The rural English village of Walsham, in Suffolk, was in many ways, quite a typical English community. It was, technically speaking, a manor. The manorial system of social organization was found throughout Western Europe, but it was particularly entrenched in England. Unlike some larger cities like London, there are well-recorded documents on Walsham.
The Manorial System
Under the manorial system, the manor and the lands around it—sometimes known as the fief—were owned by a lord. Peasants who lived on that land were bound to the lord by oaths of service and the promise of protection. The peasant population worked their own fields and owed a certain number of days of service to the lord to work his.
The manor had its own church and ecclesiastical officials, its own legal court, and its own mini-economy. Often, the relationship between the family of the lord who presided over the manor and the peasants who lived and worked on the land went back years, if not generations.
Walsham was one of the few communities that had really reliable records that preceded the onslaught of the plague and continued during the worst of the outbreak.
This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
John Hatcher’s Account of Walsham
One of the most famous and innovative accounts of Walsham was written by the great medieval and early modern scholar John Hatcher of Cambridge University.
Very strictly, fact-oriented historical writing can be dry and uninteresting. Recognizing this, and desiring to produce a valuable text that would help bring Walsham to life, as it were, Hatcher wrote The Black Death: An Intimate History, in which he relied as much as possible on concrete facts, events, and numbers to paint a picture of what happened at Walsham in 1348.
In his preface, Hatcher noted that he set out to write a work that’s ‘more docudrama than conventional history’, and as such ‘it will be a hazardous project for a professional historian to undertake’. But undertake it he does, inventing dialogue and reconstructing events that must have taken place even when he was not entirely sure of all the details.
The Black Death: An Intimate History
Indeed, while Hatcher knew quite a bit about parish priests and their activities in England during the plague, and he knew that Walsham must have had a priest who, more or less, carried out his duties, that priest’s actual name has been lost to posterity. So, in his book, Hatcher went ahead and made one up for him.
Hatcher’s experiment in writing about the Black Death this way—not to mention the widespread attention his work received and the wealth of information he brought to light—means that it is impossible to talk about the Black Death and not talk about Hatcher’s analysis of what happened in Walsham.
Learn more about Europe on the Brink of the Black Death.
Difference Between Walsham and Other Manorial Systems
Walsham was a little unusual as far as the manorial system in England in that there were essentially two noble households in control of the lands, making this area two manors run side by side—there was High Hall and there was Walsham Manor.
The bigger of the properties was Walsham Manor, and for the period in question, this belonged to Lady Rose de Valognes, who had inherited it from her father. Lady Rose married twice and held the property on her own after the death of her second husband, who died of the plague himself. She was not in residence there, however, her family had many holdings, and she primarily lived elsewhere.
When the Black Death came to Walsham, that community looked a lot like the rest of the medieval world at that point. It was enduring a land crunch, as the population had risen and available land was scarce. There were a few families who held large landholdings and were thus relatively well off.
Learn more about the epidemiology of plague.
The Economy in Walsham Before the Black Death
Most members of the community—and there were over 1,000 in 1340—held just enough land to scratch out a bit more than subsistence living. At the bottom of the hierarchy were peasants. The community was primarily agricultural—so crops and animal husbandry were the main concern of most people living there.
But Walsham was also part of a commercial network that included nearby Bury St. Edmunds abbey, and there was a thriving market culture. Fairs and markets were held regularly, and local English goods, as well as exotic items like luxury fabrics and spices, could be purchased. This was because Bury St. Edmunds also had one of the wealthiest monasteries in England. This monastic house was Benedictine, so the monastery was deeply engaged in the activity and business of the community in which it was situated.
On the eve of the Black Death’s arrival, the monastery of Bury St. Edmunds had one of the finest libraries in the land, and scholars and Church officials regularly traveled there to study and consult the manuscripts that were held in its library. These regular visits by people who traveled throughout England and came from abroad meant that this was one of those places that would have received the horrifying news about the Black Death long before the plague actually arrived.
Common Questions about the Manorial System in Walsham Before the Black Death
The basic idea of Walsham’s manorial system was that the peasants who worked on the nobles’ fields owed them a certain amount of service in exchange for their protection. They were essentially the property of nobles.
John Hatcher’s accounts of events concerning the manorial systems in Walsham tread a thin line between historical accuracy and fiction. He tried to use as much true data there was available or possible.
Most people grew crops or had animals. Most jobs were agricultural because of Walsham’s manorial system. But they also had thriving commerce with nearby communities which opened up other jobs to people.