Michael Wood's portrait of one village across the whole of English history reaches the 14th century, when a terrible famine is followed by the Black Death.
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In a village in the heart of England, we're tracing
the tale of one community through the whole of our history.
We've got something which is possibly prehistoric!
-Oh, we've lost it.
Oh...! No, don't say that!
The village is Kibworth in Leicestershire.
When we get into the post-Norman period, look how it changes.
Huge explosion of growth...
With science, history and archaeology,
we're seeing how the story of the village
is also the story of the nation.
This area of South Leicestershire is very radicalised politically.
"You're fighting for England", he says.
They were killed in the Abbey.
The high altar itself was splashed with blood.
To help us, we've got wonderful village archives.
This is what you've really come to see.
From the 13th century, we can tell
the stories of individual peasant families over the generations.
Suddenly, with this,
this village and its people come to life.
In the documents, everyday tales of medieval lives.
Emma Gilbert, villein.
Robert, the doctor.
So how will the villagers cope with the horrors that lie ahead
in the 14th century - the most catastrophic in our history?
That's the next chapter of the story.
In the next stage of our search,
I've come to ask the help of the children at Kibworth High School.
Imagine that...is the A6.
Now, the A6 is an ancient road, but it takes a modern little turn
through Kibworth Harcourt,
and the original village street goes something like this. Yeah?
'I'm asking the children to dig archaeological test pits
'to find out more about the village in the early 14th century.'
We're going to put our pits in the memorial garden,
We've already dug 55 pits across the village, but we need to know more.
First of all we're going to take out all the plants and that...
So now we've targeted the area behind the medieval marketplace,
and in the gardens behind two of the old farmhouses.
Like England as a whole, the village had a boom time up to 1300.
In 1300, Kibworth parish consisted of the hamlet of Smeeton Westerby,
and the two main manors of Kibworth Beauchamp and Kibworth Harcourt.
Maybe 1,000 people in all - free men and women, serfs, and villeins.
But the length of them is very impressive.
There's quite a lot of land in that back area there,
which is obviously agricultural.
And maybe one housing plot here, possibly?
-Or two? What do you make of the house -
any instant impressions there?
The way you analyse a building like this
is to count the bays - the distance between the upright timbers.
So you've got one, two, three, four bays.
And each bay is roughly 15 feet long.
So by sort of 1600, it's a jolly nice farmer's house.
But back in 1300...
maybe more than one family of villeins.
What would a villein have had on this plot?
Well, villeins are not very privileged people - they're unfree -
so they have to go to the lord's court,
and it's the lord's court which rules over their lives.
And in Kibworth Harcourt, they had 12 acres of land each, a holding of
12 acres of land. Beyond the village boundary, in the open field.
Both the Kibworths and Smeeton were open-field villages.
Each of the great fields was divided into many small strips, which were
shared out and farmed communally by the peasants and their families.
To keep the fields fertile, the peasants carted out all the manure
from their barns and yards, with whatever debris was mixed up in it.
So today we're searching for medieval rubbish.
Most of it gets here, because they have a midden, they have a muck heap
in the yard behind the house.
They put every bit of rubbish onto it,
and they'd all get shuffled onto a cart called a tumbril.
And then in the field you pull a lever and the stuff gets dumped
onto the field, and along with half a tonne of manure
you're spreading pieces of broken pottery.
Which we go to so much trouble picking it up again.
It was back-breaking work, but it was the way of life
for our ancestors - men and women - for 800 years.
When you plot this stuff, you can see the scatters of Stamford Ware
from the late Saxon period
when these field systems are first laid out.
You can see the early medieval, the late medieval, and quite often the
early post-med, the late post-med, depending on when it's enclosed.
What would you have seen, standing here in 1300?
100% cultivation, really.
A very boring landscape, really,
because, you know, it's all brown in the autumn,
it's all yellow in the summer...
It's very, very heavily cultivated.
How does Nicholas Pooley know that his strip
is different from Walter Peaks', and...?
Well, at the end of the strip -
imagining this hedge, which of course wasn't there then,
there's a headland at the end of the strip -
you would have some sort of marker,
and it could be a wooden post, it could be a stone.
Later on the stone might even have an initial on it, you know -
P for Pooley or whatever.
I've recently discovered that in Yorkshire they had holes.
They were so mean in Yorkshire that they didn't have a post or a stone,
they just dug a little hole. And THAT marked the boundary.
