TIMES REMEMBERED 13th/14th Centuries
What was life like for the average man in Pirton at that time? The feudal villein was tied to the land, the lord held the land and therefore the people also. In return for his strips in the open field the villein was compelled to do service for his lord. For instance the holder of half a virgate (15 acres) had to work for his lord twice a week and in each sowing season plough one and a half acres for him, plus one day’s ploughing each year. If the villein had no land he had to prepare six quarters of malt for the lord or pay him sixpence. Those who could not plough had to perform other services such as taking the lord’s hens to market for sale. He also had to attend the lord’s court, grind hi flour in the lord’s mill, pay a fine if his daughter married and pay another if she became pregnant out of marriage. Indeed he had to pay any arbitrary fine the lord liked to impose and when he died his heirs were obliged to pay a death duty to the lord in the form of their best beast.
Disasters, like cattle murrain (probably foot and mouth disease), too little rain or too much rain meant extra hardships. In1341 murrain and bad weather rendered farming almost impossible. Large areas of land were left unploughed throughout the country, leading to food shortages and the murrain stayed to plague them for the next thirty years.
By the 13th Century the lordship of Pirton had passed from Ralph de Limesy through his son Alan, grandson Gerrard and great grandson John, who died childless, circa 1195, to be divided between John’s sisters Basilia and Alianore (Eleanor). The former was married to Hugh d’Oddingselles and the latter to David de Lindsay. Pirton was thus divided into three, since Ralph de Limesy had already granted part of his manor to St Albans Abbey. David de Lindsay had a son David who died without issue and the property passed to his brother Gerrard. On his death it passed to his sister Alice who was married to Henry de Picquiny of Weedon. Henry de Picquiny was succeeded by his son Robert and the land was held by him until his death in 1296. In 1301 his brother Henry who succeeded, granted the reversion of his estates to the King and since the d’Oddingselles’ land was held in sub-fee to the de Lindsays, all Pirton except Rectory Manor became Crown property.
Hugh and Basilia d’Oddingselles had an elder son William and a younger son Hugh. They divided the property inherited from Ralph de Limesy into two parts. William’s portion was known as Manor of Pirton and Hugh’s as Pirton d’Oddingselles. Rectory Manor remained in monastic possession until the Dissolution of the monasteries 1536 – 1540 when it too became Crown property.
As if the murrain, bad weather and rising cost of food was not enough to blight the lives of the inhabitants, there arrived in the wet summer of 1348 something far worse. The Black Death was to kill one and a half million people out of an estimated population of four million. The name was given to a disease called bubonic plague and is spread by the fleas carried by rats. The first signs are lumps on the groin or armpit followed by livid black spots on the the arms and thighs. Few recovered. Most died within four days. The disease was carried to this country by a sailor in a ship coming from Gascony.
Although it spread most easily in towns, where people were more closely packed, the plague also took its toll in the countryside. A sad little message may still be read in Ashwell church were somebody engraved “Wretched, terrible, destructive year, the remnants of the people alone remain”. Hitchin lost about a third of its people and nobody was left alive in the slums of Queen Street, which was known as Dead Street for the next four hundred years. The fiflth that littered medieval streets was a breeding ground for rats; personal hygiene was not of the highest order and medical knowledge of how to deal with the plague was nil.
In the countryside the impact was no less dramatic. Fields were unploughed as men fell victim to the disease. Those that were ploughed often remained unharvested. Animals went untended. The price of food soared, causing more hardship for the poor.
However, those peasants who were left alive suddenly found their services in great demands. Feudal law was such that they could only leave their village with the lord’s permission. Now lords were so desperate to get their harvest in that they actively encouraged men to leave the villages where they lived, to come and work for them. Payment began to be commuted for service and the first seeds of rent payments were sown. Another consequence of the plague was an explosion of sheep farming, it being less labour intensive than arable.
Although the Statute of Labourers in 1351 restricted the inflation of wages and forbade the movement of labourers the government was powerless to reverse indefinitely the growing mobility of people. The plague, which ended in 1350, was to strike England six more times before the end of the 14th century and persisted as an increasingly urban disease until 1670, when it disappeared for over two centuries. It was not until outbreaks either side of 1900 that the bacillus was identified and the connection made between plague and rats. The Black Death may not have started the demise of feudalism in our country but it certainly speeded it up.