Historian Michael Wood presents a portrait of ordinary people living through extraordinary times, tracing the story of Christina Cok, a peasant of 14th century Hertfordshire.
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In the church in the village of Ashwell in Hertfordshire,
medieval graffiti still survive as witnesses to a far-off Age Of Terror.
And the year when the Great Plague first came
was one thousand and three hundred and fifty...
Merciless and terrifying.
The 14th century is the most conflicted time in British history.
The country went from boom to bust, ran into climate change, pestilence and famine,
was involved in foreign war and then the Black Death, the greatest catastrophe in history.
It's a defining epoch,
but not in the way that you would have thought.
A few years after the Black Death, a poor Midlands cleric called William Langland had a dream.
"One summer season when the sun was soft", Langland begins,
"I rigged myself out in shaggy woollen clothes like an easy-going hermit,
"and I set out to wander the world, hoping to hear of wonders."
"And one May morning in the Malvern Hills, tired by my travels, I fell asleep.
"And I dreamt a marvellous dream."
"I saw a fair field full of folk, high and low together, some labouring at ploughing and sowing.
"No time for pleasure, sweating to produce food for the rich to waste.
"The ones who spend their lives in vanity parading themselves in their fine clothes.
"Although their crown comes from us, the commoners."
Langland's poem about an honest ploughman is the first great social commentary in English history,
the first to see the world through the eyes of the poor...
..Medieval reality as opposed to medieval myth.
'I called you here as free-born Englishmen, loyal to our king.'
Since Prince John has seized the regency,
Guy of Gisborne and the rest of his traitors have murdered and pillaged.
You've all suffered from their cruelty. The ear-loppings, the beatings, the blindings...
You know, watching history movies on the cinema and TV,
reading history books, you so often get the impression
that history is made by the people at the top,
the rulers, Lords and Kings.
But what's so wonderful about this period, the 14th century, is that documents are so rich.
For the first time in English history, you can actually sense the energies of history
just bubbling up from the grass roots as the ordinary English people,
even the unfree peasants, for the first time, see the possibilities of change
and begin to fight for their basic rights.
It's time we put an end to this!
This is a journey into Langland's fair field full of folk,
searching not for kings and queens but for the ordinary English people.
It's the tale of one village, Codicote in Hertfordshire.
The story of what happened to its people in a time that changed Britain forever.
This is the kind of house that the medieval peasants of Codicote would have lived in. Let's have a look.
It's small, very few possessions.
And they all mattered.
You would have brought your animals in at night, especially your cow.
This is the world of our medieval ancestors.
And this is the story of one community of them, and one family and especially one woman.
A medieval peasant, a one-parent family.
And her name - Christina.
Now you might have thought it impossible to tell the story
of a poor peasant 700 years ago, let alone a woman.
But that's to reckon without the medieval obsession
This is the Court Book for
Codicote village, a couple of hundred years of records,
all written down by the secretaries of the Abbot of St Albans for the purposes of taxation.
Fines, fees, tenancies, it's the brain-crunching detail
with which medieval landlords ruled their unfree population.
And here we are in 1277, and the first mention of the family -
Hugh Cok, that's Christina's father,
and he rents a place in the market where fish is sold.
A tiny little plot, just enough for a shop, 14ft by 12ft.
And pays eight shillings rental to the Lord.
It's the beginning of Hugh's career.
He starts off as the poorest villein in the village and over the next 20 years,
squirrels bits of holdings, bits of land, bits of property, a plot here, a plot there.
Two and a half acres and another place in the market, rent of 1p,
fine of 6p, one and a half acres, a house and three acres, an acre with a hedge. It's goes on and on.
You get a real impression of the almost mind-numbing detail that medieval landlords put you to.
The amount of kind of semi-intellectual effort that must have gone into
remembering and forgetting this great web of obligations.
'This system of scattered holdings has remained unchanged
'through the centuries. The autumn ploughing is the best time
'to get a good idea of the strips.'
Amazingly, Hugh's world survived into the 20th century.
And there are still traces of their ways in our thought and speech.
This, for example is broadcasting.
When Christina was a little girl,
she would've helped her father in the field, guiding the plough team with a goad.
What you have to remember about the medieval strip systems is they're
much more complicated than we were taught at school.
And here in Codicote, in this part of the Chilterns, they had many fields, not just three big fields.