And this way of life, hand-ploughing with animals,
continued all over England well into the 20th century.
The open-field system was not only labour intensive -
it took a huge amount of mental effort
to memorise all the intimate detail of the fields and strips.
Most of that knowledge is lost now - but not at Kibworth.
Because back in 1300, the farmers of Kibworth Harcourt gave every detail
of their land and lives to the new landlords - Merton College, Oxford.
The field itself is East Field, it gives us in English Easte Feilde.
This is strip by strip, with the furlongs being named!
And the local jury writing this down as they see it.
I've got the later names of the field strips here in the East Field.
The Long Coombs furlong, Blackland furlong, Stonehill furlong...
Yes, and we have Stonehill here, "Stonehull"...
-Two strips on Stonehill.
And of course, perfect name -
it would remind you, it's the stony bit of land up the top of the field.
Long Hoe and Short Hoe,
and Hearn Seek furlong.
Berridge Home furlong.
Names and customs -
the pattern of the landscape in the minds of the people,
handed down for 1,000 years.
Down here, five strips.
That is just so fantastic. Now, these strips of parchment
have "Ex parte umbra" and "Ex parte solis" -
"On the shady side" and "on the sunny side".
That's the way the jury remember the strips.
By memorising the fields as the sun goes round like that...
-So it is orientation.
-So it's orientation.
That top part appears to be...
Research being done on camera, you see, this is the real thing!
Nobody's faking this.
In an agricultural community like medieval Kibworth, the most
important man was the ploughman,
and the most important animals were the oxen.
They bred them, cared for them, lived with them.
And in Weald and Downland Open Air Museum,
they're doing a fascinating piece of experimental archaeology -
training young oxen ready to take the plough.
For the small, poor family, you couldn't have
what you'd term as an oxen, a castrated male,
standing round all year doing nothing.
So they worked the cows, the females.
You can have a calf, and you can milk it.
So it's a multi-purpose animal.
And if you only had one cow, your neighbour had a cow,
you'd put the two together.
If another neighbour had a pony, then you could put the pony
on the front, and have a three-team. So they used everything they could.
So do they know when they're being talked to, the individual...
They do. Yes.
Each pair has the same letter.
So these two are Rose and Ruby,
and the ones behind us are Gwen and Graceful.
It's a single-syllable name near side, this side,
and double-syllable off side.
I mean, the most we know recorded put together was 86.
-86, yeah. And that was to
move a windmill.
They moved a windmill from the centre of Brighton - I think
it was Regency Square - and they moved it up onto the South Downs.
In the Middle Ages, the ploughmen are quite charismatic figures -
famous ploughmen in their patchwork coats -
and the fictional Piers Ploughman becomes a kind of English everyman,
subject of a tide of popular song and social protest poetry through
the 14th century, because - as the ballad-makers said -
"on his shoulders rested the mirth of all the land".
And "Godspeed well the plough"
was not just a proverb, it was a heartfelt prayer.
-I'll let you get on with it.
Rose! Come on, walk on.
Rose, come on.
Now, if you were a freeman or woman, you ploughed your own fields,
paid rent and sold your surplus after tax.
But if you were an unfree peasant - a villein, a cottar or a serf -
you also owed your lord service, and that could be a real burden.
Survey of the Manor of Kibworth, its dues and services and customs.
So this is Merton recording the community
pretty soon after they've got hold of it?
That's right. Obviously the college wants to know what its dues are,
and to some extent what its liabilities are to the tenants.
"And here the dues..."
This is what peasants owed here.
And not just in money, but in services.
Two days ploughing each year without food, bringing your own plough!
Gathering straw together for roofing
the buildings of the manor court, whenever needed.
Carrying the lord's corn to Leicester market
on your own horse, but no further.
Unless it be within the county.
Carrying coal within the county - using your own cart!
Two days mowing the lord's meadow, with one man.
Two days harrowing and hoeing. with food provided.
Reaping, four days.
The men of the village to mow the lord's meadow,
with a gift of one shilling and sixpence in beer!
And on 1300 prices, that was enough to get you very drunk!
So from the 1270s, the Merton archive gives us
the most incredible detail on Kibworth Harcourt.
We can trace everybody in the village
from then until now, virtually,
and do family trees of peasants for 15 generations.
But what about Kibworth Beauchamp and Smeeton Westerby?
