Right after reading Pillars of the Earth, I picked up the hardcopy of World Without End. This story takes place in the same fictional town in Southern England, Kingsbridge, where Pillars was staged, only about 200 years later. Not much has changed in terms of society and technology in the 200 years that have passed.
People are still enslaved by their masters, the nobility. The nobility perpetuates by inheritance, for the most part, and by intrigue. A king’s wife takes on a lover and kills the king, only to have her 14 year old son take over the kingdom much earlier than she thought. A corrupt nobleman kills his child wife to get rid of her, so he is eligible to marry the recently widowed countess only so he can be the earl.
Yet, when a peasant family gets wiped out by the plague, and only one 16 year old son remains, and the son asks for the land holdings of his father, about 90 acres, the lord of the village denies him that right and simply gives the land to another peasant who is more in his favor, all based on an excuse. The peasant may have rights, but enforcing those rights is just about impossible, when the lord is not only the owner of everything, but is also appointed by the overlord, as well as the king. The king, being the ultimate judge, will in most cases adjudicate in favor of the lord, as it is the lord who is the knight and collects the army so the king can go to war.
The nobility lives lavishly, albeit dangerously, on the backs of the peasants and the merchants, who are being taxed for the use of the land, the roads and the bridges. The people supply tithes to the church. When a peasant or merchant dies, there is an inheritance tax, a heriot, which is a substantial portion of the value that also gets siphoned off by the lord. Wages for peasants are set. When the labor pool is depleted, and peasants start wandering to other villages for higher wages, parliament passes a law that peasants are not allowed to leave their villages to take on work in other villages.
Of course, parliament is full of land owners and lords. There isn’t a peasant represented. So in essence, the people are imprisoned by their lords, who can tell them what to grow and what not to grow, even though often they don’t have any idea about agriculture. They pay the peasants according to the established customs, but when things get hard, after a bad harvest or other problems, the lord has no scruples about not paying the peasants, while collecting rent anyway, either in cash, if they can, or in livestock or harvested goods.
The plague, which decimated Europe in the 14th century, is depicted in this story. I learned about its devastating effect on the society. The people were helpless. They did not know what caused it, and they didn’t know what to do about it. To make matters worse, the clergy, which also enompassed most of the physicians and nurses, was steeped in superstition and pseudo science, and “medical” practices actually ended up making things worse in some cases. The plague was a great equalizer, as it didn’t care about the difference between the nobility, the clergy, the merchants and the peasantry. It killed equally and efficiently.
Reading Pillars of the Earth and World Without End I learned more about the functioning of medieval monarchies than in my whole life before. World Without End is a 1000 page book, and you follow a cast of characters through a couple of generations in the mid 14th century. The characters become part of your life for a while, and when you turn the last page, you are sad that you have to leave them behind.