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Early Tudor England began to favour the southern accent over the northern

Posted in Farming, Historical articles, History, Industry, Language on Friday, 27 September 2013

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This edited article about Tudor England originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 412 published on 6 December 1969.

C15 homeless farmworkers, picture, image, illustration

Displaced farm workers were a common sight in the late fifteenth century by Ron Embleton

A Londoner travelling northwards or a Yorkshireman travelling southwards on a trading errand 600 years ago faced one problem that seems unbelieveable to us today. It was a problem of language. For neither would have been able to understand the other without listening with considerable care.

“Therefore,” says a writer of that day, “it is that the Mercians, who are men of Middle England, being as it were partners of both extremes, understand the side languages of Northern and Southern better than North and South understand each other.”

The reason for this state of affairs is not hard to understand. When the Battle of Hastings was fought, most Englishmen spoke and understood the language of the West Saxons. After the Conquest the Saxon tongue was forced to fight for its life against an inrush of Norman French, and it survived by splitting itself up into dozens of regional dialects.

Because communications between these regions were rare, the regional dialects soon became languages of their own, with French intermingled and changed according to the wishes of each region. The result was that in the 14th century Englishmen spoke at least several languages, and because thinking men were aware that a common language was necessary for the advancement of trade and learning, they turned to the Midlanders and Anglians to act, so to speak, as interpreters, and to supply a common language for the nation.

As the centre of trade and politics, London took the lead in this transformation. Londoners who had once spoken a distinctly South Saxon dialect, began to adopt the accents of the Midlanders and East Anglians, the only dialect which most people could understand.

Just as a common language was essential to literature, so a great writer was necessary to cement the dialects together in an important book, to promote a style that others would accept and follow. The great writer responsible for setting the standard for literary English was Geoffrey Chaucer. Although he was a Londoner, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales contains both Midland and Kentish dialect, arising from the fact that his family were East Midlanders from Ipswich, and he had personal connections with Kent.

For 100 years Chaucer’s English laid the foundations of our literature and was similar to the spoken language of educated people all over the country, as well as most of the people living within a 60-mile radius of London. You might, if you had heard men speaking it in the 15th century, have just about understood their meaning, without understanding many of their words and phrases.

The growth of a common language was also essential to the success of printing which, in the 15th century, propelled civilisation into an exciting new era. In England this great step forward was begun by William Caxton, who set up his press at Westminster and printed, corrected and edited more than 30 titles in his first three years there – an indication of how successful business must have been.

Two hundred years after Caxton began printing, an English writer tells us that educated people in other counties generally spoke and certainly wrote “as good Southerne as we of Middlesex and Surrey do.” Thus 400 years ago the Home Counties were claiming, as they often do today, to be the place where pure English was spoken, “in London, and the shires lying about London, within 60 miles and not much aboue.”

And thus, at about that time, a common literary and spoken language, the language of Shakespeare, in fact, must have been firmly established – and one which, if we could have heard it, we would have understood.

The development of printing, the discovery of America and other exploratory voyages leading to new trade routes, projected Europe into the Reformation, that exciting period of change after the dormant centuries of the Middle Ages in which men woke up to the struggle to enrich themselves and in which custom was forced to give way to competition.

But history has shown time and time again that custom protects the poor, and that change mishandled can cause dreadful suffering and poverty. This was now the case among the large farming population.

We have seen how rural England was gradually going over to pasturage at the expense of tillage because of the great interest in sheep farming and the wool trade. We have seen, too, that in the 15th century a farmworker could earn enough in a year to pay for all his needs. But there was a darker side to this – and that was his plight if he were out of work.

From the landowner’s viewpoint, one of the great advantages of sheep farming was that it required far fewer men than crop growing. In the 15th century there were neither unions nor redundancy payments, so that when a landowner no longer needed as many men on his farm he simply sacked them. More than that, he induced them to quit their homes, which were now encumbrances on his grazing land, and when they had gone he destroyed their houses.

The displaced farmworkers became life’s unfortunates, the victims of too sudden change. We read that in England then, “idleness daily doth increase; for where in some villages 200 persons were occupied and lived for their lawful labour, now there are occupied only two or three herdsmen.”

And Sir Thomas More is full of sympathy for “the husbandmen thrust out of their own, or else . . . by violent oppression, or by wrongs and injuries so wearied that they sell all”; and he denounces, “the gentlemen, yea, and certain abbots, that lease no ground for tillage, that enclose all into pasture, and throw down houses; that pluck down towns and leave nothing standing, but only the church, to be made a sheep house.”

The displaced families swelled the ranks of the beggar population and to make matters worse for the farming people, many of the great monasteries, which had been pioneers in efficient agriculture, began to fall into decay.

The monks, who had once cared for the destitute, now no longer had the means or the spirit to do so; what was once the last refuge of pauperism could no longer afford aid. And with the decline of the monasteries came the decline of record-keeping and the maintenance of roads and bridges – all of which had been useful public services performed by the diligent monks.

In the towns, where the minority of people lived, the gradual switch in emphasis to industry made the average man’s lot more agreeable. In the early Tudor days a townsman could buy a pound of meat for a farthing and a gallon of beer for a halfpenny – prices which scarcely dented the average artisan’s wage of around three shillings a week. Against this, travel was still hazardous and costly, violence was frequent, disease and plague were constant visitors, and a properly balanced diet was prohibitively expensive.

Many of the displaced farming community eventually settled down in the towns, where they learnt the arts of weaving, fulling and dyeing from other townsmen who had been taught in their turn by Flemish settlers. They proved apt pupils and were soon exporting their cloth to the point where their manufactures ranked among the chief industries in the land.

They did not, of course, work in factories. Instead, they bought their raw material from travelling salesmen and set it up on the family loom – as necessary a part of 15th-century furniture as is a television set today. When it was finished they sold the material to the customer direct, at a price generally fixed by the workmen’s guild.

These guilds were an important part of industrial life, and every industry had one. Its rules were strict; designed to prevent unfair competition among the members and even to regulate their conduct and behaviour. Membership was gained by a seven year apprenticeship after the guild had satisfied itself about the moral conduct and the efficiency of the workman, and once admitted, the apprentice was treated as a member of the family of his employer, who was expected in his turn to treat the apprentice like a son.

The guild rules stipulated that no one might work with bad tools, or substandard materials, nor might they work before dawn or after sunset, or on Sundays and festive days. Many of the guild regulations were good insofar as they maintained high standards of workmanship, but eventually they were to prove too rigid and traditional to withstand the fierce competition caused by the growth of foreign trade.

One very good reason why big industries continued to be in the hands of thousands of small family units was the abhorrence that Tudor people felt for borrowing or lending money – a foundation stone of manufacturing industries today. Far from being useful, lending for interest was thought to be unproductive and a criminal act.

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