Sunday, 15 June 2014

The History and Antiquities of Myddle

 Later 17th Century and Early 18th Century Life in Rural England.

The first thing that came to mind while reading this account was the novel Tess of D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. It is a complex yet moving story that describes life a little later than The History and Antiquities of Myddle, by Richard Gough.  Both discuss the trials and tribulations of the working class, landowners in English rural society, and provides a glimpse of human nature during this period.  By reading this account, as historians what can we learn?  Like any period piece, a historian can learn many things from it.  This might not be a work of literature, but a historical account of life, society, values, and the socioeconomic structure of Myddle during this time.

The 17th and 18th centuries were of great change and progress. Hardship and poverty for many in England also lurked.  One of the most interesting aspects about this period in English history is the large social shift among people in the country.  England was coming out of civil wars, destruction of the monasteries, plagues, and was starting to gain grow as a nation, but Mother Nature didn’t always agree. With the beginnings of many cultural revolutions came poor crop production resulting in episodic famine, many often struggled.  Land went dry due to overuse and climate change. The shift in land ownership in rural communities and the strong relationships between landowners and their tenants helped the success of farmers through the many unexpected difficulties.  

In the following example from The History and Antiquities of Myddle, the use of land is changed from general or communal, to being section off.  We also learn of the relationships of those who work and live on the land farmers/tenants, and those who own it, the landowners of the estate.

“The Meare House, at Haremeare, did stand over crosse the brooke that issueth out of Haremeare; butt when the Meare was lett dry, the house was removed, and sett by the side of the brooke, and one Spurstow dwelt in it, and was imployed by Sir Andrew Corbett to looke to the Heyment of Haremeare, and to tend the catell that were in it, for when it was let dry, there were catell putt in it as a lay; and after, as it beecame dry and sound, it was divided into severall pieces.

What does this example tell us historically?  We learn that the land is being used for: cattle.  Further in the article, land was used for corn and orchards.  Historically, the sectioning of land was a concept that farmers started as early as the 1400’s.  Large parcels of lands were hard to manage with low population, due to the Bubonic Plague. Therefore, smaller parcels of land were more manageable.[1] They had the ability to switch out crops and keep up with crop rotation, so the soil would not go bad.  Now a farmer could grow a variety of different crops through the year such as turnips, peas, corn, potatoes, and barley.  This increased the production yield for farmers.  In turn, made his land more profitable, perhaps contributing to the double production rates. Also farmed was hay for cattle and later cabbage for stall feed for cows, in 1770s.  It is noted, that during the famine of 1799, a farmer was able to provide for his family and livestock just off potatoes. Being able to manage his land by crop rotation and keeping the nitrogen content controlled, this contributed to his salvation.

In 1520, the Agricultural Revolution began. Gough’s history was written and covers the years of 1634 through 1723 in Myddle during the revolution. The revolution occurred in two periods: first being 1520-1739, where farm production doubled. Then from 1740-1800 the second period, where farms increase their production 10% in crops and other goods that are consumed by consumers. [2] According to Overton a critic of the revolution, he argues the historical validity of the revolution through literary analysis and believed that agriculture production rates grew the same as population rates during 1520-1850.  In reality, consumption per “caput” was not a constant; it depended greatly on income and price for agricultural goods, all were relative to items that were purchased by consumers, meaning the revolution was driven by public consumption of goods. [3] What else can we learn from this article?

Interestingly, Gough’s full account of Myddle is titled Human Nature Displayed in the History of Myddle. [4]  The title alone reveals Gough intention: human nature, or the social history of the village of Myddle. He does this by making accounts of the happenings, gossip, stolen cows, ovens blowing up in tenant’s houses, etc., in his chronicle. Gough’s chronicle is personal and detailed.  As a historian, there are many layers to the events he recorded, adding to its value.  For example, if you irritate your neighbor, or even steal, there are consequences and someone will get even.  Life was hard, people worked hard.  Honesty was deeply valued, as was one’s good word and reputation.  A good relationship built on honesty and trust, helped farmers become successful and survive through harsh conditions. A landowner would always be more willing to help his tenants out in time of need, if they were trust-worthy. Gough’s records both the honest and dishonest people, how they reacted to changes that were occurring around them, including various superstitions.  Good or bad, the reactions we see were methods of survival for many during this time. Myddle is small; reputation can take a person far.  For example,

“After Spurstow, one Reece Wenlocke dwelt in it. He was descended of good parentage, who were tenants of a good farme, called Whottall, in Ellesmeare Lordshipp. Butt the father of this Reece was a bad husband, and a pilfering, thievish person, and this son, Reece, and another son, named John, who lived at Bald Meadow, in this parish, were as bad as theire father. They never stole any considerable goods, but were night walkers, and robbed oarchyards and gardens, and stole hay out of meadows, and corne when it was cutt in the feilds, and any small things that persons by carelessnesse had left out of doors.

