Imaginative Ancestry: 2. Chaucer’s England 1340-1400

The 14th century in England brought about social change that was possibly unrivalled until the era of the Industrial Revolution. And this is the point of going so far back in time when researching your family tree, because the changes begun here would affect the lives of my earliest ancestors, traced so far, only a couple of centuries later. As Trevelyan wrote:

“Our imagination craves to behold our ancestors as they really were, going about their daily business and daily pleasure. In fact the whole appeal of history (and ancestry) (my addition) is imaginative, and without social history especially, economic history is barren and political history is unintelligible”

Remember that the beginning of this century saw the general population mostly illiterate, the spoken language being French within the aristocracy or a range of dialects amongst the rest. The written word was mostly Latin as were the church sermons keeping the people “in their place”. Most men were “bonded” being forced to give up a certain number of their working days to labour in the fields of the aristocratic Norman landowners. This was slavery in all but name! But it was about to change ….

“In Chaucer’s England we see for the first time the modern mingling with the medieval, and England herself beginning to emerge as a distinct nation, no longer a mere oversea extension of Franco-Latin Europe!!! But the most important of the specific changes proceeding during the lifetime of Chaucer was the breakup of the feudal manor.”

“Farm leases and money wages were increasingly taking the place of cultivation of the Lord’s demesne by servile labour, so beginning a gradual transformation of the English village from a community of semi-bondsmen to an individualist society in which all were at least legally free and in which the cash nexus had replaced customary rights.”

“This great change broke the mould of the static feudal world and liberated mobile forces of capital, labour and personal enterprise …. leading to new possibilities of trade and manufacturing as well as agriculture.”

In the 14th century the English town was still a rural and agricultural community as well as a centre of industry and commerce. outside the walled town lay the “town field” unenclosed where each citizen-farmer cultivated his own strips of cornland, and grazed cattle or sheep on the common pasture of the town. This involved a village community working unenclosed fields on a principle of strip allotments …. the whole vast open field being surrounded when necessary not by permanent hedges but by movable hurdles. This was the system of agriculture originated by the first Anglo Saxon settlers. It was economically sound as long as the object of each farmer was to raise food for his family rather than for the market.

“But for a true picture of medieval agriculture in England we must never forget sheep farming and the shepherds life. Our island produced the best wool in Europe. The woolsack, the symbolic seat of England’s Chancellor, was the true wealth of the King and his subjects and it was the growth of the wool trade that led to the beginnings of the capitalist as organiser of industry with the subsequent rise in cloth manufacture. This was the breeding season of English capitalism!”

As described by Trevelyan these were great changes in the structure of English society, servitude was decreasing and different “classes” were evolving in the organisation of agriculture and trade. There was a problem however ….. the rigid conservatism of the church and corruption within it were preventing any structural change in the religious and ecclesiastical parts of society. However, slowly but surely the corruption of the clergy was being challenged by not only the Lollard heretics but by individual men such as Langland, Gower, Chaucer and Wyclif. But if would take another 200 years for a king to sweep them all away!

“One of the advantages or “holds” the church had over the kingdom was its supply of able and learned bureaucrats who acted as the King’s servants with an ignorant and brutal baronage. But the rise of well educated men who were NOT part of the Church, such as highly trained lawyers like Knyvet or gentlemen like Richard Scrope, who were capable of conducting the highest business of state, that led to act as the instruments of royal government under the Tudor monarchs. Education was the issue!!”

By now we had 300-400 small grammar schools scattered throughout England and although it didn’t yet revolutionise the education of the masses, it was a beginning, just as was the movement of the seat of higher education away from Canterbury to Oxford. This began to break the hold of the church over education generally and the appointment of learned men into positions of authority at the highest level. Trevelyan sums it up well in this final quote from him, part of which about the suppression of debate resonates today in much of our academic world dominated by the disease of political correctness.

“The college system now struck root in England and flourished as nowhere else. And so into the 15th century, while the the forcible suppression of debate on ecclesiastical and religious questions crippled for a hundred years the intellectual vigour of the English universities, the rapid growth of the college system brought about an improvement in morals and discipline, and a civilising of academic life, for which later generations of Englishmen stand deeply in debt to the Oxford and Cambridge of the late medieval period!!!”

