Chris Briggs, ‘Household possessions of the 14th and 15th century peasantry’

[This is the sixteenth piece in ‘The Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Chris Briggs is Lecturer in Medieval British Social and Economic History at the University of Cambridge. His research and publications focus on various aspects of society, economy, and the law in England and Europe during the later middle ages (1200-1500). This post – along with the next post by Julie-Marie Strange, and Ruth Mather’s earlier in the summer – turns the conversation to a particular theme that was prominent at both of our ‘history from below’ events: the relationship between material culture and ‘history from below’. Here, Chris examines how this relationship might be developed in the medieval context.]

This post discusses an ongoing research project on the possessions of the medieval English peasantry, and considers how far and in what ways it should be considered an exercise in ‘History from below’. The paper begins by outlining what I see as the characteristics of ‘History from below’, both in general and with respect to the English middle ages in particular. I also ask whether history from below, a movement that was at its most confident roughly 50 years ago, can still be traced in the more recent and current work of English medievalists. Next I briefly describe my project on peasant goods and chattels, which is still at the stage of identifying questions, methods and sources. The final part looks at ways at which this work might and might not advance the history from below agenda.

History from below and the English middle ages:

I see history from below primarily as a development of the 1960s-1980s. It is the loose label given to a kind of history most closely associated with the British Marxist historians. One of their number, Eric Hobsbawm, called it ‘grassroots history’. It was an attempt to reconstruct the actions, attitudes and experiences of ordinary working people on their own terms. It advanced the powerful idea that it was wrong to regard the doings of the rich and influential as a nation’s only true history.[1]

In its original incarnation, history from below undoubtedly involved and influenced medievalists working on England. Yet it is true that bona fide works of history from below from this era focusing on the middle ages are rarer than those on the industrial revolution and later periods. Part of the explanation is evidential: the lower orders of the middle ages did not produce diaries and letters. Rodney Hilton (1916-2002) probably did most to apply the principles and methods of history from below to the middle ages, but even he does not appear to have used the term much, if at all. It is well known that work in the history from below tradition was particularly interested initially in the organizations and movements through which the labouring classes shaped and directed formal politics. So it is not surprising that the works of the 1960s and 1970s by Hilton and others that can be most easily fitted into the history from below category are studies of peasant rebellions and political movements, especially the 1381 English Rising.[2] Other works by Hilton underlined the importance of studying the medieval peasantry in its own right, most notably his 1973 Ford Lectures, published in 1975.[3]

What has been the place of history from below in medieval English historiography since the 1980s? The term does not get much attention in current historical writing, as far as I can tell. There remains acceptance (in most quarters) of the idea that historians have an obligation to study the largest social groups and to penetrate as far down the social hierarchy as the evidence allows. This basic principle surely is a legacy of the original version of history from below. More generally, one can argue that history from below has assumed a new guise. In particular, much recent work emphasizes the creativity and resilience of the English peasantry, and the secondary role or ‘ineffectiveness’ of lords and other elites in bringing about social and economic change. Historians writing in this vein, of whom Christopher Dyer is the most important, emphasize the achievements of the late medieval peasantry, and their adaptability in the face of the environmental and economic setbacks of the period. They argue that the peasants were neither an undifferentiated mass nor a collection of rampant individualists.[4]

Looking at peasant possessions through the escheators’ and coroners’ records:

Probate inventories have given rise to a host of studies of consumption and material culture among ordinary people in the early modern period. But probate inventories are rare before the 1530s. English medievalists, like historians of other periods and places, are currently very interested in material culture. The study of consumption has long been a strong theme in medieval history. Scholars are now locating the roots of the consumer revolution as early as the fifteenth century.[5] But without probate inventories, the challenge of establishing what goods ordinary medieval people had in their houses and barns and about their persons remains significant.

