The best books about medieval life and widows who prefer independence to remarriage

ffiona Perigrinor Author Of Life in a Medieval Gentry Household: Alice de Bryene of Acton Hall, Suffolk, C.1360-1435
By ffiona Perigrinor

Who am I?

I didn’t enjoy my first degree in Modern History and Political Science and it took twenty-five years and another MA in Women’s History, Gender, and Society, before my enthusiasm was rekindled. I’ve always believed it’s important to know where we come from, as well as the history of our country, and I don’t just mean wars, laws, and politics – but the lives of ordinary people, men, women, and children, because finally, we discover that our hopes, aspirations, and challenges are not so very different to the people who lived 500 years ago. I’m also passionate about the reality of women’s lived experience in all periods of history.

I wrote...

Life in a Medieval Gentry Household: Alice de Bryene of Acton Hall, Suffolk, C.1360-1435

By ffiona Perigrinor,

Book cover of Life in a Medieval Gentry Household: Alice de Bryene of Acton Hall, Suffolk, C.1360-1435

What is my book about?

When I discovered Dame Alice’s household accounts for 1412/13, the daily lists of food served, ale brewed, and bread baked were not exactly exciting, until I noticed the horses. The numbers fed in her stables varied every day indicating continual traffic to and from this gentry household. Why, I wondered, were all these people visiting a middle-aged Suffolk widow?

Finally, I managed to identify over half her named guests, and so was able to paint a vivid portrait of the lives of ordinary people in the medieval countryside, of their festivals and feast days, marriages and monuments, family loyalties and betrayals, life and death, rhythms of the working year and the changing scene in the wider world beyond the household. Who said accounts were boring?

The books I picked & why

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The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year 1400-1700

By Ronald Hutton,

Book cover of The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year 1400-1700

Why this book?

I’m passionate about writing well-researched history which appeals to the general reader and endeavours to present compelling, authentic pictures of times past. Hutton’s book was a great help in understanding the religious and secular festivals which were celebrated by Dame Alice, her peers, and workers, on the days when she served high-status food at her dinner table. Together they appear to have enjoyed many traditional rituals, like Candlemas, Plough days, and the Harvest festival.

Here’s one example: Hutton emphasizes New Year’s Day was important for gift-giving and feasting: on January 1st, 1413 Dame Alice bought gloves and rings for her staff and fed over 300 people at her Suffolk home on hog roast, swan, mutton, and rabbit. A harper was also in attendance so, presumably, there was dancing and merriment too.

Gentry Culture in Late Medieval England

By Raluca Radulescu (editor), Alison Truelove (editor),

Book cover of Gentry Culture in Late Medieval England

Why this book?

I found this study of gentry culture, with essays on political influence, education, social networks, religious activities, and the display of ‘gentility,’ a useful guide to a social class that was evolving in the period of my research. It also helped me understand why Dame Alice was so successful in running her own household and did not remarry – she was secure in the knowledge that she could exercise power and influence as an independent woman. Many of the other books I read about medieval households focused on the aristocracy, their sumptuous lifestyles, lavish entertainment, ostentatious festivities, opulent recreations, and itinerant households, but were not relevant to the subject of my book about a sedentary fifty-year-old widowed gentlewoman running her estates and giving hospitality to her neighbours and agricultural workers.

Chaucer: A European Life

By Marion Turner,

Book cover of Chaucer: A European Life

Why this book?

I love this book despite feeling frustrated by the excessive detail. Turner brings Chaucer’s cosmopolitan world and diverse literary works to life by focusing on places and spaces significant to him. I especially enjoyed the chapter on Households, where Chaucer was sent to serve in his adolescence, like many of his contemporaries, as page-boy, valet, entertainer, general factotum. I also learnt about his international travels, as a diplomat, prisoner of war, member of Parliament, and the sadness of his unfulfilled private life.

The last two chapters recount Chaucer’s final year living in the precincts of Westminster Abbey, his sudden death, relatively obscure burial, subsequent reburial in Poet’s Corner, and elevation as Father of English Literature, which Turner controversially challenges, placing him in a European cultural background.

Blood and Roses: The Paston Family and the Wars of the Roses

By Helen Castor,

Book cover of Blood and Roses: The Paston Family and the Wars of the Roses

Why this book?

When I started writing about Alice de Bryene, basing my initial research on a single year of household accounts, I found this book inspiring. I wanted to explore Dame Alice’s family, her relationships with the wider community, and get an idea of what motivated her, even though it’s considered impossible to write medieval biography – there are just too few primary sources to construct a life. However, Blood and Roses demonstrates it can be done. The Pastons were different from Dame Alice – they came from humbler origins, were determined to ascend the social ladder, maintained voluminous correspondence, which illuminated their familial concerns, and many were feisty women. Castor’s work helped me find my own way to tell a compelling story about a more settled, unassuming Suffolk widow and her busy household.

The Foundations of Gentry Life: The Multons of Frampton and Their World 1270-1370

By Peter Coss,

Book cover of The Foundations of Gentry Life: The Multons of Frampton and Their World 1270-1370

Why this book?

When I was at school medieval social classes were depicted as “those who pray, those who fight, and those who work” – a narrow demarcation that excluded the “middling sort”. Since then there’s been considerable work on local and regional studies and the rise of gentry households, who quickly established a material culture where literacy, display, hospitality, and relationships with the Church were key to their success. Coss’s book provides a fascinating in-depth example and I particularly appreciated his use of the Luttrell Psalter to illustrate the behaviour and aspirations of the Multons.

Just one drawback: The scope of this study is largely before the Great Rising of 1381 and the 1349 and 1360 epidemics of the Black Death, which had a profound effect on the growth of the gentry class.

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