What would it be like to experience a tiny corner of the 12th century CE in Europe? In tribute to the great historical novelist Diana Norman, who has just died, here is the second part of a short fantasy in which you the reader get to visit the year 1170 CE and discover, through your five senses, how different and yet how familiar that time could be.
The first part of this story speculated that, disguised as an ambassador, you would have easy access to the local seats of power. After a night in a monastery, disturbed three times by bells summoning the monks to prayer at midnight, 3am and 6am, you will breakfast with them and then formally meet the prior for the first time. The abbot being absent on business in Westminster, the prior – the senior monk in charge of the day-to-day work of the monastery – deputises for him and now invites you into his own parlour for a chat, in that international language of the time, Latin.
You will quickly realise that you are speaking to a prominent leader of the local community. Over the 104 years that have passed since the Conquest, the monastery has acquired hundreds of acres of land in two counties and even has its own hotêl particulaire in the palace of Whitehall. The priest whom you will be meeting now is, as it were, operations manager for a sizeable agricultural business corporation with interests in a local remount service, several mills, fishing weirs on local streams and even village blacksmith forges.
In an expanding agricultural society, this is real power. Over the next 80 years or so until the coming of the Black Death and all its devastating consequences, that power will grow as the church marshalls assets, monopolies and responsibilities that come to rival, fatefully, those of the king himself.
You will think about this as you leave the monastery and make your way to that rival seat of power, the castle. You will intuit that what you have been seeing so far is the nursery greenhouse, so to speak, in which the church is nurturing the first seedlings of the new power nexus that will eventually destroy it – the middle class.
We are accustomed to think of the Middle Ages sentimentally in terms of beautiful buildings, chanting monks, knights on horseback and heroic kings. These existed. But the reality of medieval power plays, ruthless clerical landlords and bandit nobility, all contending against a backdrop of agricultural instability and fatal epidemics, is in many ways a lot grimmer and more fascinating than all our stereotypes of the era. Most of all: who’s the boss?
To find out who rules here, you will cross the river, climb the hill and arrive at length at the castle overlooking the ancient ford in the river. It looks somewhat unmilitary and down at heel. Only some parts of its outer wall are made of stone. Those parts are interspersed by sections of rough log timber fencing, some of it charred as if by a major fire. As you will ride into the castle’s inner yard, or bailey, you will see how small and badly equipped the fortress is. There are very few men-at-arms.
You will be taken to see the local lord and his two sons. They are suspicious of you, but polite and generous, offering food (which you accept), accommodation and an invitation to go hunting with them. Since this will expose your lack of riding ability, you decline this offer. Now that you have an opportunity to exercise your command of medieval French, the discussion bowls along, buoyed by the baron’s grievances and fears for the future.
The truth of the matter is complex. You know, as the baron does not, that in 45 years’ time, his superiors will be forcing a weak king to sign over some of his power and privileges to them. But this will not be enough to counterbalance the long-term decline of the aristocracy. The charismatic leader undercutting their power, regulating their behaviour and forcing them to obey the rule of law is the dynamo currently occupying the throne, England’s greatest-ever sovereign, Henry II.
This campaign of royal subjection has been a vital part of British history. In 1170, Henry Fitzempress will have been in power for 16 years. Those years have been spent repairing the ravages of the dark ones that came before, that nightmare time when “God and his angels slept”. In contrast, Henry has reformed the whole judicial system, curbed the power of the aristocracy, defied the church, extended royal power and brought peace to millions of people in Britain and France.
A hundred miles or so from Westminster, the baron is uneasily aware that things have changed, but cannot fathom why or how. As you speak to him, you will see in his scarred, resentful face the first signs of aristocratic decay as he tries to navigate between the old order – bandit nobles fighting each other, pillaging the countryside and enslaving the peasantry – and the new.
Back to the future
There is really nothing to say to such a prominent victim of the change he cannot comprehend. All he knows is that the church is now richer than he is and that he can be fined and even turfed out of his little castle by the king or the courts. After eating his beef and drinking his home-brewed ale, you will leave him to his sparse existence and, riding slowly back to the village, reflect on how the future is built on the foundations, and often the ruins, of the past.
So what will you have learned through all that you have seen, heard, felt, tasted and smelled? For you and us, a prominent feature of 1170 has to be its paucity of imagery and an almost total absence of text. The only pictures you have seen since your arrival are the few paintings in the abbey and the crude fresco, showing the Last Judgement, in the parish church. You think ruefully of the thousands of images you absorb every day of your modern existence; and also your permanent opportunity to access huge quantities of information through text. By contrast, most people in this district believe that there is only one book, the Bible, and that only the monks and their priest can read it (in fact, only one other person in the village can read at all: the reeve, the elected one-man unit of local government).
Then there is an almost complete absence of what we might call public health and enlightened health provision. There is no proper sanitation. The village has no doctor. It relies on whatever treatments local women can provide and periodic visits by an untrained monk sent from the monastery and bearing quantities of herbs and potions.
You have seen nothing resembling police, or organised transport or educational facilities, or even groceries for sale; so far, you have seen almost nothing you would even want to eat. The stream is unpolluted, to be sure, but the only sign of stored potable water you have seen so far is some rainwater butts. There is no road out of the village, only tracks though the forest. Only a handful of the people have ever in their lives been outside the parish. It is an exhausted, unhealthy, closed off, uninformed, isolated community, permanently one season away from starvation. In some ways it has advanced very little from how it was when Caesar invaded a thousand years before. It feel dirty, damp and cold. Above all, it all seems so slow.
The past reveals things about our present and perhaps our future too. It shows how far some of us have come and also how some things have not changed enough. In 1170, probably one in three children die before they are five years old but that was also true of rural China in the 1920s. Dying of starvation through not being able to access stocks of food nearby was not only a feature of the 12th century but occurred as late as 1849 in Donegal and as recently as 1978 in Ethiopia.
None of the peasants in our little story owns the land he tills: it belongs to his lord and he has to cultivate it for him, a situation not unknown in our own time. As for awareness, no-one in 1170 except the two or three senior monks actually knows the name of the country they live in. Their horizons are defined by the forests on every flank of their little combe, the woods they hardly dare to enter.
All this and more was brilliantly described by Diana Norman in her novels, and by Prudence Andrew in hers. Their abiding skill has been to portray, not only all this archaeological detail, but the mindset of the times they write about. Much of that mindset has been qualified and amended over the years since the Middle Ages, but some has not. We owe it to our ancestors in 1170 to carry on upwards, out of their mire.