Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The General Condition of the Island

Unlike G.R. Balleine's History of Jersey, the earlier series of books on the history of Jersey by A.C. Saunders have a much sharper focus on social history; that's not to say they don't mention the significant political events of the day, but Arthur Charles Saunders writes much more passionately about social conditions of the day.

In this extract from "Jersey in the 15th and 16th centuries" (1931), he is looking at how the common man or woman fared in that period, and how they lived their lives. There is an undercurrent of righteous indignation about those conditions in his prose, and it is hardly surprising when you read of the burden of time and taxes that the great majority of the population had to suffer. It is something that Balleine skims rather more lightly over.

It is also notable that unlike Balleine, Saunder's interpretation of witchcraft is very different. Balleine largely bought into the model proposed by Margaret Murray (Witch Cult in Western Europe, 1921), of an underground pagan society of devil worshippers, which has long been discredited by the evidence unearthed by modern academic historians such as Norman Cohn, Owen Davies, Keith Thomas, Ronald Hutton, Brian Levack, to name but a few. Saunders sees witchcraft as an outcome of the general ignorance and bad fortune which beset the poorer people, and places accusations in the context of the jealous neighbour; in that respect, he is closer to the modern approach by, for example, Robin Briggs in "Witches and Neighbours" (1996) and has not dated as badly in his interpretation as Balleine.

The General Condition of the Island
by A.C. Saunders

We know that St. Helier was the principal "town in the island, and was then called a bourg, and consisted of but few houses grouped together around the church. Mr. Nicolle, the late Viscount and Historian of Jersey, has written a very delightful book, " St. Helier " which has recently been published by the Société Jersiaise, and he therein describes the town as it was at this period.

