Nipissing University

History 2425 -- Medieval England

Economy and Society up to the Thirteenth Century

Steve Muhlberger

This lecture hopes to give you some feeling for how English society as a whole worked between 1066 and 1300.

There are some unifying trends in the events of the period that make such a synthesis possible. One such trend is expansion, both in population and in economic production; another is the partial demilitarization of English aristocratic society.

Economic expansion

Domesday Book (1086) shows that England was neither particularly backward, economically speaking, nor especially empty of people. Nevertheless, England was lightly inhabited, with plenty of room for more population if resources were used more intensively. Likewise, the English economy was only partially commercialized -- many of its people lived as subsistence farmers. They produced most of what they ate, and ate most of what they produced. Only a small surplus remained, almost all of which went in taxes to a lord or the local clergyman. Again, there was plenty of room for increased production, increased production, and increased trade.

During the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries, England, like most of western Europe, began to grow in population and in wealth. Indeed, DB shows a country where both sorts of growth were already well under way.

First, let's look at population estimates. I stress that these are indeed estimates, but they are from a recent and authoritative study of the English economy by H.E. Hallam [Rural Economy 246-247].
    Year                    Est. pop.
These are very large increases, especially when you consider that there was no major immigration and no medical breakthroughs. There must have been other changes to allow such an increase.

One change that can be easily demonstrated is the conversion of wasteland, or at least land that was rather lightly used, to intensive uses such as arable farming.

Another change that seems to have taken place in this period is an improvement in the climate. The centuries on either side of the year 1000 were years of glacial retreat. The retreat began about 750 A.D. and ended perhaps in 1150.  This warming resulted in a milder, drier climate in northern Europe which made arable agriculture less risky and more productive. The warmest point of the trend was right in the middle of the period of greatest economic expansion in England.

A third factor was advances in agricultural technology. People argue about how much took place, and how significant it really was. In the centuries after 1066, better methods of plowing were certainly introduced. Better methods of fertilizing and crop nutrition may have been pursued. More sophisticated crop rotations slowly became common practice. Cows replaced goats and sheep as sources of milk products, and the quicker horses replaced the slow oxen as draft animals. We don't know how fast or how completely such innovatory techniques were used, or much about regional variations.

At the same time as agricultural expansion was taking place, England was becoming a more commercially oriented and a more urbanized country. As with the advances in farming, this was part of a European-wide trend.

England was well-positioned to prosper from commercialization. It was a country with an indigenous maritime tradition and a common port of call for seamen from many parts of Europe. And England had resources to trade.

The most famous is wool. During the High Middle Ages, Flanders and northern France were developing a great textile industry, and wool was the chief fiber used. England, which in the past had woven for export itself, became an exporter of the raw material instead. And it was not just a matter of wool. Flanders ate English grain, cheese, and fish, enabling a greater specialization than would otherwise have been possible. England had metal, too. Lead and tin, easily worked and very useful materials, were exported, as was some iron. By the fourteenth century, even coal was being shipped to the continent.

Such international trade could not exist without an intensification of exchange within England. This was reflected in the growth of towns. England was well provided with a network of market towns in 1066, and it had a few bigger ones, cities by medieval standards if not ours, that supported a variegated urban life. All English towns grew in size, some of them, like London and York, dramatically.

The general expansion of activity favored London disproportionally. The location of permanent government offices in London, which began in the twelfth century, only accentuated the city's special status. Anywhere that lords and their officials congregated on a regular basis was a good market for just about anything.

York had been devastated by William the Conqueror, but it remained the de facto capital of the north. York may have doubled in population between 1086 and 1334.

Perhaps more indicative of the complexity and vitality of the English economy is the founding of new towns. A new town, in my usage, is a place that before the twelfth century was a mere village or perhaps did not exist at all. The increase in agricultural production, in population, and in trade made necessary -- or at least possible -- new urban centers.

