Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Christopher Dyer - Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The People of Britain 850-1520

The common perception of Medieval society is of an unchanging, backward economy, dominated by a peasantry who had little influence or desire for change and an aristocracy who were the reserve of intellect and political decisions. Christopher Dyer's important book challenges these myths at every stage, arguing that we shouldn't "belittle the achievements of the past and to assume in a patronizing way that medieval people were primitive and ignorant."

He continues,
Formal descriptions of medieval society imply the subordination of the masses. Yet even serfs had some use of property, and had some choice in the management of their holding of land, though they were of course restrained in many ways. One of the dynamic forces in medieval society... was not dictatorial decisions, but the opposite - the competition and frictions between different groups, not just between lords and peasants or merchants and artisans, but also between laymen and clergy, higher aristocrats and gentry, and subjects and the state, and individuals within those various groups. A society that appears to be governed by rigid laws and customs, in reality allowed people to take initiatives.
Much of this informative book looks in detail at the lives, and economic situation of different groups of medieval society as they change through the period. If at times the topics seem dry this is because of the immense amount of detail. This is not a popular history, though it is certainly accessible to the non-specialist.

The great theme of Dyer's book is that medieval society was constantly changing. Even during the later period which is traditionally seen as one of economic stagnation, there were innovations in how people lived, worked the land and organised themselves. There were also changes to social relations between different groups and classes.

In addition to the changes through time, there was also enormous geographical variation. Take agriculture,
The managers of some manors, such as South Walsham on the earl of Norfolk's estate, had by the 1260s given up fallowing entirely, and cultivated all their arable every year. Such intensive methods were adopted in north-east Norfolk, not just because the soil was naturally fertile, but also because the high population density allowed labour to be concentrated on the land, with repeated ploughing, weeding and spreading of manure and marl.
Medieval peasants and lords were extremely concerned with maximising the return from the labour on the land, and Dyer explains in detail the way this meant at different times and places thinking through the best way to use land. "The demesnes' main contribution to technology lay in the management of resources rather than in new inventions or mechanical devices... they could maintain and improve yields by finding ways to combine arable and pasture... through changes in rotation or combinations of crops".

Though we shouldn't dismiss medieval technology, which has been shown to have existed on a large scale - total English mills by 1300 perhaps surpassing 10,000 in number.

But of greatest interest here is the examination of the changing social relations. In particular the way that serfs and peasants gradually began to relate to their superior classes not through obligated labour, but through monetary relations, the paying of rent in kind. In turn we see how landowners moved away from a feudal relationship, encouraging peasants to give a proportion of their crops, and concentrated on maximising income from rents. Over many years this had a tremendous impact upon the population of the countryside, There were many reasons for this, but I was struck by the evidence that must have been apparent to every lord in the country, that those labouring for others tend to be less productive and efficient.
An average day's labour service produced one-third of a carload of hay, while a wage earner doing the same task yielded a half-cartload.... This helped them [the demesne managers] to decide that in some circumstances it was more profitable to let the tenants pay their commutation money - to 'sell' their works.... and to use wage earners instead. This decision was made in the light of the knowledge that the commutation money... did not cover the full cost of the hired workers.
But this was not a one-sided story. Dyer notes that the "aristocracy" were increasingly restricted. On the one hand the sate was limiting their ability to impose discipline through manorial courts and from below the tenants constantly attempted to strengthen their hand, to fight for their customary rights and to reduce their exploitation. This forced lords to find other ways to make money, such as building mills, which further changed social relations in the country. We must also be careful not to judge the aristocracy through the eyes of modern capitalism. They were "not just money-grabbers", status and reputation were also important. They was constant friction between them and their contemporaries, as well as other groups in society, and it was this that helped provide "one of the dynamic forces in medieval society".

