Delights of Life in Fifteenth-Century England

A. Compton Reeves
Professor of History
Ohio University


Keynote Address
Annual General Meeting
Richard III Society, Inc.
American Branch
7 October 1989

Published by: Richard III Society, Inc.

© Richard III Society, Inc.
P.O. Box 13786
New Orleans, LA 70185-3786

Perhaps we study history because we human beings alone among the species are capable of preserving and investigating the past. But surely for those who become devoted to the study of the past there is an element of delight in doing so which sustains our enthusiasm. It could no doubt be the genesis of many hours of pleasant discussion to ask among ourselves what in particular holds our own delight in England’s fifteenth century, but our present intention is rather to examine what English folk who lived in the fifteenth century might have found to be of delight in their world. The inquiry need not be complete, for we unfortunately have no way to know what each and every individual found delightful. Some things, too, are perennial, and would offer no special insights into the fifteenth century: a comfortable home, treasured friends, or a beloved spouse, to name a few. But what, then, would have been some of the special delights of life in fifteenth-century England?

We could pursue our subject through such an authority as St. Thomas Aquinas, who asserted “that God is the end of the righteous will as is charity and good delight, and happiness; yet so that God is the ultimate end with happiness completing chairty, and delight as a subordinate end joined to the ultimate end.”1 Orienting ourselves philosophically or even mystically toward a quest for a knowledge and love of God is not, however, the avenue I wish to follow this afternoon, being fully mindful that my remarks follow lunch and are received in anticipation of the business meeting of the Society. I choose rather to be more earth bound, and to suggest some things that would produce a sense of well-being, or euphoria, or fulfillment in mind and body that we could agree to call delightful.

In a time when it was a challange even to survive in the face of famine, plague, and other uncontrollable obstacles of life, there was not only the need for physical strength, but also an appreciation of physical prowess that could engender delight. Game playing tended to be vigorous and passionate, and ball games were among the most exuberantly played.2Camp-ball was the basic game and, in different forms, could involve either kicking or throwing (or both) of a ball which by the fifteenth century was commonly made of a pig’s bladder filled with dried peas. Kicking camp was the ancestor of modern English football, and the term ‘football’ first appeared in the fifteenth century. Men and women of all ages engaged in ball games, as well as other sports, both as participants and as spectators.

What may appropriately be called “the official national sport” was archery, and it was a sport with obvious military overtones.3 The weapon of choice in the late medieval period was the longbow, being simpler and having a greater rapidity of fire than the crossbow. The stave of the longbow ran to about six feet, and might be made of ash, hazel, wych-elm or, preferably, the wood of the mountain yew. The best arrows were made of ash, and they were fired by drawing the hemp or flax bowstring to the ear before release. Practice and competition at archery were commonly undertaken at butts, which were often established in churchyards, but archery could be very informal. A popular form of competition was to shoot from a distance, even as much as 200 yards, at a wooden stick fixed in a target or staked vertically in the ground, with the objective of splitting the peg with an arrow. Another popular form of archery practice and competition was roving, where groups of people traipsed through the countryside shooting at random targets, sometimes to the dismay of landowners.

Hunting, hawking, and fishing were physical activities that brought delight as well as sustenance to participants. By the fifteenth century hunting was also judged to have an educational aspect for aristocratic youths destined for military training. In the middle of the century the chronicler John Hardyng wrote of such boys that

they schalle to felde i-sure
At hunte the dere and catch an hardynesse,
For dere to hunte and sla[y] and se thaym blede,
Ane hardyment gyffith to his corage,
And also in his wytte he takyth hede
Ymagynynge to take theym at avauntage.4

