On the medieval menu - fraud, Saint Joan and home-making with Will's grandad

July 6, 2001

A challenge over chastity

Tudor historians relentlessly attacked the honour of Joan of Arc a century after the French heroine was burnt at the stake.

They particularly focused on her renowned virginity in a bid to undermine the saintly myth that had grown up around her.

Anke Bernau, associate lecturer in medieval and Renaissance English literature at Cardiff University, believes the discomfort Tudor scholars had with a heroine who led the fight to free her nation of English invaders illustrates the strong connection between national pride and the writing of national histories.

Joan claims to have heard saintly voices at the age of 13, telling her to save France at the height of the 100 years war. Having led a French revival, she was captured, tried for heresy and sorcery and burnt at the stake.

At the time of her death, in 1431, there is no mention of her in England. The smears against her only mount up in the 16th century.

Joan's chastity was an obvious target as it was a crucial element of her story, being linked to purity and godliness.

In a uniquely English take on the legend, some of the chroniclers suggested that, after her capture, Joan claimed to be pregnant in a bid to avoid being burnt. Either she was not a virgin or she was a liar. The outcome was the same - Joan of Arc was no holy heroine.

Edward Hall, a Tudor court chronicler, labelled her a monster who dressed and rode horses like a man. He reasoned that because she did not act as a "proper" woman should, she could not be a virgin.

Raphael Holinshed, the Elizabethan historian whose works were drawn on by Shakespeare, concluded she was a cunning woman pretending to be something she was not and that the French writers who praised her could not be trusted.

Bernau argues that their attacks show the anxiety that Tudor scholars had about relying on "foreign" sources to construct their history.

During the 16th century, there was a push towards writing history to serve the aims of the Tudor government - recollections of English defeats by the French were embarrassing.

Bernau adds: "It is not just about their embarrassment, but about the changes in the practices of writing history coupled with a more centralised and focused English nationalism."

At home with Will's grandad

The home life of the medieval peasant has seldom been glimpsed. Ignored by chroniclers, artists and diarists, there are few hints as to how the majority lived.

But Nat Alcock, an associate fellow of the Centre for Social History at Warwick University, has been able to create a remarkably detailed picture from probate inventories drawn up for Warwickshire households in the early 16th century.

Among the 30 homes that Alcock has been able to invade through these documents is one belonging to Robert Arden, a farmer in the village of Wilmcote and William Shakespeare's grandfather.

Alcock's probate records are technically early modern, but he believes the lifestyles they reflect hark back to medieval times.

They list all the contents of the homes, room by room, and what emerges is the clear demarcation of space within the house - the hall or living room in which chairs, benches, table and cupboard are always found; the kitchen with its pots, pans and fire tools, but no work surfaces; and one or two chambers with beds and storage chests.

A few hundred years earlier, homes commonly possessed just two rooms - a large hall, subdivided by function though not physically, and a bed chamber.

Alcock believes that late medieval Warwickshire households were enjoying an increasingly advanced style of life, the beginning of a transformation of living standards that was to reach its peak in the 17th century.

Arden's home is much the same as everyone else's. However, his kitchen was particularly large and contained an unusual array of woodworking tools mixed in with the cooking implements.

Alcock believes this is an indication that aside from farming, the Bard's grandfather was also a competent carpenter.

London's black economy

After a trial that stretched on for more than a year, the Italian merchant Nicholas Sarduche was found guilty of fraud on a massive scale.

He had, the London court concluded in 1369, abused his privileges as a freeman of the city to illegally import goods worth £1,000 - 100 times the annual income of a skilled tradesman.

In fact, the authorities suspected this was just the tip of the iceberg. Sarduche was also accused of smuggling £7,000 worth of gold, fabrics and spices and forestalling £4,000 worth of cloth, fabrics, wax and spices.

The merchant paid a £200 fine and was pardoned. Two years later, an enemy stabbed him to death.

Meanwhile, in the streets of London, hucksters caught selling food and booze without licence were placed in the pillory while their goods were burnt before them.

Jamieson Weetman, a DPhil student at Oxford University, views these events as evidence that commercial London was thriving. He believes the illicit economy paralleled the official one, helping to make the city a success. "The economy was far more complex and flexible than many have recognised," he says.

"Municipal and trade legislators were always reactive in the face of London's hanging society. They did not so much define a community as struggle to keep pace with social and economic realities."

The repeated serving of regulations that aimed to control trade reflected the fact that many people simply ignored the rules, he argues. The illicit trading went from the top to the bottom of the social strata.

"If trade had been curtailed as the guilds would have liked, London would have developed far slower," Weetman says.

Steve Farrar

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