England’s succesful wool trade crreated prosperity for the sheep farmers. But one shepherd is enough to tend a flock, and this did nothing to help the unemployment situation. The fact was that the population had steadily increased. There were now too many people for the country’s economy to support. The result was that farm labourers roamed the land, looking for work.
These men lived in cottages built of wood and mud. They owned only a few pieces of cheap furniture and some tools. Moving home was easy. The Cottage Act of 1589 insisted that, before any such building could be constructed, there had to be four acres to go with it. Before that, the law was simple. Anyone could build a cottage on common land, provided he was able to raise the roof and have a fire burning between sunset and sunrise.
A labourer and his family lived off bread and ale, peas and beans, bacon from a pig and eggs from the hens. Fresh meat was a rare luxury. The chief source was poaching. All game was protected, but many people – even clergymen – set out with dogs and nets, traps and crossbows, to hunt in the forests. With luck, aman might bring home a deer.
Since the end of serfdom, a new figure had established himself on the rural scene. This was the small farmer who owned a piece of land. By the end of the 16th century, several in south-east England were living in two-storeyed homes.
Village life was busy. In 1555, an Act was passed that made road repairs the responsibility of every parish. The outcome was that every able-bodied villager had to put in one week’s work a year, unpaid, on the highways.
What with trying to earn a wage and scratching enough food for himself and his family, a farmer had little leisure. Since there were no books, and no one could read, people told stories to pass the time. Sometimes, they played dice or backgammon (the upper classes preferred chess).
In the 14th century, playing cards were introduced. Out-of-doors, football – using a pig’s bladder – was commonplace. There were no rules, no pitches, and no limit to the number who could play. In the 15th century, golf became so popular in Scotland that the authorities banned it.
At certain times of year – usually on saints’ days – a crowd was permitted to assemble. The result was a fair. Aome of these gatherings went on for several days. The purpose was to do business. The traders brought goods; people for entertainment, there were musicians, actors. clowns and jugglers.
Many people who came to fairs would normally have been thought of as hostile. They were outsiders; people to be regarded with suspicion. To show that they were welcome, a large hand was often displayed on opening day. At Exeter’s Lammas Fair. for example, a stuffed glove was carried on a decorated pole.
But the realities of country life could be seen in those wandering families of peasants, desperately trying to find enough food to stay alive. Read previous article: Richard III after Edward IV died in 1483