Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England by Alison Weir


  Monks were not universally popular. Enclosed in their communities, and undertaking no pastoral works outside those walls, they were often perceived as idle troublemakers who led promiscuous lives and were overcritical of those who remained in the world. "From the malice of monks, O Lord deliver us!" wrote Giraldus Cambrensis with feeling. By the end of the twelfth century, religious rules were being subverted by softer living conditions, and the decline of monasticism had set in.

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  Education was then dominated by the Church, which used it as a means of training those who were destined for holy orders. All schools had to be licensed by bishops: many were grammar schools, attached to cathedrals and monasteries. Only boys were admitted. They studied the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic) and the quadrivium (mathematics, music, geography, and astronomy). All lessons were in Latin and discipline was strict. There was no prejudice against a bright boy from a poor background gaining acceptance in these schools and by benefit of his education rising through the ranks of the Church to high office. In fact, it was the peasant classes who seemed to care most about education, for they "vied with each other in bringing up their ignoble and degenerate offspring to the liberal arts."5 The nobility, on the other hand, were often "too proud or too lazy to put their children to learning."6 Upper-class boys were more likely to be taught the manly arts of warfare, preferably in another noble household, where they would be sent initially as pages, in the hope that their hosts would secure future honours and advantages for them. It would appear therefore that it was mainly the peasant, merchant, and artisan classes who sent their sons to the schools and universities. Relatively few laypeople, however, learned to read and write: literacy was chiefly the preserve of those in holy orders.

  Music, sacred or otherwise, pervaded every walk of twelfth-century life, although very little survives, and that which does is so poorly annotated that we can only guess at how it should be played. Nevertheless, we have examples of the hymns that were sung in churches, the songs that were sung by soldiers, and the part-songs that originated in Wales and were sung for pleasure in castles and manor houses. Carols had not yet become associated purely with Christmas, but were sung and danced in a ring to celebrate a variety of holy days and even the coming of spring. Sirventes were songs of a satirical nature, often only of topical interest, which is why they were rarely written down, but they were highly popular.

  Life in mediaeval castles was lived communally, and during the evenings everyone would gather in the great hall of the keep to eat supper and take their leisure by the light of torches and candles in the wall sconces. If they were lucky they might be entertained by minstrels, clowns, acrobats, Morris dancers, mummers, mime-artists, and jesters. Kings and lords would keep their own jesters; Rahere, founder of St. Bartholemew's Church and Hospital, was Henry I's jester, and had a special talent for mimicry. The repertoire performed by these artistes, who were usually of lowly birth and disreputable reputation,

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  was often coarse and bawdy, punctuated by swearing and obscenities. Satirical humour was popular, then as now, and slapstick drew much merriment.

  Christmas was marked by twelve days of religious offices and revelry, and every English king held a special court in honour of the occasion. The Church itself entered into the spirit of frivolity, appointing boy bishops for the duration and holding a Feast of Fools, to the hilarity of beholders, but it was stern in condemning jollifications at any rite that had obvious pagan origins. Thus May Day rituals and observation of the summer and winter solstices were either prohibited or somehow incorporated into the Christian calendar.

  In order to spread the Word of God, the Church sanctioned the performance of miracle plays or tableaux of scenes from the Bible. These had become very popular by the end of the twelfth century. They were at first performed in churches, and later on colourful stages set up in marketplaces. Many of these early plays were in the vernacular, so that the common folk could understand them.

  During the twelfth century, English towns flourished and grew, thanks to the development of trade and commerce. Several new towns were founded by kings and noblemen, and some villages received charters conferring township status. Conscious attempts at town planning were made in new urban developments, such as Leeds and Liverpool, which were constructed on a grid system.

  Towns were known as boroughs, from the Saxon word hurh, and were centres of trade; the merchants who lived in a borough were known as burgesses. Towns would have walls built around them for protection, which often meant that, with the expansion of their trade and population, too many people were crowded together in houses crammed into narrow streets. As the century progressed and society became less militaristic in its outlook, suburbs grew up outside town walls.

  Some towns and cities were communes, which meant that they had secured the right to self-government by elected aldermen, often in the face of opposition from kings like Henry II, who disapproved of towns being independent from the crown. Kings and lords would also grant charters licensing the holding of fairs and markets, invariably a lucrative source of profit for themselves.

  London, with an estimated population of 35,000, was by far the biggest and most important city. Its chief citizens were known as barons. They were a politically acute clique who wielded considerable influence, and by the end of the century they had wrested their independence from the crown, declared themselves a commune, and in 1191

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  elected their first mayor, Henry FitzAilwin. Many citizens were bilingual, speaking both Norman-French and English, or a curious combination of the two. Intermarriage between those of Norman and Saxon origin was common.

  We are fortunate that, around 1180, the chronicler William FitzStephen wrote a description of London as a preface to his biography of Thomas Becket, who was born in the city. Thus we have at first hand a picture of the London Eleanor knew.