In addition to teaching courage, strategy, and mental quickness, hunting was enjoyable sport. In the fifteenth century refined hunting of the aristocartic sort tended to take the form either of pursuing the game with hounds while the hunters kept up with the chase on horseback, the dogs completing the kill, or by having the quarry driven within rage of hunters who would attempt to take the prey with bow and arrow.5 These matters and a great deal more were discussed at considerable length between 1406 and 1413 by Edward, Duke of York (d. 1415), in his treatise, The Master of the Game, which was a translation with additions based on the experience of Le Livre de Chasse, written some two decades earlier by Gaston, count of Foix.6 Edward of York was devoted to hounds, and he recorded that a fine hunting pack would consist of three types of hounds, which is not to say three breeds.7 The leimers, or scenting hounds, were used to locate the game before the hunt and then were used during the hunt as they might be needed. Two other types of hounds, the running dogs and greyhounds, formed the main pack of hounds. The running dogs, known as harriers, brachets, or raches, hunted by their sense of smell. These dogs were the repsonsiblity of servants called berners, while servants called fewterers supervised the final type of hounds, miscellaneous breeds known collectively as greyhounds, which hunted by sight. Edward of York was of the opinion that the hare was the best game for hunting, available year round and a challenge to boot, although most of the noble hunters of Europe would likely have named the stag. Less rarified hunting, hunting to obtain meat, hides, grease, and whatever else animals might provide, was done with nets, traps, pits, knives, clubs, spears, and many means that might prove efficient, but this sort of hunting seems well removed from our attention to things delightful. On the other hand, illegal hunting may well have contained a special element of delight as an “expression of male gender identity. Poaching permits all of the challenges and skills that hunting does, but adds elements of stealth, danger, violence, sexuality, and assertion of independence.”8

A highly specialized and aristocratic form of hunting was hawking or falconry. The two terms were used as synonyms although hawks and falcons are different types of birds of prey. A fifteenth-century contribution to the literature of hawking, attributed on challengeable authority to one Dame Julian Barnes and printed at St. Albans in 1486, is The Book of St. Albans. The Book of St. Albans includes information on different types of birds, their training, their care and maintenance, and their use in hunting.9 The hawker, wearing a large leather glove upon which the bird was perched, was a strikingly noble sight, and a bird so perched was said to be “on the creep.” Hunting on the creep was thus one way to use the birds. Brids were also trained to remain in place while the hunter flushed the game, at which moment the hunter would command the bird to attack. Birds could be trained to catch prey, such as hares, on the ground, or to take other birds in the air, and this was the most dramatic and popular form of hawking. Hawking was a delightful diversion whether done on foot or from horseback. It was also an expensive diversion, for the birds were expensive, and their care and feeding, to say nothing of the lengthy and specialized training they received, could be costly.

A far less costly, though more contemplative, sport was angling. The Book of St. Albans included considerable lore on the subject.10 Rods were made of hazel, willow, or ash, and were normally of two wands, the sharpened end of one fitting into the hollowed end of the other to give length and flexibility. Line was made by twisting together the hairs from horses’ tails, and the number of hairs varied according to the weight and strength of the fish being sought. Hooks were made of bent wire or needles, and the depth of the hook in the water was regulated by floats and weights. Live bait might be caterpillars, minnows, or worms, and artificial flies were made of colored bits of wool, feathers, and insect wings. It is worth noting that when Izaak Walton wrote The Complete Angler in the seventeenth century he drew exclusively on The Book of St. Albans.11 Angling was not so popular as hunting and hawking, and it seems to have been thought more appropraite for children and theoretically less vigorous adults like monks and nuns.

The delight provided by the physical exercise and prowess of angling was far more quiet and less public than that associated with tournatments. Tournatments clearly attracted enthusiastic attention. A London chronicler summed up an entire year, for example, by noting the death of a sheriff and the filling of the vacant office, followed by the recording of a notable tournament:

This yere died Henry Brice, ffuller and Shiref of London. And for him was chosen John Stokton, mercer. Also in this yere in June were certeyn actes of warre and Justes doon in Symthfeld, bitwene the lord Scallis and the bastard of Burgoyn. Wherof the lord Scallis had the honour. And that doon, were other poyntes of warre doon bitwene certayn gentilmen of England and dyvers servauntes of the said Bastard. Whereof the Englisshemen had the worship.12

Anthony Woodville, Lord Scales, brother of Edward IV’s queen, and Anthony, count of de la Roche, known as the Bastard of Burgundy, had been planning to test their martial skills against one another for more than two years before the tournament of June 1467.13 The tournament proved to be more show than substance. Great display had characterized the enterprise from the arrival of upwards of four hundred Burgundians in England to the opening of the tournament itself before an audience at Smithfield that included King Edward IV. Contemporary accounts of the tournament differ, but a plausible sequence of events would be that in riding at one another in the first course in the lists, Scales and the Bastard each missed the other with their lances. They then discarded lances, and assaulted one another with swords. In the swirl of action, the Bastard’s horse collided with that of Scales, and collapsed (perhaps dead), pinning the Bastard on the ground. Having been extricated from beneath his horse by his servants, the Bastard declined the King’s offer of a replacement horse, preferring to bring the day’s action to an end. The following day the combatants met again, this time fighting on foot with axes. They flailed away at one another until Scales struck a smashing blow against the visor of the Bastard’s helmet, whereupon the King halted the combat, and “lord Scales had the honour.” The main event of the tournament was over, and subsequent conntests between Englishmen and Burgundians, in which the “the Englisshemen had the worship,” seemed anticlimactic.

