3. Life in the 13th Century

Before we look further into the meteoric
career of William Marshal, our Lord of the
Manor at the turn of the 12thC, and his
role in the production of that iconic
document in the development of AngloAmerican democracy, Magna Carta, it is
helpful to consider the differences between
life then and now.
Obviously, there were none of the
conveniences that we now take for granted.
No electricity for lighting and power, no
motor transport for ease and speed of
communication and certainly no electronic
equipment for practically everything which
today’s elder generations find difficult to
comprehend. There was no mass
production – everything had to be
handmade. Farming was very labour
intensive and dependent on the weather.
Printing had not yet been invented – no
newspapers. What passed for medical
services and education were in the hands
of the clergy. Even most of the aristocracy
were illiterate. This was the time when the
oldest European universities were just
being formed by groups of students
gathering around a teacher in, say, Oxford
or Cambridge. By our current standards,
life was very hard indeed and even for the
upper classes, life expectancy was very
low. William Marshal surviving to over 70
was a major exception to the norm.
The list of differences can go on more or
less endlessly, but human nature was still
the same. People were still jealous,
ambitious and devious to the point of
trickery. Who you knew was just as
important as now and attaching yourself to
the star of a successful man or cause was
even more important. As we will see in the
next few articles, William Marshal was
particularly adept at learning how to
handle the people around him.
But it is necessary to consider the
difference in the social background.
Medieval England was still very much a
feudal society. The King owned the land,
answerable only to God through His
representative on earth, the Pope. The King
granted titles and land holdings to his chief
subjects, basically the barons, in return for
good service or for fees (fines). Annual
declarations of loyalty (homage) were
demanded and an obligation to supply a
stated number of knights and foot soldiers
when the King went to war. The barons in
their turn subdivided their holdings to the
next level of society also in return for fines,
homage and obligations for service. At the
lowest levels of life the peasants had to work
on the Lord’s land in return for their leases
on their smallholdings. Everyone had to be
subservient to their lord, and in return, their
lord was meant to protect them.
Feudal obligations were still essentially the
same as had been the practice for
centuries. But the system was evolving. It
was now acceptable to switch allegiances
if it was clearly in the interests of one’s
family and one could buy one’s way out of
obligations. Further the rise in the number
and strength of traders and merchants,
besides the need for literate administrators
brought a new dimension into the system.
The opinion of the City of London was
now important to the King and in our case
the Thame shopkeeper/traders were clearly
a major factor in the rise of Thame’s
importance in our area. Still, the King and
Barons remained in charge of most things,
sometimes in an uneasy partnership.
Money was already a major aspect of life.
There was no taxation system as we now
know it. Feudal Lords raised funds by
levying “fines” on practically everything –
rents, grants of monopolies, markets,
confirmation of titles on initial grant or
inheritance etc, etc. If a minor inherited an
estate, his or her feudal lord enjoyed the
profits from the estate until they came of
age or married. Even then there could be a
fine on the transfer back to the inheritor.
Another major difference was the attitude
of society to women. They were definitely
second class citizens. Their beauty was to
be admired, but their chief value, at least in
the higher ranks, besides in producing
children, was as assets in the marriage
market to bind families or landholdings
together, or, in William Marshal’s case, as
a prize bride for a highly valued supporter.
It would not go down well today!!
Let us mention one more subtle difference
with today’s times – the role of the law.
The laws of the land were set by the King
and administered by him or his officer as
far as the barons were concerned. They on
occasion objected to this when they felt
that the laws were slanted too far in favour
of the King. But they in most parts of the
country were responsible for the
administration of the law to the lower
classes. Sometimes this was achieved
through local Sheriffs, but these were often
barons themselves or of baronial families
or owed allegiance to the local feudal lord.
So the rule of law was heavily weighted in
favour of the ruling class – there were no
MPs or parliament to act as a
counterbalance and no independent “Civil
Service” to set common conditions
throughout the land.
Next month we will look at William
Marshal’s early life and see how he learnt
a lot from his experience as a youth.
876 words
AJSH 28/11/13 rev