Unexplored evidence is available, however, in the inventories of the goods and chattels of felons, fugitives, and outlaws. Sometimes manorial lords asserted the right to seize the goods of felons, fugitives and outlaws on their manors. As a result, lists of possessions are occasionally preserved in the manorial records.[6] But usually, it was the king who exercised the right to seize such items. Thus the records of the escheators and coroners – royal officials who were responsible for these forfeitures – represent a potentially much larger pool of inventories. There has not been much work done on these records with these questions in mind. At present we are trying through a pilot study to determine just how many inventories there are ‘out there’, and what they can be used for.[7] There also remain many unanswered questions about how the inventories were generated and recorded.

A couple of excellent examples of inventories:

1. In an escheator’s account of 1428 one John Wyth of Abbotsley (Huntingdonshire), husbandman, outlawed for felony, was reported to have owned goods worth 59 shillings and 11 pence (59s. 11d.), namely: two horses, price 10s.; two brass pots, price 2s.; one axe, price 1d.; one tripod, price 3d.; one plough, price 20d.; one pair of plough traces, price 2d.; one cart trace, price 2d.; one bed cover, price 3s.; one pair of sheets, price 12d.; one horsehair rope, price 2d.; one pair of fetters, price 2d.; two quarters of peas, price 3s. 4d.; four quarters of barley, price 10s.; one quarter of wheat, price 4s.; eight hens, price 12d.; two cocks, price 3d.; the crops of five acres of land sown with wheat, price 10s.; two quarters of malt, price 5s.; and the crops of five acres of land sown with peas, price 5s.[8]

2. In a Derbyshire coroners’ roll (1343-7), John Fox of Hordlowe (in Hartington parish?) fled after killing Peter Hamund of the same. John’s chattels: one messuage and ten acres of land in Hordlowe which are worth 6s. 8d. per annum; one mare with a colt, price 6s., three cows, price 10s.; three steers, price 5s.; three suckling calves, price 12d.; twenty ewes, price 20s.; ten lambs, price 2s. 6d.; one pig, price 10d.; one brass pot, price 14d., one pan, price 4d., two chests (ciste), price 10d., four acres of land sown with oats, price 10s., two bushels of oat flour, price 2s.[9]

A few further points about sources, methods and questions: at present, the examples above are among the most detailed and obviously complete peasant inventories we have found in the escheators’ and coroners’ records. Since finding these via a preliminary probe, we have undertaken a more systematic search of the escheators’ materials in our pilot project. One or more of the three main classes of escheators’ records (Accounts, Files, and Particulars) was sampled from more than 50 years between 1342 and 1527, usually at least one from each of the three target escheatries for each year (Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire). Disappointingly, in most cases only the total value of each felon’s chattels was given, and many of those which listed the chattels listed only one or two per felon. About 33 inventories were found which listed more than three chattels, and which probably related to peasants. But often there is a strong sense that one is looking only at a selection of an individual’s goods.

Another key point about this research is that it is interdisciplinary: it combines archaeology and history. Finds from rural sites include many objects that are not in the written inventories, and vice-versa. If one is interested in the material culture of the peasantry, one cannot study either the documents or the objects in isolation. In the pilot project, we collected finds data from excavation reports relating to 17 rural low status sites in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Northamptonshire, and Oxfordshire. These finds included, for example, 384 items in the category ‘dress accessories and jewellery’, including 275 belt fittings. The inventories are silent about such objects, presumably (in this case) because the felons and fugitives were wearing them when they fled. But it is not just clothing: the site reports also yield 420 fragments of grinding or quern stones. Again these are items rarely mentioned in the written inventories.

This project started with the idea of charting consumption and living standards over the centuries, by comparing the medieval inventories with the later probate inventories. This may be too ambitious. The medieval inventories may prove unable to support such an enquiry. But lots of interesting questions remain to be explored in a bigger project. Many concern the contrasts between the inventories and the material evidence, and what these reveal about perceptions of objects and their significance.

Medieval peasant possessions and history from below:

To what extent will the projected larger investigation into medieval peasant possessions be an exercise in history from below? By using the inventories of felons, fugitives and outlaws we are confident that we are seeing the poor and marginal in society, and not just the ‘middling sort’. Indeed, the poverty of many criminals and outlaws is a problem for us, since such persons are often said in the records to possess few if any chattels, and so leave no usable inventories. The escheators’ records also give useful occupational descriptors which confirm we are really seeing the lower social orders. Our pilot study identified carpenters, shoemakers and even a labourer, as well as numerous husbandmen, among those leaving inventories.