The Scales-Bastard contest might suggest that English tournaments in the fifteenth century tended more toward ritualized athletic entertainment than martial mayhem, but tournaments were taken very seriously as training for war and they could be highly dangerous.14 Some tournaments, like that of Lord Scales and the Bastard of Burgundy, were duels between two mounted warriors. From the 1420s it had been customary to erect a wooden barrier, or tilt, down the center of the tournament ground, or lists, to keep the charging horses from crashing into one another.15 The combatant rode with the tilt on his left side and his lance held under his right arm and pointed across the tilt as his opponent charged from the opposite direction on the opposite side of the tilt. Combatants were encased in plate armor, heavier and allowing less mobility than the armor used in war. In “jousts of peace,” blunted lances were used to minimize the chance of penetrating the opponent’s armor and doing serious or mortal injury. In “jousts of war,” the lances employed were sharp. A third type of mounted combat was known as “at large” or “at random” and in this the tilt was eliminated. Foot-combat also had its place in English tournaments of the fifteenth century. Tournaments had changed a great deal since they appeared somewhere around 1100 as little more than scheduled wars between two groups of knights. There had come to be elaborate rules, judges, heralds, pursuivants, pageantry, audiences, and other trappings of order, together with entertainment. The element of danger still remained as an attraction, which can be readily appreciated by any participant or fan (including the football hooligan) interested in modern contact sports. There may have been laments in the fifteenth century about the decay of chivalry,16 but the martial spirit was evident as well. An admittedly opinionated Frenchman could write in his journal in 1436 during the English occupation of Paris: “the English, essentially, are always wanting to make war on their neighbors without cause. That is why they all die an evil death…”17

Remembering, moreover, that warfare and tournaments and the entire chivalric ethos had much to do with horses, it is fitting to share a gem of fifteenth-century wisdom about horses:

A goode hors shulde have xv propertees and condicion.
It is to wit, iii of a woman, iii of a fox, iii of an haare, and iii of an asse.
Off a man, boolde, prowde, and hardy.
Off a woman, fayre brestid, faire of here, and esy to lie upon.
Off a fox, a faire tayle, short eirs with a good trot.
Off an haare a grete eyghe, a dry hede and well rennyng.
Off an ass a bigge chyne, a flatte leg and a good houe (hock).18

From games of physical strength and skill like football, hunting, and tournaments, we should give our attention briefly to presumably more quiet sources of delight such as dice, board games, table games, and cards. Dicing was an ancient game and one of pure chance, so long as it was played honestly.19 Hasard was a commonly played game with two dice and varying rules in which participants and onlookers bet on the outcome of the throws. Some dice games, like raffle, utilized three dice. Akin to dicing was cross and pile, which American youngsters still play as pitching pennies: the farthing of Edward I had a cross on one side and the other side of the coin was called the pile. Also akin to dicing was queek, which was played by rolling or throwing pebbles onto a chequered board with bets being placed anticipating the pebble landing on a light or a dark sqaure. The game known to medievals as tables was the ancestor of backgammon, and was very popular. It existed in some two dozen forms but basically the players used dice to determine the movement of the counters over the board. Another very popular board game was merrills. In its most simple form the board had nine holes, and the play was like the pencil and paper game familiar to us as tic-tac-toe: each player had three pieces, and they took turns putting them in holes in the board trying to get three in a row. By the fifteenth century merrills had evolved into a more complex game with an expanded board, each player having nine pieces, and the play involved the capture of one’s opponent’s pieces: the winner being the first player to capture seven of his opponent’s pieces. This is nine men’s morris, a sort of triple tic-tac-toe with capturing, and the square board is laid out with three squares of eight holes each, one inside the other, and simple but precise rules governed the vertical and horizontal movement of the pieces. Nine men’s morris is the game of merrills for which a world championship competition was first organized in 1988 by the Ryedale Folk Museum at Hutton-le-Hole in North Yorkshire.20 Merrills became even more complicated with the addition of yet more pieces and diagonal movement on still larger boards and, in one form, fox-and-geese, was played by King Edward IV.