Well, the missing gap is here
in A Parish And County History Of Leicestershire
Of The Antiquarian William Burton.
It's one of the earliest of the county histories and it contains
our first historical accounts of the Kibworths and Smeeton.
Published in 1622, the same year, the same publisher
and the same printer as Shakespeare's folio.
Of course, it's obsessed, as you'd expect, with manorial history,
but what's really interesting about this is that Burton's notes survive
and they're an altogether different matter.
Here they are.
They were written down in 1615,
"copied from the ancient original membranes by me, W Burton,
"15th July, 1615".
He excerpted the great rolls of the survey of 1279,
the most detailed survey of England ever done before modern times.
They're lost now, but here, largely unpublished in his notebooks,
are the first detailed accounts not only of Kibworth Harcourt,
but Kibworth Beauchamp and Smeeton Westerby.
Starting with Smeeton, here, for the first time,
are the names of families in the village,
and some of them very long-lasting families in the village story.
The Allens and the Astins - very long-lasting names
in that part of Leicestershire and indeed in Kibworth.
When you turn to Beauchamp, though, nearly everybody unfree.
There's about 45 families of villeins and serfs.
1315, and it had two mills,
one water and one wind.
-Oh, did it?!
-Yes, how about that?!
But attached to it, 200 acres of land. So that must have been...
Yes, that piece down there, straight down.
-All the way across to...
Yes, it's always called the old house in the middle of the village.
And you had... You had, I'm sorry.
You had a communal bread oven
out in the village street.
So, again, the villagers brought their corn to make bread.
A little cut of that went to the manor house.
Four free tenants, 24 villeins, each one with a cottage and 15 acres,
-and 80 serfs, who were the lowest level, kind of peasantry.
So the Beauchamp half of Kibworth was still unfree,
as it had been back in 1066.
That's how things stood in Kibworth at the height of the feudal system.
The population of the parish at well over 1,000
now as high as it would get until Victorian times.
This is contents two, yeah?
-Yes, and this is the... Out of our...
-Out of our pit.
On Main Street, the kids have not yet got down
to the level of the medieval marketplace.
There are long bones and the ribs. And, yeah...different things.
But for the field walkers,
there were easy pickings from the once teeming medieval fields.
There's certainly stuff from the 13th, 14th century.
And in Cambridge, Carenza Lewis is collating the evidence
from our earlier test pits, showing the growth of the village
up to the boom time before 1300.
Here, the villages we can see today, seem to be taking off.
This is the point where we can see the villages we know today
starting to have their direct origins.
Smeeton Westerby, again, the longest occupied village
is clearly continuing to prosper.
The other significant place we've got is up here in Kibworth Harcourt.
You can see the village growing.
That is Kibworth Harcourt extending along the street there
and pottery coming out of virtually every test pit.
Yes, and not much in Kibworth Beauchamp.
You know, there's an old village legend
that, kind of, Harcourt is the posh, rather well to do end
and Beauchamp is always the poor end.
But you wouldn't ever find that hinted at in the pottery, would you?
Well, that's what's so fascinating about this period.
You've got these two strands of evidence
that we can use to sort of reflect off each other.
It is interesting, isn't it, that in the light of that knowledge,
you can look at this map and think there's very much less here?
It's funny, isn't it, how history can leave its mark?
In Victorian times, the villagers even argued
about separate sewage systems.
Harcourt and Beauchamp had different doors in the church
and even separate parts of the graveyard.
This is the surviving windmill at Kibworth Harcourt.
They had two here and two over in Kibworth Beauchamp.
It's a post mill. You turned it on its central post
using this wooden tail to face the wind.
This was new technology that had spread over
England in the 13th century to feed the booming population.
There's more than 1,500 people.
But here in Kibworth, as across England, the boom time was over.
There were too many mouths to feed, not enough jobs,
too many poor people desperately struggling
to survive on marginal land.
And around 1300, you get the first signs of recession -
price rises, social unrest and even disturbing patterns in the weather.
But even in their worst imaginings,
they couldn't have foreseen what lay ahead.
From the 1290s, the English summer went wrong.
And in a credulous age, omens and prophecies started to stack up.
It is foretold that great misfortunes lie ahead.
Earthquakes and wars,
division of realms and peoples and a great and unheard of famine.
As climate change set in, the village braced itself.
The key person at village level was the reeve.
