Unlike Simon Schama, Michael Wood doesn’t treat the subjects of history like film stars. He treats them like real people. That’s not necessarily a criticism of Schama: he tells a good tale and tells it well. But Wood is more down to earth, his enthusiasm is instant, boyish, infectious.
In this investigation Wood rummages through endless Medieval documents to put together a fascinating picture of the life of one woman living through one of the most torrid times in English History: the 14th Century. Christina Cok survived the mini ice age, the financial ruin of cattle disease and then the Black Death. All around her villeins go hungry or die, fields become endless seas of untenable mud before society finally breaks down all together as the plague reaches out its dreadful grip to claim one life after another.
Christina inherited the family business off her father Hugh who tended to the fields of his lord, his own rented field, and property at the market in the Hertfordshire village of Codicote. She maintained the business and eventually set up her own children in shops that are now a Chinese restaurant! In spite of disease, tax and inheritance laws that could have left her dead or destitute she survived to the ripe old age of sixty two, which wasn’t bad going in the 1300s.
Wood knows all this because, as he points out with a mischievous glint of the eye, the people of Medieval times were mad for statistics, couldn’t get enough of them. Every inch of land, every penny of tax, every slap on the wrist by the courts, every man, woman and child, and every cow, chicken and hog, was noted down for the exchequer.
It couldn’t last, all this serfdom and villeiny. After the Black Death left England with a population not much higher than twelve, the toiling peasants possessed something very valuable: labour. They were in demand and were able to call some of the shots. Absolute freedom would take a few hundred years more, but absolute serfdom was gone.