Codicote had about 15 fields in the Middle Ages.
This map gives you an idea. In yellow, I've coloured in what were the peasants' lands.
The Lord's lands in the middle, the peasants have to go out from the village to work on the strips.
Hugh Cok, for example, Christina's father, would have had 20 or 30 little bits of land
dotted around the perimeter so he had to walk each day, maybe a mile and a half out to his strip.
When you came back in the evening you would have been exhausted, fed up with this irksome system.
And in fact, throughout the court documents, the ill will between
the peasants and the landlords is, well, barely concealed.
To work such a complicated system, you needed a jury.
12 men, not women.
I filmed the Laxton Jury in the 1980s.
And there's the Codicote jury in the Court Book.
Hugh Cok was born around 1250.
He and his wife Agnes had three children, Christina, John and Adam.
They were villeins. We still use that word too, don't we?
It means unfree peasants who rented land from their lord and worked his fields too.
Labouring to feed their betters, and then to feed themselves.
Well, this is a basic fromity.
Fromity? What's a fromity?
It's a cracked-grain...
sort of porridge, really,
and you would mix it with stock or ale or anything like that.
Then you'd put in the things we grow in the garden.
So today we're just coming out of Lent, so we've got a bit of kale
and a bit of flat-leaf parsley and some onions,
which I'll just stick in. Of course, these are quite strong flavours,
they're going to flavour the grain for you.
And it'll be, hopefully, quite tasty.
You'd have had this on its own or you could put it with some meat
if you were rich enough.
How's this doing? Are we... Can we sample it?
Well, you can sample some if you would like to.
I can't guarantee the taste, but you are welcome.
Well, this is experimental archaeology, you see, so we've got to do that.
get some for you, then. Do you want some bread?
Just a bit of that. So these are ordinary peas here, are they?
They're dried peas, so I've just put them in there basically to soak.
And we would soak them for quite a while, really.
-So peas would be a part of their diet too.
-Right, and they ate off wood.
You'd have a bowl for everything.
You know, we've got wooden buckets and plates and spoons.
It's very good.
I don't know whether I could manage this every day, but...
It's very heavy.
Christina's parents were smallholders,
their most valuable possessions their plough oxen and their cow.
The smaller peasant farmer, we believe, would've used a cow,
because she's multifunctional. You can use her to work small acreages,
you can have a calf from her and you milk her as well.
Modern beef animals, all the money's in the back end, whereas you look at
the pictures of the old ox teams, they're big front-ended animals, big shoulders.
They generally started them at about three, they went into the teams,
worked them for two years, then they went off to fatten for two years.
So, they increased in value.
Whereas the horse decreased in value.
They're named as well.
This is Grin and Graceful, single-syllable nearside,
So when you work in a team they know who you're talking to.
Come on, heads up.
Come on! Oi, Graceful...
As a medieval peasant, you had to be averagely good at a lot of things.
You didn't have many professional woodsmen back in the Middle Ages,
you were just a farm worker doing woodland work because it was necessary to your year.
So what's the deal with being able to...
Do the peasants have a common land or common wood where they can do this
or do they have to get permission from the landlord?
If they're tenants of the landlord, often their rental payment
will cover gathering certain types of wood and sometimes
in certain quantities. This is actually where you get the difference between wood and timber.
Wood was generally the stuff that peasants were allowed to gather.
Locally around here it was stuff up to about four inches thick.
Timber was a commercial product. It didn't necessarily mean
you were going to build anything out of it, it just meant
it belonged to the land owner and he could sell it.
So the landowner would be keen for the woodlands on the estate to have lots of what we'd call
standard trees, ones that will grow to their full height, whereas the peasantry
wanted lots of coppice or pollard trees where they'd get lots of these poles.
-And you get the firewood as well.
-The thicker stuff
at the bottom for firewood. The straight bits in the middle for fencing.
The twigs at the top that I'm sitting on here, you can actually make beds out of them.
But most would be tied into bundles called faggots and they would be used to heat your bread ovens.
Now on one level you might think that this is just an everyday story
of medieval country folk, but there's more to it than that.
Here in 14th-century Hertfordshire, Christina and her neighbours are already set on the path which will
lead England to become the first capitalist nation in history.
"Money, money, money, thou art king,"
said a poet of the time, "and rulest the world over all."
