IN periods like the present, when knowledge is every day extending and the habits and thoughts of mankind are perpetually changing under the influence of new discoveries, it is no easy matter to throw ourselves back into a time in which for centuries the European world grew upon a single type, in which the forms of the father's thoughts were the forms of the son's and the late descendant was occupied in treading into paths the footprints of his ancestors.
So absolutely has change become the law of our present condition, that to cease to change is to lose place in the great race. Looking back over history, we see times of change and progress alternating with other times when life and thought have settled into permanent forms. Such was the condition of the Greeks through many ages before the Persian wars and such, again, became the condition of Europe when the Northern nations grafted religion and the laws of the Western empire on their own hardy natures.
A condition of things differing alike both inwardly and outwardly from that into which a happier fortune has introduced ourselves is necessarily obscure to us. In the alteration of our own characters we have lost the key which would interpret the characters of our fathers. But some broad conclusions as to what they were are, however, at least possible to us.
A rough census taken at the time of the Armada shows that the population was something under five millions. The feudal system, though practically modified, was still the organizing principle of the nation and the owner of land was bound to military service at home whenever occasion required. All land was held upon a strictly military principle. The state of the working classes can best be determined by a comparison of their wages with the price of food.
Both were, as far as possible, regulated by Act of Parliament. Wheat in the fourteenth century averaged Iod. the bushel; beef and pork were 1/2d. a pound; mutton was 3/4d.; The best pig or goose could be bought for 4d.; a good capon for 3d.; a chicken for Id.; a hen for 2d. Strong beer which now costs Is. 6d. a gallon was then Id. a gallon, and table beer was less than a halfpenny.
A penny at the time of which we write must have been nearly equal in the reign of Henry VIII to the present shilling. For a penny the labourer could buy as much bread, beef, beer and wine as the labourer of to-day can for a shilling. Turning, then, to the question of wages, by the 3rd of the 6th of Henry VIII it was enacted that the master carpenters, masons, bricklayers, tilers, plumbers, glaziers, joiners and other employers of skilled workmen should give to each of their journeymen, if no meat and drink were allowed, sixpence a day for the first half year, fivepence a day for the other half; or fivepence-halfpenny for the yearly average. The common labourers were to receive fourpence a day for the first half year; for the remaining half, threepence.
The day labourer received what was equivalent to something near twenty shillings a week, the wages at present paid in English colonies; and this is far from being a full account of his advantages. The agricultural labourer held land in connexion with his house, while in most parishes there were large ranges of common and unenclosed forest land, which furnished fuel to him gratis, where pigs might range, and ducks and geese, and where, if he could afford a cow, he was in no danger of being unable to feed it; and so important was this privilege considered, that when the commons began to be largely enclosed, Parliament insisted that the working man should not be without some piece of ground on which he could employ his industry.
By the 7th of the 31st of Elizabeth it was ordered that no cottage should be built for residence without four acres of land at lowest being attached to it for the sole use of the occupants of such cottage.
The incomes of the great nobles cannot be determined, for they varied probably as much as they do now. Under Henry IV the average income of an earl was estimated at pound 2,000 a year. Under Henry VIII the third Duke of Buckingham, the wealthiest English peer, had pound 6,000. And the income of the Archbishop of Canterbury was rated at the same amount. But the establishments of such men were enormous. Their retinues in time of peace consisted of several hundred persons and in time of war a large share of the expenses was paid often out of private purses.
PASSING down to the body of the people, we find that pound 20 a year, and heavy duties to do for it, represented the condition of the squire of the parish. By the 2nd of Henry V 'the wages' of a parish priest were limited to pound 5 6s. 8d., except in cases where there was a special licence from the bishop, when they might be raised as high as pound 6. Both squire and priest had sufficient for comfort. Neither was able to establish any steep difference between himself and the common people, so far as concerned outward advantages.
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