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Medieval Historical Backgrounds
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Historical Background to By Possession
The background to By Possession is the tumultuous end of Edward II’s reign. Edward was not a popular king, and history has not treated him kindly. He was weak and ineffective, and early in his reign suffered some military defeats that undid some of his father’s gains. His barons were in rebellion through almost the entirety of his tenure, and in 1322 the Earl of Lancaster led an armed revolt that failed. Before that, the barons had forced significant concessions on him in the form of the Ordinances, a list of rules that essentially permitted a council to oversee his decisions. Edward was often quick to make such concessions, and just as quick to ignore them when it proved feasible.
It did not help that Edward II was a homosexual. My own interpretation of medieval history is that, considering the prohibitions on this and the severe penalty for it, the medieval world was actually pretty tolerant. One gets the impression of a "don’t tell, don’t ask" mentality, for surely there were many homosexuals throughout all levels of society then as now. In all likelihood, Edward was not the first English king with this preference, nor the last (historians still debate the issue of Richard the Lionhearted). The difference was that he was unpopular, and it gave his enemies a very strong and emotional complaint against him, a complaint that might not have been raised if he had been a different kind of king. In short, it made him vulnerable.
Not that he helped matters much. Edward made the serious mistake of being very indiscreet for his times, and of granting his lovers tremendous favor and status, bestowing lands and titles on them. This only infuriated his enemies more. He appeared to be unduly under his lovers’ influence as well. Early in his reign, his relationship with the Gascon knight Piers Gaveston became the lightening rod for discontent, and the barons did not rest until first Gaveston was exiled and then, upon his return, executed. Toward the end of his reign, Hugh Despenser played the same role in the political strife, as discussed in By Possession. Both Gaveston and Despenser flaunted their favor and power, throwing it in their critics’ faces. Hugh and his father (also named Hugh) knew no restraint, and systematically grabbed lands.
There is another background to the novel. It occurs before the story begins, but has significant repercussions. It has to do with the life of Addis de Valence and his period away from England. Like many young knights of the 14th and 15the centuries, he took up the cross to go on crusade. Only he did not journey to the Holy Land. The crusade that he joined was the Baltic crusade.
Many readers probably know about the knightly order of monks called the Templars. Some might be aware of the Hospitallers, or the order of St. John. It is likely, however, that not many know that there was a third order of knightly monks commonly known as the Teutonic Knights. When the Templars were suppressed in 1308, the Teutonic Knights, perhaps fearful of a similar fate, moved north to the Baltic Sea and founded the city of Marienburg. From there they began a crusade to convert the last holdouts against Christianity in Europe, the people who lived in what is present-day eastern Poland and Lithuania. It became common, and fashionable, for young knights to join them for a fighting season.
At first, the crusade was a resounding success. In the Lithuanians, however, the Teutonic Knights met their match. The middle of the 14th century was Lithuania’s golden age, when it was led by the great Gedimenas. Through marriages and military maneuvers, he extended the borders of his influence far into present day Russia. Although Christian Europe referred to him as a duke, since only the pope could make kings to their minds, he is the "king" referred to by Addis in the prologue of By Possession.
The Lithuanians practiced a pagan religion that had little in common with the ancient religions of the Mediterranean or those of the Celtic or Teutonic cultures. Their stories and myths were not written down, and it is difficult to find secure information about the practices and beliefs. We are left with tantalizing descriptions by Christian contemporaries, and with interpretations based on folklore from later centuries. Technically the people converted in the 15th century, but there are indications that the old religion hung on until the 18th in certain areas. That they conducted some human sacrifice, a practice found in many pagan religions, is true, but by the 14th century those rites are thought to have been rare. I did find, however, a description of one by a Christian knight who himself had been spared because he was scarred (so now you see how writers get some of their ideas).
HISTORICAL CHARACTERS IN By Possession
I have already discussed Edward II in the section above, but it is only fair to point out where he had his strengths. He was a very cultured man, interested in the arts. His building enterprises improved the royal holdings, and he had an interest in agriculture. If one can get beyond the political chaos that surrounded him, the profile of an interesting man emerges. Unfortunately, that profile had little in common with what was expected of kings at the time.
His wife Isabelle (or Isabella) was a formidable woman. She was the sister of a French king, and as politically shrewd as her husband was inept. Readers should know, however, that if they saw the movie Braveheart, little in that film having to do with Isabelle was accurate. She did not even marry Edward II until after Edward I died, and there is no indication that she ever met William Wallace, let alone got pregnant by him. If she had, Wallace would have had to seduce a child, since that was all she was at the time of his death. However, since she was still in France then, one can see that the film played with the facts very loosely.
