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A Rural Society After the Black Death: Essex, 1350-1535.

Whether one speaks of demography or mentalite, the Black Death has long served historians as a convenient turning point. It has become almost a reflex action for a whole generation of historians to date the beginning of the early modern world in the middle of the fourteenth century. We find it hard to wean ourselves away from the notion that the Black Death was a climacteric in Western European history. Although many historians have questioned the far-reaching impact of the Black Death, it remains almost impossible for most of us to accept that a disease which carried off a large portion of Europe's population did not divert the flow of history into new channels. A Rural Society after the Black Death demonstrates that despite the demographic collapse of the mid-fourteenth century, Essex society (and by implication other parts of English society as well) was characterized less by change, and more by continuity over several centuries. Thus an era once almost universally regarded as "transitional" is shown to be less so, as medieval Essex in fact strongly resembled its early modern successor. L. R. Poos concludes that "|i~n this comer of England the world that fifteenth-century countryfolk knew as theirs was not so very alien from the world familiar to their descendants of one or two hundred years later".

Poos's investigation centers on the structure of rural society, which he defines as encompassing "patterns of common people's migration, settlement, marriage and work, along with associated patterns of material and mental culture". His agenda is explicit. He employs well-known findings about early modern rural society--the prevalence of nuclear households, late marriage patterns, and high geographic mobility--as "benchmark|s~ against which to gauge late-medieval England's 'medievality,' and ... to measure the similarities and differences" between the medieval and early modern worlds. Of course, "Essex was not England," as Poos repeatedly reminds us, and late medieval Essex was not early modern East Anglia, even if affinities existed. That part of southeast England was also not typical for its time: its high population density, the presence of a well-developed rural textile industry, a marked social and economic differentiation, and a legacy of popular unrest and religious nonconformity set Essex apart from other sections of England. Yet its differences are not striking enough to render Poos's results devoid of greater historical meaning.

According to Poos, to comprehend life in late medieval England, one must understand the centrality of the demographic experience. And demography forms the core of Poos's book just as obviously. Poos deftly steers the reader through the maze of archival evidence he uses to reconstruct the demographic experience of Essex. He even, for the most part, makes the non-demographer and the non-medievalist feel at home in an alien world. Information on medieval demography is notoriously fragmented, and one must rely on a variety of oblique measures and myriad documents, not in themselves "demographic" in nature. Poos treads warily. He reviews the extant documentation, including tithings, leet court, manorial, ecclesiastical, and royal records, as well as the archaeology of Essex houses, and carefully charts for us their limitations and their strengths. He then extracts what he needs to paint a demographic picture that, despite being rather incomplete, possesses a certain clarity and integrity. This is a cautionary tale, and caution is, of course, fully warranted. Such piecemeal records allow only guarded generalizations and Poos very prudently does not seek to extend his interpretations beyond the stress points of his evidence. Still, this makes the first half of the book, heavily burdened as it is with caveats and restrictions, somewhat dense reading and leaves the reader a bit unsatisfied, having swallowed a steady stream of "ifs," "perhaps," and "buts." The second half of the book builds on this finn demographic substratum. Here Poos moves into the wider historical implications of the Essex medieval demographic system, discussing marriage and household formation, migration, servants, wage earners, laborers, patterns of authority, rebellions, and literacy.

The second half of the book also fleshes out comparisons with early modern times, and this part is more useful to the early modernist, and more interesting for those less gripped by the thrill of unraveling demographic puzzles. The question driving his investigation throughout is: What characterizes late medieval Essex society and how does that society differ from early modern ones? Poos discovers similarities and distinctions, but he argues that, on the whole, resemblances outweigh contrasts. Certain historical mechanisms, such as (to give only one example) revolts being triggered by attempts of lords to enforce more vigorously regulations previously allowed to fail into abeyance, will sound very familiar to students of early modern revolts, as will the social composition of the rebels: it was the middling range of artisans and agriculturalists who rose up. Geographic mobility (the best verified part of this demographic system) was pronounced in late medieval Essex. Few residents then, or in early modern times, or even before 1350, spent their entire lives in one place. Likewise, a system of "fairly high mortality and fairly low fertility" in medieval Essex deviates very little from the tendencies we have come to regard as early modern. Equally comfortably situated in an early modern framework is the predominance of wage earners and export industry. Literacy accounts for one notable dissimilarity, although Poos suggests that levels of literary also correspond closely to at least one, "pessimistic," estimation of literacy rates before the Reformation. The extremely limited evidence available on medieval Essex indicates that although many people possessed a "document awareness," a sense of the importance of written instruments, illiterati made up well over 90% of the population.

Thus, despite having only enigmatic and widely scattered materials to work with, Poos quite successfully demonstrates his principal thesis: that between 1300 and about 1650 "the normative rules of individual demographic behaviour persisted broadly unchanged across the medieval/early-modern divide". That, in short, the Black Death cannot be used--at least for Essex--as a serviceable dividing line. Many characteristics of Essex society were already in place before 1350 and would remain in place--if not totally unchanged, and as always subject to modifications caused by economic, occupational, and social variables--until 1650. And thus Poos effectively questions the ways in which historians have traditionally divided the medieval from the early modern worlds. As convincing as this argument is, Poos leaves us with a rather fuzzy image of one topic he sought to illuminate: "medievality." Nonetheless, his is a fine study, whose sophistication and maturity are especially obvious in the author's ability to link demography convincingly to material and mental cultures, and to address larger issues of historical periodization and meaning.

Mary Lindemann Carnegie Mellon University
COPYRIGHT 1993 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Lindemann, Mary
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1993
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