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Manor houses of the Middle Ages

Manor houses of the Middle AgesThe ordinary manor house of the Middle Ages contained three rooms at least, of mean aspect, the floor even of the hall, which was the principal eating and sleeping room, being of dirt; and when there was an upper room or solar added, which began to be done at the end of the twelfth century, access to it was often obtained by an outside staircase.

If the manor house belonged to the owner of many manors, it was sometimes inhabited by his bailiff.

The barns on the demesnes were often as important buildings as the manor houses; one at Wickham, belonging to the canons of S. Paul's in the 12th century, was 55 feet long, 13 feet high from the floor to the principal beam, and 10.5 feet more to the ridge board; the breadth between the pillars was 19.5 feet, and on each side it had a wing or aisle 6.5 feet wide and 6.5 feet high. The amount of corn in the barn was often scored on the door-posts.

In the manor houses chimneys rarely existed, the fire being made in the middle of the hall. Even in the early 17th century in Cheshire there were no chimneys in the farmhouses, and there the oxen were kept under the same roof as the farmer and his family. When chimneys did come in they were not much thought of. "Now we have chimneys our tenderlings complain of rheums, catarrhs, and poses (colds); "for the smoke not only hardened the timbers, but was said by Harrison to be an excellent medicine for man. Instead of glass there was much lattice, and that made either of wicker or fine rifts of oak in checkerwise, and horn was also used. Beds, of course, were a luxury, the owner of the manor, his guests, and retainers flung themselves down on the hall floor after supper and all slept together, though sometimes rough mattresses were brought in.

Furniture was rude and scanty. In 1150 the farm implements and household furniture on the Manor of "Waleton" was valued and consisted of four carts, three baskets, a basket used in winnowing corn, a pair of millstones, ten tubs, four barrels, two boilers of lead with stoves, two wooden bowls, three three-legged tables, 20 dishes or platters, two tablecloths, six metal bowls, half a load of the invaluable salt, two axes, a table with trestles (the usual form of table), and five beehives made of rushes. These articles were handed down from one generation to another, and in a lease made 150 years afterwards of the same manor most of them reappear. The greater part of the furniture, until the fifteenth century, was most likely made by migratory workmen, who travelled from village to village; for except the rudest pieces it was beyond the village carpenter, and shops there were none.

It is not to be expected that when the master lived in this manner the lot of the labourer was a very good one. His home was miserably poor, generally of "wattle and dab", sometimes wholly of mud and clay; many with only one room for all purposes. A bill is still in existence for a house, if it can be called one, built in 1306 for two labourers by Queen's College, and was a mere hovel without floor, ceiling, or chimney. Their wretched houses appear to have been built on the bare earth, and unfloored. Perhaps as time went on a rude upper storey was added, the floor of which was made of rough poles or hurdles and was reached by a ladder.

The furniture was miserably poor; a few pots and pans, cups and dishes, and some tools would exhaust the list. The goods and chattels of a landless labourer in 1431 consisted of a dish, an adze, a brass pot, two plates, two augers, an axe, a three-legged stool, and a barrel. Englishmen of all classes were hopelessly dirty in their habits; even till the 16th century they were noted above other countries for the profuseness of their diet and their unclean ways.

Erasmus spoke of the floor of his house as inconceivably filthy. To save fuel, the labourer's family in the cold season all lay huddled in a heap on the floor, "pleasantly and hot", as Barclay the poet tells us; and if he ever had a bed it was a bundle of fern or straw thrown down, with his cloak as a coverlet, though thus he was just as well off as his social superiors, for with them the loose cloak of the day was a common covering for the night. He was constantly exposed to disease, for sanitary precautions were ignored; at the entrance of his hovel was a huge heap of decaying refuse, poisoning air and water. Even in the sixteenth century a foreigner noticed that "the peasants dwell in small huts and pile up their refuse out of doors in heaps so high that you cannot see their houses".

Diseased animals were constantly eaten, vegetables were few, and in the winter there was no fresh meat for any one, except game and rabbits and, for the well-to-do, fish, but we may doubt if the peasant got any but salt fish. The consequence was that leprosy and kindred ailments were common; and we do not wonder that plagues were frequent and slew the people like flies. The peasants' food consisted largely of corn. In the bailiff's accounts of the Manor of Woodstock in 1242, 6 servants at Handborough received 41.5 bushels of corn each, two ox herds at Combe received the same, and four servants at Bladon had 36 bushels each.

In 1274 at Bosham, and in 1288 at Stoughton in Sussex, the allowance was the same. The writer of the anonymous Treatise on Husbandry says that in his time, the thirteenth century, the average annual allowance of corn to a labourer was 36 bushels. Fish, too, seem to have formed a large portion of his diet; all classes ate enormous quantities of fish, before the Reformation, in Lent and on fast days, and the labourer was constantly given salt herrings as part of his pay. In 1359, at Hawsted, the villeins when working were allowed two herrings a day, some milk, a loaf, and some drink.

In the 14th century, at all events, there were three kinds of bread in use—white bread, ration bread, and black bread; and it was no doubt the latter that the peasant ate. Clothing was dear and cloth coarse, the most valuable personal property consisting of clothing and metal vessels. Shirts were the subject of charitable gifts.

To the labourer of modern times the life of his forefathers would have seemed unutterably dull. No tv, no books, no newspapers, no change of scene by cheap excursions, no village school, no politics. The very cultivation of the soil by the old three-course system was monotonous. But there were bright spots in his existence: the village church not only afforded him the consolations of religion but also entertainments and society.

Religion in the Middle Ages was a part of the people's daily life, and its influence permeated even their amusements. Miracles and mystery plays, played in the churches and churchyards, were a common feature in village life; as were the church ales or parish meetings held four or five times a year, where cakes and beer were purchased from the churchwarden and consumed for the good of the parish. Indeed, there can be no doubt that there was much more sociability than to-day, in the country at least.

Labour was lightened by the co-operation of the common fields; common shepherds and herdsmen watched the sheep and cattle of the different tenants, "a common mill ground the corn, a common oven baked the bread, a common smith worked at a common forge." His existence, moreover, was enlivened by a considerable number of sports. A statute at the end of the 14th century says he was fond of playing at tennis, football, quoits, dice, casting the stone, and other games, which this statute forbad him, and enacted that he should use his bow and arrows on Sundays and holidays instead of such idle sport. This is a foretaste of the modern sentiment that seeks to wean him from watching football matches and take to miniature rifle clubs.