  London had occupied its 326-acre site on the banks of the Thames since Roman times, and its landward boundaries were protected by a high stone wall with towers and seven double gates: Bishopsgate, Cripple-gate, Moorgate, Aldgate, Aldersgate, Ludgate, and Billingsgate. The city was dominated by three fortresses: the White Tower, built by William the Conqueror, and Baynard's Castle and Montfichet Castle, where the city garrisons were housed. Between 1176 and 1209, a strong stone bridge was built to replace the old wooden structure that connected the city to the Surrey shore. Within the city walls, the ordinary houses were built of wood and gaily painted red, blue, and black. Because there were so many timber buildings, there were frequent fires; one in 113 5 destroyed St. Paul's Cathedral and a wide area around it.

  By 1180, the city was bustling and prosperous, boasting a fine stone cathedral, thirteen religious houses, 126 parish churches, lordly residences, guildhalls, and schools. London was a great centre for trade, and had streets of shops displaying a variety of luxury goods, including silks from Damascus and enamels from Limoges. There were also markets where merchants would come from all over Europe to sell their goods, and numerous stalls and booths. There was even a cook shop by the river serving ready-made meals to take away.

  The city's population was growing and suburbs such as Smithfield, where there was a horse fair every Saturday, were by now springing up beyond the walls. In these suburbs, the richer citizens had fine timber-framed houses set in beautiful gardens planted with trees. Nearby were "excellent suburban wells with sweet, wholesome, clear water," such as Clerkenwell, Holy Well, and St. Clement's Well. Beyond these suburbs lay pleasant meadows and millstreams, and forests where the Londoners would go with their merlins, falcons, and dogs to hunt stags, deer, boar, and even bulls. They also had the right to hunt farther afield in the Chiltern Hills.

  There was much to do in London. Annual carnivals took place, and the people regularly participated in bull- or bearbaiting, cockfighting, horseracing, archery, and wrestling. Boys and youths enjoyed football (soccer)-- then a much more violent game than it is now-- and their
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  fathers and the city elders often came on horseback to watch. During Lent there were tournaments every Sunday, and at Easter, "naval tourneys" on the Thames. In winter, people made skates out of animal bones and whizzed across the frozen marshes north of the city. For refreshment there were many inns and taverns, identified by the bunches of greenery hanging above their doors.

  FitzStephen described London as a beautiful and splendid city, "known for its healthy air and honest, Christian burghers," but Richard of Devizes stated that, compared with Winchester, it was a cynical, terrifying, and evil place. The murder rate was high, and it was dangerous to venture out on the streets after curfew because of predatory street gangs. The worst areas for crime were actually across the bridge on the Surrey shore, particularly between the Bishop of Winchester's palace in Southwark and the Archbishop of Canterbury's palace at Lambeth, which was the equivalent of a modern red-light district.

  Other cities and towns were far smaller than London, often not much bigger than a large modern village. Winchester, York, Lincoln, and Norwich boasted fewer than ten thousand citizens each, while Oxford and several other cities had not yet fully recovered from being sacked by the Conqueror's troops after refusing to submit to him.

  Ecclesiastical architecture flourished at this time. By the end of the century, nearly every English cathedral and monastic church had been rebuilt in stone in the Norman style known as Romanesque. This was characterised by a massive barrel vault supported by thick columns and rounded arches, often decorated with geometric or zigzag chevron patterns. Most churches had very long naves and imposing towers over the crossing with the transepts, and were furnished with several altars to meet the high demand for masses. Durham Cathedral is the finest of the few remaining examples of English Romanesque architecture.

  Towards the end of the century, after the development of the pointed arch in Burgundy and France, Gothic architecture became fashionable. In England, this style is known as Early English, and an outstanding example is the choir of Canterbury Cathedral, built by William of Sens. This set a new trend in church building and was soon followed at Lincoln, Wells, and other cathedrals. Twelfth-century churches were rich in carvings-- a visual aid for the faithful-- and covered in instructive and decorative wall paintings depicting biblical scenes, saints, doom-paintings, allegories, floral patterns, and even battles, as at Kempsley Church, Gloucestershire. Most were whitewashed over at the Reformation, yet a few have been restored, giving us some idea of how colourful mediaeval churches were.

  In the early twelfth century, church windows were small and filled

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  with clear glass. Shortly, glass stained in grey and black and known as grisaille appeared. Then, as the development of the Gothic arch facilitated larger windows, coloured stained glass was introduced into the first French Gothic cathedrals. It began to appear in English churches only towards the end of the century, and very little survives from that time, that in the choir at Canterbury being one of the best extant examples.

  Sculpture was primitive, ill proportioned, and crude, although there were some talented craftsmen at work in this field, as is evident from the stone sculptures at Chartres Cathedral and Cluny Abbey in Burgundy. Most sculpture was brightly painted, even if it adorned the outside of a church. Tomb effigies were rare, and those of the Plantagenets at Fontevrault are of unusually good quality. Opinions differ as to whether these were genuine attempts at portraiture, but their very diversity implies that perhaps they were. Portraiture as an art form did not exist-- people had only a rudimentary knowledge of anatomy-- and such paintings as survive are murals or manuscript illustrations that display little attempt at realism.

