Published online by Cambridge University Press: 11 June 2021
…and however much the chronicles may fail us, we have no lack of material for the study of social and economic history.
Decades of fruitful scholarship by social and economic historians notwithstanding, the precise opportunity identified by C. L. Kingsford has nowhere been more thoroughly taken up than in the work of Christine Carpenter. Where ‘chronicles’ might fail to supply a political narrative for interrogation, the potential for reconstruction of political society, and of the mental frameworks that shaped its members’ behaviour, is realised in the approach to the late-medieval past that she has championed. In such a way the third chapter of Locality and Polity, which asks ‘who were the gentry’ of fifteenth-century Warwickshire and, by extension, of England, is remarkable for the profound effort it makes to encompass in its evaluation the lowest of the gentry, those who hovered at the blurry divide between free peasants and claimants to gentility. By contrast, other examinations of latemedieval English local society have tended (largely for practical considerations) to exclude the ‘parochial’ landed group beneath knights and esquires. The scope of Carpenter's conclusions matches the depth of her study: that political society most certainly included even the least of those who participated in the world of lordship which underwrote the authority of monarchical government. It is well known that the medieval terminology of social status was mutable, and shifting labels for those at the bottom of political society related in part to the expansion of governmental activity. In this way, before the term ‘gentleman’ became a firmly established marker in the fifteenth century, those who were politically active on a local level could well include yeomen or husbandmen (and notably the oath commissioners of 1434 were asked to include yeomen in their jurations). For all those who asserted gentle status, parochial landowners included, the sense of lineage (linked, but certainly not confined, to a particular family name, patrimony, and heraldic arms) predominated in conceptions of the gentry kin-group, even if long-term survival could demand a degree of adaptability and openness to re-invention. Concepts of the family which took a narrow definition and venerated the vertically linked ancestors at the expense of horizontally linked cousins held a central position in the mental world of the fifteenth-century gentry, while, all the same, alertness to and interaction with the cousinage remained essential features of gentry networks and a family's ‘social and business circle’.