food in late C14th England: abstract

The market, petty commerce, and the food of free tenants in the last decade of fourteenth century England

This paper will describe how three women, free tenants from an English vill, interacted with their nearest market during the last decade of the C14th, and how this interaction could have affected their diet.

Southay (Suthæg) was a notional small vill (þorp) which forms the location for an investigation into petty commerce and food in late C14th England. Flaxham (Fleaxhamm) was the larger neighbouring manorial vill. Stanbray (Stánbrycg) was the nearest local small town, four miles from Southay.

These vills and town have been created to give substance to the lives of the people who will play the largest roles in conjectures on the enterprise and food of free tenants in the last decade of the C14th. The country was still ravaged by periods of plague more than forty years after the Black Death, but life had improved for many of those landed ‘third estate’ workers who had survived, not least because of the labour shortages caused by the plague itself, favourably shifting the balance of supply and demand, coupled with the effective failure of the 1349 and 1351 Labour Laws. And the infamous 1363 Statute Concerning Diet and Apparel which sought legally to define what people different social classes could wear, which was repealed after one year of failure. This was the beginning of the end of feudalism, the beginning of what was much later dubbed, ‘the golden age of the peasantry’. English was now the language at Court and in the courts; it was also blooming in the literary works of William Langland, John Gower, Geoffrey Chaucer, and the ‘Pearl Poet’ author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, suitably selected verses of which working people would have heard read by travelling entertainers; while John Wycliffe’s English translation of the bible was being declaimed around the country by wandering Lollard preachers, troubling a Church already uneasy with accusations of corruption and greed, and tottering in the wake of God-sent plagues. The Great Uprising of 1381 was still reverberating throughout the population, worrying both clergy and nobility. And while there was a fragile peace with France, at the beginning of the decade the deranged and tyrannical Richard II was out of the country asserting himself in a personal campaign in Ireland. It was a fin de siècle of great changes for the third estate in England.

Some of the earliest recipes written in English date from about 1390. They were compiled from the work of chefs to the lavish Court of Richard II, and are now found in a document later entitled, The Forme of Cury. Of course, these recipes would have received minimal, if any circulation at the time, and their ingredients, and even the way they were consumed, were beyond the means of working people.

The suggested focus of this year's Symposium topic seems almost exclusively to address the present. But there is something more fascinating in the foreign country of The Past. I made brief visits to the tantalising darkness of the C10th; to the C13th where we have vivid preconceptions formed in the continual reworking of the Robin Hood story, with its increasingly sophisticated brown renderings of C12th and C13th markets built to cloak the shenanigans of the freedom-fighters from the greenwood; and baulked at the travesties of recent television C16th historical reenactments; eventually settling on the last decade of the C14th. The changing 1390s offers more scope for creating something significant as generally we know so little about the daily lives of working people on the cusp of social change. Southay was too small to have its own market, as was its larger neighbour, Flaxham. The nearest was held weekly in the small market town of Stanbray, about four miles from Southay. By examining the scraps and shards of relevant information in standard texts and more recent research in both UK and mainland Europe, both built upon exhaustive research into contemporary oblique documentation, the workings and experiences of Stanbray market will be related through the three women who are the main characters in the project. When did they go to market? What were they selling and buying? How did they go about the actual transactions? How did they produce or acquire the goods they sold at market? How did they transport these goods to and from market? Who else was at market? Who did they talk with?

The food that was prepared and eaten in the women's homes will also be considered. It is unlikely that they solely existed on the diet of coarse bread, pottage, and ale that we are told was their staple. They must have wanted to bring some variety into their diet. How could they have done this? And most significantly, what role did their interaction with the local market play in this?

This paper was presented at the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery at St Catherine's College Oxford in July 2014.

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