Most of the historical characters in By Possession only exist offstage. Henry of Lancaster, who became earl upon the execution of his brother Thomas after the 1322 uprising, would prove to be a good friend and strong ally of Edward III. He was eventually made a duke, the first nonroyal duke in English history. The Lancaster holdings were the wealthiest in England in the 14th century, and they passed to his daughter upon his death. She married John of Gaunt, son of Edward III.
Thomas Wake actually lived and was involved in the deposition of Edward II and the later resistance to Isabelle and Mortimer’s power. I will confess that his daughter Mathilda is a fictional convenience, however.
THE MEDIEVAL COST OF LIVING
Different aspects of history fascinate different people. I have a particular interest in economic realities. What did workers earn? What did food cost? How large was the gap between rich and poor? What did it even mean to be rich or poor?
For the Middle Ages, it is very difficult to know the answers to these questions. One can find anecdotes, prices, wages, etc., but not how it all operated as a totality. In addition, the economy did not function as ours does today. Merchant companies and guilds regulated not only the quality of goods and services, but also their cost. The regulation was anti-competitive, that is the goal was not to keep prices down, but to maintain their level so that all members of the company or guild could earn a decent living.
Despite this, one is able to glean much from the details, and at least begin to imagine how money worked and what it could buy. I have listed a number of typical wages and costs below. All are for the middle of the 14th century, before the Black Death. The plague that ravaged Europe in the middle of the century wrecked havoc on the economy, disrupting traditional wage patterns and causing inflation.
As a writer, I find this kind of information useful. In By Arrangement, it permitted me to set the bride price at a very high but economically realistic level. In By Possession, I found it helpful to know that the going rate for a dowry if a woman married a London citizen was about 100 pounds.
Wages and income.
There is a difference between wages and income. For example, an earl might actually earn a wage from the king during certain military campaigns, but his income from land would be much higher. The typical income for an earl was about one thousand pounds a year. Compare that with the wages for unlanded individuals, and you can see that the disparity was huge. It helps explain why land denoted status. The wealthiest man in England in the middle of the 14th century was the Earl of Lancaster. His income has been estimated at over 8,000 pounds a year.
Typical daily wages for military men during war:
Earls 6 shillings (s), 8 pence (d)
Man at arms 1s
Mounted archer 6d
Foot archer 3d
Welsh lancer 2d
Wages in the building trades:
Masons. . . . 6d on long days; 5d on short days
Unskilled workers . . . 3-3 1/2d per day.
(Of course, there were masons and then there were masons. Those who rose to the position of master builder made much more. A famous master builder who worked for Edward I received 3 shillings per day).
Some typical costs of living:
Sending a boy to Oxford, including room and board.-----about 9 pounds a year
Boarding a girl-----3 pounds a year
Living costs for a humble person in London----- 4 pounds a year
A fairly comfortable life in London ----10 pounds a year (such people often received non monetary largesse from their patrons as well.)
Rent on a large house in London -----22 marks per year (a mark was 21 shillings to a pound’s 20)
Rent on a small shop in London -----30s to 4 pounds a year
Rent on a stall in London---8s to 2 pounds a year
The best ale -----1 d (pence) per gallon
Herring ----8 for 1d
Gascon wine----- 4d per gallon
Swan (an expensive delicacy)---- up to 40d
An illuminated missal (required up to two years work)----- 34 pounds
A knight’s horse---20 pounds
MEDIEVAL CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
There were no standard penalties for crimes in the Middle Ages, but traditions did develop because of precedent. For example, if a woman killed her husband, she might either be burned or buried alive, but that does not mean that all women convicted of such murders faced execution, or even in those ways.
I think that the medieval attitude toward crime was different from ours. The punishment appeared to be criminal oriented rather than either crime or victim oriented. As an example, I will mention an interested detail that I discovered about London sentencing. It appears that thieves were hanged fairly often. Murderers, on the other hand, might be spared and only face exile from the realm. I found that peculiar, since today murder is definitely considered the more serious crime. Then I thought about it in terms of the medieval outlook on sin. I suspect that the disparity has to do with their notions of intent. Stealing is always premeditated and calculated. Murder is often a crime of passion. In certain circumstances, an essentially good person might kill, but a thief by definition is not a good person.
