Early Modern English Communities: Key Institutions and Relationships

Early Modern English port / Public Domain

Lecture by Dr. Keith Wrightson / 09.15.2009
Randolph W. Townsend, Jr. Professor of History
Yale University


Illustration of Elegy in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray / Houston Community College System, Creative Commons

Early modern households of course didn’t live in isolation. On the contrary, every family was conducting its affairs in the context of a larger landscape of social institutions and relationships, and what I want to do this week, in concluding the sort of contextual introduction, is to talk about some of these connections that bound people together and bound the country together. And I’ll start by looking at some of the more localized institutions and relationships, those which bound them together into local communities.

But as soon as I use that word, “community,” I have to pause because it’s a very loaded term. Its use tends to beg an important question about society in the period. Put simply, people in sixteenth-century England didn’t live in entities called communities. They lived in places they described as manors or parishes, villages or townships. They very rarely used the term “community” at all. When we talk about communities, as we often do, we’re actually introducing a concept which is largely a construct of sociologists and historians, and more than that we’re also implying something about the nature and the quality of the social relationships that existed in the manors and parishes and villages and townships of the distant past.

The very word “community” carries a great deal of warmth. It’s a good word to co-opt in the cause of any argument as we see constantly in political life. It vibrates with a certain moral resonance, and when that term gets adopted by historians and sociologists it often also invokes a certain nostalgia about the past. Community always seems to be just out of reach, something that belongs to a generation or two ago; just over the hill; in decline or under threat. It’s sort of the before of which we are the after; tantalizing, warm, the attractive feature of a world we have lost. And that shouldn’t surprise us. The very term “community” has very old roots derived from the Latin and meaning literally the quality of being at one. But the concept as it was developed by nineteenth- and twentieth-century sociologists was often used by them as a point of reference from which to examine, and often to judge, the rapid social changes taking place at that time.

So the traditional or the folk community was very commonly envisaged by the founders of the social sciences as being almost everything that modern European and American society was ceasing to be. It’s rural. It’s small scale. It’s economically simple. It’s introverted and deeply rooted and warm and personal and homogeneous in values and stable — embodying indeed, one could say, some of the traditions of pastoral literature. I don’t know if you know Thomas Gray’s eighteenth-century poem the “Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” but it’s a good example of that kind of literature. Gray envisaged what he called the “rude Forefathers of the hamlet” buried in the churchyard. He described them as having bent themselves to “useful toil” and “homely joys”, “far from the madding crowd,” living in a “cool, sequester’d vale of life.” These are all phrases from the poem, many of which have become widely used.

Okay. Well, it’s easy to appreciate why historians exposed to that long tradition of thinking about small communities in the past are sometimes apt to imagine the past and to assume certain things about the quality of life in the past in those morally loaded terms. To one historian, for example, the late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century village was like — he describes it as — “a family embracing and composed of many families.” Another describes how, to quote him, “the unchanging traditional life of the peasant system flowed on uninterrupted like a deep underground river.” It had flowed thus for a thousand years and it “would continue to flow for another two hundred.” Now in contrast you get some historians who react violently against what they see as a sentimentalization of these rural communities. One in particular has described a Tudor village as being, to quote him, “a place filled with malice and hatred, its only unifying bond being the occasional episode of mass hysteria which temporarily bound together the majority in order to harry and persecute the local witch.”1 So that’s how he sees it, but both of these positions derive from a concept, the concept of community, which is so emotionally powerful that it tends to seduce some scholars into a kind of sentimentality and on the other hand it enrages others into an equally distorted cynicism about human relations.

