It’s not just semantics

Rather than give my patient readers at PBS one of a half-dozen possible entries complaining about some inexplicable crap that is part culture shock and part conflict of style, I will explain what I am attempting to do despite Oxford’s best efforts. I’m sorry, one of those complaints crept in under the door. I will need to get a gripe-excluder for writing sessions. I am going to try and pace those gripes between more positive entries that people could actually read and enjoy (or tolerate). It is too easy to use a blog for laundry lists of frustrations and while I am not big enough to avoid that entirely, I do have the self control to moderate it. So, instead of a bitch-fest about higher education, you get a miniature reading list on the English gentry.

When quizzed at MCR gatherings and seminars I tell people that I am working on “15th and 16th century elite culture and gentry in England.” If pressed further I explain that “I’m studying continuity and change in their conceptions of violence that come from the Medieval ideas about chivalry and turn into the Early Modern ideas about courtly honour and gentle valour.” Or I just say I study violence because that word blocks out all others in casual conversation. I now know exactly how Jody Enders and Valentin Goebner feel.1

The violence gets all the attention, but at the moment my bigger challenge is with the gentry. That group of poorly defined people—a group that socially and economically represent the fraying hem of the elite garment—requires some careful attention before I move on to the meaty bits on violence.

The three estates make the Medieval world tidy, simple, and completely inaccurate. Each of the groups that fought, prayed, and worked had fine internal gradations of status and privilege and each had a slightly permeable border with the other. It is sometimes more expedient to imagine only two estates, the first being the elites—containing the fighters and ecclesiastics—and the second containing everyone else. The gentry appear as that group of people who are nominally elite by virtue of economic resources or by familial decent from the elites. That’s another simplification of the concept but you get the idea. You also get my point about problems of definition.

Most studies of the English gentry focus on political aspects and it is usually in these terms that the gentry form an identity distinct from the nobility and the higher strata of the ‘lower’ classes: the yeomen and the merchant class, two more groups who must sit and stew under these equally unhelpful labels while I look at other things. At this point, a brief autobiographical digression is appropriate.

When I was working on my doctoral applications I lined up a few short interviews with potential supervisors. I did this partly out of a sense of obligation to those willing academics who may have had reservations about me or my project. A short meeting would give them the opportunity to size me up and decide if this was a wise choice. This gave me the chance to do the same. We could each answer the question “can I work with this person for the next three years?” Rosemary Horrox had kindly agreed to back my project at Cambridge and I can say that if things had worked differently, I would have been very pleased to work with her.2 There was one awkward moment during our first interview which I think went unnoticed by Dr. Horrox, thanks to my passable poker face. Conversation moved towards the study of the gentry and the 15th century and a catalogue of relevant writers. I was vaguely familiar with the work of Christine Carpenter, Peter Coss, and studies of later periods by Lawrence Stone but when she mentioned Bruce McFarlane I drew a blank. She continued with some thoughts on Maddern and crime while I hastily scribbled down something like ‘McFarlane – look up’.

Look up indeed. I can only explain my ignorance of McFarlane with reference to my unorthodox academic pedigree and a set of instructors who earned their own degrees well after the ‘cultural turn’ had driven Late Medieval history into different territory.3 McFarlane was left behind with the other traditionalists of political history and he never appeared in any prominence in my reading which is a shame since he was far from traditional in his questions. Obviously, I hadn’t read Carpenter very closely and I never read anything on the political issues of the Late Middle Ages or I would have run into him like someone turning down a dark alley and running into Stonehenge.

McFarlane’s appeal is that he took some of the accepted ideas about Late Medieval politically relevant populations (what everyone seems to refer to as the polity) and gave them a really good looking to. What he found was different enough from accepted wisdom that they called it revisionist and while that term is trapped under some heavy pejorative baggage, his work is as conventional in its methodology as you can get. However, this approach and most others in the last 30 years tend to focus on that political and economic aspect at the neglect of the social. What coverage there is comes out of the descriptions of the people who formed the Commons, people who constituted this vaguely elite yet heterogeneous group. This was that large social category that included the Pastons and the knights of the shire, the landed ‘petty elites’ near the bottom and what Stone called the ‘squirearchy’ near the top.4

That’s the group I need to understand and define (within reason) before I go any further. That could take some time, considering how much of a tangle the process is, based on Carpenter’s problems described in great detail in her 1992 book.5 At least this isn’t a shock for a student of violence. I have only read one work on violence that does not begin with a lengthy jumble of qualifications and definitions, necessary to produce some sort of workable definition worth applying to the sources.6

I care about the defining characteristics of the elites and gentry because definitions of violence change based on who was participating in it, performing it, and witnessing it.7 To some degree the status of the perpetrator defined the nature of the violence but on occasion the violence could define the perpetrator. A house invasion and murder could be a mundane criminal felony when committed by urban tradesmen but it’s subtly sanctioned feud when committed between landed gentry in the course of a dispute over inheritance.8 There is a complex exchange at work, and the lower in the elite stratum you go, the more complex and variable that exchange becomes until you leave the elites and join everyone else. Knowing where that elite state ends is essential for identifying elite violence and following the Late Medieval course of the demi-god prowess.

If that doesn’t make much sense, I’m sorry, but this is early going and I’m thinking out loud most of the time.


1| I would cite proper page numbers if I had all my books, and I do miss them so. However, the standards of citation for a blog are low as it is so I will simply refer readers to the introductions and conclusions of Valentin Groebner, Defaced: The Visual Culture of Violence in the Late Middle Ages. (New York: Zone Books, 2004), and Jody Enders, The Medieval Theater of Cruelty: Rhetoric, Memory, Violence. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999).

2| Horrox is a fellow of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge and while her output is comparatively low, she is one of those authors that appear in everyone’s bibliography if they come even close to the Late Medieval period. Significant works include (as editor) Fifteenth-Century Attitudes: Perceptions of Society in Late Medieval England. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), The Black Death. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994), and Richard III: A Study of Service. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

3| McFarlane’s editors have helped endear him to me as a fellow researcher who compensates for weaknesses in originality with unparalleled thoroughness. Their introduction to The Nobility of later Medieval England: The Ford Lectures for 1953 and Related Studies. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980) is worth a read for the insight into the field craft of the academic. A great deal of his most influential work appears in England in the Fifteenth Century: Collected Essays. Edited by G. L. Harriss. (London: Hambledon Press, 1981).

4| The bibliography of the Medieval gentry is far too vast to even sample here but a nice introduction to the field is H. S. Bennett, The Pastons and Their England: Studies in an Age of Transition. (Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 1990). That’s a re-print edition and I suspect Bennett is now considered too dated. I would happily recommend the three volume study of the Pastons by Colin Richmond but hardly anyone will be able to find it. See also Nigel Saul, Knights and Esquires: The Gloucestershire Gentry in the Fourteenth Century. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, Oxford University Press, 1981).

5| This is dealt with in detail as an entire chapter in Locality and Polity: A Study of Warwickshire Landed Society, 1401-1499. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

6| Of course I refer to my favourite whipping post of frustrating research; Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. (New York: Viking, 2011).

7| This complex interchange of definitions was articulated best in Guy Halsall, ‘Violence and Society in the Early Medieval West: An Introductory Survey.’ In Violence and Society in The Early Medieval West, edited by Guy Halsall, 1–45. (Rochester, NY.: Boydell, 1998). See also the more theoretical study by David Riches, The Anthropology of Violence. (London: Basil Blackwell, 1986).

8| I refer to one of the cases previously mentioned in this entry.


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