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A Medieval Life

Judith Bennett

Important Quotations Explained

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Key Facts

1. Most medieval people were not knights, kings, churchmen, or merchants. Most (more than nine out of ten) were peasants who eked out hard livings from the land. This book tells the story of one such peasant.

This comment, located in the first paragraph of Chapter 1, “Introduction,” redirects readers’ focus from the traditional association of medieval history with noblemen, kings, and clergy, to a view of medieval history that accounts for the overwhelming majority of people who lived through those times: the peasantry. In this light, Bennett bluntly offers the mission statement of her book, a detailed picture of medieval rural society constructed around the life of one peasant. In a more subtle way, Bennett exposes the irony inherent in medieval history by drawing attention to the fact that the kings, knights, and clergy who reside in mainstream history are the very people who exist at the margins of medieval society, while the peasants, who comprise mainstream society, exist in the margins of history. Bennett’s clear insight in this passage not only helps to prime the reader for her alternative view of peasant society but also lends credence to her focus on the subject of a female peasant, a substantially more marginalized historical figure than the male peasant.

2. “When Adam delved and Eve span, / Who then was a gentleman?”

Though this peasant refrain came during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, decades after Cecilia’s death, Bennett includes it in Chapter 3, “Lords, Ladies, and Peasants,” in order to illustrate that peasants did in fact question the status quo that placed them at the bottom of the social hierarchy. By alluding to Adam and Eve, the peasants responsible for the 1381 rebellion challenged the biblical justification of the social order that the clergy gave them. Their song captured the argument that just as there was no pretense of aristocracy in God’s first incarnation of man, so there should be no distinctions of class that left the many-numbered peasantry at a disadvantage to the lords and ladies in the minority. Unlike the grudging medieval peasants, Adam and Eve only for themselves, not for others. Thus, this quotation highlights the hypocrisy of a ruling class that exploited religion to keep the peasant class at bay.

This quotation also reveals that peasants were aware of the ruling class’s strategy for controlling them and thus regarded themselves at odds with their supposed social superiors. Many peasants probably believed that the social order could be crudely divided into two, rather than three, classes: the haves and the have-nots. Many peasants must have chaffed at their perpetual suppression. Given the tenor of the peasants’ disgruntlement only a few decades after Cecilia’s death, we may assume that Cecilia herself felt at least some bitterness toward the landed elite.

3. As Cecilia’s kin argued over her lands, her mental health, and her last actions, they acted out the oldest and most enduring story in peasant communities: the story of inheritance, kinship, and land.

This remark, which occurs at the end of Chapter 6, “Kin and Household,” reveals the importance of birth and family as the chief determinants of a peasant’s quality of life. Just as Cecilia and her siblings benefited greatly from the inheritance that their parents left them, Cecilia’s family relied on taking over Cecilia’s assets upon her death in order to improve their social standing and fatten their purses. Cecilia may have lived independently as a singlewoman, but her familial ties nonetheless became increasingly relevant and fraught with complication upon her death in 1344. Her sister Christina and nephew Martin clamored to be chosen as Cecilia’s sole heir, a recognition that would have brought them Cecilia’s total landholdings, while the inheritors named in Cecilia’s will (Matilda Kroyl, Robert Malin, and John Penifader) attempted to defend their claims to Cecilia’s lands. The imbroglio that ensued centered on the jury’s opinion as to who was Cecilia’s closest relation, revealing the connection between inheritance and kinship. As Martin and Christina both believed, their close blood ties to Cecilia entitled them to Cecilia’s land. Ultimately, the jury agreed with them and awarded the land to Christina, who promptly transferred half of the holdings to Martin.

The argument that erupted over Cecilia’s will also demonstrates the value of land both as a source of family pride and as a source of wealth. Land was so important that family members would fight bitterly over its bequest. Clearly, Cecilia’s relative prosperity and high social standing in Brigstock were derived from her and her family’s massive landholdings. The fact that she did not leave her own land and migrate to another manor indicates that she was wealthy enough to remain where she had been born. Cecilia may have taken pride in the land that she held and managed, seeing it as an important part of her life and legacy. In battling for Cecilia’s landholdings, Cecilia’s relatives may have been after Cecilia’s wealth, but they also may have been motivated by their desire to uphold the Penifader legacy. Such familial pride with regard to land ownership was the impetus for innumerable territorial disputes throughout history.

4. Some people imagine that a sense of community was better achieved in past times—that it was free of conflict, strengthened by homogeneity, and purified by isolation. This is a fantasy. Cecilia’s experience of community was much like ours: powerful and compelling in conception, fractured and partial in reality.

In this passage, which appears at the end of Chapter 8, “Community,” Bennett dismisses the historical view of the Middle Ages that nostalgically whitewashes the contradictions, discrepancies, and differences of experience that were prevalent in medieval society. While medieval society was more uniform and peaceful and less frenetic than modern society in many ways, it nevertheless proved to be diverse. Though English peasants were all alike in their inability to own land and in their social inferiority to the clergy and gentry, they were always ready to differentiate themselves from one another. To do so, they exploited economic disparity within the peasant class, which led to wildly different standards of living from one peasant to the next. The Penifaders were successful in this enterprise. They obtained land and wealth and gained political power in the community. Many of their neighbors, however, were not as fortunate, and were seen as social inferiors. Resentment over economic disparity often undermined the strong sense of communal solidarity that the peasants generally felt. The Penifaders may have exhibited compassion and pity for the hopeless poor, but that did not relieve the desperation some peasants felt, a desperation that often led to anger and crime.

5. In such cases, their desperate expedients were her timely opportunities.

This statement, which appears at the end of Chapter 7, “An Economy of Makeshifts,” fleshes out an important aspect of Cecilia’s character: her hardheartedness in profiting from others’ misfortunes. The economy in which Cecilia lived, especially during the Great Famine when she launched her career in landholding, was an economy of scarcity. The overabundance of people combined with the shortage of resources drove many peasants to sell their land in order to buy food they could not grow. Land prices decreased, but peasants were forced to sell out of desperation. At this time, Cecilia took advantage of her neighbors’ hard luck in order to amass landholdings. In her land-grabbing endeavor, Cecilia may have shown herself to be somewhat callous and exploitative, which indicates that she was more concerned with ensuring her own economic security than with neighborly goodwill. Whether or not her actions caused resentment among her fellow villagers, Cecilia clearly did right by herself and her family and benefited by seizing the opportunities generated by her neighbors’ “desperate expedients.”

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