Some have suggested that it might be better if we just stopped talking about communities altogether, but to do that would surely be to throw out the baby with the bath water, because the concept of community is very hard to do without. It does describe a certain aspect of social relationships in local society which is not just a nostalgic myth; a certain intensity of connectedness amongst people focused on their local institutions; certain qualities of recognition of one another, of reciprocity in relationships with one another, of mutuality, of identification, of obligation. As historians, we mustn’t assume uncritically that particular settlements or localities in the past were communities in the classical sense with all the positive characteristics traditionally believed to go along with them. Community isn’t a thing or a place. It’s a quality of living. It varies. It’s not always present. It waxes and wanes over time. It’s subject to change. It exists in different forms and it doesn’t simply, of course, belong to the past. It’s a perennial aspect of the human situation, but if you want to consider it in the past then we can best do so by trying to carefully reconstruct the actual ties, institutional and personal, that linked people together, the ties through which they mapped out their social world, so to speak; the ties through which they made it legible and understandable. Well, such relationships and the institutions that embodied them could be thought of as the connective tissue of society at the most basic level and they were of many kinds.


Clevedon Court is a manor house in Clevedon, North Somerset, England, dating from the early fourteenth century. / Wikimedia Commons

Some were relationships of authority. We’ve already encountered these in a social order imagined in terms of hierarchical ties of obligation and differentiation. In rural society, more broadly, the basic defining relationship was a relationship of authority, the relationship of lordship and tenancy. You can imagine sixteenth-century England as being like a myriad of small settlements, most of them of less than 500 people, scattered over a landscape of considerable diversity. In the early sixteenth century that landscape hadn’t even been mapped. The first county maps, which county by county attempted to survey and map England, were actually produced by Christopher Saxton in 1576. It was such an important publication that as the maps were pulled from the press some of them were taken still wet to Elizabeth I’s chief minister Lord Burghley. He saw the political potential of having accurate maps of the country for the first time. But in the early sixteenth century they didn’t yet exist. Nonetheless, the landscape was mapped and structured in another sense by the realities of lordship, the possession of the land and the authority over tenants that went with it.

So, late medieval, early sixteenth-century, social organization was inscribed on the land through lordship and the characteristic unit of lordship was what they called the ‘manor’, a unit of land under the authority of a lord. Some lords held only a single manor, the petty gentlemen of the countryside. Some of them held many. One for example, Lord Berkeley, which is spelled Berkeley as in our college, pronounced “Barkley” in England, Lord Berkeley owned so much of the county of Gloucestershire down here that he was described by one contemporary as being “embowelled into the soil of that country.” But whatever the case, whether their land holdings were small or great, the fact of lordship over manors was fundamental to the structure of local society. The people who cultivated the land usually did so as tenants of such manorial lords, and the forms in terms of their tenancies determined their relationship to their lords and in many respects their relationships to one another.

Now these forms of tenancy were many and varied but there were some general patterns. The terminology is a little tricky so I’ve put all the definitions on your handout. You’ve probably got more definitions of sixteenth-century land ownership and land holding than you will ever need, but they’re down there in case you ever want to refer to them. Basically, each manor was divided into what was described as the demesne land and what was tenant land. If you look at your handout, there’s a map there of the manor of Laxton in Nottinghamshire. That’s almost right in the center of England. And you’ll see on one side at the top the demesne land and the village and then around it the great fields of the manor in which the tenants held their land; the demesne and the tenant land. Demesne land in the Middle Ages had been mostly cultivated by serf labor, that’s to say the labor of tenants who were not free and who held their land from the lord in return for labor service on his land. By 1500, serfdom had died out in most parts of England. It died out in the course of the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, still left to some extent over in parts of East Anglia but it was mostly gone. By 1500, the demesne land tended to be let out by lords in large units to yeoman farmers. As for the tenant land, some of it was held by freehold, probably about a fifth overall. A freeholder owned his land, he could leave it in his will, he could sell it, but he owed the duty of ‘recognition of lordship’ to the lord of the manor; he had to pay a small annual sum to recognize such lordship. Most tenants, however, held their land by what was described as ‘customary tenure’. That’s to say the land was granted out to them in the court of the manor, which would meet two or three times a year, and they held it on terms “according to the custom of the manor”.