By the late 13th century, money was in wide circulation and markets were
opening everywhere, where peasants could sell their surplus - the first step to freedom.
I do barn eggs, I do duck eggs, I do quail eggs...
The nearest big market, St Albans, was already here in 1086.
I think it goes back to at least the 11-1200s. I'm sure it does. It might even go back a bit before that.
My father-in-law's had a stall here for about 30 years and my son's
working here as well, so that's three generations.
And my husband's grandma used to work on the stall with his father as well so, at one time, when Tom was a baby,
there were four generations on the stall.
Christina's parents leased a stall in a new market in Codicote.
You might think it almost impossible to recover the 13th century
from a modern commuter village, but it's still here.
That's the main road from Hitchin to St Albans. Medieval road, pilgrims' road, in fact.
The George and the Dragon was built there in the 14th century as a pilgrims' hostel.
In 1267 the King allowed the villagers to have a market, and this is the marketplace.
It's been filled in with these cottages in later times but this is where all the market stalls were -
fish stalls along there for salted fish,
the fleshmongers - the butchers - the tanners, the coopers and so on. All around here.
And it's this point in the story of England, as well as the story of the village, that you see the growth
of capitalism at the grass roots.
Christina herself was born around 1285 at the end of a boom time.
In 200 years the population had gone from two million to six,
and, with the King needing to feed his court and fight his wars,
this was the real beginning of the English tax system.
There's 175 kms of shelving
here in the stores of the National Archive - the records of the English
and the British state for 1,000 years, almost.
These shelves contain the court rolls of the 13th and 14th century.
Nothing to my mind gives a better idea of the capacity of a medieval government to gather information
than to tax even the poorest people down to the level of Christina and her father,
These are pieces of parchment that are sewn together
to form the long roll.
See the sewing on the first strip here?
It's just fantastic, isn't it?
Of course, you have to remember, it's not organised by modern local government blocks.
It's organised on hundreds, which are the divisions of the shire.
It had to be right at the end, didn't it?
So we know where we are, because this is the hundred of Cashio and here...
taxable people of Codicote in 1307.
They're people with enough property - shop in the market, land, cottage and so on - to be taxable.
All of them would have been well- known to Christina and her family.
The Arnolds... There's still an Arnolds' farm in Codicote.
There's still a Thickney. Roger Polin.
They end up being one of the wealthiest villein families in the 14th century,
did very well out of all the crises of the time.
And Hugh Cok, Christina's father.
His tax rating -
13 pence and 3 farthings.
In 1277 he'd been estimated at six pennies, so he's more than doubled
his tax liability after 30 years of hard slog out in the fields of Codicote.
If you want to understand the medieval mind, you have to remember this -
that along with death, the other great constant is tax.
Then, as now, money meant social mobility. It brought peasants property,
and even education and literacy,
and it shaped the class system that the English have loved and hated ever since.
There were quite big class divisions -
poor people on one side, like Christina, and rich families like the Salecoks and the Polins,
who built up quite big estates and properties, shops.
They might have been able to afford to build themselves
a fine house like this, with a little hall and a bedroom at one end.
So social change was in the air and in the art of the time too.
This most beautiful of all medieval books
was commissioned in Christina's lifetime by a rich lord -
Sir Geoffrey Luttrell.
It's just so rare for the Middle Ages for anything concerning the great unwashed
to make it through. We're used to it being the realms of Time Team
and pot shards etc,
but here you've actually got it, red of tooth and claw,
and the scenes that run around the marginal space in this incredible book,
populated not just by the great and the good but by the ordinary people who made Luttrell plc tick.
And that's an incredibly brave thing for a patron to actually want to do.
-So these are real people?
-Oh, real people.
And this is a century in which we're beginning to experiment with portraiture. Imagine the thrill
of these people in the household if they saw this thing in the church, seeing themselves too.
And you can say something from the subsidy roles etc. of how much these estates were worth each year,
but if we want to see what makes the man tick and how he's seeing his universe,
this is the best route in. It's very rare for somebody to leave something that personal.
I think one of the things that runs throughout the agenda
is a concern with social justice, with poverty and posterity.
"Just look around you,"
wrote William Langland,
"especially at the women among the poor.
"Burdened with children, often famished with hunger,
"their lot is too hard for me to describe in poetry."
Now, Christina's father knew that, and when she reached her late teens
he passed on to her his property in the market, the house and shop with its yard and garden.