The board game, though, that outclasssed all others was chess. It was a game of strategy that reflected the real world of politics, and by the fifteenth century was being played by all ranks of society in spite of its aristocratic aura. Delight in the game of chess is another bridge by which we can connect emotionally with the English of the fifteenth century. Chess was a popular pastime of long standing by the fifteenth century, but a new arrival on the scene was the playing of cards. Whatever the particular game, cards, like chess, required strategy and skill, and afforded an opportunity for gambling. The cards themselves were made of ivory, parchment, or wood, with designs and images put on and colored by hand. A legacy of the medieval design of cards is that queen of all suits today is a stylized representation of a contemporary portrait of Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV and queen on Henry VII, who holds in her hand the white rose of York.21 There may be some connection of the queen card design with the fact that by the time of Edward IV there were card makers in England who were protected from foreign competition by law.

Board games and table games afforded delight in mental skill and the exquisite anguish of gambling. There were other sources of delight in fifteenth-century England that touched the aesthetic spirit. In architecture the current style was Perpendicular, a very English phase of Gothic, which developed in the fourteenth century and came to full development in the fifteenth.22 The Perpendicular has a restrained dignity in the form given to windows, which are virtually high rectangles, with their vertical tracery from base to flattened, rather than pointed, arch. The Perpendicular style displays among its other characteristic features fan vaulting. The wide arches and large windows give to a building in the Perpendicular style a sense of space and light. An excellent example of the Perpendicular style would be the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, founded by the last Lancastrian king, Henry VI. At Oxford the Divinity School (now part of the Bodleian Library) or the quadrangle of Magdalen College would be other familiar examples. In the north of England, York Minster offers imposing examples of fifteenth-century architecture and craftsmanship. Both west towers together with the central tower and the central lantern from which it rises were constructed in the course of the century.23 The stone screen, with its statues of fifteen English kings from William the Conqueror to Henry VI, dates from the fifteenth century, is a treasure because of its beauty as well as its sheer size, for it is the largest single medieval stained glass window to survive in England.24 It would have been a callous fifteenth-century worshiper indeed who failed to be both delighted and struck with reverential awe at the sight of these new additions to the Minster, particuarly in the bright light of a clear summer morning.

Aside from collegiate building and cathedral churches like York Minster, many parish churches were also built in the Perpendicular style as expressions of faith as well as of delight in current fashion and wealth.25 A few of the very many examples still to be seen would be Long Melford, Lavenham, and Southwold, all in Suffolk; or Salle in Norfolk; St. Mary Redcliffe, Bristol; or in Gloucestershire, St. John the Baptist, Cirencester, Northleach Church, and St. James, Chipping Camden.

It was not only the architectural style of buildings which delighted the eyes of beholders. The decorative arts also made a decisive contribution. It was, in the words of Professor Jacob, “a carver’s rather than a scupltor’s age, in wood and alabaster as much as in stone.”26 Choir stalls, roof bosses and beams, screens, pews, pulpits, misericords, and many implements of life were enhanced by the woodcarver’s skill. To mention but a few examples of only roofs, there is the elaborately decorated roof over Weare Giffard Hall, Devonshire, the Law Library at Exeter, and the great hall at Eltham Palace, Kent.27 Eltham Palace was the major domestic building project of King Edward IV, and the design of the great hall is credited to the King’s chief carpenter Edmund Graveley. Figures carved in alabaster would have been seen by many people in the fifteenth century. A virtual industry in alabaster sculpture had grown up around a few quarries, especially near Nottingham, and alabaster figures were sold around England and even abroad.28 In fact, alabaster carving was one of the few English arts known on the continent. Alabaster is gypsum, a softer material than marble and some other stones, and this moderately translucent stone lent itself nicely to stone effigies, images of saints, and altarpieces. The effigies of King Henry IV and Queen Joan in Canterbury Cathedral are among the best known alabaster sculptures of the fifteenth century, and a vast collection of alabaster carvings is to be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Smaller alabaster carvings were frequently mounted in wood frames and were untilized in private dwellings as well as in chapels and churches. It was the practice to paint and gild alabaster figures, so their appearance was vivid and colorful, rather than cool and pale.