External changes however had enormous impacts. In the mid-14th century England went through two enormous social crises, first major famine and then the Black Death. It is well known that this helped undermine medieval society further, by encouraging the movement of the population, driving wages upwards and leading to more lords asking rents, rather than feudal obligations. But Dyer emphasises the role of the lower orders in this change as well, writing that
the Black Death liberated the lower ranks of society; the elite were stimulated into a reaction, which soured relations and provoked rebellion. The revolts established a new balance, in which the authorities adjusted to the reality that the peasants, artisans and wage earners had improved their bargaining power. The fall in population created the environment in which these changes took place, but reduction in rent and the freeing of serfs did not happen 'naturally', The entrenched institutions would crack only if the lower orders developed ideas which contradicted those of their rulers, and asserted themselves in a coherent and organised way.
Dyer suggests that this process was much more complex that we have been lead to believe. Wages not rising as dramatically as we previously understood, but more importantly, the higher wages and reduced population changing demands for goods, which actually stimulated the economy. But the major change was not the increase in wages, or the change to labour services, but the "leasing of lrds' demesnes".
Lords gave up their role as direct producers, and the peasants cautiously accumulated larger holdings. As the masses, including those depending mainly on wages, spent their new wealth, the urban and commercial economy regained some of the lost ground and grew once more.
The crises of the mid-14th century opened up a new era for the countryside and the town that would lead to the beginnings of the rise of capitalist production in the 17th century. This is not to suggest that some areas of the economy did not go backwards, and Dyer describes the abandonment of villages and the shrinkage of the cultivated land in this period. But in countering the idea that England simply entered an total economic plateau in the later medieval period he is highlighting the importance of the changing economic and social circumstances. Dyer is concerned with not trying to find a "grand narrative" to explain all the historic changes. Noting there was not a gradual "upward march", and highlighting the way that population did not increase as dramatically as one might have expected after the decimation of the Black Death. Ultimately though, for Dyer, the key question is the "creation of an enduring framework for production and exchange in the two centuries after 850, and the urbanization of period 880-1300." He continues
The dynamic tension within the feudal regime in the in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries with its element of competition among the aristocracy and the lack of strict controls which enabled peasant initiatives, must be accorded great importance. The relaxation of demographic pressure int he fourteenth century and the opportunities that were given to the upper ranks of the peasantry enabled some growth in a period apparent adversity.... the problems for producers int he next two centuries again allowed a level of consumer demand which kept industry and trade in a healthy state especially around 1400 and again after about 1470.
It this this emphasis on the internal dynamics and the role of production in the economy that helps make this such an important book. It is not without its weaknesses (the lack of footnotes being a major complaint), though it is full of detailed information and the occasional fascinating anecdote. Ultimately through, Dyer never forgets that it is ordinary people who are at the heart of the processes that changed their world.

Related Reviews

Green - The Hundred Years War: A People's History
Gimpel - The Medieval Machine
Bolton - The Medieval English Economy 1150 - 1500

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

I.M.W. Harvey - Jack Cade's Rebellion of 1450

There have been few contemporary works that have dealt in detail with the Jack Cade rebellion of 1450, which makes I.M.W. Harvey's book enormously important. Cades' revolt was similar in some ways to the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. The rebels assembled on Blackheath and at Mile End, perhaps deliberately mimicking Wat Tyler's men seventy years earlier. Though a smaller, and less disciplined force, they too stormed London and attacked prosperous homes and shops. They even broke open the Marshalsea prison like their predecessors.

But despite the fear this caused in the ruling class, the revolt had some important differences. In 1381 the rebels were at the high point of a movement that was challenging serfdom as a social structure. This is why the destruction of manorial records, the documents that put the exploitative relations between lord and peasant in writing, were so often destroyed. In Harvey's book she only mentions one occasion when this took place in 1450. While the demands of 1450 are often social, for instance rejecting the Statute of Labourers, they were also inherently about reform. Indeed Harvey points out that the main demands in 1450 were actually those of the Kentish middle classes. That the rebellion mobilised a mass of the lowest orders to march on London reflects that there were real concerns from everyone that needed to be addressed. But there is little, if any, sense of a rebellion against the established order from the contemporary accounts. This is why Cade's rebellion included gentlemen such as Robert Poynings who was his sword carrier during the revolt. But the mass of the rebellion were peasants and small scale land owners.