“According to the custom of the manor”; that’s a phrase that’s often used. The custom of the manor laid down their terms. These customary tenants were usually described as “copyholders”. They held their land according to a copy of an entry in the records of the manor court which was given to them as a record. Sometimes if you go back through the deeds of a very old house you will find, by the time you get back to sixteenth- and fifteenth-century deeds, a little strip of parchment which is actually a copy of the original grant of the land on which that house is built to a copyholder. Okay. Copyholders paid a down payment to their lord called a fine. They paid an annual rent. They might hold their land for a period of years like a modern lease or they might hold it for a period of lives. That was a customary form by which you would take land for the life of yourself, your wife, and your eldest child. The terms on which they held their land might be fixed according to the custom of the manor, in which case they were usually very fortunate, or they might be ‘arbitrary’; that’s to say they could be changed. So lordship and the relationship between lords and tenants was a defining relationship in any rural community. It created a local map of rights and of obligations. The particular pattern represented usually a particular local working out of a kind of accommodation between the power of the lord and what his tenants had been able to win with him — win from him — or negotiate with him, and those terms were enshrined in their local custom. So, given those realities, custom, and the notion of custom, not surprisingly, is another keyword of the period, a very important notion.

Custom, a word they use constantly, was an accumulation of rules. An accumulation of rules about what was considered to be right and proper in a particular place and the correct procedures for maintaining and enforcing those rules. Custom laid down, as I’ve already said, the respective rights of the lord and the tenant over the land. It also laid down the rules for the use of the common grazing land of the manor. It laid down the rules for the settlement of disputes if they arose between the tenants of the manor or between tenants and their lord. It’s been described as a lived-in environment of expectations which had grown up slowly over time. Generally, people tended to argue when there was any dispute that customs had existed “time out of mind of man”; that’s another phrase that’s often used. Custom had governed their rules in that locality “time out of mind of man”, and when there was a dispute they usually recruited the oldest tenants they could find in order to pronounce on what they had known throughout their sixty or seventy years of life, on what they’d heard from their fathers or their grandfathers, and so on to confirm the customs. In practice, in fact, custom could be changed. It was subject to gradual modification over time if all the tenants consented and it was malleable in accordance with changing circumstances. Nevertheless, it carried this aura of antiquity. So at any one time the operative custom in a particular place was the outcome of a kind of adjustment amongst the tenants and between the tenants and their lord.

To this extent custom was seen as being essentially the property of the tenant community. It presupposed a community of interest amongst them, and it set the pattern of expectations that provided the criteria for judging their relationships with one another and their relationships with their lord. Was that relationship with their lord equitable and legitimate according to custom? The word they often used was “reasonable.” Was it reasonable? Was it maintaining custom or, on the other hand, was it becoming oppressive or exploitative? And as a result of all of this, in times of economic stress, such as were to come later in the sixteenth century, custom could very often become a field of contest in which lords and tenants staked competing claims about what the customs were or should be. And this was very often to happen in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as we’ll see when we come to consider peasant rebellion and popular protest in this period. Very often it revolves around custom.


Laxton field divisions map / Public Domain

Let’s turn now to another aspect of the tenant community, the community of neighbors. If custom was one key word in rural society, “neighborliness” was emphatically another. Neighborliness was recognized as being a critically important social virtue, and the word is constantly used as a kind of norm of good conduct. It was of course based on residence near one another. The very word “neighbor” derives from an Anglo-Saxon word, “neah-gebur,” which means “near dweller,” literally “near dweller.” Neighborliness was based upon residence, then, and it was conducted and developed through frequent interaction amongst those who lived near one another and their mutual recognition of obligations to one another of certain kinds. In part it was created by the institutions and the customs of the manor which fostered a sense of place and a sense of identity associated with that particular place. For example, the manor court served as an instrument of self-regulation especially in the organization of agriculture within the manor.