As it happened, murder was a rare crime in London. In 1339 there were 27 murders and 10 accidental deaths in a population of around 50,000. This despite the fact that most males were armed with daggers.
There were crimes then that are not crimes today. Church and state were intertwined, and moral transgressions had legal repercussions. Female adulteresses were shaved and paraded down the Cheap, much like prostitutes. Seducing an unmarried virgin was dealt with harshly if it became known.
Incarceration was rarely used as a punishment. Penalties were usually physical. A person might be beaten or branded. The customary penalty for rape was blinding and the cutting off of testicles. Less severe crimes, such as selling flawed goods, might be punished by a period in the stocks
MEDIEVAL MARRIAGES: "Say the words with me."
Getting married in the Middle Ages was a relatively simple process. The man and woman joined hands and spoke specific words that made the vows. Mutual consent was required, and the woman had to be twelve years old and the man fourteen.
Until the late 16th century, no priest was required. In fact, even witnesses were not necessary, although the sensible person would have them lest words spoken in the heat of passion be conveniently forgotten the next day. In the 16th century the Church finally succeeded in establishing its control over what had been up until then an essentially private undertaking. The lack of control could be attributed to the simple fact that the priest did not perform the sacrament of marriage, but only witnessed it. The couple made the sacrament happen, not a priest. (This is still how it is viewed in the Catholic Church today). The Church tried to discourage such independence, but made little headway during the centuries under question. However, it made very sure that secular authorities, which also had an interest in regulating marriage, did not establish control either. In some areas the situation developed where the kind of private sacrament described above would have been illegal, but still legitimate (that is, you might get into trouble, but you were still married.)
Normally, the marriage ceremony consisted of two parts when the marriage was celebrated publicly. The betrothal came first. This was much more serious than today’s engagement. It took a bishop to annul a betrothal because it was considered part of the ceremony and sacrament. Betrothed couples were referred to as husband and wife.
After a period of time, the wedding took place. The wedding was not just a party, nor was it identical to a marriage ceremony since the betrothal had been part of that too. The wedding marked two events: the consummation of the marriage and the installation of the bride in the groom’s household. As indicated in By Arrangement, once a betrothed couple had intercourse the wedding had occurred, ceremony or not, and the marriage was, as we say today, a done deal.
There were general practices regarding marriages, annulments, and even divorce during these centuries, but there were no definite standards like one might think. As noted above, the Church had a difficult time bringing marriage under its dictates, and local traditions and politics often influenced practices. Canon lawyers (those who specialized in Church law) debated issues like divorce throughout the period, and bishops were political animals with ties that might influence their decisions. Even the most uniform of practices, such as those regarding consanguinity—the rules that said one could not marry within seven degrees of kinship—could be set aside by dispensation. This is what happened when Joan of Kent married the Black Prince who was the son of her first cousin.
Theoretically, no one could force another into marriage, and if a marriage occurred that way, it was invalid. That meant that a lord could not marry off his serfs, daughters, sisters, etc., without their consent. Of course, pressure could be brought to bear on a stubborn woman, and later proving that the consent was coerced could be difficult. But that is different from the lord pairing people up according to his whim and being within his rights to do so.
Divorce and annulment were murky areas, and again the rules were not nearly as clear as one might think. I will expand on this in the future on this page, but for now it might be useful to clarify the distinction between the two. A divorce ended a legal and legitimate marriage. An annulment said that no legitimate marriage had occurred, i.e. the couple had in fact not been married like everyone (including themselves in many cases) thought. The biggest difference between the two ways of ending marriages had to do with their effect on children. Since an annulment meant no marriage had occurred, the offspring of the union instantly became illegitimate upon the annulment. One can see the problem for the landed classes. Putting one’s wife away might be appealing, but if the only way to do it would make one’s son illegitimate and thus unable to inherit, one thought twice. It was probably this inconvenient aspect of annulment that caused divorces to be sought, and to be granted in some circumstances.
The lower classes might handle things differently. A man who wanted to get rid of his wife might simply sell her in the marketplace.
When it comes to practices regarding marriage in the Middle Ages, then, one can find generally accepted rules, but nothing that is carved in stone. Standards were regional in their application, bishops were left with significant discretion in controversial matters, and exceptions can usually be found.
I hope that you have enjoyed my History Page. I have added it to my site for those of you who, like me, read historical romances because you enjoy the way they conjure up another time and place. I intend to update this page frequently, and I hope that you will visit again. I welcome any comments or questions.
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