Illustrated English Social History - Vol. 1

By G. M. Trevelyan | Go to book overview

Chapter Two
CHAUCER'S ENGLAND (continued)

2. Town and Church

IN the Fourteenth Century the English town was still a rural and agricultural community, as well as a centre of industry and commerce. It had its stone wall or earth mound to protect it, distinguishing it from an open village. But outside lay the 'town field' unenclosed by hedges, where each citizen-farmer cultivated his own strips of cornland; and each grazed his cattle or sheep on the common pasture of the town, which usually lay along the riverside as at Oxford and Cambridge.1 In 1388 it was laid down by Parliamentary Statute that in harvest time journeymen and apprentices should be called on to lay aside their crafts and should be compelled 'to cut gather and bring in the corn'; Mayors, bailiffs and constables of towns were to see this done. ( Stats. of Realm, II, 56.) In Norwich, the second city of the Kingdom, the weavers, till long after this period, were conscripted every year to fetch home the harvest. Even London was no exception to the rule of a half rustic life. There was none of the rigid division between rural and urban which has prevailed since the Industrial Revolution. No Englishman then was ignorant of all country things, as the great majority of Englishmen are to-day. [See § 44, 45, 116, 117.]

The town was more insanitary than the village and was often visited by plague. But it was not, as in later centuries, crowded thick with slums. Its houses still stood pleasantly amid gardens, orchards, paddocks and farm-yards. For the number of inhabitants was still very small--two or three thousand for a town of fair size.

The life of the burgher combined the advantages of town and countryside. The all-pervading atmosphere of natural beauty unconsciously affected the language and thoughts of all. Chaucer

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1
Cambridge was protected not by walls but by water, the river on the west, the King's ditch on the east.

-26-

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