Above is the portrayal by the surveyor of Laxton of one of the fields, and look at how those fields are — the field is divided up into little strips of land, each of one is numbered. The tenants held their land scattered in strips across the field. The numbers are there so that the surveyor could put down which pieces of land were held by particular tenants in his survey book, and there at the edge of the field is an area of common land which was used by all the tenants for grazing their animals. The surveyor has portrayed various sheep grazing on it. It’s a particularly beautiful map, this map of Laxton, which was done in the early seventeenth century. Well, that kind of arrangement, that kind of scattering of land around the field, that sharing of common grazing land inevitably meant that there had to be a good deal of cooperative organization of agriculture in such a place, and the manor court provided the opportunities to pass bylaws which enabled people to draw up the rules for their cooperative agriculture. Bylaws were described in one contemporary law book as being made for the “common profit and with the assent of all.” Ideally, you should have unanimity about what they were and they governed not only cooperative agriculture but also the mediation of disputes which arose and, if necessary, the punishment of recalcitrant people. The aim, as one manor court book describes it, was that — I’m quoting it — “all should concur in the keeping of good neighborhood one with another in tilling, in laboring, in sowing, in shearing, in pasturing and all other things pertaining to good and thrifty neighborhood.”

Okay. That was the ideal. Of course, it wasn’t simply a happy world of peasant cooperation. In any manor the bigger tenants, the ones who held the most land, tended to dominate. There were plenty of disputes and arguments, but the constant stress that they placed on the value of neighborhood, the constant appeals that were made to that ideal, were certainly part and parcel of ensuring that these arguments got resolved. One historian of this period has described community as being in one sense belonging to the same argument and to the institutions which helped to resolve it. There was a very strong expectation that ultimately people would conform to a system which was ruled by custom in the interests of ensuring the sustainability of the agriculture of the community as a whole and the subsistence of its component households.

Well, so much for the immediate economic dimension of neighborhood, but in addition neighborhood involved of course much more than simply engaging in that kind of communal agriculture, and in fact there were some areas of the country where that kind of communal agriculture was much less significant. Already in the sixteenth century there were some counties in which land wasn’t held in great open fields like at Laxton but was already divided up into the kinds of fields we associate with the English landscape today, enclosed with hedges and ditches, each farmer owning a certain number of fields or holding as a tenant a certain number of fields and farming them according to his own wishes. That kind of agriculture, enclosed agriculture, was already widely practiced in Kent, in parts of the north of England, and in some parts of eastern England in the counties of Suffolk and Essex for example, long established there, and it was to become the norm throughout the whole country, as we will see. So the economic structure of the manor and of neighborhood was of less significance in such places, but everywhere neighborliness also found its expression in other forms. One form, a very important form, was the ecclesiastical parish.

England was divided up not only into units of lordship, the manor, but also into about ten thousand ecclesiastical parishes which provided an additional unit of identity expressed through people’s collective worship in their parish church. Duties to one’s neighbor were of course a central element in Christian teaching. They implied a certain universal moral obligation. Children were asked when they were taught the church catechism, “who is my neighbor?” Everyone was your neighbor, not only those who lived by you; a universal moral obligation. And they were taught also that the second part of the Ten Commandments, four to ten, involved duties to one’s neighbor; the second table were duties to one’s neighbor just as the first table, the first few, were duties to God. The church taught that one should love one’s neighbor as one’s self, which was of course exceedingly hard to do sometimes, but the duty to try was reinforced in many ways. At the ritual of the mass, the kiss of peace was part of the ritual which expressed symbolically being in charity with your neighbors. Those who were known to be out of charity with their neighbors could actually be excluded from church services and in particular from the communion service until they had reconciled themselves, reentered charity with their neighbors and were then allowed to take communion.

