A Medieval Life

  • Study Guide

Plot Overview

Summary Plot Overview

A Medieval Life contains ten chapters in which Bennett tells Cecilia’s story and paints a thorough picture of the world around her. Bennett organizes these chapters topically rather than chronologically, illuminating in each one an aspect of medieval society and describing how Cecilia behaved (or might have behaved) in each context. After an introductory chapter in which she gives a short overview of medieval England, Bennett uses three chapters to explore the central institutions of Cecilia’s life: the village and surrounding pastoral community of her native home; the manor under whose lord’s authority she lived; and the church that tended her spiritual existence. Bennett then discusses the Great Famine of 1315–1322, a time of transition for both Cecilia and England. In Chapters Six through Nine, Bennett further delves into the various facets of Cecilia’s life: her relationship with her family; how she fit into the medieval economy; her rapport with others in the community; and how her gender affected her experiences. Bennett’s final chapter examines the implications of Cecilia’s life in relation to the medieval world and the modern one.

Cecilia Penifader was born to Robert and Alice Penifader in the late thirteenth century in Brigstock, a manor in central England. She was the seventh of eight children, only two of whom died before reaching adulthood, an unusually high birthrate for the time. Relative to other peasants, Cecilia’s family was wealthy. Their large house, built of rubble, twigs, mud, and moss, covered about 450 square feet. It had only one room, at the center of which was a fire for warmth and cooking. Cecilia probably spent most of her childhood in the farmyard around the house, playing and, later, helping out with gardening, cooking, and watching her little sister, Agnes.

Surrounding Cecilia’s home was a large and diverse community. There were two main villages in Brigstock manor, Brigstock and Stanion, where many people built their houses right next to each other, sometimes sharing a wall. Most business and trade occurred in the villages, but the most important economic activity took place in the countryside. The Brigstock economy relied heavily upon two types of land: arable fields, which comprised a quarter of the manor’s lands and were used to grow wheat, barley, rye, and oats; and meadows and pastures, which existed mainly for the sheep, horses, and oxen kept by farmers and villagers. Brigstockers used the three-field system, in which peasants rotated crops among three fields each year. When Cecilia left her own premises, she could have walked among a few lanes of tightly bunched homes and outbuildings, then out to surrounding arable fields and meadows, and beyond that, to Rockingham Forest, which the king used as a hunting preserve. Many peasants would leave Brigstock to travel to the nearby markets in Geddington, Kettering, and Corby. Here, peasants got their news about goings-on in the wider world.

Manorialism, or feudalism, is the system of estates in which the elite who owned land profited from peasants, who worked in the fields and paid taxes to their landlords. Brigstock was a royal manor, which was unusually fortunate for a landholding tenant such as Cecilia. Whereas peasants on other manors might have had to deal with vigilant landlords, Cecilia enjoyed some independence from manorial rule because her landlords were absent. Additionally, as a tenant of Brigstock, Cecilia benefited from special legal status: she and other tenants could lease the manor and manage its affairs as they saw fit. Though they paid dearly for this privilege, in addition to paying yearly taxes and doing work for the landowner during each year’s harvest, Brigstock peasants achieved dignity and freedom through self-government.

Cecilia’s world was divided into three interdependent orders: the clergy, the landed elite, and the peasantry. Cecilia would have considered the clergy most important because it addressed her chief concern: her eternal salvation. The second most important was the landed elite—the kings and noblemen who protected the peasants from foreign invaders. Last was Cecilia’s class, the peasants, who sustained the country through work. Though in theory each of these orders benefited equally from the other two, the peasantry was clearly the lowliest order, and all peasants had to defer to their social superiors in all matters, whether it meant obeying capricious and unfair laws, bowing one’s head in a lord’s presence, or performing special work on request.

The Saint Peter and Saint Andrew churches at the center of Stanion and Brigstock were the focal point of Cecilia’s life. The only real communal structures in Brigstock, they were central meeting places for markets, ball games, gambling, gossip, and manorial court meetings. As the centers for spiritual worship, they held masses nearly every day and were especially popular on Sundays. Like virtually every other English peasant, Cecilia was a devout Christian who, unable to read, learned about Catholicism mostly from pictures and the local clergy. Cecilia and her neighbors also engaged in folk practices, such as spell-casting, and believed in fairies. The Church generally condoned this behavior and in some ways even incorporated these folk rituals into religious life, sharing holy days with some pagan gods. In this sense, Christianity for Cecilia was an extension of everyday life and responded to the rhythms of the natural world around her. Holy days often coincided with equinoxes, solstices, and times of harvest.