To summarise, the volume of change described in this opening chapter is huge, incredibly huge! Firstly we had the system of agriculture on which people depended for food completely revolutionised, the mode of “employment” changing from feudal manorial labour to wage earning, the increasing importance of sheep farming, the wool markets and cloth manufacture leading to the early onset of capitalism. Secondly there was the challenge to the church, its corruption and its monopoly on education and holding higher “jobs of state”. And then thirdly we had the rise of the grammar schools opening a small doorway into wider education and a couple of centuries later the masses being able to read and write. Each of these three changes created a ripple effect that would impact on each generation of my ancestors ….. and myself. And finally ….. brilliantly finally, that last quote from Trevelyan about the “forcible suppression of debate on ecclesiastical and religious questions” crippling for a hundred years the intellectual vigour of English universities!! Snowflakes of the world take note, your political correctness so inculcated and reinforced by a left wing libertarian academia will come back to bite you …. or your children, as you eventually drown in a swamp of mediocrity where no-one challenges anything in debate or considers alternative views to learn and grow from!! History repeats itself and you are destined to regress.

Categories: 1300s, books, Imaginative Ancestry

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

18 replies

  1. My local library doesn’t have Trevelyan, so I’ve requested a copy through interlibrary loan. My ancestors left England during another period of social change, when the common fields were being enclosed in the early 19th century.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello John, thank you for your reply. I think I should be on commission from Mr Trevelyan’s family! I am fairly sure you will want to keep this book for much longer than a library loan period. I bought my recent copy from Amazon, used copy, only £2.00! Look out for my next episode tomorrow , Caxton’s England.


    • Sorry, mixed up, a family tree post tomorrow then Caxton next Tuesday.


  2. I remember studying Chaucer for ‘o’ level English but I cannot remember which of the Tales it was.

    You are so right about history being cyclical and sadly that we learn little and are destined to make the same mistakes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I didn’t a actually read Canterbury Tales till after I’d left university, it was my classics decade! Have you read Piers Plowman?


      • A very long time ago Brian. English Literature was always one of my principal subjects at school and university.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I never touched anything not chemistry related until I was 30! But, I love finding things like this, just like Textus Rofensis was the forerunner of Magna Carta by about 400 years, Piers Plowman was a satire on the church and influenced Chaucer to write Canterbury Tales. I found it impossible to follow even in relatively transcribed style but there is a decent summary on Wiki.


        • I failed every single science exam which came as a bit of a shock, I thought that I was at least certain to pass ‘General Science’. After that I had to accept that I was scientifically illiterate and stick to Classics, English and History.

          Liked by 1 person

        • I was the reverse, probably should have become a chemistry academic after my PhD as Dr C went in that direction. But I realised I was REALLY illiterate and at 30 began to devour classics such as Homer, Virgil, Julius Caesar etc, then into Dickens, Priestly etc, then some dark stuff with Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Zola etc etc. I just devoured stuff, gave up chemistry, psychology at university and complete change in career, life, wealth etc etc 😂

          Liked by 1 person

        • Life is like driving a car – full of alternative directions and confusing junctions. The AA used to publish a ‘Book of the Road’, they should have done a companion ‘Book of the Life’!

          Liked by 1 person

        • Speaking of the road, are you going on the “Jarrow March” this week?


        • Now, the Jarrow March must go down as a turning point in UK social history. The working class say “enough is enough”. Ultimately pointless of course, the capitalist establishment will always prevail!

          I always remember an episode of the “Likely Lads” when Terry claimed that his uncle was on the Jarrow Crusade but Bob reminded him that he dropped out at Bishop Auckland!

          Liked by 1 person

        • I really meant the Brexit March, Sunderland to London this week, must be going past your house?


  3. Thank you for this interesting bit of history which I am always fascinated by.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow! What an incredible insight into the evolution of civilization. So much to learn in this brief message.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, I’ve got two more in this Imaginative series written and scheduled, one per week, with specific family posts either side. I’m a bit like a long playing record saying that the historical context is just as important ….. oh dear I just did it again! Next one is Caxton’s England, followed by Shakespeare’s England. Still a lot of chapters before the 20th century though, but it’s a brilliant book to read alongside family searches. 🙏🙏

      Liked by 1 person

    • I forgot to ask, do you have comments deliberately switched off on your blog? I can like but not comment!


Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: