December 20, 2015 by auntkatefirmin
In the era of Henry V, a statute decreed that all legal documents include an addition of a person’s “Estate, Degree, or Mystery.” Thus we have occupations as well as other identifying factors listed in wills. Just as the cordwainer of the 18th century is different than the shoemaker of today, I suspected that my notion of a yeoman as an affluent farm owner might not be all there was to the picture. I discovered the book reviewed here hoping for an explanation of social classes and status in a form that might assist me to understand the lives of my English ancestors. I found that, and more.
The English yeoman under Elizabeth and the early Stuarts.
Yale University Press, 1942 (also available as 1968 reprint)
I highly recommend searching out this book! Despite (or perhaps because of) the age of this book, there’s nothing else quite like it, and it’s readily available in libraries or as a used book. The book is very readable and avoids being mired in details while using specifics to point out variations within a general pattern. The current fashion for local studies provides very interesting information but means that few current authors will tackle a subject of this scope for fear of being accused of over-generalization. While such concerns are understandable, it’s lovely to have something for the novice that points out larger trends and provides a context for the local studies.
Here are some of the topics covered:
-Context surrounding different terms such as husbandman, yeoman, franklin, farmer, and what might be implied about the person’s status, income level, obligations in society, etc.
-Clear explanations of different forms of land tenure.
-A reminder that life in this era was much more seasonal with a calendar of the distribution of work over the year in an agricultural society. Along with descriptions of prices for animals, there is a discussion of wages paid to servants and changing employment practices as using day laborers became more common than hiring by the year and the market economy became more important.
-The yeoman’s community involvement including parish duties, presence at the manor courts, other local administrative issues such as those regarding highways, and other public issues such as poor relief.
-A description of homes, possessions, income levels, clothing, and typical expenses.
-A discussion of attitudes about education, apprenticeship, emigration, marriage and the evidence of the intellectual climate.
-A chapter on church-community inter-relationships including religious changes during the era covered, holidays, fairs and other entertainments.
In short, this serves as an introduction to morals, manners, and forgotten aspects of life in the Tudor and Stuart era for what would come to be called the middle classes. While the wills, inventories, and traces of ancestors that I have been fortunate enough to find so far do not often date back as far as the Stuarts, the conservative nature of the countryside means that much of the information is still relevant for understanding ancestors of the following century. It’s also a great reference for context, and background on prior attitudes: – for example the change from regarding land as a trust that could not be willed outside the family as opposed to more recent views that property is simply a transferable commodity.
Enjoy this book, and do remember that because of the nature of the work, not all the generalizations will apply exactly to any particular era or location.