The reeve's job was to supervise the agricultural year in the village -
the ploughing, the reaping and the sowing.
He chaired the village court,
adjudicated on disputes and he submitted the accounts
to the landlords, the Fellows of Merton College.
And the reeve in 1314 was a man called John Poli.
He was married with four kids, Agnes, Hugh, Will and Rob.
He wasn't a rich man.
His father only held 7.5 acres, but he was a freeman, not a villein.
And it's in John's accounts that the first signs
can be seen of the coming catastrophe.
In the Kibworth court rolls and in many others across England,
we can watch as disaster strikes.
1314, January. There was severe cold.
One frost lasted more than two weeks.
Extra milk was needed for the lambs and oats for the horses.
Spring. April very cold.
A high mortality of doves.
Summer was cold with continual rain.
The roses were late this year.
Autumn, very wet followed by a sharp frost.
Ploughing was late. More oats were needed for the horses.
Winter. Snow cover for much of the time.
We fed the peas to the pigs.
A late winter this year.
It was wet and cold into the spring.
The peas were flooded.
Summer was very wet.
Very low yields for barley and wheat.
Autumn, very wet.
Ploughing prolonged. Sheep rot.
Weather was wet.
More sheep rot.
Summer was exceptionally dry.
We had to purchase 12 measures of steel
and 40 pieces of iron for the repair of ploughs.
Much more this year because of the dryness of the summer
and the hardness of the fallow.
By 1315, the people found themselves in the worst famine
in British and European history.
The harvest of 1315 was a disaster.
Poor tenants were forced to give up their holdings
and sell off their gear.
People were dying everywhere.
Grain yields slumped and prices shot up.
While rich merchants bought up the surplus to make a profit,
the peasants were thrown back on their knowledge of the countryside.
Your main meal would have been your pottage, your porray,
whatever happened to be in season, even edible weeds.
Things like fat hen and borage and bitter cress.
We know about the medieval cottage garden from a minute excavation
done of one peasant house - the kind lived in by Matilda and Alice Star.
Plot of vegetables and herbs would go right up to your cottage front?
Absolutely. You would cultivate as much as you possibly could, really.
Starvation was always a possibility
and you would grow whatever you possibly could.
This is where your edible weeds came in - mallows, hyssop, mugwort,
the artemisia vulgaris, the wild wormwood.
If your crops failed, at least you'd have something to put in the pottage.
If you were good at doing this,
you could just about keep things together.
You may well be able to keep going.
You learn what's around in your local area.
So you know what's growing in your hedgerows
and you know from past experience what's good to pick and what isn't.
You've got beer in there and, of course,
you get lots of calories from that.
You've got all these greens,
herbs from the hedgerows.
You've got things like Alexanders and fivers, flat-leaf parsley.
And, depending what year we're in, we'll get changes of those as well.
So they really knew how to exploit what was around them?
I think so. Yes.
It's very much a community effort, as well.
It's not just the family. It's everybody living in that rural area,
you know, with the field strips, farming those strips, their animals.
People are living with their animals cos they're that precious.
You've got to make sure they're going to get through the winter.
The next year, 1316, things only got worse.
Across England, hundreds of thousands were now dying.
Northern Europe froze under a blanket of snow and ice.
What they didn't know was that they were in the middle
of a little ice age.
And then came a new and disturbing development -
the first signs of a virulent pestilence among animals,
recorded by the Leicester chronicler, Henry Knighton.
In 1318 and 1319, there was an horrific mortality of humans
and a pestilence of animals throughout the kingdom of England.
Conditions were so bad that the surviving people
didn't have the wherewithal to cultivate or sow their lands.
Every day, they were burying as many as they could
in improvised cemeteries everywhere.
And so a great ruin seized the English people.
There's a tiny detail from that time at the manor house
in Kibworth Beauchamp, where the absentee landlord
had let things fall to rack and ruin.
The jury say that the manor house itself is a total ruin
and has been divided up into cottages worth
five shillings a year, it says - they note it all these things
in the Middle Ages - and let out to farm.
So it's a little, kind of, snapshot of that terrible winter coming on
when they lost all their harvest with the rain in that autumn.
We nearly had a winter like that up here now.
It's been a horrible winter with a terrible lot of rain.
You imagine what that must have been like in a community where
everybody in the village devoted their labour to making food.