An English art form known and appreciated on the continent in addtion to alabaster carving was the embroidery referred to as opus anglicanum, and its fame was well established before the fifteenth century.29 The craft of producing opus anglicanum was centered mainly in London, and was done on velvet and heavy silk with thread of many colors and even of gold. An often mentioned example of fifteenth-century opus anglicanum is the cope in the Durham Cathedral Treasury. The cope was the semi-circular cloak-like vestment worn by high eclesiastics reaching from the neck to the floor and closed in the front with a broad tab of cloth. Copes of opus anglicanum were treasured even by popes. In contemplating the visual splendors of the age, one must not neglect the high ecclesiastic in full vestments, encased from foot to mitre in sumptuous and richly decorated garments. A single mitre belonging to Archbishop Thomas Rotherham of York (1480-1500), decorated with sapphires and rubies, was evaluated at 70 marks.30 An inventory made about the time Archbishop Rotherham died of the treasures of York Minster noted 297 copes amongst the many vestments. Precious opjects of gold and silver–plate and jewellry–were also being created by English craftsmen in the fifteenth century.31 Cups, patens, mazers, salts, collars, candlesticks, rings, spoons, bowls, chalices, bells, and other items are survived by representative examples to bear witness to a delight of precious things. Among the fine jewellry must be mentioned the gold and enamel Dunstable Swan brooch and the gold Middleham jewel, once enamelled and graced with a sapphire. The fine arts of the calligrapher and manuscript illuminator were also alive and well in the fifteenth century, as an examination of the catalog of the Richard III exhibition mounted by the National Portrait Gallery in 1973 will attest.32 Kings Edward IV and Richard III were patrons who appreciated finely illuminated manuscripts.33 Richard III also valued the color and dignity of heraldry, and it was he who incorporated the College of Heralds in 1484.34

An English art form appreciated by every English king of the fifteenth century and which, like alabaster carving and opus anglicanum. gained an audience abroad was music.35From the highly trained musicians of the great households to the more humble ranks of society, music seemed to be integral to the fabric of life. Early in the century Privy Seal clerk and poet, Thomas Hoccleve, complained about the difficulty of being a scribe, saying that artificers could sing and talk while they worked, but not so clerks like himself:

We stowpe and stare vp-on the shepes skyn,
And keepe must our song and wordes in.36

John Dunstable (d. 1453) was the most famous musician of the century, and his compositions furthered markedly the development of polyphonic music. Some of the compositions have also survived of Gilbert Banaster (d. 1487), who was Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal to Edward IV, Richard III and, briefly, Henry VII. The royal York brothers were both enthusiastic appreciators of music.

Yet another source of aesthetic and intellectual delight for English folk in the fifteenth century was literature.37 An impressive inheritance came to the fifteenth century from earlier ages, and just the fourteenth century achievement was rich, including the several works of Geoffrey Chaucer; the allerative religious poems Purity and Patience; the alliterative dream vision poem Pearl; the alliterative romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; the allegorical dream Vision of William Concerning Piers the Plowman; the writings of the religious reformer John Wyclyf (d. 1384); the mystical religious works such as Walter Hilton’s Scale of Perfection, Juliana of Norwich’s Revelations, the works of Richard Rolle of Hampole and the anonymous Cloud of Unknowing; or the writing of John Gower: the Speculum Meditantis (in French), Vox Clamantis (in Latin), andConfessio Amantis (in English), which remind us that Engilsh literature in that age was trilingual. Writers of the fifteenth century added to assorted genres of English literature. Mention has been made of the poet Thomas Hoccleve, whose longest work, the Regiment of Princes, was a tract of political and moral advice for the Prince of Wales, who became Henry V.38 John Lydgate, a monk of Bury St. Edmund’s, was a prolific poet in many forms.39 Many religious lyrics were composed to instruct the faithful on aspects of the Christian faith and life. The fifteenth was also the century in which the carol came to full perfection, and there were secular carols written as well as carols for many occasions of the Christian year. Secular lyrics were also being created, such as the Nut Brown Maid. Audiences were also eager for romances, and fifteenth-century contributions to the genre included The Avowynge of King Arthur, Guy of Warwick, and Eger and Grime.40 The greatest chivalirc romance of the age was surely Le Morte Darthur by Sir Thomas Malory (d. 1471).