The parish also stimulated neighborly sentiments in other ways. The fifteenth and the early sixteenth centuries saw a remarkable flowering of what’s been described as parish communalism; a whole world of activity centered on the church.2 It involved the rebuilding and beautification of many churches. Some of the most beautiful parish churches surviving today were actually reconstructed in this period, a period of relative prosperity in which parishioners invested in their parish churches. It was a period of the founding of many parish religious guilds. These were associations of parishioners sometimes drawn from the entire community, sometimes particular sections: associations for the women, associations for the young, associations for those associated with particular manors and so forth, who maintained altars in the parish church, maintained candles on those altars, had patron saints and owed duties to one another. They prayed for one another. They looked after one another. It was also a period which saw a flowering of elaborate ritual and festive life. A great many of the traditional seasonal festivals which are recorded in early sixteenth-century England had actually emerged in the course of this relatively prosperous late medieval period. If this kind of aspect of traditional popular culture interests you, there’s a wonderful book on the subject by Ronald Hutton called The Rise and Fall of Merry England in which he goes in to a great deal of detail on these matters.

So whatever the framework, whether we’re talking about the manor or the parish or just living close to one another, neighborhood found expression and it found expression also of course in persistent face-to-face daily contact. The neighborhood was a primary group. People knew each other exceedingly well. They knew one another’s business exceedingly well as was often revealed when they were called upon to give evidence in court. Households interpenetrated one another in all kinds of ways: assisting one another, borrowing from one another, lending to one another, and a host of small-scale buying and selling. We get constant glimpses of these interactions in the records that survive to us. One I recently saw for example involved a woman who described how on one day she went ’round to her neighbor to borrow a bowl of flour because she’d run out and couldn’t get any at the mill. On another day she went ’round to see her neighbor to get some burning coals from her fire so that she could start her own fire more easily, this kind of constant little small change of daily interaction. We know about these things because she happened to notice on her visits that her neighbor was a little over-friendly with her lodger which resulted in an adultery case in the church courts, and these little details of their relationship, both positive and negative, are revealed.

We find neighbors involved in arbitrating quarrels, in child minding, in visiting one another when sick, in giving one another advice, in gossiping with one another, in reproving one another. It’s all well documented, involved in one another’s business to an extent which would be very unfamiliar today. It all adds up to a tangled web of interpersonal obligation. Christopher Dyer, who has written a wonderful book about part of the west Midlands, over here on the border with Wales, did one study of the wills of fifteen families in a village in that region between 1513 and 1540. He found that of the fifteen families some of them were linked to as many as seven of the others by ties of debt and credit, of god parenthood, of witnessing one another’s wills, of leaving things to one another in their wills, all adding up, as he describes it, to “a close web of friendship, of mutual regard, and of shared responsibility” — and those are just the relationships which happen to have left recorded evidence for historians to see.

Well, drawing on these ties could be crucial at times of particular need. This is a period which lacks, as I’ve said before, any form of life insurance or other forms of insurance. Neighbors could provide a kind of social insurance. You find them backing one another up. For example, when a couple were to be married it was common for the neighborhood to gather to hold a ‘bride-ale’. Ale would be brewed, people would come along, they would pay for the ale and the proceeds would be given to the new couple. You also get ‘help-ales’ when someone was in need in another way. One [record] from the late sixteenth century for example describes how a help-ale was organized for a widow whose cow had died to provide her with a new animal, which was important to her family economy.

Because these ties could be so supportive, at best, there was a strong imperative amongst people to maintain what they described as their “credit”, to maintain their credit in the neighborhood, by which they meant their reputation in general, their reputation for reliability, for honesty, for good conduct. It involved much more than simply a sort of credit rating in a financial sense as we are familiar with it today. It was a form, as I’ve said, of social insurance in an insecure world, and the price of good credit, the price of that element of security, was conformity, conformity to the standards of the neighborhood. So ties of neighborhood were something which one could also extend from the countryside in to urban communities. In the town of Folkestone, which is down here on the south coast in Kent, for example, one young woman who had been recently married and was coming to the town with her husband for the first time found that in the street where they were going to live the neighbors were gathered. When she arrived they called out, “where is she that will be our neighbor?” and drank to her. They had a barrel of beer ready to welcome her. It matters in towns too, often at the level of the street.