In order to work, our project must be genuinely interdisciplinary. In order to be interdisciplinary, it must draw its research questions from both history and archaeology. Does this mean that the issues that have traditionally preoccupied practitioners of history from below will be less prominent in this project, because they are historians’ questions but not archaeologists’? My knowledge of the archaeological literature is not extensive. But it does seem that medieval archaeologists currently writing about material culture are also interested in issues that fall within the broad remit of history from below. For instance, Sally V. Smith has recently argued that the decorated belt fittings and other metal dress items found on rural sites, and presumably worn by peasants, are indicative of a ‘resistance’ to wider elite ideologies about how peasants ought to look and dress.[10] In other words, both archaeologists and historians are interested in how subordinate social groups expressed their distinct identities through particular objects.

History from below has often been concerned with the shared characteristics and concerns of a larger group (peasantry, workers, poor etc.) which are defined as opposed to those of the dominant group. A study of medieval peasant possessions might be thought to sit uneasily with that tradition. In the recent literature, peasants of the later fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in particular are often described as adopting new consumption patterns which first emerged earlier among the aristocratic or urban elites. Historians write about the ‘downward diffusion’ of new goods and fashions (tight clothing, jetties on houses, etc.), and the ‘emulation’ of elites by peasants. Thus the study of peasant material culture and consumption in this period could be seen as a story of how peasants strove to move out of the bottom social group and enter a new, expanding middle group. The increasing consumption of a wider range of material goods among a growing section of society, including large parts of the peasantry, is not the kind of story normally favoured by the history from below tradition.

As we have seen, however, not everyone thinks that writing about the material culture of the medieval peasantry means emphasizing how far they sought to adopt the general or elite culture. Sally V. Smith argues that the wearing of decorated metal buckles and brooches could imply both ‘social aspiration’ and resistance to the existing social order. Others have played down the extent to which peasants and townspeople belonged to a shared material culture. An important study by Goldberg draws attention to the contrasts between bourgeois and peasant material culture in the later middle ages, with his urban inventories revealing the presence of items such as cushions and spoons which were absent from the small number of rural inventories examined.[11] In our project we will use a larger body of peasant inventories alongside urban and elite equivalents to pursue this question of how far there was a distinct peasant attitude to expenditure and display.

A final point concerns the purposes and audiences of history from below. Historical writing about ordinary people is often thought to be especially susceptible to discovery and description at the expense of explanation. Recognizing this, Hobsbawm stressed that with grassroots history, ‘curiosity, sentiment and the pleasures of antiquarianism are not enough’. Our aim should be ‘not simply to discover the past but to explain it’.[12] More recently, an economist who writes economic history made essentially similar criticisms in reviewing a survey of the medieval peasantry which, in considering the lives of ordinary people as worthy of study for their own sake, is very much in the history from below tradition. It is no great exaggeration to say that the reviewer’s basic point was: who cares about medieval peasants? ‘They turn out to be very dull people…They were not foot soldiers in a monumental class struggle. They did not burn with religious fervor [sic]. They were as engaged in the high politics of the era as the average modern accountant is…Overwhelmingly, medieval peasants died in their beds after lives of stultifying ordinariness’. The way to avoid irrelevance, the reviewer claims, is to inject ‘larger issues that can give a context that makes particular facts about the Middle Ages interesting no matter what they are…Medieval social history needs to be reinvigorated by connecting with the more theoretical disciplines of anthropology, sociology, and economics’.[13]

These criticisms may appear mystifying or even shocking to anyone sympathetic to history from below. But to what extent should they simply be dismissed? To what extent is a study of medieval peasant possessions, or indeed any study undertaken today in the history from below tradition, able to pass the ‘who cares’ test when it is presented to a wider audience? This is something that troubles me in designing the research project described here, and it is why I am trying not to lose sight of the possibility of making comparisons over long periods of time concerning the goods that ordinary people owned.


