A Medieval Life

Quotes

Important Quotations Explained

Quotes Important Quotations Explained
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.