Thursday, March 23, 2017

Non-native Species in Britain (for research)

When writing historical fiction, one little slip like giving King Alfred a tomato can wreak havoc with an author's credibility. The other day I was called to task for using a rabbit in Canute's Britain, because the reviewer said that rabbits were introduced by the Normans. Yikes! I was saved by the recent archeological discovery of 2000-year old rabbit bones in Norfolk, but just barely. According to an article in the Telegraph, "Years of division among academics over whether the Romans or the Normans introduced rabbits into Britain appears to have been resolved." OK, you get the idea. It's hard to research every little tidbit of information that could trip us up, but it put me to thinking. So I went onto Google and did a homely little search of my own about some of the more "obvious" non-native species in Britain; as an American, I admit this is not second nature to me! I'm certain my list is far from exhaustive, but I welcome any input that would enlighten the overburdened author.


CARP: The logical conclusion is that carp were imported some time during the 14th century, because after the (anonymous) Treatyse, references to the fish multiply, presumably reflecting what the carp were doing, thanks to the new craze for fish ponds. (see

DEER (CHINESE WATER): Chinese water deer were first kept at London Zoo in 1873 but escaped from Whipsnade Zoo in 1929. Numbers increased through introductions into deer parks and subsequent escapes and releases (see

DEER (SIKA): Sika were introduced from the Far East into Britain in 1860. While several subspecies, including Chinese, Japanese, Formosan and Manchurian, were introduced into parks the only free-living form in Britain is the Japanese sika. (see

EDIBLE DORMOUSE: In Roman times, they were fattened, stuffed and served as a delicacy . But the edible dormouse escaped from Lionel Walter Rothschild's private collection near Tring, Hertfordshire, in 1902. (see FERAL GOAT: They were brought here in Neolithic times (about 5000 BP) as domestic stock, derived from the Bezoar Capra aegagrus, a native of the Middle East (see

FERRET: The first reference to ferrets in England was 1223 when a ferreter was listed as part of the Royal Court. (see

GREY SQUIRREL: Grey squirrels (Scirius caroliniensis) are native to North America and were first released in the UK in 1876 in Henbury Park, Cheshire. It's not clear why they were introduced and the Victorians had no idea of the risks of introducing non-native species. (google).

MINK: A widespread modern misconception is that the UK’s wild population of American Mink originated from mass releases of mink from fur farms by animal rights activists in the 1990s. Many people will remember these dramatic events for the sheer numbers of mink involved. In fact, the wild population was established decades earlier from multiple escapes (and perhaps deliberate releases) all over the country. (see

PARAKEET: Despite rumours they escaped from film studios during the filming of the African Queen, ring-necked parakeets actually arrived from India much earlier in 1855 (see

PARTRIDGE RED-LEGGED: The red-legged partridge (redleg) is not native to Britain, but was successfully introduced to East Anglia in about 1770, using stock from France. (see

PHEASANT (COMMON): As far as post-Romano Albion is concerned, the first documentary evidence of the pheasant’s existence, a starting point for the history ofthe pheasant, is an order of King Harold who offered the canons of Waltham Abbey a “commons” pheasant as an alternative to a brace of partridges as a specific privilege of their office in 1059. (Harold wasn't king then, but whatever...) (see

RABBIT: The Romans introduced rabbits. Marcus Terrentius Varro (116-27BC) wrote that the legions brought rabbits from Spain, where they were reared in walled enclosures and then served up as a gourmet dish. (see

RAINBOW TROUT are natives of North America and were been introduced to the UK in the 19th century.(from

TURKEY: Turkeys are believed to have first been brought to Britain in 1526 by Yorkshireman William Strickland - he acquired six birds from American Indian traders on his travels and sold them for tuppence each in Bristol. (see


APPLE: There is evidence that apples grew wild in Britain in the Neolithic period but it was the Romans who first introduced varieties with sweeter and greater taste. The earliest known mention of apples in England was by King Alfred in about 885 AD in his English translation of "Gregory's Pastoral Care". (see

PEA: Before the end of the 16th century, botanists in Belgium, Germany, and England described many kinds of peas: tall and dwarf; with white, yellow and green seed colors; smooth, pitted and wrinkled seeds. By the 1560s Peas became a familiar Lenten dish in France and England. (See

PEAR: It is probable that pears were cultivated in Britain during the Roman occupation but the production of the fruit was slow to develop although there is mention in the Domesday Book of old pear trees as boundary markers. By the 13th century many varieties of pears had been imported from France and the fruit was used mainly for cooking rather than eating raw. (see

POTATO: The potato arrived in England from Virginia, brought here by the colonists sent there in 1584 by Sir Walter Raleigh. They arrived back here in 1586 and Joseph Banks says that they probably brought the potato with them. (see

SPINACH: Spinach came to England and France in the 14th century from the Spain. It became very popular there because it grew in spring when there were no other vegetables in that period of history. (see

TOMATO: It was introduced in 1597, but it remained viewed as unhealthy, poisonous and unfit to eat in both England and its North American colonies. That changed in mid-18th century after many advances in selective breeding from Spain and Italy. (see

What did I miss? That was kind of fun!

