Simon Carr: Life wasn’t so bad for 14th-century serfs – Independent Online Edition > Simon Carr
Lunch with an old school friend, at one of those country pubs the English do so well. Was it the Swan at Swinbrook or the Swine at Swanbrook? It’s in the Windrush valley at any rate, below the carriageway that goes along the ridge.It’s one of the nicest pubs in England so you’ll want directions. You go past Witney and then, near that speed camera that faces east and before you get to Burford you take a right off the A40; you zip across the brow of the road, through the traffic on to a single-track road, and you drive straight down into the 14th century.The old stone pub is on the other side of a stone bridge in the middle of the water-meadows. Its lawns go down to the river; there are polled willows, and a little weir or fall or rush of water takes the stream round the inn. The building sits there as if in the crook of an arm. It takes you back into the past, a venture like this.Clive and I first met 40 years ago. When we were young and strong and full of promise. Now we talk about pensions and retirement. What we can afford. How we can pay for the rest of our life. I think we sorted it out. The chardonnay helped. And the Goose Neck Sausages made everything possible.Outside, it was still light at 4.30. A mist was coming up off the cricket pitch. The sky beyond the hill was clear, but more light grey than light blue. The stream rushed under the bridge; the A40 rushed along the hill; the mist rose up quickly; you wouldn’t want to be superstitious with the mist coming up like that.Stand with me and let’s look up into the dusk; half a mile ahead the valley reaches some woodlands. Who knows how old these boundaries are. And older still may be the injunction written on a signboard on the bank: Private fishing. Those sort of rights are a thousand years old, sometimes.From the bridge there are a hundred yards on either side. I’d say it’s, ooh, 30 acres in front of us. I’m reading about medieval life at the moment and have been amazed by the amount of freedom our serfs had; very unlike French peasants. Our lot were anything but slaves. And the amount of land they owned! Our villeins often held yardlands – that’s 30 acres; so the visible valley floor, between the mist and the trees and the two streams, that could have been a holding for some medieval serf-like fellow and his family.Hell, I don’t own 30 acres. I dream of owning 30 acres. You could have lamb every week off 30 acres, and bacon, eggs, cheese, honey, vegetables, corn … You can live off 30 acres, feed your children, buy your wife ribbons for her hair and let her have some help around the house. England was rich in those days. Even serfs had servants.The mist is filling up the valley now. Its upper contours look like clouds, drifting through the trees, swallowing them up.But medieval rustics had obligations with their land. They had to work two days a week for the lord, for one thing. Isn’t that primitive, oppressive, feudal? Well, at 40 per cent tax I work two days a week for the government and I don’t have what these rustics had. I’m not a serf, am I? Perhaps I am. But what about retirement? No problem there, I’d be dead already.The mist clears suddenly. The whole scene has come back again. It’s odd how it does that. Quite encouraging, in fact, in its way.
Blogged with Flock