The people on the eve of the Reformation.
In the highly regulated medieval society in which they lived and worked the people still managed to find time to relax between sunset and sunrise when their time was nominally their own. In the towns the watchmen did their rounds and the curfew (although not called that, but a time set by the Town Council nevertheless) ensured that all good and honest persons were in their homes by at latest ten o`clock. To be abroad after the set time an honest person was obliged to carry a light be it lantern or candle, if not they were assumed to be up to no good. However, there was a significant proportion of the people in towns and villages who gravitated to the taverns where they indulged in gambling and `disorderly ongoings`. Sundays, even during time of divine service, were the best times for the tavern trade both before and after the Reformation. At such times and places much wheeling and dealing was done, black market contacts met and arrangements made for buying and selling; others would drink, swear, perjure themselves, sing ` and accompany each transaction with copious draughts of wine`.
But even here there was a whiff of change as a sterner view was taken of life in which there was an emphasis on the value of time and money. Pressures were mounting on all types of businesses, including the crafts where there was a move to dispense with the requirement that a member had to be a freeman. This was intended to extend membership to all persons who had the requisite skills and they should be able to pass freely between towns and burghs to use his skills. In England this new freedom was being extended even to allowing settlers from abroad and importing their skills, such as lace making and weaving from Belgium. On the downside the number of poor and distressed persons requiring support by the community was increasing and prompted the `Beggars Summons`.
Even for the respectable citizens life contained frequent times of relaxation . By the prescription of the medieval church there were, besides Sundays, some fifty or so Saint`s days on which working was prohibited. Although intended for devotion these days were adopted for pleasure, and were increasingly seen as distasteful as well as interfering with daily business. At one point legislation was introduced to ensure that adequate labour was available, especially in harvest time. As late as 1641 an Act was passed to make colliers work six days a week. These saints days were becoming a burden on the craftsmen as by tradition and call of the Church they would present a pageant on their saint`s day. These were normally very expensive as quality and quantity gathered kudos for the craft. But in a community as closely controlled as they were most, if not all, of the crafts could not afford it. Not only had the play to be drafted and learnt by the players, it further required the particular costumes made and paid for, and booking of minstrels to play, There was then the process of arranging a stage and its subsequent removal afterwards. This took time and money and diverted both from the business. Many opted out and preferred to be fined for non compliance. By the time of the Reformation it was compulsion that was driving the annual plays, not the desire of the people to honour a meaningless ecclesiastical figure.
For most of the population the annual frolic of `Little John and Robin Hood ` on the first of May was the time to let their hair down. In this all who wished to could take part in what was simply horseplay – but of the coarsest kind that ended in near pandemonium, drunkeness and lecherous behaviour. By 1555 the public were turning against such distasteful conduct and Mary of Guise, the Queen Regent, was the first to legislate against it. But the May Day games still continued despite the law, and gaming continued both in and out of the taverns. Football, tennis and golf were popular; while shooting at the butts with long bow, cross bow and hagbutt (rifle) were almost work related since military service was still required of the burgesses. Most towns had fairs and an annual horse race for which a silver bell or cup was often presented by the Town Council. In the taverns there were the usual card games and dice accompanied by wagering of all kinds which in 1621 drew from James VI an act that any winnings over 100 merks must, within twenty four hours, be donated to the nearest Kirk Session for the relief of the poor.
Another restraint that emerged reflected the life style particularly of the upper classes. The medieval economic model regarded excesses of food, drink and dress as unacceptable – the theory being that such people had too much money and food, and meant starvation for the poor. An Act of 1552 was brought to constrain “superflous cheer” and a proportionate fine introduced – archbishops, bishops and earls were restricted to 8 dishes; priors and deans to six; barons and freeholders to four; and burghers and other men of substance to three. The dishes were to contain only one kind of meat. Also restrained by law were excessive and expensive weddings and christenings. As to dress, the tendency among the nobility and better off was to copy the styles in England. Wealthy merchants and their wives were to the fore in this and wore sumptuous dresses and lace petticoats etc. The common man favoured a blue bonnet and a plaid save where a particular style of dress was required by his craft or Guild. Women generally ignored the criticism levelled at their particular habit of winding a plaid round themselves, covering the head and shoulders when they went out.
The common thread to all these restrictions was economic change. Scotland was undoubtedly behind other European countries, including its neighbour England, in manufacturing, the theory and practice of commerce, and industry. Underlying all was the lack of capital to develop industry, agriculture methods, or to exploit natural resources in an unwieldy physical landscape. Amongst the people the `haves` and the `have nots` were polarised within society and for the first time money – cash in hand, became the focus for everybody. The Church had taken a battering and its wealth derived from the lands they held, was diminishing and lands escheated to the crown. The dissolution of the monasteries and the Reformation put an end to their income, and widespread social work that they used to do. The nobility found they were no longer self sufficient on their huge estates, they could not afford a large number of retainers, and they needed hard cash to break even let alone live up to their past grandeur. Moreover, their tenants were more demanding and sought better terms, despite rack rents, and they no longer were accepting a duty of military service. This, importantly, weakened the nobility such that by the middle of the seventeenth century they were not the physical presence they used to be and no longer had several hundred retainers to bring to the Court to influence decisions. As a result the king`s position was strengthened; he became the ruler of all via a hand picked Privy Council, with a reasonably subservient nobility from whom he could get support by dispensing favours, or simple bribery.
In the stead of the medieval Church and nobility the economic engine was being driven by the artisans and merchants in the Towns. The consequence of this was to create a new social order with the clerics pushed into the background, and the Town Councils as the vehicle for management and funding of change (and lining the royal purse). This would see the growth of local – personal, taxation to pay for services. Until this time there had not been a common issue that exercised the minds of the people, each had lived in its own cocoon, shielded from `national` issues. Changes in the economic and social orders united with the struggle between the religious issues to bring about the Reformation, and cognisance of a common national interest.
“For the first time in the national history two types of mind and temperament were brought face to face with an issue that was fitted to differentiate them, and the result was the birth of a national life.”
P. Hume Brown LLD. Professor of Ancient (Scottish) History and Palaeography, University of Edinburgh.