[1] E.P. Thompson, ‘History from below’, Times Literary Supp., 7 April 1966; E.J. Hobsbawm, ‘History from below – some reflections’, in F. Krantz, ed., History from below: studies in popular protest and popular ideology (1985), 63-73; J. Sharpe, ‘History from below’, in P. Burke, ed., New perspectives on historical writing (2nd. ed., 2001), 25-42.

[2] R.H. Hilton, Bond men made free. Medieval peasant movements and the English Rising of 1381 (1973, revised edition, 2003); R. Faith, ‘The class struggle in fourteenth century England’, in R. Samuel, ed., People’s history and socialist theory (1981).

[3] R.H. Hilton, The English peasantry in the later middle ages (1975).

[4] C. Dyer, An age of transition? Economy and society in England in the later middle ages (2005), esp. chap 1; C. Dyer, ‘The ineffectiveness of lordship in England, 1200-1400’, in C. Dyer, P. Coss, and C. Wickham, eds., Rodney Hilton’s middle ages: an exploration of historical themes (2007); M. Page, ‘The smallholders of Southampton water: the peasant land market on a Hampshire manor before the Black death’, in S. Turner and B. Silvester, eds., Life in medieval landscapes: people and places in the middle ages (2012); P.R. Schofield Peasant and Community in medieval England 1200-1500 (2003).

[5] M. Kowaleski, ‘A consumer economy’, in R. Horrox and W.M. Ormrod, eds., A Social History of England, 1200-1500 (2006).

[6] C. Briggs, ‘Manorial court roll inventories as evidence of English peasant consumption and living standards, c.1270-c.1420’, in A. Furió and F. Garcia-Oliver, eds., Pautas de consumo y niveles de vida en el mundo rural medieval (in press).

[7] I thank the Newton Trust, University of Cambridge, and the Economic History Society, for small grants to support this pilot project. The archival work on the pilot study was undertaken by Dr Matt Tompkins, the archaeological research by Dr Ben Jervis.

[8] The National Archives, E 357/25.

[9] The National Archives, JUST 2/25.

[10] S.V. Smith, ‘Materializing resistant identities among the medieval peasantry: an examination of dress accessories from English rural settlement sites’, Journal of Material Culture 14(3) (2009), 309-332.

[11] P.J.P. Goldberg, ‘The fashioning of bourgeois domesticity in later medieval England: a material culture perspective’, in M. Kowaleski and P.J.P. Goldberg, eds., Medieval domesticity: home, housing and household in medieval England (2008); also D.A. Hinton, ‘ “Closing” and the later middle ages’, Medieval Archaeology, 43 (1999), 172-82.

[12] Hobsbawm, ‘History from below’, 72; see also Sharpe, ‘History from below’, 35.

[13] G. Clark, review of Schofield, Peasant and Community, in Speculum 80 (2005), 677-9.

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2 thoughts on “Chris Briggs, ‘Household possessions of the 14th and 15th century peasantry’

  1. Pingback: The Back-to-School Edition: Cesque 97 | The Sloane Letters Blog

  2. Thanks for this Chris. Your comments make me think back to John Arnold’s contribution. As medievalists, if we want to do “history from below” we’re still very aware that there are limits to how low we can go. And maybe we should wonder: why is lower always better? Your comments on peasants wanting the stuff their ever-so-slightly betters had makes me think about how this kind of approach (or perhaps the aspiration which underlies it) might obscure what they had in common (or wanted to have in common) with those just a bit higher up the social ladder. Andy Wood talks about the importance of gender, and there too we have something central: how far do masculine and feminine cut through the social hierarchy, men and women having a set of positions in relation to power which resonate with those up and down the hierarchy. Is what is most interesting about each social sub-category what makes it different from the rung just above? What about what they have in common? If we want to write a social and cultural history which appeals beyond an already politically primed group, we have to save the equivalent of that “modern accountant”, too, from the enormous condension of history — or at least of historians.

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