Some enterprising lords had both resources and an interest in building up an urban community on their lands.

One example is the town of St. Ives in Huntingdonshire, which was controlled by the abbots of Ramsay. In the 11th century, St. Ives was just a village with no urban activities. It was a convenient place for English and foreign merchants to meet, so the abbots set about making it more convenient. Around 1110 they built a bridge, got shops and houses repaired, and acquired royal permission to hold a fair. St. Ives never got to be a permanent urban center, but it did support a flourishing one week fair that no doubt profited the abbey.

The bishops of Worcester gained even more from their development of Stratford on Avon. They made the place a borough with a market in 1182, and by 1252 there were three hundred prosperous burgess households and industry had taken root. The burgesses, despite their special privileges, paid better rent and provided more valuable services than the same number of peasants could have.

These were small towns, but en masse such places provided a new tone to English social and economic life.

Economic expansion had an important effect on rural life. In the early Middle Ages, peasants owed rents and services that were fixed by custom. Landlords were reasonably happy if they received those traditional renders. Indeed, it was not rare for landlords to lease out entire manors for a "farm," or a set rent for very long terms. The farmer, or lessee, paid the lord a fixed amount of money or produce, and kept any surplus for his own profit. Lords usually did not inquire too closely into how big that surplus was or how the farmer was managing the estate. This rather relaxed attitude was possible in a world where both prices and production were pretty stable.

But in the twelfth century, population exploded, and pressure was put on existing resources. Anyone who had a marketable surplus could ask more than traditional prices for his or her goods. Anyone who was buying was pushed to raise more cash by exploiting his or her resources more efficiently.

The same pressure worked on high and low alike. Lords who had held under-exploited lands for generations were suddenly motivated to put them to work: to have them cleared and plowed, or stocked with valuable animals. Lords also re-examined what they were receiving from their farmers -- i.e., the people who leased estates from them -- and what they were getting from their peasant tenants. They demanded higher rents, and began to prefer money to produce.

The age-old ethos of lordship demanded conspicuous consumption and heedless generosity to one's peers. In an inflationary world, this was a hard ideal to live up to, unless one exploited new opportunities.

Peasants were both hurt and helped by this trend. Some families who had surplus labor and access to new land were able to profit from the inflation. Lords often were willing to cut new deals with assarters or settlers on empty lands that benefited both sides. Also, peasants with some spare silver could buy a degree of freedom from labor services on the lord's land, so that they could concentrate on their own plots. Other peasants must have been badly squeezed by lords intent on maximizing their own gains. It is hard to say whether the rural populace was better off or not.

Inflation continued in the 13th century. It was very bad, in fact, around 1200, aggravated by John's taxation and military spending. This is no doubt an important factor in the aristocratic dissatisfaction with John's rule. Population kept on growing too, and there was a shortage of land available for new settlers.

In these circumstances, great landlords re-examined their tactics of exploitation. In the twelfth century, many of them had rented out their demesnes and home farms for what sounded like good rents. But those good rents were eroded by inflation. So lords began to take back demesne lands into their own hands, to be directly managed by their agents.

This type of management, which was dominant in the thirteenth century, is called high farming by economic historians. In high farming, the classic manor, with a demense worked by peasant tenants, was once again the most important rural economic unit in large parts of England. But high farming was not a return to traditional methods of exploitation.

Rather, investments were made and resources carefully deployed to maximize profit. Good managers became very important. This is particularly true of the big estates, those consisting of more than one manor. These were no longer run by men enfeoffed with their offices, or by relatives of the lord, but by literate professionals. The landed properties of the great landlords were rationalized, much as princes had rationalized their principalities in the previous century.

As in the case of the princes, rationalization meant the ruthless definition and enforcement of every possible legal right. At the beginning of the 13th century, lords became much more systematic in exploiting the rights they held over the bodies and persons of their villeins. Henry II had made good the royal claim to justice over all free men of England. His barons therefore wanted to make sure they kept jurisdiction over those of their tenants they considered unfree. They put the lawyers to work, and those peasants who could not prove their freedom found themselves more clearly marked off from their free neighbors.  A certain depression of the unfree peasants went along with the high farming system.