The bourg was absolutely unprotected from the sea and was liable to attacks from the many pirates who infested the neighbouring waters, and, at one time it was proposed to remove the town to the Mont de la Ville, where, at any rate, the people would have been better able to defend themselves against such disagreeable visitors.
There were many quaint customs and laws in the Island which had been imposed upon the inhabitants by those in power.
All householders had to give one day's labour each year in helping to keep the old castle in proper repair, and if they failed to appear to do such work, on the day appointed by the Crown officers, they had to pay three and a half sous for the day's work thus avoided.
The several parishes had to provide labour for the conveyance of stores, provisions, wines, hay and other things for the use of the officers and soldiers at Mont Orgueil Castle, and butchers and fishermen had to call twice a week with their goods to supply the needs of the Governor and garrison there. Then the King's tenants in the Vingtaine la Rocque had to find two boats at all times of need, and after reason-able and lawful warning, to pass on messages and carry letters to Guernsey. Farmers could only brew their malt in the King's brew houses and grind their corn in the King's mills, and at the King's mill at Grand Vaux those who had no corn but had land, must come three times a year-viz.:-
"At ye feast of All Saints, at Christmas and at Easter with two bushels of corn," and for every default they incurred the penalty of " ye fourth part of a cabotel of common come accustomly called a Carehonmon of Mouture," otherwise they were liable to severe punishment. Timber had to be carted for the use of the mill free of charge, each man "according to ye proportion of his tenement if he holdeth it of the King." There were other King's mills at Gigoulands, in St. Mary's parish, and the mill at Milender. Then all goods belonging to strangers had to be weighed by the officer appointed to keep the King's weights. Then there were rent wheats due to the Crown payable at " Ye feast of ye Nativity of our Saviour, called Christmas, or within any of ye twenty-one days next before ye said feast after proclamation made in ye market place in this behalf and if not paid then it shall be lawful to the King's Receiver to distrain or imprison at his pleasure."
Then there were the Poulages and Pains payable at Christmas; and the Dismes or Tythings due to the King's Majesty, viz., half a sheaf of corn or flax ; the Verpes, viz., fees due for damage done by beasts and cattle trespassing on lands planted with corn and grass ; Essiages, paid by those engaged in fishing for conger payable at " Ye feast of ye Exaltation of the Cross," otherwise Holy Rood Day, the 7th September ; Amerciements and Casualties owing by reason of Amends, defaults and disobedience of the King's Court ; Moneage or Fouage levied every three years at 12d. from every householder except the priest and clergy, gentlemen, and such as be free holders, and their servants, and every widow woman having an annual value of forty shillings in goods besides her clothes and apparel ; Tavernage payable at Michaelmas, paid by all who sell " Ale, biere or Syder over and above ye Tavernage of wine " . Estrants or Wrecks of ye Sea belonged to the King's Majesty, who had the only prerogative as Customary of Normandy, and he claimed all pieces of gold and silver above twenty franks, all great horses, Spanish hawkes, precious stones, all scarlet cloth, packs of old clothes packed together, all whole pieces of silk, and all kinds of poles, " ye cometh to ye land of himself or taken upon ye dry ground."
And then we have some among others of the many laws which regulated the lives of the people, who were always liable to the tyranny of those in power, and were little better than beasts of burden. They lived under the most unhealthy conditions in hovels hardly wind and rain proof, with clay floors and small openings in the walls, often not glazed, without any system of drainage, dung heaped against the walls and with shallow stagnant pools at their doors.
No wonder we often come across records of plague and pestilence, and yet it was not until the middle of the sixteenth century that Solomon Journeaux, son of Jurat Journeaux, the first medical man, was allowed to practise in the Island after having duly sworn obedience to the Court.
No wonder the people discovered their own weird remedies for their many ailments, with the result that it was an age of the survival of the fittest. Sorcery and witchcraft were feared yet sought after, and it was no difficult matter to have an unpopular woman condemned as a witch, who had worked for the illness or misfortune of some neighbour. Toil and sleep sufficient to keep up the daily routine did not allow much time for the cultivation of intelligence, and those who suggested in any way that they were the subjects of injustice, only opened the way for the more brutal treatment of themselves. We hear of the good old days, but they were good only for the very few, and the great majority were subjected to a slavery which we can little understand at the present day.
Those in power had little hesitation in using the authority they possessed, and for those whose dawning intelligence suggested unjust treatment there was very little scope, for punishments were severe and there were prisons, mutilations, whippings and the gallows always ready for the agitator. And thus we find a cowed people, and at nightfall when the farm gates were shut, we can imagine how, as they sat in their dimly lit living room, the mysteries of life lent themselves to the superstitions of the age.
Their outlook was limited to their immediate neighbourhood and the petty affairs of their neighbours, the sickness of a child or grown-up person, the death of a cow, a bad crop, and we can well imagine how some unfortunate woman, probably unpopular because of her greater intelligence and bitter tongue, gradually getting ostracised and accused of witchcraft and bringing disaster upon those who had offended her. Had not someone seen her running in the shape of a hare, from a field where a sick cow had been found ? And one rumour followed another until she was credited with supernatural powers. At first, probably, she may have been flattered by the fear she managed to instil among her neighbours, and gradually, as her loneliness increased, her mind became warped, she came to believe that she had really the powers with which her neighbours credited her.
And then there were those mysterious stones, dolmen and menhir, which were to be found in all parts of the Island, and tradition had handed down how, by carrying out certain rites at certain hours, certain benefits might be obtained by those who dared.
Thus as evening drew near and the people gathered together round their fires in their dimly lit living rooms we can imagine that, after the conversation had passed outside the ordinary routine of the day and the discussion of their neighbours' affairs, it was carried on in whispers and with much fear and trembling about the many mysterious things around them which they could not understand.
And their pleasures were few and far between. They had the feast and fast days, when they met at certain parts of the Island, where they practised archery, danced and made merry. Archery was encouraged so that they might be of use in case of invasion, And as the day passed by they, with the aid of cider and other drinks, became merrier, noisier and sometimes quarrelsome, until such time when they had to return to their hovels to sleep off their dissipation and prepare themselves for the next day's toil.
There was little scope for social improvement. Wages were hardly earned and barely sufficient to provide necessary food, and those in authority saw that the scale of wages was regulated by law under severe penalties. Even skilled artisans could not earn more than sixpence a day, and later on Sir Thomas More, the Chancellor, and author of " Utopia," tells us that the condition of the labouring beast in his days was better than that of the labouring man.
But with the dawn of education, people were gradually beginning to recognise that the social condition of the people was not as it should be, and, although ignorance and superstition, supported by charms, spells, curses, ghosts, witchcraft, and other sorceries, still remained, the gradually increasing power of the common people in England and France was beginning to be felt even in the little Island of Jersey, and a silver lining was showing through the dark clouds of ignorance and despotism which had, for the greater number, killed the joys of life in the past.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

They lived under the most unhealthy conditions in hovels hardly wind and rain proof, with clay floors and small openings in the walls, often not glazed, without any system of drainage, dung heaped against the walls and with shallow stagnant pools at their doors.

Aside from the clay floors, you could be describing 21st century Portakabins in Trinity...