Hugh gives over these holdings and tenements to his daughter, Christina...
..on condition that he will still hold them in name for the rest of his lifetime.
So he maybe has become infirm.
Maybe, you know, hard work for 30 years as a villein,
ploughing his lord's fields as well as his own,
has really finished him off.
Christina's parents also brewed and sold ale.
Brewing traditionally was a woman's trade, and Christina will have learned the job when she was young.
You just pour it in,
and you have to keep the temperature just below simmering the whole time.
The mashing process forces the sugar out
of the malted barley into the liquid, which will eventually be called wort.
And the liquid is what you're going to turn into the ale.
So medieval women who are brewing ale literally will spend two hours
over their hot bowl doing this each day that they brew ale.
Yes, it's quite a careful process, and one that I think they would
have been very skilled in, because it was their main drink. It was their daily drink.
God, I'm starting to smell it now.
I feel as if I'm...
in a medieval brewery now.
I think women would have almost used it like cooking.
They would have added all sorts of ingredients, like nettles or dandelions,
to flavour their own ale, and had their own personal recipes.
In the village book, Christina's parents were fined for breaking the Assize of Ale.
Now Christina herself had to deal with this notorious area of medieval life,
controlled by the ale-tasters.
Make way for the High Bailiff, ale tasters and members of the ancient Henley Court and their guests.
I command you to draw a glass of your beer and give it
to my ale-tasters that they may taste it and judge of its quality.
The excesses that all the women brewed, they wanted to sell,
and with the act, to actually sell it,
in theory they needed to put a pole outside their garden,
outside their house, with a brush on it to indicate to the ale-tasters to come and taste it
to make sure that it was fit for consumption and sale.
"Port of Codicote, the feast of St Mark,
"the ale-tasters present that Christina Blosten,
"Agnes Boner, Ralph the Miller,
"have brewed ale and sold it contrary to the Assize of Ale, and are fined."
So for a peasant, whether you were ploughing or brewing, you ignored the law at your peril.
It's a very bureaucratic period.
There are all sorts of rules and regulations.
If you break them, you have to pay money to a lord
or whoever has control of the market,
or whoever has control of the land where you put your dung heap.
So there'd be a lot of very local litigation,
which was really a means of somebody raising money.
But there were other courts and forms of law.
Local courts, manorial courts, or court leet, as they were called,
and also of course the Church was a huge landowner.
When disputes arose about church property, they would often be tried
in the church courts, because they had jurisdiction over it, which were sometimes called consistory courts.
Christina's landlord, the earthly agent of Christ's
great consistory court in the sky, was St Albans Abbey.
By the 1300s, St Albans Abbey was an ancient and wealthy centre of power and privilege.
It was founded on what was supposed to be the oldest Christian shrine in Britain, of a Roman saint, Alban.
The monks had been endowed by the Saxon King Offa in the 8th century.
The lands of Codicote had been given to the monks in 1002 by King Ethelred the Unready.
So by Christina's day, the people of Codicote had worked for,
and been owned by, the King and the Church for many centuries.
Dear, oh, dear!
Those medievals were shorter and smaller than me.
Well, if the Abbot of St Albans ever came up here,
which I can't believe he did, having been up that narrow staircase, he'd have been able to
look out over his domain and pretty much as far as the eye could see,
was land that belonged to the monks.
"I Christyn, dohtyr of Hugh Cok,
"tak this londe in villenage to holden for me and myne,
"and I woll do alle maner service and costomes
"and in alle thyngis I woll obeye the wylle of the lorde."
As through most of our history, the system was loaded against women.
-Do you want to open it?
-A long time ago.
'That's why Christina's father,
'while he was still alive, set her up with property,
'so she wasn't dependent on a man.
'And it's why she will always insist on it passing down through her heirs.'
So these are the court rolls for Norton, aren't they?
Just to the north of Codicote.
Yes. They have been made into books, rather than rolls, which is quite interesting. Quite unusual.
'The truth was that a peasant needed to know the law
'and if you were smart enough, and if you could read a little, you could use it to your advantage.'
There we go. Here's the tale.
Alice, who was the wife of Richard le Bounde, Alice le Bounde.
She's a widow, she's a villein, she's a semi-free peasant
and she's come here to make her petition.
The Lord's Sergeant has unjustly taken as death duty from her husband
this property, which should have come to Alice
on the grounds of her hereditas. It had come to her through her family.
