A MS. representation of a house, from a 14th century romance
A MS. representation of a house, from a 14th century romance

When we turn to the social aspect of the Middle Ages, we find ourselves contemplating an era of violent contrasts; of supreme picturesqueness and of extreme discomfort; of gorgeous display and of sordid squalor; of consummate courtesy and of utter pitilessness; of high saintliness and of bestial grossness; of the faith that knows no fear but that of God, and of the superstition in which fear of the Devil is ever dominant.

Side by side we see Joan of Arc in her sublime purity and the degraded terrors of her murderers; beside Anselm, William Rufus; the Black Prince serving at his royal prisoner's table and massacring the inhabitants of Limoges.

A life of contrasts
The contrasts of the Middle Ages are more vivid than those of the present day, not because they were more real, but because they stood in closer proximity. In modern times we compare the conditions of class and class, the luxurious ease of the wealthy with the destitution of the slums.

The Middle Ages knew no such wealth, no such luxury, and no such destitution, at least in England. The contrasts of medieval life are of a different order; they are those between its public and its private aspects; between the gorgeousness and what would be to our eyes the meanness of its different phases. The mail-clad knight rode abroad in glittering armour, but he did not habitually sleep in a bed. He carved the casques of the foe-man with dashing steel, but he ate his dinner with his fingers.

A public life
The castle or the manor-house owned a spacious hall, but no other apartment which deserved to be called much more than a closet; and few indeed were they who enjoyed the privacy of a separate chamber. Hunting and hawking were joyous pastimes when woods and fields were green and the days were long; but when the sluggard sun rose late and set early, and the hall was lighted with torches, the time was apt to hang heavily in spite of the occasional diversion supplied by some wandering jongleur.

A time came when commerce expanded and burgesses waxed wealthy, but they would seem for the most part to have had little idea of spending their wealth except on an ostentatious display in costly apparel and rich decorations intended for the public eye, and to have taken very little thought for the amenities or even what we should call the decencies of personal comfort.

A rural population
Of the whole population only a small proportion dwelt in cities, and even of these a substantial part were occupied in tilling the borough lands. The great bulk of the population was engaged upon agriculture, and how they fared we have little means of knowing with any certainty. The land under ordinary conditions was self-sufficing; that is to say, in normal seasons it produced a sufficiency of grain to feed the entire population.

The small peasant-holdings and the common waste lands enabled the smallest peasants to keep their poultry, their pigs, and their cow; and in normal seasons there was little destitution. But a modern labourer in decently steady employment would certainly be better housed, and would regard as practical necessities luxuries which his medieval ancestor never heard of.

The most notable change between the medieval and the modern conditions of working-class life is that which set in with the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution only a century and a half ago, a change which created a vast city population; but the one point in respect of which the modern working-man is infinitely and indisputably better off than his medieval predecessors is in the disappearance of those pestilences like the Black Death, whose recurrence in Europe sanitary science seems now to have rendered practically impossible.

It remains to touch upon the two features of the Middle Ages which appeal most vividly and picturesquely to the imagination. The Middle Ages were the days of the monks and of the armoured knights. During the sixteenth century the knights armed in full panoply disappeared; monasteries and nunneries were suppressed wholesale, or, as in England, vanished altogether; the clergy, regular and secular, ceased to be a prominently picturesque element.

But throughout the ages which preceded the Reformation the monasteries were not merely picturesque; they performed functions which were of vital importance. When authority failed to enforce law and order, when violence defied control, the monastery and the convent gave shelter and protection against law­less tyranny.

When war and the chase provided almost the only living interests for men of gentle blood, art and learning could still find shelter and encouragement in abodes dedicated to religion and to peace; though the scope of both was rigidly limited, if not actually to the service of religion at least to fields which religion regarded as serviceable.

It was the clerks who kept alive the study of law, of philosophy, and of science, though these latter especially were strictly subordinated to theology. To the clerks in the main we are indebted for historical records. And, finally, the Church was the one institution in which, theoreti­cally at least, class distinctions disappeared, and even in practice humble birth was not a bar too high, achievement; the one institution also which, whether wisely or unwisely, provided relief for the destitute and needy.

The glory of the mail-clad knight belonged to the days when victories were won in the shock of hand-to-hand fighting and sheer weight was irresistible. He was already doomed when it was found that neither he nor his horse could be protected against the clothyard shafts of the English archer. Defensive armour became so appallingly heavy that it produced immobility, and at last gave the light-armed man the advan­tage even in hand-to-hand fighting, as was illustrated at the Battle of Agincourt. But even more fatal to him, and fatal too in the long run to the archer, was the progressive use of gunpowder.

Down to the close of the fifteenth century gunpowder was practically useless in the field, although at Crecy the English had some primitive cannon which they fired off—to the alarm of the Frenchmen's horses, but otherwise apparently without doing any damage. But in siege operations gunpowder was already playing an important part in the wars of Henry V, and hand-guns are heard of in the War of the Roses. Henceforth, Hotspur's "villainous saltpetre" had to be reckoned with to a rapidly increasing extent, and long before the end of the Tudor period the art and practice of gunnery had become a decisive factor in fighting by land and by sea.

This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.

Prehistory - Roman Britain - Dark Ages - Medieval Britain - The Tudor Era - The Stuarts - Georgian Britain - The Victorian Age