Some important intellectual and informative literature appeared in the fifteenth century. Sir John Fortescue, Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, wrote of governmental and legal theory and practice in De natura legis Naturæ, The Governance of England, and the De laudibus legum Angliæ.41 The Libel of English Policy, an anonymous work, argued an orderly commercial policy and the importance of a navy to control the surrounding seas.42 Another anonymous work with a more domestic focus, The Babees Book,offered in poetic form information on how noble youngsters ought to behave, while John Russell, one-time official of Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, wrote in rhyme a book of self-improvement called the Boke of Kervyng and Nortur.43 Early in the century an anonymous author completed the first English handbook on obstetrics and gynecology, and this was not the only indication of a practical interest in matters of medicine and health.44 Keen interest was taken in the events of the time, and a significant amount of historical literature was written in the fifteenth century, from the anonymous town chronicles of London, Bristol, and other places to the writings of such men as Thomas Walsingham, John Capgrave, John Strecche, John Benet, John Hardyng, and others.45 One of the most curious intellectual figures of the century, a man who attempted to popularize philosophical and theological ideas by writing in English, was Reginald Pecock, bishop of Chichester, whose ideas were sufficiently unusual to cause him to be the first English bishop convened for heresy.46 The fifteenth century in England was not, in fact, a time of refined intellectual achievement; it was rather an era which produced a remarkable number of first-generation literates whose tastes tended to be conservative and accepting of tradition and authority.

A great amount of creative delight was directed toward drama, a popular literary genre which orginiated far earlier but truly came into its own in the fifteenth century.47 The most popular form of drama was the mystery (or miracle) play, based upon biblical stories from the Creation to the Last Judgement. In full development, the plays were presented in cycles, being performed on pageant-wagons which were rolled through the streets of a town, the wagons stopping in turn at each station for the performance of a particular play. The spectators simply remained in one spot and watched each play as it came to them. Plays were normally the responsibility of the guilds, and the normal time for their performance was the feast of Corpus Christi, a moveable feast which fell in May or June. Cycles were performed in London, Chester, Wakefield, Beverly, and other places. The largest cycle of mysterty plays to survive comes from York: forty-eight plays and a fragment.48 Morality plays, in which the characters are allegorical representations of virtues and vices, were a development of the fifteenth century, of which the finest is The Summoning of Everyman.

Pageantry was a source of delight for many observers, and incorporated a powerful element of drama. The great and the wealthy of the kingdom moved about at all times surrounded by followers and presented a display of magnificence which exemplified their power, but sometimes the pageantry was meant to convey a message more sophisticated than just wealth and power. Consider the entry of Henry VI into London in 1432 on his return from his coronation in Paris as king of France.49 The King was greeted by seven pageants at seven stations as he made his way into the capital, each pageant a dramatic scene with characters. Of itself this would have been impressively dramatic, but for the subtly analytic mind the cumulative effect of the sequence of pageants would have been the suggestion that in King Henry was to be seen the joining of two dynasties, each of which had been enhanced by a royal saint, and that, imitatio Christi, this new messianic king, this embodiment of justice, would bring peace and reconciliation to the warring kingdoms of England and France, and usher in a glorious age of order and prosperity. Such was not in reality to be, but it was the message of the pageantry. Or one might contemplate the wondrous display of pageantry and regality that surrounded the coronation of King Richard III and Queen Anne on 6 July 1483.50

Yet another source of delight for the Engish of the fifteenth century, which involved color and display, was clothing.51 For those who could afford them, the styles of fashionable dress during the century were extravagant, elaborate, colorful, and varied. The love of finery was so pronounced that statutes were passed, such as that of 1463, in futile efforts to regulate what sorts of dress might be worn by members of different social strata.52 The moralists might rail, but the love of finery was not to be stifled.

While men and women might have been inclined to dress above their station if they could manage it, there was still a delight in one’s place. People took comfort and found stability in their position in the household of which they were a part. The household mentality had familial, economic, social, political, and religious ramifications, and was a powerful force before, during, and beyond the fifteenth century.53 People take delight in what gives order and meaning to their lives, and membership in households had the potential for providing order and a sense of place. Similarly, it was important to have a good reputation, to be, as the phrase had it, “of good fame,” if one wished to be of consequence.54 The preservation of personal repute was important for all ranks of society, for the politically powerful to avoid the frustration of their ambitions and for the more humble to avoid the summoner.

