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A Remarkable Serf

February 22, 2012 | Comments: 0 | Views: 195

This book is a real page-turner; one that I had planned to read in five days but had finished by day two. Its main protagonist is blacksmith Walter (later Martin) Reed, born in 1381 into serfdom on the manor Rede, one of many properties owned by Lord Bowdegrave. At the relatively late age of 20, Walter had the unusual experience, for one of his class, of falling in love and acting definitively on it. His proposed bride was Kate the shepherd's daughter, also of Rede Manor, and also a villein (peasant legally tied to the property) of Bowdegrave.

As a villein, Walter was not free just to marry anyone he chose. First, he was required to go to the priest (who kept the record of all births on the estate) to confirm that he was not related to Kate. Next, he had to visit the manor steward, who fixed the bride fee and gave instructions about how it was to be paid to the father of the bride-to-be. Finally, there was an interview with the lord of the manor, who had the last word on whether the marriage could go ahead or not. This interview was to be conducted at such time as Bowdegrave, who resided intermittently at one or the other of his properties, next showed up at Rede, with both Walter and Kate in attendance.

Assuming permission to marry was granted, there was the likelihood of Bowdegrave's claiming the dreaded droit du seigneur, a custom satirised by Beaumarchais in his play The Marriage of Figaro and in Mozart's opera of the same name, which legally allowed the lord of a mediaeval manor to sleep with any of his serf's brides on her wedding night. In the resigned attitude typical of people of his class, Walter had accepted this possibility. However, the events that transpired at the interview turned his fears into nightmare, for not only did the married Bowdegrave refuse the youngsters permission to marry, he also stated his intention of taking Kate away from Rede forthwith - as his mistress.

Walter's enraged reaction is to plant a heavy fist in the face of his master and owner. He is quickly overpowered by the lord's men, beaten senseless and left for dead. He regains consciousness, however, and not only escapes from the manor but also persuades Kate to elope with him. After overcoming many hardships, they end up in the walled city of Baildon, one year and one day spent undetected within which would earn them both their freedom from serfdom. It is at this point that Walter changes his name to Martin, to avoid any chance of recapture. Martin Reed goes on to build a dynasty in Baildon, gaining power, affluence and even (through his son's marriage) ties with the nobility.

Norah Lofts has been described as a natural storyteller - an accurate epithet indeed if this historical novel, set in East Anglia, is anything to go by. The detail in The Town House seems authentic, with the author demonstrating a great understanding of human nature. Her writing style is somewhat unusual, with first-person accounts given through the eyes of many characters, all somehow or other connected with Martin Reed. In this way, she opens a window into the different worlds experienced by people of various social classes living in England at the end of the fourteenth century. She expertly depicts the hopelessness of life lived as a serf, the abject poverty of the masses, the absence of basic human rights, the absolute power of feudal owners, the opulence of the moneyed classes and the gross inequalities present in society. She does this not only vividly but also non-judgmentally, leaving you, the reader, to form your own opinions.

The types of cruelty Lofts describes may seem unthinkable in this day and age, but there are also accounts of individuals today who have survived unusual conditions (such as war or famine) which differ little in essence from the ones here, making this book - among other things - an interesting study of human psychology relevant for any period. On a more critical note, I found many of the characters unsympathetic and the runs of their lives unremittingly dismal. The big let-down for me is not the disastrous events themselves so much as the lack of redeeming factors. An unrepentant murderer gets to live out his days in style. A gallant knight betrays his fiance for money. And Martin Reed, although achieving wealth and power through his own hard work, is allowed neither peace nor lasting happiness, even becoming the unwitting benefactor of the one who was the source of his life-long misery. For this reason, although the book is the first of a trilogy, the next two are not on my reading list.

In conclusion, The Town House by Norah Lofts is a well-written, beautifully researched historical novel set in the late fourteenth century. If you are the type who likes a happy ending, with villains getting their just desserts and long-suffering souls perfectly vindicated at last, then this book is not for you. However, I highly recommend it to anyone who would like a glimpse, from various points of view, of life in the Middle Ages as experienced by members of the strictly-demarcated social classes that existed at that time. For this purpose, it is an excellent work.

For more on feudalism and medieval life in England, see Wiki:

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