Cecilia matured during a great famine that ravaged England and northern Europe from 1315 to 1322. Brought on by exceptionally cold, wet weather, and exacerbated by overpopulation, the famine killed approximately one-tenth of England’s six million people. To survive, peasants, including Cecilia, resorted to crime. Even as famine tapered off, crime rates remained inflated, as peasants felt either lingering resentment toward wealthier neighbors or were simply accustomed to taking a little more to assuage their worries over an uncertain future. Cecilia’s parents’ deaths during this time signaled the end of a relatively untroubled childhood. But in some ways, the Great Famine worked to her benefit. Cecilia’s parents left her a sizeable inheritance, which she used to embark on a highly profitable career in landholding. Exploiting the desperate circumstances that led some peasants to sell their land leases at reduced prices, Cecilia made acquisitions at least six different times between 1319 and 1325, emerging from the famine with nearly twenty-five acres in her name.

From a young age, Cecilia had a good sense of nuclear family. Her own family was twice the average size, and every day, they slept, worked, and ate together. As head of the household, Cecilia’s father, Robert, was the public face of his family until his sons became old enough to join tithings (groups of men responsible for one another’s behavior and for law enforcement) and the girls married and moved away. Robert had to account publicly for Cecilia when a neighbor accused her of stealing hay from him in 1316. Robert was also responsible for beating his children and having them perform hard labor in the fields and around the house, practices that were quite common in the Middle Ages. Robert and Alice seemed to be exceptionally caring parents, given their efforts to provide some form of inheritance for all of their children, which was uncommon practice in medieval England.

Cecilia remained close with her family into adulthood, but as her brothers and sisters married and moved away, the nature of family changed for her. When Cecilia’s sisters Christina and Agnes married, they effectively joined their husbands’ families, transferring all of their landholdings and assets to them. At this point, Cecilia relied more heavily on her brothers Robert and William, who remained nearby and had power in the community. In 1319, Cecilia’s brother, William, who had left Brigstock for a time and returned as an educated, low-ranking member of the clergy, bought a house next door to her. Toward the end of Cecilia’s life, she combined her resources and household with those of her brother Robert.

Cecilia’s economic livelihood required her to be flexible, innovative, and accommodating. This economy, called an “economy of makeshifts,” consisted of three main markets: the labor market, the commodity market, and the land market. With landholdings so large, Cecilia employed skilled and unskilled laborers and servants on daily basis. The labor force in Cecilia’s day was made up of local men and vagrants, wealthy and indigent, landholding and landless. Closely connected to the labor market was the land market. Land was a source of wealth for landless peasants, who often worked it for money and food. It was also a great source of wealth for Cecilia, who could profit from subletting and selling what she produced. Cecilia excelled in the land market by concentrating on buying pastures for animals to graze, which limited the number of people she would need to hire. Finally, the commodity market took place in villages, where people from the surrounding area would sell and buy everything ranging from food, cloth, and animals to tools, leather, and smith work. These simple exchanges fed more complex regional and international markets, which helped lead to regional specialization.

In Cecilia’s day, community was powerful. Land and farming decisions were made as a group, all were responsible for the local parish’s upkeep, and as manorial tenants, people were expected to work together to raise money for the landlords who required taxes and rent. Though there were king’s courts for serious crimes, people often handled their own affairs by taking responsibility for each other. Heads of the household answered for their dependents, and all men were required to join tithings by the age of twelve. In addition to tithings, there were also officials who enforced the law and managed the manor’s day-to-day affairs. The men who served as officials were generally wealthy peasants or minor gentry whose positions gave them power. Several Penifader men were officials, and though Cecilia profited, she couldn’t heedlessly flaunt her wealth. Cecilia sat atop a socioeconomically diverse peasant class, but acting humbly and equitably allowed her to avoid resentment from neighbors and laborers.

Cecilia’s world was one in which there were clear-cut distinctions between men’s and women’s roles in society. As a woman, Cecilia was forbidden to hold any office or act in any official manner. Literacy, education, and lucrative trade work, such as blacksmithing or thatching, were unavailable to her. Though women were exclusively responsible for brewing ales, Cecilia could not hold the office of aletaster. And because she could not participate in tithings, she was technically left outside community law. These restrictions left Cecilia at a substantial social disadvantage because the ability to serve in court and perform more active functions on the manor made an individual powerful in the community. Cecilia’s disadvantages also extended to the realm of criminal justice. The Brigstock court records indicate that men were responsible for eighty percent of violent crimes, but surprisingly few of these crimes were against women, a phenomenon that suggests that the law did not protect women as readily as it did men and property.

Cecilia died in late May or early June of 1344. Her will dictated that her property be divided into thirds and that William’s illegitimate son, John, Agnes’s daughter, Matilda, and Robert Malin, a man about whom little is known, each be given a twenty-four–year lease on them. This decision led to bitter argument in the family because it effectively barred Cecilia’s closest heirs from inheriting the property. Cecilia’s sister Christina and nephew Martin, the son of her brother Henry, challenged her will in court and were able to convince a jury to overturn it. Christina and Martin then battled for sole rights to Cecilia’s landholdings. After a long and contentious debate, the jury awarded Cecilia’s legacy to Christina, who promptly transferred half of all of the properties to Martin, an act that suggests that Christina and Martin negotiated a deal outside of court. No one knows the drama behind Cecilia’s inheritance, only that her death probably made a number of her kin unhappy with her.