It would seem that fifteenth-century English folk had many possible sources of delight in their lives, and these remarks could be gleefully extended. Sports like wrestling, horse racing, and cock-fighting have gone unmentioned until this moment. What about riddles for mental exercise? What about cultivating gardens, or celebrating festivals, like Mayday, St. Swithen’s Day, or Christmas? Should we not consider food and fabulous feasts? What of the craftsmanship not just of the alabaster carver, but of the armorer; not just of the goldsmith, but of the potter? And are we not perhaps hurrying along a false and crooked path in trying to understand the English of the fifteenth century by looking for what they found to be delightful? Was not the Dance of Death a leitmotiv of the era? The most common theme of sermons after all was the vanity of all earthly things, the transistory nature of the things of this world.55 There in full bloom is our answer! The wise Latin Father of old, St. Augustine, had put his finger on delight as a crucial force for human motivation.56The priests stuggled doggedly to focus attention on the Heavenly City, but the richly pluralistic and highly variegated things of this earth pulled powerfully, and we can indeed view much of the geography of the hearts of those fifteenth-century Engilsh who attract us if we look to what gave them delight.


  1. M.T. Clark (ed.), An Aquinas Reader (Garden City: Image Books, 1972), p. 272.
  2. Teresa McLean, The English at Play in the Middle Ages (Windsor Forest: Kensal Press, 1983), pp.1-2, 5-6.
  3. Ibid., pp.11-15.
  4. Quoted in Nicholas Orme, From Childhood to Chivalry: The Education of the Engilsh Kings and Aristrocracy, 1066-1530 (London: Methuen, 1984), p. 196.
  5. Frank Barlow, “Hunting in the Middle Ages,” Report, Transactions of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, Literature and Art 113 (1981): 6.
  6. Orme, Childhood to Chivalry, p. 195.
  7. Barlow, “Hunting,” pp.6-7.
  8. B.A. Hanawalt, “Men’s Games, King’s Deer: Poaching in Medieval England,” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 18 (1988): 192.
  9. McLean, English at Play, pp. 53-57.
  10. Ibid., pp. 57-59.
  11. E.F. Jacob, “The Book of St. Albans,” in his Essays in Later Medieval History (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1968), pp.210-13.
  12. C.L. Kingsford (ed.), Chronicles of London (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1905), p. 179.
  13. Sidney Anglo, “Anglo-Burgundian Feats of Arms: Smithfield, June, 1467,” Guildhall Miscellany 2 (1965): 271-283; McLean, English at Play, pp. 71-72; Richard Barber and Juliet Barker,Tournaments (New York: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1989), p. 132.
  14. Malcolm Vale, War and Chivalry (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1981), pp. 63, 76-78, 80.
  15. A.V.B. Norman and D. Pottinger, English Weapons and Warfare, 499-1660 (New York: Dorset Press, 1985), pp. 127-29.
  16. For Example, A.R. Myers (ed.), English Historical Documents, 1327-1485 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 1134.
  17. Janet Shirely (trans.), A Parisian Jounral, 1405-1449 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), p. 307.
  18. Quoted in Jacob, “The Book of St. Albans,” p. 203.
  19. For the following remarks, see especially McLean, English at Play, Chapter 6.
  20. Marc Drogin, “Merrills, Anyone?”, Christian Science Monitor (8 November 1988), pp. 16-17.
  21. McLean, English at Play, pp. 122-23.
  22. A good overview is Nicola Coldstream, “Art and Architecture in the Late Middle Age,” in The Context of English Literature: The Later Middle Ages, ed. Stephen Metcalf (London: Methuen, 1981), pp.172-224. A comprehensive study is J.H. Harvey, The Perpendicular Style, 1330-1485 (London: Batsford, 1978)
  23. J.H. Harvey, “Architectural History from 1291 to 1558,” in A History of York Minster, ed. G.E. Aylmer and R. Cant (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977) pp. 170-73.
  24. Ibid., pp.169, 181-83.
  25. E.F. Jacob, The Fifteenth Century, 1399-1485 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961), pp.646-47.
  26. Ibid., p. 650.
  27. Margaret Wood, The English Mediæval House (London: Ferndale Editions, 1981), pp. 316-19.
  28. Lynda Rollason, “English Alabasters in the Fifteenth Century,” in England in the Fifteenth Century, ed. Daniel Williams (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1987), pp. 245-54; J.M. Steane, The Archæology of Medieval England and Wales (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985), pp.233-4.
