Medieval England: A Social History and Archaeology from the Conquest to 1600 A.D

By Colin Platt | Go to book overview

6

Conspicuous Waste

The ease and comfort of the monks of Durham, taking their rest at the priory of Finchale, were perhaps no greater than their well-endowed community could very well be expected to provide. Yet there are visible here, too, the strong pressures of a life-style thought appropriate for men of their rank and position: a style which demanded generosity, or largesse, and which was characterized by conspicuous waste. Contemporaneously, on the far side of the Pennines, their brethren at Whalley, a Cistercian house, were spending as much as two-thirds of their considerable annual income on the purchase of food and drink, much of this to feed an over-large household which outnumbered the monks by a factor of between four and five. 1 Similarly, if there was one thing that the monks of Battle, in a programme of economies, evidently refused to cut down, it was their expenses at table. 2 Where such a style, in the late Middle Ages, was important to men of religion, the same pressures would operate-and even more so-on the lay magnates. Indeed, little of how they rewarded themselves in the post-plague period is truly understandable without it.

As had certainly been the case with the monks themselves, many prominent landowners in fifteenth-century England found themselves the victims of high wages and low rents, to the permanent deterioration of the income they could get from any one property on their estates. However, whereas the monks had been restrained by law and custom from adding to the stock of their property, those of Durham complaining, by the mid-fifteenth century, that 'except for the manor of Houghall, which is hardly worth twenty marks when put to farm these days, we have not acquired any lordship, land or military fee for 160 years', 3 the position of the magnate could be very different. Although hampered too by a sluggish land market where every family held onto its own, the magnate nevertheless enjoyed opportunities denied to the monks to extend his patrimony by marriage or by the fortunate placing of his heirs. And if these horizons, for whatever reason, were closed, there might always be the alluring prospect of an office of profit under the crown. Accordingly, with the props of inheritance and royal patronage to support

-173-

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Medieval England: A Social History and Archaeology from the Conquest to 1600 A.D
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Illustrations vii
  • Preface and Acknowledgments xiii
  • Preface to the 1994 Edition xvii
  • 1 - The Anglo-Norman Settlement 1
  • 2 - Economic Growth 30
  • 3 - Set-Back 91
  • 4 - After the Black Death 126
  • 5 - Stability at a Reduced Level: the Church 138
  • 6 - Conspicuous Waste 173
  • 7 - Reorientation Under the Tudors 205
  • Abbreviations 251
  • Notes and References 252
  • Index 284
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