This study makes no claim to emulate the remarkable scope and depth of Braudel’s work. In any case, it is a study of north-east England where there is little enough sunshine to brighten the pages of any book. Before beginning discussion of changing production levels in the rural economy, however, it is necessary to examine the method...

  10. 3 War and Weather, 1270–1348
    (pp. 45-70)

    The twelfth and thirteenth centuries must have seen significant increases in aggregate levels of grain output in England. Manorial accounts show the development of complex directly-managed networks of grain-producing manors and, although less is known about the non-seigneurial sector, there was considerable expansion of the area under cultivation to judge from the evidence of forest clearance and of drainage from sea, marsh and fen. Increasing demand for grain is partly explained by urban and commercial expansion but population growth in the countryside was also a major factor.¹ Expansion could not continue indefinitely, however, and in some places the arable area...

  11. 4 Pestilence, 1349–c.1440
    (pp. 71-100)

    Responses to the Black Death varied from awestruck horror to hard-headed practicality. Gabriele de’ Mussis, a lawyer from Piacenza, wrote a heart-rending account of the pestilence beginning with the words ‘Listen everybody, and it will set tears pouring from your eyes’.¹ Managers and administrators, less interested in holding an audience’s attention, could be more down-to-earth. Thomas de Graystanes, prior of the monastic cell at Finchale a few miles from Durham, commented that there was ‘no hope’ of collecting rental arrears from the year of the Black Death ‘because the debtors disappeared in the mortality’.²

    Modern historians have also presented very...

  12. 5 Non-recovery, c. 1440–1536
    (pp. 101-131)

    Postan caricatured existing views of the fifteenth century thus:

    everything which the sixteenth century possessed … was to be found in the fifteenth century in a degree somewhat smaller than in the sixteenth though somewhat greater than in the fourteenth.¹

    He found no such simple progression but described the century as one of sustained agricultural recession, during which the area under cultivation declined.² He later considered the evidence for steadily increasing wages which he thought showed continuing labour shortage and the failure of population levels to increase at least until the 1470s, although he expressed uncertainty over the timing of...

  13. 6 Production Strategies
    (pp. 132-161)

    The preceding three chapters have described the changing economic conditions in the rural economy over two and a half centuries and some of the responses made by lords and tenants to those changes. The issue of cultivators’ response to the demands of the market has arisen, especially in connection with the post-Black Death boom and subsequent slump in prices from around 1375. Although it will never be possible to examine the responses of large numbers of individual tenant farmers to changes in the market, as has been done for the managers of manorial demesnes, the tithe evidence can be used...

  14. 7 Tithe Buyers
    (pp. 162-171)

    It has been demonstrated in chapter 6 that there was not a retreat from the market by grain producers during the fifteenth century. Despite the availability of holdings and landlords’ difficulties in maintaining payments from their tenants, arable producers responded sharply to changes in price. The adjustment of grain production strategies was only one means at the disposal of farmers in responding to the market, however. In this chapter, a different type of evidence will be used to explore further the relationship between arable producers and the market during the late middle ages. The first section examines the process of...

  15. Conclusion
    (pp. 172-174)

    This study has addressed three interrelated aspects of the late medieval rural economy, all of which feature prominently in the work of both theAnnalistesand historians in Britain and the United States. The first is the relationship between population and production. Limits on output have been regarded as one of the defining features of pre-industrial economies, producing the celebrated cycles of growth and decline. The second is the relationship between grain production and other sectors of the economy, including other forms of agricultural output and other economic activities such as trade and the mineral extraction industries. Finally, and underpinning...

  16. Appendix: Estimating output using receipts from tithes sold for cash
    (pp. 175-182)
  17. Bibliography
    (pp. 183-198)
  18. Index
    (pp. 199-206)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 207-209)