 Where compact estates and the duty of labor services survived, that duty was much more strictly enforced. Some labor services were commuted, on a year by year basis, for cash, but not out of the lord's charity. Commutation enabled the lord to squeeze his tenants for as much cash as they would pay, and use that money to buy cheap labor from the growing class of poor landless men.

There were always some enterprising peasants who did well. Also, many avoided even the basic restrictions on their liberty. A close look at surviving estate records shows that people supposedly tied to the land moved around at a surprising rate, and married whom they liked despite the lord's claim to regulate such things.

Nevertheless, the thirteenth century was a rather tough time to be a peasant. Economic expansion, that is an increase in production, continued. But the poor did not get more prosperous. Their position became more precarious as the population reached the limit of current technology.

Demilitarization of the landholding class

The Normans of King William's time were an extremely military class. They had acquired their English property as spoils of war, and had to be armed and vigilant to keep it, and keep the native population down. There was a clear connection of landholding with active military service by the noble tenants themselves.

Around 1200, England was this connection was diminishing, for two reasons.

One was the success of the Angevin kings in enforcing a certain level of domestic peace.

Another was the simple fact that the lords of England were no longer a gang of invaders, but had become a traditional aristocracy, rooted in the soil. Unless one was near the Welsh or Scots border, eternal, armed vigilance was no longer the price of nobility.

Thus many lords did not bother to train for war. This was less true of the highest ranks. Earls and barons were still fighting men, although few pursued war as a full-time career.

In the second rank of the aristocracy, that of the very minor barons and the vassals of the great ones, active warfare was much less common than it had been. Only the richer members of this class bothered to assume the rank and arms of knighthood. For the others, military service -- now more expensive than ever, as armor became more sophisticated -- was a burden to be avoided if possible.

This changed the ways the members of the ruling class related to each other. The ties between a lord and his greater tenants was no longer primarily military. Men whose great-grandfathers were accustomed to fight personally for their lord, seldom or never did such service now.  The duty of knight-service had changed to an obligation to pay scutage when the king demanded it; other feudal duties also became fiscal burdens. Lords and men were no longer intimate associates and fighting comrades.

David Crouch has pointed out that when William Marshal was earl of Pembroke in the late 12th century, his closest associates and military companions were not his tenants, by and large, but people who were his clients, for whom he asked the king for favors (such as good marriages).   The Marshal's tenants were just people he could tax on clearly defined occasions.

The king, however, still expected his tenants-in-chief were, and  expected the greatest among them to fight and command his armies in time of war. But the king also knew that feudal ties could no longer supply the armies themselves. Scutage and other taxes were collected to pay for mercenaries. Even the king's tenants-in-chief were paid to make sure they performed reliably.

This does not mean that ties of patronage and dependence disappeared within the nobility. As we've seen in the case of William Marshal,  Lesser lords still sought the protection of greater ones. They just needed to be protected from different things. A man of knightly rank only rarely feared violent dispossession at the point of a sword. But the king's justices and the king's taxmen might well make him nervous. Such middling and lesser men could always use a patron to help in times of trouble.

Patrons might also be a source of advancement -- knights and men of knightly rank who were not dubbed knights sometimes made their fortunes as administrators for greater lords.

The knights of twelfth and thirteenth century England, save in the disturbed border areas where fighting was still a fact of life, were slowly becoming a race of country gentlemen, more acquainted with law and husbandry than war and the tournament. The king looked on them more often to serve on juries and commissions than in the army. A healthy minority, and especially the richer members of the nobility, kept the chivalric and military traditions alive. The rest were more occupied with the business of running an increasingly peaceful country.

This site has been visited times since September 1, 1998.

Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.