Why did they revolt? Strangely the question of France was high on the list. While the rebellion involved areas outside of the south-east of England, it was dominated by Kent and, to a lesser extent, Essex. These were the areas most affected by the armies that went to Normandy to defend England's possessions. But they were areas also frequently raided by the French during the Hundred Years War. But this isn't enough to explain events. As 1450 approached it was clear that England was heading towards defeat and for many in England this was a disaster. Henry VI was widely seen as an ineffectual king, but anger was directed at the ministers around him. Many of these, in particular the duke of Suffolk, were also extremely oppressive land owners in the south-east. They exploited the people and the land, and distorted the criminal justice system in the interests of lining their pockets.

This then is the backdrop to Cade's march on London and the murder of several leading figures in the Royal household. That the king could not rely on his soldiers and fled to Kenilworth demonstrates the scale of the crisis. But possibly because the rebellion only focused on minor reforms rather than significant changes, the majority of rebels were bought off by promises and a royal pardon. Cade wasn't. He was hunted down and killed. But Henry VI's rule never regained real stability and the king was dragged further into civil war and national crisis.

Harvey's finishes by looking at the years that followed 1450. Few histories of the period have noticed the rebellion that continued in Kent until at least 1453. This was not a whole county in turmoil, but significant numbers were still prepared to rally behind the calls of new "Captain's of Kent", and increasingly they raised slogans that demanded radical change.

Harvey's book is a work of brilliant scholarly research. She has an excellent command of the source material, including the many contradictions (such as the debate over where Cade was killed). It is no surprise that almost every book dealing with the period since has relied heavily on this important study. For anyone trying to understand the backdrop the Wars of the Roses, and history that doesn't just concentrate on kings and queens, this is an important, if difficult to find book.

Related Reviews

Hilton - Bond Men Made Free
Barker - England Arise!

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Rebecca Solnit - A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster

A Paradise Built in Hell ought to be read widely. All the latest climate change science suggests that the world is going to experience increased extreme weather, from floods and heatwaves, to hurricanes and rising sea levels. Solnit's book is important for two reasons. The first is that the "extraordinary communities" that arise in disasters are going to occur more often. The second is that the response from those at the top of society is often the worst way to respond to disasters and reflects the way those at the top view the majority of people.

We think of disasters in a particular way. It is a view shaped by common sense, by the media and by disaster movies. We believe, or at least we are told to believe, that when crisis hits, as society around us breaks down and when the state ceases to function we will return to some primitive nature dominated by selfishness and greed. We also think that any survivors will be damaged irreparably by their experience. Of course some people do respond to floods and earthquakes with violence and looting, and some people are utterly damaged by what they have seen.

But what Solnit's survey of disasters shows is that the opposite is actually true. Frequently, and more often than not, ordinary people respond to disaster with self-sacrifice, humanity, kindness and basic solidarity. As shown by her overview, from the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 to 9/11 in New York and New Orleans in 2008, as well as many other examples.