Grain prices in Leicester market during the famine
had now shot up seven times to 44 shillings a quarter
when you needed eight quarters to sow an acre.
As the famine got worse,
the Merton court books are full of little details.
In the winter of 1314-15, Nick Sybil died
and the college took over the administration of his strips
as his son was under-age.
Then, in 1315-16, the court book says,
"John Sybil, aged 14, inherited his father's lands
"and he sowed them with seven pence worth of oats,
"18 pence worth of wheat and four shillings worth of peas."
He was the breadwinner now.
So, with a widowed mother and younger siblings,
young John was in trouble.
Harvest 1316 was another disaster, and to make things worse,
there were signs of sickness in his most precious possession -
his plough oxen.
Almost four million animals have been killed since...
Like the modern foot-and-mouth epidemic in Britain, the virus
raged out of control, only this more virulent and more agonising.
There was also an unheard-of mortality among the cattle, the oxen,
the cows and the calves.
It continued unabated for several years
and everywhere the poor cattle seemed to be crying out to the people,
looking at them and roaring as if they were in tears
because of the terrible pain that gnawed at their insides.
And then suddenly they would fall down and die.
The news of such terrible suffering in the countryside
caused great consternation here in Merton.
They saw immediately that it would be impossible
to push the receipt of rents as it had been before the famine.
The Great Famine was remembered with bitterness.
The merchants still had profited.
The supplies had been there, which, had a supine government
been motivated to move them with more alacrity,
could perhaps have staved off disaster.
As the popular songs of the time said, there was one law for the rich
and one for the poor, "For might is right and the land is lawless".
More than half a million people in England died in the Great Famine,
10% of the population.
But peasant societies like medieval Kibworth are resilient.
For centuries, they'd lived with famine and disease.
And in the 1320s, they began to recover.
So much so that in 1327, the king raised a poll tax
on all freeholders.
And in the National Archive, the returns survive for Kibworth.
But what do they call it in 1327, David?
Just K-Y-B-B-E-W-O-R-T-H, Kybberworth.
This is for the 20th of 1327,
so it's a twentieth of the value of everybody's chattels,
which is basically your corn and your animals.
You had to have corn and animals worth ten shillings,
which is in modern terms half a pound.
The minimum you would pay for the tax if you had ten shillings
would be sixpence. So that's six of these.
-Let's have a look.
-Here is - wait for it - medieval money.
-And these are all silver pennies from the mid-13th century.
This is the only currency.
So everything had to be paid in silver pennies.
Anything which is just pence - 18p, 14p, 12p -
you're a peasant.
Whereas the top person, William Swan,
has got four and six, that's 54 pennies, as against 12 pennies here.
He would be a major sort of freeholder.
So there are big class divisions and wealth divisions
Clearly here, even within what is a peasant society,
there are big class divisions.
The really poor people aren't there.
So we don't know what the size of Kibworth was.
If you had a whole list of the names of the villagers, it might go on
for ages with people below the line needed for taxation.
During this time, Leicester, nearby,
began to draw many Kibworth people as craftsmen, drapers, ironmongers,
joining guilds and bettering themselves.
Leicester was growing.
And of course, it was growing because people were coming in
because they could make a better living.
This is actually a tax roll of people who were identified
by their trade or where they come from.
You've got William of Kibworth, Geoffrey of Osbiston
or William of Lutterworth.
There are local places but also people from further afield.
There's someone from Carlisle, I noticed earlier.
But they're not all men either. There is Alissia de Kiborth here.
-These are people who are living in Leicester?
-Who were taxed in Leicester.
-Could even be guild members in Leicester, perhaps.
But keeping their village name but working in trades here.
I suppose that's how they know.
"I'm talking about William". "Which William?"
"Well, the William from Kibworth, that William".
There's only a limited number of Christian names,
so you're beginning to see surnames coming in.
But cities can be dangerous places,
especially for inexperienced country boys.
From the time of the famine, there's a cautionary tale
involving a man from Kibworth.
-"Contensio motar erat." Yeah, punch-up.
This is a fight between Ivo, cleric of Great Stretton,
and Henry Pollings,
who's described as, "Groom of Alice of Stretton".
But she's Alice of Stretton of Leicester.
She's one of those newcomers who come to the city
-but keep the name of their village as well.
So, a dispute broke out between Ivo the clerk...
So, he's a lettered person, this guy.
