Friday, 29 May 2009

English Social History

At this writing I am not quite half way through a fascinating book: English Social History, A Survey of Six Centuries, Chaucer to Queen Victoria, by G.M. Trevelyan, published 1942.

"Oh, fascinating", I hear you thinking. But it really is. The author is quick to explain that social history is somewhere between economic history and political history; social history describes what life was like for everyday people. It is like reading some historical novel without the bodice ripping; it's a rags to riches (or the reverse) without the individual romance. To make up for not supplying the juicier bits, this book does far better: I'm finding the missing links in my understanding of English history. Yes, I'll still love
Forever Amber and the movies Braveheart and Robin Hood, but I love even more having a better understanding of how things fit together and why.

Also, I'm finding words used in a different context, finding words that are more common around this part of the world used in their original sense, learning more about some of the architectural wonders in my very backyard, so to speak. And, guess what I'm going to be telling you about over the next few weeks...or months? Sorry about that (I'm not really).

The book begins with Chaucer's England: 1340 - 1400. The Black Plague first reached England in 1348-9. There was a feudal system in place, with only upper and lower classes: lords and peasants. Peasants were tied to the land and had no salary, as such, but they also had certain rights as well. However, because there was limited land and so many people, they had no bargaining power. They lived at a level that literally made a hot meal a luxury.

The Plague removed as much as one-third of England's population and turned the tables on the lords. Now there was not enough labour and too much land to manage without it, at least in the old way. The labourers were no longer tied to the land and began to travel; they also expected to be paid for their work.

This resulted in the more forward looking of the peasants to become yeomen farmers, who managed large tracts of land on behalf of the lords, bargaining with the peasant labourers, enclosing farm lands and building up their own wealth. In short, establishing a middling class.

My new word for you is 'demesne' - pronounced duhMAIN (It's French, but from the Latin
dominium. It caught my eye because I've visited the small museum at Woodhorn Colliery in Northumberland and one of the place names up there is Woodhorn Demesne. I never could remember how to say the name, but I'll remember it now. In Trevelyan's book, it explains that the lord kept the best of his agricultural land for himself, rather than for his serfs. However, as part of their contract, his serfs were required to spend certain days working his demesne, which they did so grudgingly.

And now, because you've been good and read all

the way to this point, I'll share with you some pretty pictures, taken on the day I

went hunting for pink snow. These are of Tynemouth Golf Course

and one of the houses nearby.

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