Early Modern maps of York (left) and Norwich (right) / Public Domain

The towns also had distinctive institutions which you wouldn’t find in the countryside. Most towns had a very strong sense of identity as autonomous, self-governing communities, especially those of them which actually had a charter from the king which laid down their rights of self-government, those which were chartered boroughs. The core members of these communities were the citizens who held the freedom of the city and as freemen of the city were enabled to participate in civic government. So in the city of York for example, in the north, about half the male household heads of the city had the status of freemen and were able to participate in the city’s political institutions. In the city of Norwich, in the east, it was about a third of the male household heads. Citizenship was usually contingent on having served an apprenticeship in a craft or trade, having served it to its end, become a member of a craft fellowship or guild and consequently being admitted to the full freedom of the city.

And the great men in the political life of the cities were usually the chief officers of those craft fellowships or guilds, especially the most powerful ones. Guilds varied in number. The city of York had sixty-four. The much smaller city of Carlisle over here in the northwest only had eight. It all depended on the size and complexity of the urban economy, but their functions were essentially the same. They regulated particular trades. They governed the taking on of apprentices, how many apprentices could be admitted to the trade. They tried to keep nonmembers of the guild out of practicing the trade. Such people were usually described as foreigners, those who were not members of the guild and were trying to get in on its particular activity. They controlled the business practices of masters. They laid down the rules for good business practice and they controlled labor relations and labors — and wages — between masters and those who worked for them. But in addition the guilds had a host of social and religious functions. Members of the guild were under obligation to relieve other members of the guild who fell sick. They provided them with medical care. They were under obligation to relieve members of the guild who became unemployed. They provided for widows and orphans from charitable funds that they maintained. It was obligatory for members of the guild to attend one another’s funerals and weddings. They were obliged also to pray for the souls of dead brothers and sisters of the guild and they were obliged to attend annual feastings and “drinkings” at which members of the guild would assemble to celebrate their common fraternity.

All of this fostered a very strong sense of fraternity or brotherhood. They constantly referred to one another as brothers and sisters of the guild, the sisters being the wives and daughters of members of the guild, and it created a strong sense of identity both within a particular sector of urban economies and in the citizen body as a whole. And in the citizen body as a whole it would be periodically displayed in processions on important feast days in which the members of the guild arrayed in their liveries — the colors of their guild, gowns in particular colors — would parade in order; generally in order with their, of their, precedence and importance within the city. When Queen Elizabeth I made her first entry into the city of London in 1559, for example, the streets were lined by the city guilds all in their liveries to greet the new queen.


Happy Family by Louis Le Nain, 1642 / Louvre, Paris

Finally, the fraternity and the brotherhood which was much stressed by the guilds and the friendship which was fostered amongst neighbors, ideally, could both be described as being extensions into social relations of the idiom of kinship. “Friend” was often used in the sense we use it, a personal friend, but it also in the sixteenth century meant a relative. It’s still used in that sense in parts of Ireland today. A friend was commonly a cousin, a brother-in-law and so forth. Brotherhood and fraternity obviously involve comparison to a bond of kinship.

When one turns to actual kinship, be it by birth or be it by marriage, that was, of course, another bond that held together local society. The gentry of the countryside were much linked together within particular counties by intermarriage. A close social network can often be uncovered amongst gentry families who not only lived within easy reach of one another but also sometimes formed, through their marriage alliances, political alignments within the politics of their counties. And we get the same sort of thing going on in the cities too especially amongst the elite of the cities. In the city of Coventry, which is the greatest city of the Midlands at this time, in Coventry there were twenty-four men who served as sheriff of the city between 1517 and 1547. On closer examination, it turns out that six of them were either fathers, sons or brothers of others who served as sheriff, nine of them were interlinked by marriage into one another’s families, and another four were interlinked by ties of godparenthood. They’d acted as godparents of one another’s children, establishing a bond of fictive kinship.