But the judgement that was made was that her marriage - she had been married
only by the licence of the Lord - and that this property
could then be taken as death duty
-and nothing go to her, because...
-HE SPEAKS LATIN
..The man is the head of the woman.
And I can hear you saying, how medieval is that?
But before you jump to conclusions, don't forget that arguments like this
over the married woman's property continue right through the Victorian era,
even after the Married Women's Property Act of 1882.
The road to women's equality, even in Britain,
has been long and difficult and not yet in some areas achieved.
So if Christina were looking for a husband, she needed to be careful.
Christina's, I think, in her late twenties and she's got property,
so she's potentially a catch, is she? Even though she's a villein woman.
Her father saw to it that she had some property.
It's interesting that it's market property.
That would have meant that she was up and about.
She travelled, she moved, she bought, she sold.
It's really interesting. The early 14th century is probably
the peak of pressure on availability of landed resources in England.
The population is really, really growing and we find
many, many cases enrolled of men that are clearly younger marrying women that are older and with property.
These are definitely working relationships.
She has something to offer.
She's not being coerced into this. She's made a choice.
And to have a young vigorous, interested man, perhaps of some
talent or skill, around the place, is, as we know, extremely useful. HE LAUGHS
She would know the value of documentation.
The fact that she's involved in market activity means she has to be aware of
-the importance of documentation, of licensing, and of leaving that, dare I say, the parchment trail.
And her parchment trail now leads us to 1314 and a husband.
She's making provision for a property in the market with a man called William Baron
and special provision for its descent through her true heirs.
So she's thinking about children.
There were many dangers in pregnancy then, so you sought all the help you could get.
You might pray to a great saint like Alban or a local holy woman, like her namesake Christina of Markyate.
But you might also turn to magic.
There was a beautiful classical cameo.
Matthew Paris, our famous historian monk,
drew a picture of it.
And this was thought to be very effective for fertility.
We hear about women laying it on themselves, lying down and placing it on their stomach.
So you could imagine our Christina made a pilgrimage to this shrine
and laid the magic onyx stone on her belly and prayed to Alban for children.
Gosh, you would pray, wouldn't you?
Such dreams were the refuge of the medieval mind, but medieval life was governed by hard reality.
If there wasn't much to go round, the boys and men got it because they were working in the fields.
So the women wouldn't have weighed enough to be fertile.
So you brought your thin little wife on a pilgrimage, asking permission.
-What weight is...?
-About seven and a quarter stone is the optimum weight for fertility, to begin menstruation.
So Christina's nearly 30 now, seven or eight stone maybe.
She's already had a hard life, and two babies are on the way.
There's rarely a perfect time to have children, but 1314 was not one.
At this point, the British Isles and Northern Europe slip into catastrophic climate change.
A pattern of wet summers and frozen winters led to starvation
and then to disease and pestilence in men and beasts.
The Great Famine.
Modern studies of tree rings and ice cores have found a long-term picture that they couldn't see.
Two centuries of cooling.
Europe's little Ice Age.
It was a time, they said, so cold and unkind.
To see what the famine was like for Christina and her neighbours, we can go to one Hertfordshire farm
that was still a working farm with two huge medieval barns
when these photos were taken in 1936.
The 14th century barn is now an architects' office and here we've got
the incredible survival of almost day-to-day records from that time.
This is the entry for Kinsbourne on the 16th day of January,
and the accounting official is William Attherne.
Then it lists, initially,
the different types of crops, starting with wheat, then peas,
barley, then this damaged area says dredge, which is a mixture of barley and oats,
and then finally, oats.
At the bottom of the document there is a list of livestock, which includes 12 horses and five cows.
Also, there's a young animal who is pregnant.
And here at Kinsbourne, the farm diary can take us into
the worst days of the famine.
This is a copy of an entry from the winter of 1315,
which is right at one of the peak crisis moments.
This is part of the Grange Account dealing with peas and veg.
It starts, "In porcis campestribus", which are for field pigs,
who would normally be out rooting in the fields.
They've been sustained in winter, "tempori nevis",
so in the period of snowy weather, one quarter one bushel of peas has been expended.
The natural food of the pigs has been covered up by deep snow,
so the farm manager is having to feed them extra grain to support them.