Old boundaries are broken down, old prejudices changed, motives turned on their head and new ways of thinking abound. Here's an example from San Francisco when three thousand people had died and many more had lost their homes,
Charles Reddy, the manager of Miller and Luz, one of the big slaughterhouses on the city's southeast shore, also tells of the openhandedness that sprang up in the hours and days of the disaster. Reddy says that the proprietor's 'first thought that morning was that homeless people would soon be wanting meat, and my straight orders were to give every applicant all he needed and take money from nobody. Black, white, and yellow were to be treated just the same; and they were treated just the same, even if we had all Chinatown camped down quite near us.
Others in San Francisco, and this mirrors experiences in other disasters, began not just to fend for themselves, but to organise those around them. Makeshift hospitals, soup-kitchens, shelters and camps. Long before official assistance arrived people's lives had been saved in their thousands by volunteer firefighters, nurses, cooks and drivers. In Halifax in 1917, when a munitions ship exploded destroying the town in seconds,
A young businessman named Joe Glube slept through the explosion... he realised how horrific the disaster had been and how great the need and [took] his secondhand Ford to the grocery warehouses. They had been opened and volunteers were busy distributing their contents to the public. He began setting out with supplies and hauling the injured in to where they could be aided... Such improvisation - new roles, new alliances, new rules - are typical of disaster.
Most often these were ordinary people, but sometimes not. There's a wonderful anecdote in here of the woman who remarked that she had never met more people without introduction that during her disaster. Solnit points out that frequently people look back on their experiences as the best time of their lives, and while not everyone's memory of the Blitz is positive, the experiences of many was. Charles Sedgewick wrote of 1906
'The strong helped the weak with their burdens and when pause was made for refreshment, food was voluntarily divided; milk was given to the children, and any little delicacies that could be found were pressed upon the aged and the ailing.' And then he says, 'Would that it could always be so!' And here you get to the remarkable fact that people wish some aspects of disasters would last. He continues, "No one richer, none poorer than his fellow; no coveting the other's goods; no envy; no greedy grasping for more than one's fair share of that given for all... What a difference those few days when there was no money, or when money had no value!
Of course the return of the state means attempts to return things to normal. In 1906 this meant the arrival of the army with orders to shoot to kill, their vision of the city was it would have descended in to an anarchy of rape, murder and looting. Though as Solnit points out, looting is actually rare in disasters, people breaking into shops to find food and shelter isn't (and it shouldn't be seen as wrong in that context). One historian estimates that the forces who arrived in San Francisco after the quake killed 500 people. Certainly those organising the mass feeding stations preferred to organise themselves, rather than hand over to the authorities. Solidarity, not charity.

Two of the more modern crises bring these arguments into sharp relief. Both are difficult to read. The accounts of 9/11 and New Orleans are filled with unimaginable suffering, both at the hands of terrorists or the hurricane, but also at the incompetence of the authorities. In both cases the authorities expected chaos and the degeneration of people into animal behaviour, and in both cases ordinary people organised to save lives when the system broke down. From the men and women who got 300,000 people across the river off Manhattan Island in the aftermath of 9/11 to those who travelled to New Orleans to organise soup kitchens and medical aid. Indeed Solnit makes the point that for all the power of the US military and the hours that they had to act on 9/11, the only people who actually stopped any terrorism on that terrible day, where those on the final plane who organised to stop the hijackers.

Solnit emphasises the "elite panic" that grips the authorities at times of crisis, contrasting this with the attitudes of the majority.
Elites and authorities often fear the changes of disaster or anticipate that change means chaos and destruction, or at least the undermining of the foundations of their power. So a power struggle often takes place in disaster - and real political and social change can result from that struggle or from the new sense of self and society that emerges... the elite often believe that if they themselves are not in control, the situation is out of control, and in their fear take repressive measures that become secondary disasters. But many others who don't hold radical ideas, don't believe in revolution, don't consciously desire profound social change find themselves in a transformed world leading a life they could not have imagined and rejoice in it,
As she comments later, "disasters without redemptive moments raise the question of redemptive moments without disaster", and many readers of this review who have experience of other situations might recognise some of Solnit's themes. Revolutionaries often talk about how people are transformed through struggle, strikes, protest movements, or revolutions. Participants experience the world differently, learn new skills, see others through different eyes, overcome inhibitions and grow in confidence. At the high points of class struggle, mass strikes and revolutions, the world seems turned upsidedown and the potential for new ways of organising shine through.

Solnit sees this, describing her experience of campaigning against war, and interviewing those involved with Cindy Sheenan in her anti-war protests at George W. Bush. The stories reflect those of people involved in disasters, and many went on to play key roles from outside at New Orleans. She makes that point that disaster isn't necessary for people to help, volunteer or make sacrifices for others. But within disasters there is a concentration of need and urgency, as well as a lack of alternatives that forces people to act, and act they do, with willingness far removed from the imagination of a Hollywood scriptwriter.

The stories of solidarity and self-sacrifice in this book are inspiring. But surprisingly what we also learn is that ordinary people really do have the potential to run society.