..and Henry Pollings, Alice Streatham's groom,
-in a place called Parchmen Lane.
Yes. It was a little sort of lane that ran just inside the town walls.
In November of around the hour of Vespers, sort of 4, 6 o'clock,
evening, anyway, it would be dusk.
25th November, darkness coming on?
-Yes, just the place to have your...
Rumpus, isn't it, really? I don't know what they were doing.
Now enters the Good Samaritan, Philip the Young of Kibworth,
son of one of Merton's free tenants.
And he's about to pay a heavy price for being a have-a-go hero.
-It's almost like a citizen's arrest, isn't it?
Gets hold of this chap
and takes him towards the house of the aforesaid Alice.
Then, "Venit quia Johannes filius Alani"... the mustard maker.
John, the son of Alan, the mustard maker.
The notorious mustard maker.
-Yes. That's right.
Out he comes. All roads lead to Alice's house.
With a certain bow and shot the aforesaid Philip
with a certain small arrow in the head between the eye
and the nose, right up to the brain.
-Very unpleasant, yes.
-Philip lived until the following Monday
and then he died.
The coroner's language is almost like today, isn't it?
"The aforesaid John did the aforesaid in a westerly direction."
"A sword worth five shillings."
-That's right. That's it.
-Before the bailiff, the inquiry was held.
Which said that no-one was suspected,
except the aforesaid John,
-who had fled the scene after the deed.
And got away, presumably.
And John, the son of Alan the mustard maker,
sounds a slightly nefarious character, do you think, Robin?
Well... He's a wanted man now. He's a fugitive, an outlaw.
As for Philip's family, they must have wished he'd stayed
on the family strips in the East Field,
or that he'd come home early for Christmas.
Now, in the 14th century, Christmas was the great holiday.
You got three weeks off from work in the fields from mid-December,
to Plough Monday, after Twelfth Night.
That was the time when the ploughman and their boys carried
the ploughshare around the houses of the village,
with songs and dancing and received cakes and ale.
It's a tradition that survived till the 1930s in Kibworth.
It was a festive time for medieval villagers,
when work was put aside and neighbours got together.
But at Christmas 1348,
terrible rumours came down the road from London.
Nearby in Leicester, Henry Knighton tells the tale.
"It started in India
"and then it moved across the face of the Earth,
"from Tartary, through the land of the Saracens,
"and into the lands of the Christians,
"a universal plague upon mankind.
"And on 25th June 1348, it landed at Weymouth."
Rats came from the ships...
and they came from Weymouth, and spread their way north.
What caused it in particular?
What was it about the rats? Andrew.
The fleas on the rats had like a disease that
-That's very good. How did it begin?
Boils on your arm.
-That's very good. It's the bubonic plague that we're
particularly looking at, and the pneumonic plague, as well.
Ever since, the Black Death has seized the European imagination.
The ultimate symbol of the powerlessness of humanity
in the face of King Death.
In the winter of 1348, the plague reached London.
Just outside London Wall, close to the Barbican, tradition says
that a huge death pit was opened here,
under Charterhouse Square.
Under the grass are said to be 10,000 burials.
Recently, in London, the first Black Death cemetery
to be scientifically excavated, has revealed close-up detail from 1348.
The gravediggers, too scared to take coins from the purses of the dead.
In Kibworth, they knew it was coming.
A two-pronged attack up the Bristol Channel and through
the rivers of East Anglia, like malevolent monsters.
And at the point of their jaws, Kibworth.
That Christmas, young Robert Church had gone down to Oxford
to apply in person to the Fellows of Merton for a holding in the village.
Perhaps he brought the plague back.
The first known death in the parish
was in Kibworth Beecham early that spring.
Then, in the Merton court rolls, the full horror begins to unfold.
Right. It should be a fairly...
Written on both sides as well.
So, the college, even in the catastrophe of the Black Death,
they tried to keep the administration going.
The rhythm of life just continues and it's a way of coping, I suppose.
It's an incredibly human response in catastrophe, isn't it,
to keep things ordered, I suppose.
Right, I think it... Yes, we have it.
Post conquestum and 23.
23rd year of the reign of King Edward.
-The year of the Black Death.
And we know what time of year this was, do we?
It should even give us a day.
These are the swearing in of new officers, a beadle...
the new reeve.
Yes, names that we recognise. Polle.