The chronicles for this period of the Great Famine talk about rains through
July, August, into September, for two or three years running in the worst period of the famine.
-Have you got evidence of that?
-We've got evidence
from Kinsbourne of those heavy rains, which struck in 1315 and 1316 especially.
This is the section for the autumn expenses in the period of wet weather.
The entry starts here with the purchase of ale for the reeve
and the cowman and various other farm servants.
More than usual because of the great rain.
"Proctor magnum pluvium."
Presumably this means that the harvest period has had to be extended
and so they were paid extra and they're being paid in ale, which was a foodstuff.
This is quite an interesting entry, because the auditor has been through disallowing some of the expenses.
They didn't believe that so much ale had been consumed and they reduced the amount of ale that they allowed
from ten shillings and sixpence down to seven shillings and eight pence.
So the poor peasants of Kinsbourne, in the middle of the Great Famine, are ploughing
fields late because of the pouring rain and the landlord is penny- pinching over their ale expenses?
Fantastic detail, isn't it? Absolutely amazing.
Is it always profit and loss and cutting your expenses
or is there a sense of charity or sympathy in the documents?
-Or do documents not tell you that kind of thing?!
-Well, they do, actually.
Many of these account rolls have been searched for this particular period
and it seems that charity was rather lacking at the time.
There are some examples of the lord relaxing certain services or dues or obligations,
but also there are examples of them actually cutting food rations to their workers
because of the price of corn.
And believe it or not, the worst year for the people, 1316,
was the best year for the landlord's profits.
If you'd been able to take this bird's-eye view in the worst time of the Great Famine,
through the summer of 1315 or 1316,
you would have seen below you flooded valleys, flattened fields and ruined crops.
And in places, the food distribution system simply broke down.
Merchants from as far away as Yorkshire were travelling through the home counties
desperately trying to buy up the last precious supplies of grain.
"Sorowe spradde over all ure londe. An thusent winter there bifore
"com nevere non so strong.
"To binde all the mene men in mourning and in care.
"And ure catel died al togedir, and maden the lond al bare so faste.
"Com never wrecche into Engelond that made men more agaste."
'Swathes of central England are under water tonight.
'In the last few minutes, it's been confirmed that 150,000 homes
'in Gloucestershire are now without...'
What would it be like for a farmer in the 14th century?
You've got two years of total destruction of the crops and everything.
I mean, can you put yourself in their position?
Well, almost certainly, we'd be tenant farmers,
certainly wouldn't own the farm.
Rents would have to be paid,
so it's a desperate situation of finding enough money to pay the rent.
Otherwise, landlord comes along and says you're out.
So that's the first thing. Then of course feeding the family
and keeping the farm running and trying to get the next crop in.
Any cattle, he'd have to be forced to sell, because he couldn't feed.
If you're forced to sell, you always get a lower price, so he'd suffer that way.
He couldn't recoup the money by selling, and once the cattle are sold, he can't produce milk.
That really sounds absolutely appalling.
The landlords' repossessions
from Christina's neighbours are entered in the Codicote Court Book.
Up from an average of half a dozen to 38 surrendered tenancies in 1316.
The Great Famine was accompanied by a virulent pestilence of cattle and by a human epidemic, maybe typhoid.
About 10% of the population died.
Over half a million people.
Among the dead was Christina's brother John and her husband William also disappears.
Probably dead in the epidemic of 1319.
So Christina is left with her mother Agnes and two small children,
John and Alice, in her little house, with its precious garden.
Starvation was always a possibility and you would grow whatever you possibly could.
This is where your edible weeds came in.
If your crops failed, at least you'd have something to put in the pottage.
Things like fat hen and borage and bitter cress.
Even things like bristly ox tongue, which is like eating cardboard.
You boil it and it goes into a horrible green wad, but at least it fills the belly.
So when the Great Famine happened and so many people died,
if you were, maybe like Christina, if you were good at doing this,
-you could just about keep things together.
-You may well be able to keep going.
Christina survived and her children, perhaps due to her own ability to manage the resources
at her disposal, herbs of the forest and the vegetables she grew in her plot.
But other neighbours didn't.
Her neighbour, Michael Gorman and his wife, through the three years
of the famine, gradually sold off all the little plots of land.
Their cottage and their strips.
In the end, in the third year of the famine, Michael died and the note
in the court register simply says his death duty was nothing.
Because he had nothing.