  29. Joan Evans, English Art, 1307-1461 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1949), pp. 16-18.
  30. Sylvia Hogarth, “Ecclesiastical Vestments and Vestmentmakers in York, 1300-1600,” York Historian 7 (1986): 8.
  31. Marian Campbell, “English Goldsmiths in the Fifteenth Century,” in England in the Fifteenth Century ed. Daniel Williams (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1987), pp.43-52.
  32. Pamela Tudor-Craig, Richard III (London: National Portrait Gallery, 1973).
  33. Janet Backhouse, “Founders of the Royal Library: Edward IV and Henry VII as Collectors of Illuminated Manuscripts,” in England in the Fifteenth Century ed. Daniel Williams (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1987), pp. 23-41.
  34. Myers, (ed.), Historical Documents, p. 1135.
  35. For example, see Percival Hunt, Fifteenth Century England (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1962), pp. 65-74; McLean, English at Play, pp.144-54; Nigel Wilkins, “Music and Poetry at Court: England and France in the Late Middle Ages,” in English Court Culture in the Later Middle Ages, ed. V.J. Scattergood and J.W. Sherbourne (London: Duckworth, 1983), pp. 183-204.
  36. Hoccleve’s Works, III, ed. F.J. Furnivall (London: Early English Text Society, Extra Series, LXXII, 1897), p. 37.
  37. The literature on literature is vast. Any ten English professors would doubtless suggest ten different books to orient the novice before moving to the literature itself. This history professor would hazard to suggest H.S. Bennett, Chaucer and the Fifteenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1947).
  38. See J.V. Mitchell, Thomas Hoccleve (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1968).
  39. See W.F. Schirmer, John Lydgate (London: Methuen, 1952).
  40. See C.L. Ramsey, Chivalric Romances (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983)
  41. Jacob, Fifteenth Century, pp. 309-16.
  42. For an analysis, see G.A. Holmes, “The Libel of English Policy, English Historical Review 76 (1961): 193-216.
  43. Early English Meals and Manners, ed. F.J. Furnivall (London: Early English Text Society, Original Series, XXIII, 1868; revised, 1894).
  44. Beryl Bowland (ed.), Medieval Women’s Guide to Health (Kent: Kent State University Press, 1981); W.R. Dawson, A Leechbook, or Collection of Medical Recipes of the Fifteenth Century(London: Macmillan, 1934)
  45. See Antonia Gransden, Historical Writing in England, II: c.1307 to the Early Sixteenth Century (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1982); C.L. Kingsford, English Historical Literature in the Fifteenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913).
  46. E.F. Jacob, “Reynold Pecock, Bishop of Chichester,” in his Essays in Later Medieval History (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1968), pp. 1-34.
  47. See W.A. Davenport, Fifteenth-Century English Drama (Cambridge: Brewer, 1982).
  48. J.S. Purvis (ed.), The York Cycle of Mystery Plays (London: Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, 1957).
  49. Richard Osberg, “The Jesse Tree in the 1432 London Entry of Henry VI: Messianic Kingship and the Rule of Justice,” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 16 (1986): 213-32; Robert Withington, English Pageantry (2 vols., Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1918-20) 1: 141-47.
  50. See A.F. Sutton and P.W. Hammond (eds.) The Coronation of Richard III: Extant Documents (Gloucester: Alan Sutton, 1983).
  51. Oswald Barron, “Fifteenth Century Costume,” The Ancestor 9 (1904): 113-36.
  52. See F.E. Baldwin, Sumptuary Legislation and Personal Regulation in England (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1926): John Scattergood, “Fashion and Morality in the Later Middle Ages.” inEngland in the Fifteenth Century, ed. Daniel Williams (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1987), pp. 255-72.
  53. See Kate Mertes, The English Noble Household, 1250-1600 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988); David Starkey, “The Age of the Household: Politics, Society and the Arts, c.1350-c.1550,” inEngland in the Fifteenth Century, ed. Daniel Williams (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1987), pp. 225-90.
  54. F.R.H. DuBoulay, An Age of Ambition (New York: Viking, 1970), pp.141-42.
  55. J.W. Blench, Preaching in England in the Late Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1964), p. 228.
  56. Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), pp. 150, 154-155, 170-71.