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Locality and Polity.

Christine Carpenter has written a monumental study of landed society in fifteenth-century Warwickshire. Her main objective in the book is to show the inter-relationship between the social and economic realities of "gentle" society in Warwickshire and the world of high politics. Indeed, as she argues in many parts of the book, the distinction between the personal and the political in the late medieval world is artificial, the construct of modern historians who live in an age that demarcates the personal from the political, historians whose own careers are often defined by distinction between the two.

The book is divided into two parts, the first simply titled "structural," the second "chronological." The structural section deals with the social and economic context of the landed classes. In this part, the author outlines the geographical parameters of the county, defines the social groupings she finds therein, and describes the composition and management of landed estates. In the course of this description, Carpenter makes a number of important points about the economic world of the fifteenth century gentry, the most important of which relates to the ownership of land. The economic conundrum that is the fifteenth-century land market is explained by the fact that land represented more than simply a way of making a living; it was a statement of one's social position. According to Carpenter, the dividing line between gentry and non-gentry was found in the lordship of a manor: those with lordship were part of gentle society, those without were not. Because of the intricate historical intermingling of landed property with legal privilege, the gentry were continually scrambling to acquire land with lordship attached. In purely economic terms, there was a surplus of land throughout the period, but in social and legal terms the supply of land as it really mattered remained constant, a constancy imposed by a centuries-long association with lordship. Given this situation, many gentry were insecure in their social position: often possessed of a single manor, or even a fraction of a manor, one false step could push them out of the coveted ranks of gentle society. Much of their behaviour is explicable in terms of this precariousness: their close attention to details of estate management; their preoccupation with marriage alliances and inheritance strategies; and, as Carpenter argues in the second section of the book, their politics.

In this second section, Carpenter divides the century into six periods according to major developments in high politics. Each is covered in a separate chapter. Enveloping these six chapters are two more synthetic chapters. The reader lacking the leisure to read the whole book might find it profitable to concentrate on these two chapters (nine and sixteen), along with the concluding chapter, as a means of appreciating the general themes of the work.

Early on in this section Carpenter rejects the notion of a county community of gentry in Warwickshire, a notion that has been advocated in other studies of late medieval gentry society. The county court was emphatically not the focus of any sense of community, and Carpenter's critique of this model is effective and persuasive. Warwickshire had a particularly atomized seigneurial geography that precluded the formation of a county community, as she herself states, but her rejection of the county community model runs deeper than this. In her formulation, the primary focus of identity resided in affinal networks of patronage binding the gentry to the principal nobles of the county. What really mattered in this society were the vertical links between people of different rank rather than the horizontal links between people of the same rank. Carpenter argues that the horizontal links took on greater significance as the century progressed, but only because the upper nobility forfeited much of their authority by mismanaging local politics.

In taking this approach, Carpenter continues a line of argument originating with K.B. McFarlane. Carpenter's greatest contribution to this line of reasoning is to shift the argument away from the relations between kings and magnates and focus it instead on the relations between magnates and gentry. For gentry concerned about maintaining their social rank and transmitting it to their descendants -- matters dealt with in the first section -- stability was a highly-cherished political goal. Stability in fifteenth-century terms meant having the proper connections: "private" success necessitated political involvement. The best guarantee of maintaining status was to rub shoulders with fellow gentry and to seek the protection of powers higher up the social ladder. Interlocking dependency with neighbouring gentry offered a form of collective security against threats from outside, one that only worked when a higher authority functioned as an arbiter to glue the interlocking dependency together. Fifteenth-century England resembled nothing more than Mafia-controlled southern Italy, as Carpenter herself discusses.

Deferential politics were thus a natural outcropping of prevailing social and economic circumstances. Deference was not something exacted from on high but rather something willingly given from below -- willingly but conditionally. For the gentry had very tangible expectations of those to whom deference was given. They expected their leaders to pull the right strings in the royal courts and county administration, and Carpenter offers some illuminating examples of how they did so. But more importantly, they expected their leaders in the normal course of affairs to resolve problems before they threatened to involve the courts or county administration at all. Resorting to pulling strings in court was in some respects a statement of failure, of allowing an issue that should have been resolved privately to mushroom into a dangerous threat to local stability. In effect, gentry and peerage entered into a contract. The gentry attached themselves to the nobles, supporting them in their dealings with other peers and with the king, and forming the basis of the "worship" that was considered the brithright of all people of rank. In return, the peerage kept order in their regions of influence and upheld the social position of their supporters. If one side failed to honour its obligation to the other, the contract unravelled. According to Carpenter, this is precisely what happened in Warwickshire from the 1440s, when the higher nobility reneged on their part of the deal, partly because of an unfortunate minority but mostly because of absorption in the calamitous royal politics of mid-century. Against their own will and natural inclinations, the gentry were forced to fall back on themselves. Gradually they discovered ways to co-exist in their localities without a noble fulcrum. When stability returned under Edward IV, the political landscape had been rearranged in ways that are familiar to Tudor historians. Feudal England was finally in the grave; gentry England was now in the cradle.

This is a persuasive argument, backed with exhaustive research, but it is not without blemishes. It is, for example, possible to question whether the structures described in the book were as all-encompassing as the author suggests. Carpenter stretches the definition of what constitutes an affinal relationship further than many would be confortable with. Her list of Warwickshire affinities, given in Appendix 3, includes gentry whose conection with higher nobles does not necessarily indicate political dependency: co-defendants, executors, attorneys, witnesses, even those simply using the relatively common form of address "my lord" in a formal document. To be fair, Carpenter addresses some of these concerns in the text, but one is left feeling that the mesh of her affinal net should be finer than it is. One can also question the strength of the affinal bonds for those gentry implicated in multiple networks, such as John Throgmorton, who occurs in three affinities as defined in Appendix 3. Carpenter does not suggest that the system has to be exclusive to be effective, but these multiple affinities do raise some questions about the strength of veritcal relationships. Perhaps the most difficult thing to square with this political world is the demographic lottery that families unwillingly played. Of the sample of 115 gentry families discussed in her chapter on social mobility, only thirty-three survived without interruption between 1410 and 1500. It is perhaps instructive that the best example of affinal politics involves Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, who controlled the area for the better part of four decades in a period of relative domestic tranquillity. In terms of power, longevity, and, in Carpenter's formulation, political ability, it may be preferable to view him as the exception rather than the rule. To say that affinal politics exists and can be turned into the principal form of government under the right conditions is one thing; to say that it is the dominant state of affairs in most places over a long period of time is quite another. If this is so, if the Beauchamp era was the exception and not the rule, and if the gentry were more self-reliant in the normal course of events than she allows, then the novelty of developments in the second half of the century is not quite as great as she suggests.

But even if one decides that Carpenter's model needs some modification, one cannot question its importance as a means of understanding the convoluted politics of a problematic century. The book's virtues are many, and it is difficult to single out any one as standing above the rest. Perhaps one should place at the head of the list her insistence that politics for the nobles was not simply something played out on a national stage with kings and fellow nobles as the supporting cast. Politics meant paying attention to the needs and aspirations of groups lower down the social scale. Not everyone in the period understood this, and the consequences of this misunderstanding were disastrous.
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Author:Masschaele, James
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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