Even in hard times, there was always one man who did all right. The miller.
"John the Miller Grinds, small, small,"
said the rhyme, "but the king of heaven sees all, all".
Always been the way in medieval times,
you had to pay a tithe, which was often a tenth part of the grain.
The miller was always fairly prosperous, I think, in the village.
-Yes. And probably universally hated as a result of it.
And the butt of 14th century jokes.
"What's the boldest thing in the world?"
"A miller's shirt, for every day it clasps a thief by the throat."
The miller was seen by the peasants as just raising taxes for the landlord.
And they were always looking for ways round having to go to him with their hard-won grain.
Now this is a hand quern.
Frequent cases in the court books
of Christina's neighbours being done for using them.
You could grind
small quantities for domestic use.
If the abbot caught you,
you could get your grain confiscated, your horse confiscated,
but in particular, you could lose the quern stones themselves.
On one famous occasion, the abbot sent his bailiff and his men to the villages around,
including Codicote, to confiscate the quern stones and take them back to St Albans,
where he used them to pave his new patio.
After the famine, better times returned.
As they said, "A good year was a-come again".
And the abbot sent his men to revalue the village and its people.
Every single person living in it had to be written down,
how much they paid, where they lived and how much they owned.
Christina was in her forties now.
Her mother dead, she's a single woman with teenage children.
The rich, the poor, the wealthy tenants like the Salecoks
and the Poleyns, and down here,
"Christina - tennet unum mesuagum"
- one housing plot,
which had belonged to Hugh Cok, her father.
She doesn't have any of the lands and fields and strips and allotments that her father had.
So she pays one penny free rent on that, so...
And, you know, every detail...
"In order to make offence, one penny..."
Not long after this, Christina decides to set up her daughter,
Alice, with a house and a shop, to be economically independent, just as she'd been.
So she now divides her holdings in the market and amazingly,
from the Court Book, you can still trace them on the ground.
Daughter's plot, Alice's house...
..another 20 feet.
Then their neighbour, Henry Skeel, and his wife, Sybil - 28 feet.
And the final plot, the Synoth family, Juliana Synoth.
So, fantastic bit of historical synchronicity here.
We know that Christina had brewed ale all her life and her parents had as well. She was a brewster.
And here, in the late 14th century, the George and Dragon was built
as a pilgrim's hostel and a great ale house.
It's a Chinese restaurant today, after 700 years as the oldest licensed premises in Hertfordshire.
-And I suppose Christina's grandchildren might just have walked up these stairs.
-Mind your head!
On the site great granddad Hugh got from Lawrence the Vintner in 1279.
This is the most unusual Chinese restaurant that I've ever seen!
It's so different from the Chinese culture, isn't it?
What made you buy this place?
We just loved this village.
We loved the people in here
and the nice, quiet countryside life.
I thought I'd got to know Christina by now.
She'd survived famine, pestilence, and civil war and brought up two children.
She did well - but then a last clue in the parchment trail.
We're up to 1345 now, the Wednesday after St Mark the Evangelist,
and here's the surprise.
William Stacy, now dead,
held from the landlord a messuage with a courtyard and a garden,
and Christina Cok,
who was his wife, now claims that they had joint tenure.
Here, 1345, she's now in her sixties.
A man who was her husband, William Stacy, has died,
and Christina claims to the landlord that she has the rights
to their jointly held property.
So Christina had married for a second time.
The day appointed for the case was the Saturday before Trinity Sunday, late May.
And on that day, Christina the villein of Codicote
came here to St Albans to meet the abbot's authorities.
And she called for the court books to be brought forward to prove her case.
And she showed that the record was indeed as she said it was.
Could she read? We don't know.
But she could certainly understand. She won the case.
Maybe time had moved on in the 55 years since Alice le Bounde stood
here and lost her case, because the man is the head of the woman.
But maybe Christina was a feistier woman.
Well, here's the reality of a medieval woman's life.
This woman's bones came from a village cemetery
and she was 60, just like Christina.
Particularly in the femur neck, and we do know that this individual
did suffer form typical osteoporotic fractures.
One of her vertebra here shows it very clearly.
This is a normal vertebra, that's the weight-bearing part of the bone.
And this one from the central part of her spine, you can see you've got severe crushing of the bone.
That's typical of a bone weakened by osteoporosis.