  England was rich in natural resources. Her coal seams were not mined until the thirteenth century, but iron, lead, silver, and charcoal were, and in Devon and Cornwall tin was becoming the major industry. Staffordshire was already known for its pottery, although much of what was produced was primitive in design and execution. The major industry was the production of wool, which became the basis of England's wealth from the twelfth century onwards. Trade was not yet dominated by craft guilds: the weavers' guild was the only one of any significance in this period.

  There was a variety of fabrics on sale, many of them home produced, particularly in Lincolnshire. Velvet would not be invented until the fifteenth century, and the finest cloth available was that dyed scarlet, which was made almost exclusively for Henry II and his family at 6s 8d (33p) an ell (a measure laid down in Henry Is reign and equal to the length of the King's right arm). Green say cost half that: it had a more delicate texture, but the colour was not as fashionable. Then there was a striped fabric called ray and the coarse white blanchet cloth worn by Cistercian monks and poorer folk. Linen was woven in Wiltshire and was used for women's headdresses and for undergarments for both sexes.

  Money was coming into more general use, replacing the system of barter or payment in kind that had sufficed in early feudal times. The only currency in England in the twelfth century was the silver penny. Money was counted in units known as shillings (i2d, or 5p), marks

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  (13s 4d, or 67p), pounds (24od, or £1), and gold marks (£6), but there were no actual coins of these denominations. In the interests of trade, upon which England's burgeoning prosperity depended, Henry II took measures to ensure that the coins bearing his image, which continued to be issued throughout the reigns of his sons, were accepted as sound currency throughout Christendom. Nevertheless, there were many clipped or debased coins in circulation.

  A labourer earned roughly one shilling a day, a thatcher one penny, and a plumber three pence, while a miller received as an annual stipend five shillings and a chaplain around forty shillings. There was chronic inflation and prices were constantly rising.

  Trade, of course, was largely dependent on communications. It is a misconception that people rarely ventured out of their villages or towns at this period. In fact, royalty, nobles, knights, merchants, craftsmen, pilgrims, and a host of others were constantly on the move, by land or water. Not that travel was always easy. Some Roman roads, notably "Wading Street, Ermine Street, and the Fosse Way, remained in use, as did the prehistoric Icknield Way: all were designated royal roads in the twelfth century, and were under the King's protection. By law, they had to be wide enough to allow two wagons to pass each other or sixteen armed knights to ride side by side. The surfaces of these royal roads were "metalled" and paved. Most people travelled on horseback or by horse-drawn carts and covered wagons.

  There were other main roads, known as the King's Highways, but they were often mere dirt tracks, which frequently became muddy and waterlogged. For this reason many goods, and people, were transported by river on barges. Towns that were sited by major rivers, such as York, Gloucester, and Norwich, grew rapidly in prosperity.

  Most seafarers travelled in round cogs with a single mast, a square, coloured sail, and elevated castles at each end. Sailings were frequently delayed by inclement weather, and ships were often blown off course. It could take several days to cross the English Channel, and in all seas there were hazards such as shipwreck or pirates to be braved.

  England enjoyed a lively foreign trade with France, Italy, and other Mediterranean states, Flanders, Hainault, Scandinavia, and the German principalities bordering the Rhine. Gold was even imported from Arabia. The Thames was constantly thronged with ships, and the wharves of London "packed with the goods of merchants coming from all countries";? these merchants imported timber, furs, gold, silver, gems, fabric, chain mail, and even gyrfalcons, those hunting birds used only by royalty. France's principal export to England was wine, chiefly from

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  Poitou, Gascony, and Auxerre, although Rhenish wine was also favoured. The marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II gave a great boost to the wine trade.

  The diet of the English was more varied than we today might imagine. The fertile soil allowed several types of crop to be grown,
while wild herbs, often used in cooking, were to be found in the meadows. Fruits and berries grew on trees and bushes, and a wide variety of birds were killed for the table. In the towns and markets, spices imported from the Orient, such as ginger, nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon, could be purchased, at a price. Meat was a staple, but it could only be eaten fresh in the summer, because all livestock were slaughtered in the autumn, there being no means of feeding them through the winter, and their meat was smoked or salted down for the colder months. Stuffings, marinades, and rich sauces, often flavoured with garlic, were used to disguise the taste and smell of rancid meat that had in many cases gone green. The poor kept pigs, while the rich hunted for game such as venison, wild boar, swans, hares, and even peacocks.

  Great varieties of fish were also eaten in large quantities, it being necessary to do so on Fridays and also during Lent, when the devout were expected to give up meat. Most manors and monasteries had their own fishponds or streams, and castle moats were often stocked with fish.

  Many recipes known today, such as coq au vin, beef bourguignon, and bouillabaisse, date from the twelfth century. Herb-flavoured omelettes were popular, as were stews and pies. There were no potatoes, and most meats were served upon thick trenchers of bread. Only the better-off used plates, and these were usually shared between two people, a gentleman always inviting his lady to take the tastiest morsels. Sweets and desserts were popular, and might include dried fruits, compotes, jellies, biscuits, tarts, waffles, fritters, gingerbread, or macaroons.

 
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