Reece had a cow, which was stolen away, and it is reported that hee went to a woman, whom they called the wise woman of Montgomery, to know what was beecome of his cow; … Butt the greatest diskindenesse that hee did to his neighbours was, by tearing theire hedges. ….

Att that time William Higginson dwelt att Webscott, and hee had a servant, named Richard Mercer, a very waggish fellow.

Reece Wenlocke, among other hedge-wood, tooke this stick to burne in his oven; and when hee cast it into the fire in the oven, it blowed up the topp of it, and sett fire on the end of the house…”

What does this example tell us about human nature and its importance in Myddle during this time?  Through human nature such as this, we can learn importance, what people held close to them, and what was valued.  We learn that great pride was taken in the upkeep of lands, including the livestock raised.  The value of a cow is to a tenant or their crops, is also demonstrated.  Cows were expensive and hard to replace. Reece had his cow stolen or it was taken because he had the reputation of being a “night walker.” Frustrated and upset with his neighbors and their reluctance to help; he performs some “short work” to his neighbor’s hedges.  Then to get even, he puts an oven he built, with the stolen wood/hedges and blows it up. More than likely this tested his relationship with his landlord and neighbors, but it also shows the importance of an individuals livelihood and what measures people took to survive, especially in regards to dishonesty.

Human nature and the relationships between the villagers in Myddle, tell us many details about the town and the people in it, as shown above. The historical value between the landowners and tenants during this time helps us evaluate the impact it had on historical record. Relations were based on a rented/leased situation.  Leases on the landowners land, were not just for a short period of time, but longer. For example, “Bishop Heath of Worcester acquired property in south Shropshire for his see by exchange with the earl of Warwick in 1549, but the manors concerned were subject to a 200-year lease that Warwick had granted to William Heath the previous year and they produced only a small reserved rent.” Families leased the farms that they lived on for many generations; relationships grew as a result.  Some landlords made up for the “influence of tenure at will on the tenants willingness to lay out capitol.” As the economy shifted and laws changed, landownership changed hands, tenants often preferred “rack rents” during difficult times.  Shropshire was one of the areas that were spared this hardship.  But this didn’t last forever.  Rents were raised in the late 1740s due to a severe outbreak of cattle plague. Sickness and drought is never good for the farming economy. [5]

Rent was the largest expense for farmers.  On average, rent was ¼ of a farmer’s income but at times it was 1/3.  After rent, farmers had tithes (A tithe was a one-tenth part of one’s income or something [an item i.e. crop] that was paid as a contribution to a religious affiliation or compulsory tax to government, landlord etc.), to pay.  Some paid to landowner with rent, while others paid to different people or entities.  A farmer would pay an amount on annual gross value of produce from their farm. It could be 3 cents per produce, or as much as 25 cents.[6]  Additionally, for a farmer to be successful, his relationship between how much he had to pay in rent and the value of his produce per annum was very important. In order to establish this, the landowner/tenant relationship had to be strong. This is where Gough’s emphasis on human nature is important. Noted in the “Domesday Book” the relationships in Shropshire between landowners and tenants were quite friendly.

A historical text or primary source like the one looked at in this essay, can tell a historian many things about the time or the people who lived. The town was alive with gossip and candor, and this is illustrated quite well. We also are given examples of the relationships between the tenants, landlords and various neighbors in the town. We also see up close the impact of the agricultural revolution in progress, and changes in land distribution. Gough’s focus on human nature, teaches us what was important to these people and why. By studying the agricultural revolution, we also gain an understanding of the world around the village. We discover that this is a hard working village, where honesty is everything. If you are not honest or steal someone’s cow, prepare yourself for an oven blowing up in your hedges or house, that cow was important. We learn the value of honesty and dishonesty.

[1] Notes from Future Learn course: England in the Time of Richard III; Fall 2013
[2] Robert S. Allen “Tracking the Agricultural Revolution in England.” The Economic History Review, New Series Vol. 52, No. 2 (1999): pp. 215-216
[3] Allen, pg. 211
[4] The copy of Human Nature Displayed in the History of Myddle, that I obtained, has a different variation of the title than that of our example: “Antiquities and Memoirs of Myddle.”
[5] J R Edwards D C Cox, et al. 'Domesday Book: 1540-1750', A History of the County of Shropshire: Volume 4: Agriculture ed. C R Elrington G C Baugh (British History Online, 1989), pp. 119-168
[6]  J R Edwards D C Cox, et al. 'Domesday Book: 1750-1875', A History of the County of Shropshire: Volume 4: Agriculture ed. C R Elrington G C Baugh (British History Online, 1989), pp. 168-231