And more generally, as you know from the reading for this week, the extent to which people in any given settlement were actually related to one another was limited. People moved around a good deal more than used to be thought. In most rural communities one finds little knots of people related to one another but within the context of a larger neighborhood of unrelated people, and beyond that there would be a scattering of kin over a significantly larger area. Nevertheless, if it wasn’t the case that most village communities were heavily interrelated, those close kin scattered around over what can be described as a social area around a particular settlement undoubtedly possessed quite a strong sense of obligation to assist one another. And across even larger areas one’s kin could form a broad resource of people who could be called upon with some expectation of a positive response. If you hoped to apprentice one of your sons to a nearby city for example, one of the best ways of doing that was to activate kin living there who could help to prepare the way by finding a master to whom the boy could be apprenticed.

Kin also helped one another in finding suitable marriage partners and so forth. So kinship was also one of the bonds which tied together social areas into communities. To give just a small, petty example of the way in which kinship could function, we have the record from the 1550s of an old lady called Christian Hatton. In her old age when she was unable to take care of herself fully, she was cared for in turn by kinsmen who lived in a number of settlements within walking distance of one another. They shared the responsibility and periodically she walked between the different households where she was going to live for a few months at a time, taking with her her two cows. She had two cows. They were called Browny and Fillpale. Fillpale was presumably a very good milker. We know about these arrangements about Christian Hatton and her two cows because after her death the relatives who had been helping her fell out over who was going to get the cows, and so by this little accident of human frailty Browny and Fillpale have entered the pages of history.

So let’s put all this together. It’s been said that in late medieval and early modern society “the most fundamental of all bond… was that of mutual obligation.”3 That’s what I’ve been talking about obviously. We have been looking at the realities of those bonds. The institutions and the relationships that I’ve been surveying provided the basic coordinates of people’s identities beyond the household. They bound them together into networks of relationships in guilds, in manors, amongst neighbors, amongst kinsmen, which provided those coordinates of identity. Those ties were mostly local and they gave a strong flavor of local particularity to the society and the culture of the time; a particularity of place, a particularity of custom in that place, a particularity of known faces and those with whom you regularly interacted, a particularity of assumptions about shared values and proper behavior. In such a context people’s everyday dealings were very closely bound up with these direct, face-to-face personal relationships. They were rarely anonymous. Indeed, they can be said to have taken on a very strong moral character implicitly, sometimes explicitly.

People were expected to meet their obligations. They were enjoined to live in charity with one another. They were reproved if they failed to do so. In many ways it’s a very attractive ideal and has some features, which clearly bear out some of the assumptions of the sociological notions of community. But one should also never forget that it could also be very demanding, very restrictive, very excluding as well as including, and it was something which certainly couldn’t be taken for granted. Community insofar as it existed was always threatened with potential conflict. It had to be worked at. It has been described as being a form of constantly negotiated community amongst a set of well-known people.

Well, that’s a very important aspect of the world I’m trying to introduce to you. We should certainly never sentimentalize it. If it was attractive in some ways, it could be very demanding, very restrictive. It wasn’t an idyllic pre-modern world. There was plenty of conflict. There was personal rivalry and of course there were differences of power. But at the same time it was a world that gave priority to the needs of these collectivities as well as to those of individual households, and the restraining bonds of these interpersonal obligations could have a very powerful influence on how people conducted themselves and could have a very powerful influence on how they understood and perceived and responded to various of the changes which were to come in the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.


1. Quoting phrases from, in order: E.B. Dewindt, Land and People in Holywell-cum-Needingworth (1972); W.G. Hoskins, The Midland Peasant (1957); L. Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England (1977).

2. See B.A. Kumin, The Shaping of a Community. The Rise and reformation of the English Parish, c. 1400-1560 (1996).

3.Quoting M.J. Clanchy, “Law and Love in the Middle Ages”, in J. Bossy ed., Disputes and Settlements (1983).