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The English Manor Part 3: The Burden of the Serf

Source: British Library MS Royal 2.VII
The difference between the free and unfree peasant on the English Manor was dramatic. While all had to pay rent, for the most part the responsibilities ended there for the freeman, with the exception of a few boon days required by everyone during harvest time. The serf, on the other hand, was obliged to dig into his pouch again and again; his obligations were so numerous it’s amazing he had enough left over to live on. And, because he was bound to the land, technically the lord owned everything—even the clothes on his back. Also, his children were the lord’s property, which made it a problem if one of them wanted to marry someone from another manor. Compensation had to be paid, for the lord would be losing potential income.

Here are the most common Obligations of the Serf:
– Had to pay a yearly rent
– Had to provide week-work (2-3 days a week or 3-5 days a week, depending on the season—and not always every week): ploughing, carrying, weeding, haying, cleaning, threshing, winnowing grain, trimming hedges, making fences, etc.
– Had to provide boon-work along with the rest of the population of the manor at harvest time: extra hands were needed to bring in the harvest, and were usually given meals and drink on the longest work-days. Needless to say, the serf’s own harvest was secondary
– Had to pay a yearly wood-penny for the privilege of gathering wood; he was not permitted to cut down any trees
– Had to deliver a hen or eggs at set seasons to the manor house for the privilege of keeping poultry
– When he sold an animal, he had to give the lord part of the purchase price
– Had to pay a fee when giving his daughter (and sometimes son) in marriage (known as merchet fine)
– Had to pay to let his son go away from the manor for education, or take holy orders
– Could only have his grain ground at the lord’s mill; he had to give up about 1/20th for the lord’s profit
– Could only bake his bread in the lord’s oven
– Responsible for “Tallage at Will”, a tax arbitrarily imposed by the lord whenever he needed money; by 1300 it started to become more fixed and only once a year.
– Responsible for “Heriot” to the lord, a kind of a death tax, where the survivor had to give up their best beast (I believe free peasants were often obliged to pay Heriot as well). Sometimes the widow additionally had to pay a “relief”, a cash sum allowing her to take over the holding (gersuma). At times, payment of Heriot left the widow so badly reduced in circumstances she didn’t have enough to survive on. That was too bad for her. I suppose she didn’t have much choice but find another husband. The widow usually retained a life interest in the lands held by her first husband; if she married again, the second husband gave up the holding at her death. The holding went to one of her children from the first marriage.
– Responsible for “Mortuary” to the church, a death tax where the inheritor had to give up their second best beast (as long as the deceased owned three or more).

According to Bennett, the imposition of all those fines and duties is what distinguished the serf’s servile status. As the author said in his Life on the English Manor, “although medieval England saw a large part of its population of servile condition, this state of affairs was not willingly assented to by the serfs themselves, and unceasing attempts were made by them to alleviate their condition.” As time went on (late 14th-early 15th century), it became easier for the villein to make a money rent in lieu of services. Manumission was the ideal way for a serf to gain his freedom. The exactions of the king, foreign wars, and the growing luxury of the aristocracy made the collection of annual rents more attractive to a landlord who was strapped for cash. But flight was not at all unusual if a man had no family to be concerned about; without a doubt he would be forced to leave everything behind. Where could he go? Some traveled far and started a new life on another manor, but many found refuge in the local town; sometimes the town was right next door to the manor. How could he resist? The towns increasingly were buying their own freedom and establishing themselves as boroughs, and the inhabitants were free by extension. This offered a temptation to the villein, for often the serf and his skills were welcomed and the town would offer its protection.

If a serf ran away, the lord of the manor was allowed four days to pursue and bring him back. But after four days, things got more difficult for the lord; Bennett tells us, “by then he (the villein) was in possession libertatis—in other words, he had a seisin of liberty—and the lord would have to seek the aid of the courts to get possession of him.” Apparently, the courts tended to be in favor of the peasant and proceedings were stacked against the lord: “The courts of the fourteenth century and later were making it more and more clear that serfdom was repugnant to the law of England…”. Furthermore, if the serf found refuge in a Chartered Town or Royal Demesne, as long as he made himself useful by joining a guild or becoming a burgess, and if he lived there for a year and a day, he was essentially free and could not be claimed by the lord. But he must stay within the borough walls or he could be apprehended. Mere residence wasn’t good enough; he had to be willing to “accept communal burdens, and wishes to be part of the borough and not a mere parasite upon it” (i.e. pay taxes, etc.).

As I stated in Part 1 and Part 2, conditions on the English manor varied widely from place to place, and the end of the manorial system did not come about all at once. The Black Death and subsequent reduction of available labor made a big impact on the peasants’ circumstances, regardless of the government’s efforts to hold them back. The Peasant’s Rebellion of 1381 certainly made them a force to be reckoned with; though they were severely put down afterwards, it seems this was the beginning of the end for the manorial system. In another hundred years, the serf was destined to be replaced by the tenant farmer and small landowner.