And she's lost all her teeth before death,
and she's lost them a long time before death as well.
You can see how resolved and thin that mandible is.
What we find in the lower end of the leg bones is, in the female skeleton,
it's quite common to find a little squatting facet.
What I'm talking about is crescent-shaped extension to the joint surface there.
The reason for that is when the person squats down
and the foot bends up like that,
it causes that joint surface just to extend forwards.
This kind of thing is much more common in female skeletons than it is in males'.
So, 60-ish, thin, arthritic, poor teeth, a bad back
from years crouching in that little house on long cold dark nights,
lit only by rush tapers. Is that her?
Our last record of Christina comes form the spring of 1348.
It's a landlord's summary of a medieval woman's life.
"Christina Cok is dead.
"She held a housing plot and a yard from her landlord.
"And her death duty is her sow, worth four shillings".
"In the name of God, Amen.
"I mak myn wylle in this wyse.
"First I comytte my sawle to God
"and me body to be beryed in the chirchyerde of Seynte Giles.
"And I beqwethe unto the lyghtes of the chirche fower busshellis of barley.
"And I beqwethe unto Alyce Whyte, my coate.
"And for the remnaunt of my goodis, I will that my childyr dispose it in comfort of my sawle."
Only a month or so after Christina's death was registered came dark and amazing rumours.
"It started in India", wrote the historian, Henry Knighton,
"and it moved across the face of the earth, from Tartary through the land
of Saracens, and then into the land of the Christians".
"A universal plague upon mankind".
And on 25 June 1348, it landed near Weymouth.
The Black Death.
Its genetic code has just been cracked here in the London School of Tropical Medicine.
We think this is one of the tricks that a pestis uses.
So it streamlines its genome
and it makes it a stealthy organism to avoid the human immune system.
Then these black lines here added DNA from other organisms
and this contributes to the organism's virulence.
So it can build up the numbers very quickly,
so it'll just carry on multiplying
within the blood and the lymph system until the immune system breaks down.
Was there anything they could do about it? A 14th century doctor, I mean.
There's nothing they could do about it. You just hoped that you survived.
Some people survived and had the immunity, but most died.
Though the autumn of 1348, the plague spread along
the highways of England, moving at a kilometre a day.
Tuesday, on the feast of St Dunstan, so it's late May, 1349.
"Meeting of the court of Codicote".
Pages and pages of deaths.
59 of them in one entry.
Jonet Pirry, John White, John Thickney, Ralph Thickney...
"Pitiable, ferocious and violent.
Only the dregs of the people are left to bear witness.
"And in the end that year, a great wind blew across the world".
I know of no other place where the immediacy,
the numbing terror of the Black Death is better conveyed
than these graffiti scrawled into the stone.
And yet, from the pillar just there,
there are other graffiti from the same time.
"The Arch Deacon is an ass"
and "That Barbara, she's a real vixen".
Nearly half the people of Britain died in the Black Death,
although Christina's children survived.
In Hertfordshire alone, 60 villages would disappear from the map,
but the plague changed everything.
With an empty land and far fewer people, the premium now was on labour.
The peasants at last had bargaining power.
In 1381, they rose in the Peasants Revolt,
and in St Albans the townspeople helped the peasants storm the abbey,
demanding an end to serfdom.
There were 2,000 of them, all of them trying to fight
their way inside where there were 100 monks and the abbot.
They must have been terrified by the fury that was unleashed,
and the peasants out there not only wanted to get the monks inside,
but they wanted to destroy the abbey archives -
the court books, the record of their subjection.
Their leader, William Grindcob, said, "All we want is a little
liberty after so many centuries of oppression".
And that's the end of our story.
But of course, it's only the beginning of the tale of the British people's fight for their liberty.
And especially the forgotten half of our ancestors -
the women like Christina.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Historian Michael Wood presents a portrait of ordinary people living through extraordinary times, tracing the story of a real-life peasant of 14th-century Hertfordshire.
She wasn't a famous person, or of noble blood, yet Christina's story is important in understanding our own roots. In this time of war, famine, floods, climate change and the Black Death are the beginnings of the end of serfdom, the growth of individual freedom and the start of a market economy.
Wood recounts the history of medieval Britain told not from the top of society, but from the bottom. Through the lives of Christina and her fellow villagers, we see how the most volatile century in British history played a crucial role in shaping the character and destiny of a nation, and its people.