Life in England at the Time of the Norman Conquest

The Norman Conquest brought huge changes for the ruling and landowning classes of medieval England. But for poorer people, there were fewer changes. Although England in 1066 had a number of sizeable settlements, the majority of people lived in rural areas, in houses built of straw, wood or reeds. It wasn’t until the late twelfth century that stone foundations were used in the construction of ordinary houses.

Village Life in Norman England

In the village, life was based around the cycle of the year, with harvesting and sowing the crops important rituals for ensuring food for the whole community. Inventory records of peasants in Norman England show that most families had few possessions, such as the family table and stools, beds and a chest in which to store goods such as winter blankets. Animals were valuable possessions to peasant households, and often slept in the same house as the family.

The village’s land was typically divided into open fields, within which a crop rotation scheme operated. One field was sown with winter crops, a second with spring crops and the third left to recover before re-sowing the following year. Some fields were held by tenants, some by the manorial lord and others by the village rector. At busy periods such as harvest, many communities would work together, for example, to bring in the crops.

Most villages or manors also had a common upon which animals could be grazed without payment. There were often rules about the number and type of animals which could be grazed here, and what rights villagers had, such as the right to collect fallen firewood.

The Town in Norman England

At the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, towns and cities such as York, London, Winchester and Southampton were already large and prosperous trading centres. The Norman Conquest did nothing to change this, and in fact, in the 200 years following the Conquest, the number of towns more than doubled. The Normans founded abbeys around which towns became established. These were trading centres, with markets and specialized goods, such as salt in Droitwich and cloth in Norwich. In the Norman towns, houses and business premises were often crowded together, with buildings usually constructed from timber. By the mid twelfth century, the medieval town became more organized as individual businessmen formed trade guilds, meaning that trade became more regulated and businesses became more specialized.

Sources:

Rowley, Trevor Norman England, [Shire, 2010]

Hindle, Brian Medieval Town Plans [Shire, 2002]