The medieval mobile home

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‘Home is homely, though it be poore in sight,’ wrote J.Heywood in 1546. Heywood is an obscure author but many people today will agree with him, having formed a specially intense relationship with their homes during lockdown. It is, though, the first recorded use, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, of home in the modern sense, as a place that was more than a building to which someone might be deeply attached. Western society is now so home-minded, so much is invested in the home in every sense, that it seems hardly possible to imagine a world in which this was not the case. But in the Middle Ages it was different.

Stone was too difficult to build with. Brick technology – known to the Romans – was forgotten after the legions left and only rediscovered on a big scale in the 15th century. Most people’s wooden hovels did not last very long. There was no point in getting too sentimental about them. For kings, prelates and nobles, the problem was not the longevity of their castles and manors – although both might fall down – but the sheer number of them. They had to be visited, and since medieval landholdings could be widely scattered, this involved a constant round of travelling – to which might be added the need to follow the court (which would also have been on the move) and, for a knight, to fight overseas. Among these constant travellers were a number of strong-minded widows, determined to run their own affairs. One such was Margaret of Lincoln. We know how she lived because of the advice that Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln, gave her after the death of her second husband in the mid 1240s, in the form of 45 rules written in Norman French. Published in 1890, they can now be found on archive.org.

Born Margaret Quincy, Margaret had first married at the age of twelve. Her husband, who was twenty-seven years older than her, died in 1240, soon to be followed by her mother, the Countess of Lincoln. As a very wealthy widow in her early thirties, she was a significant prize, still of child bearing age and ripe for another marriage. The man who won her was Walter Marshal, the powerful 5th Earl of Pembroke. He lived only three years and on his death, Margaret was entitled to add a third of Pembroke’s estates to her own inheritances during her lifetime. If the king wanted to marry her to one of his cronies, she resisted. She did get married again before 1252, perhaps to a social inferior. Good for her.

Bishop Grosseteste himself came from a humble background in Suffolk and rose through the Church. A brilliant scholar, he composed books both on theology and science, but also had the ability to charm his social superiors. The see of Lincoln covered eight counties and his estates were similar to Margaret’s. It was a man’s world, in terms of the officers and servants. Which may have been why he felt Margaret needed advice.

First, Margaret should find out what she owned on each manor. Ownership depended on tradition, the opinion of local people, a knowledge of local landmarks and parish boundaries, and sometimes brute force as much as written evidence in the manorial court roll (most of the population could not read). Then she should calculate what each manor was likely to produce and work out the ration of food. Each manor should be largely self-sufficient. Sales of wool and cheese yielded the cash with which she could purchase the few things that did not originate from the estate, such as wine, wax candles and clothes. 

With Margaret went her household or family, from the Latin familia. (Our meaning of the term family, confined to parents, children and other blood relatives, did not emerge for another hundred years.) A bishop or abbot, necessarily unmarried, had a familia, much like a noble’s. The term referred to everybody associated with a great lord – children, chaplains, poor relations, knights, squires, pages, ladies-in-waiting, steward, marshal, butler, pantler (the man in charge of the bread), veneur (huntsman), falconer, servants and clerk of works. The early-fourteenth century household of Thomas Earl of Lancaster comprised over seven hundred people – guests, paupers, but most of them servants.

A great household could not stay anywhere for more than a few weeks. They ate their way through the food and large numbers of people, crammed into every corner, combined with poor sanitation meant that conditions soon became undesirable. The place they left had to be cleaned. So they rolled up the tapestries, packed away the bedding and took apart the furniture, piling all of it, along with the pots and pans from the kitchen, into heavy travelling chests, and set off, leaving behind them a bare shell that could be swept out and washed down. 

After the Black Death and other fourteenth century plagues, agriculture changed. There were more sheep, manors were leased out. It was no longer necessary for them to be visited. A lease on the Bishop of Worcester’s manor at Withington in Gloucestershire from 1476 requires the tenant to move into the gatehouse whenever His Grace decided to come; but that was probably not often. When the antiquary John Leland visited in the 1540s, he found the manor house ‘in ruine’. Margaret of Lincoln had died in 1266. Her era was long passed.

Clive Aslet

Clive is an award-winning architectural historian and journalist, acknowledged as a leading authority on Britain and its way of life. Clive’s 'The Real Crown Jewels of England' will be published by Little Brown in September. He spent lockdown working on a book about country houses for Yale University Press.

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