Administration was so immediate,
it wasn't a bureaucracy that was delegated to a local authority
as we have today.
You were the local authority.
If you weren't elected this year, you could be next year
to be the constable or the, you know, looking after the pound, or whatever.
Meeting of the village court, Kibworth Harcourt,
St George's Day, 1349.
John Church, reeve.
The following tenants died of the pestilence. Emma Cook,
John Church Senior,
Agnes Poli, Robert Poli,
Mr Haines, Mr Goodwin,
John and Constance Cybil.
Henry Harcourt and Matilda Harcourt.
Alice Carter, Adam Kibworth, Thomas Harcourt,
Rob Meister, Nick Poli, Emma Wade, Agnes Allit.
John Hain, Will Milner.
And 1349 wasn't the end of it.
King Death came again to the village in 1361.
In 1375, 78, 89, and 95.
And a last cruel spasm in 1412.
The Poli family alone had seven male members dead.
The equivalent is the First World War,
with a whole generation signing up and going off together
and not coming back.
What have we got here?
The black ink is replacements?
Yes. And the browner writing has been crossed out and almost carated in
is the new tenant.
Gosh, is that...
is that a Poli up there as well?
Can you see?
In his notes, the reeve keeps up the impression of normality.
One of the customary tenants is one of the women.
Yes, this is Isabella Poli.
She's died. You'll see her name has been crossed through.
And somebody completely different, in fact,
I think it's Robert Smith.
it's not a member of her family, unless by marriage,
but it's a completely, you know, it's an alien.
It's not passed from mother to son.
And the family couldn't take it over presumably because of their losses.
Possibly weren't enough sons to take over.
You dug out this sort of space here, about this area, isn't it?
You can still see bones coming through there.
There's lots of tiny, tiny little bones.
And I found a few tiny bits of pottery popping up as well.
Across Kibworth, many properties were abandoned at this time.
But the evidence around the medieval marketplace for what happened
after the Black Death was thin to say the least.
I think it's plastic.
It's a bit disappointing, in terms of medieval activity.
But having this sort of negative evidence
for the medieval period is good as well.
When you take this forward to the next period...
Smeaton, which has been with us for so long
seems to be absolutely devastated by it.
There's just two or three sites
that have produced single sherds of pottery.
That is so amazing.
In one area that carries on in occupation seems to be up here.
Even if these other areas are occupied,
what it's really showing is this huge dislocation
where these pits were producing pottery for the high medieval period,
those are not being occupied nearly as intensively.
The people who lived there are somewhere else.
And you're talking, I suppose, about a population
that's gone from maybe 2 million in 1086,
to something like 6, possibly, in 1300.
There's a lot of argument about this, isn't there? But...
Perhaps collapses back down to two or three.
After the ravages of the plague,
many English villages were deserted forever.
But not here.
Even Smeaton survived with the old families we met in the 1270s.
The Allans. The Swans.
But in Harcourt, the Merton court rolls
show the loss of two thirds of the tenants.
The highest losses from the Black Death known anywhere in Britain.
And a hint of the villagers reactions to the catastrophe
comes in a box of documents which has recently turned up,
recording grants made of property and land in the 1350s
that later came into the hands of the village grammar school.
They still provide a charitable income for Kibworth high school.
So, an astonishing treasure trove, the school box.
These are the earliest documents from the 1350s,
the immediate aftermath of the Black Death.
It's very rare that you can home-in on what the ordinary people,
the peasant farmers, are thinking at this time.
But it's revealed here.
This is a little land document, like a mortgage.
HE READS IN LATIN
Know people now and people in the future that I, John Deer...
HE READS LATIN
..this grant of land
confirmed with Robert Chapman of Kibworth.
-And it's the gift of one house...
-HE READS LATIN
..which belonged to Nick Poli in Church Lane.
Poli died in the Black Death.
Along with a rood - that's a quarter of an acre in middle furlong -
and a rood of meadow.
What these men are doing is they're putting together
a little parcel of property and land whose revenues,
supervised by a group of local trustees, farmers,
will give enough money to fund a chantry priest,
separate from the parish church.
Now, this priest may in time have even taught the kids in the village
to read and write but his chief job
is to do masses, dirges and requiems forever for the souls of the dead.
For the mothers and fathers, the brothers and sisters,
and the children of the village who died in the Black Death.
The greatest catastrophe in its history.
That document from 1353
is the start of a whole series of gifts for commemoration and charity.
In Kibworth, it's a continuous thread
from the bequests of Tudor farmers in their wills,
to Victorian villagers who left trusts to provide for the poor.
Our English ancestors believed that if a community is to thrive,
it cannot leave the sick and the starving behind.
In fact, they saw charity as one of the foundations of community.
And you can still see it in action.
This is Kibworth's 24-hour relay to raise money for Cancer Research.
Of course, there's a huge gap between the 14th century and us.
Sometimes, it's hard to believe that we're the same people.
Or that our medieval ancestors would recognise us as their descendants.
But I think they still would.
It's the spirit of Britain, partly crazy, very kind,
very generous, very giving. Really good.
A good friend of ours, Gordon, we kind of did it for him.
And for everybody else that was in need, I suppose.
So, perhaps the values of the medieval world
are not so far from us as we might think.
They're still there, running just under the surface of our lives,
keeping the connection with the generations of the past,
far and near.
Everyone who enters the teams
are given one of these bags and a candle.
They decorate the candles and make a dedication
to people who have either lost the fight,
or are still in the fight, or they just love and are poorly.
Or have survived. There are lots of survivors, too.
Now Y knowe of parti, but thanne Y schal knowe,
as Y am knowun.
But catastrophe also changes us.
After the Black Death, deep social unrest led in 1381
to mass revolt by peasants across England.
But not in Kibworth.
The later outbreaks of plague had brought village society
almost to its knees.
The early 15th century was one of the worst times in village history.
But change was in the air.
And driven by the community itself.
In the face of such economic hardship and distress,
many people at the time saw that change must come
in the relationship between the rulers and the ruled in England.
But the change came in Kibworth not through violent revolution,
but through negotiation.
And in 1427, the College took the key step
of abolishing all 18 customary tenancies,
that's the land holdings which were held by villeins,
semi-free peasants who owed work services to their lord.
So, from that moment, if you were an ordinary Kibworthian,
you no longer held your land "in bondagio", in bondage,
but "ad voluntatem", at will.
In other words, negotiated with your landlord for a cash rent.
And, at the same time, the College reduced the rents
right across the board.
And, then, finally in 1439, a special court was held in Kibworth
to cement this relationship.
HE READS IN LATIN
Between the customary tenants of Kibworth,
and the scholars of Merton College, Oxford.
It's a document to finalise and record
the mutual consent of both parties to the new deal.
It draws the line under the feudal age
which has ruled in England since 1066. And even before.
Now, labour services and villeinage are abolished.
You can have your son or daughter inherit your land.
You can take out a leasehold.
You can transfer lands, build up your holdings,
amalgamate your tenancies.
You can decide whether you want to be an arable farmer,
or whether you want to breed stock.
You can view English history at this time
through the lives of kings or queen's, if you like,
through the Hundred Years War, and the Wars of the Roses.
But, here is a glimpse at grassroots level of changes
that were no less significant in the national story.
By the 1440s, the people of Kibworth,
like many villagers throughout England,
are on the way to becoming modern people.
So, that's the story of how the medieval villagers of Kibworth
survived famine, pestilence, and the Black Death.
That's how the villagers got through England's age of disaster.
And, in the end, came out stronger.
600 years ago, Kibworth was already a deep-rooted community.
The old families, the Polis, the Astins, the Swans,
had already lived and worked here for centuries.
But this story is also about a living English community today.
We've been raising funds for six months. And a tough six months.
There's been a recession.
History is not just something that happened back then,
in the past.
History, in the end, is now.
Relay For Life, Kibworth,
2010, raised £65,737!
And it continues.
In the next chapter in the story of England, battle of conscience.
The rise of the English home. And a new world of Tudor England.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Groundbreaking series in which Michael Wood tells the story of one place throughout the whole of English history. The village is Kibworth in Leicestershire in the heart of England - a place that lived through the Black Death, the Civil War and the Industrial Revolution and was even bombed in World War Two.
Wood's fascinating tale reaches the catastrophic 14th century. Kibworth goes through the worst famine in European history, and then, as revealed in the astonishing village archive in Merton College Oxford, two thirds of the people die in the Black Death.
Helped by today's villagers - field walking and reading the historical texts - and by the local schoolchildren digging archaeological test pits, Wood follows stories of individual lives through these times, out of which the English idea of community and the English character begin to emerge.