A Year of Medieval Peasant Life in "Down The Common"

The Fiction Addiction

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Down The Common(cover art from the publisher)

Down the Common, by Ann Baer, was recommended to me by other fans of Ruth Goodman and the Farm series. Like the Farm shows, this book follows daily life in one historical year. The book is written in the month-by-month pattern, almost like a record book. We see a year of daily life, and while there’s definitely a voice, there’s no plot at all. No conflicts besides surviving to the next month, but that’s still compelling. I actually read this book while I wasn’t feeling very well, and I kept trying to ignore my symptoms to keep reading and see what the next month would bring for Marion and her family.

First, a warning: Down The Common is gross. So gross. No laundry, no flushing toilets, loads of vermin, it’s just gross. I understand that a lot of this is accurate but still, yuck. In one scene, it’s finally sunny enough for Marion to wash a winter’s worth of grime out of the dress she wears every day.

Marion accepts whatever comes her way, whether that’s the weather, hunger, more dirt, a life-changing injury, or death.  That doesn’t mean a lack of compassion or human connection, though, just a social acceptance that life is hard. For example, Marion’s father is aging, and while the grown children do everything they can to care for the confused and feeble old man,  they also say directly that next winter will probably finish him off. The book notes tragic, exciting or interesting moments with the same kind of matter-of-fact, accepting narrative voice. A lot of this book is just about getting by, surviving into the next month.

There’s also a woman in town who is… disabled? Mentally challenged? Since Marion wouldn’t know those terms, the book doesn’t use them. Instead, Marion has a mixture of pity and frustration towards Small Sarah, who doesn’t speak much or do much to care for her family. Small Sarah seems to have a baby every year, but struggles to do anything else that the other wives do. (Her husband is never blamed for this, btw, in fact Marion accepts the common wisdom that a wife needs to give in to her husband’s needs, whenever he wants, or they’ll be dire consequences).  Marion sometimes gives food to the skinny neighbor children, but in different seasons, food is too scarce to share it outside the family. Some parts of the story are dark like this, but the theme is just to keep working and wait for the next season.

Marion’s family owes taxes to the Hall, in the form of eggs gathered and work her husband, the village’s carpenter, must do for the local lord.  The local steward is possibly the only literate person in town, so there’s a worry that he’s not keeping careful count of the eggs or produce delivered as tax payments, or maybe he’s off in the hall’s favor. This remote village might even have gotten off count for the days of the week, and the year is never given since Marion would never have known something like that. In this village, the number of years since a particularly bad storm or a since a child was born would be a much more useful way to remember time. But these aren’t mindless simple peasants, they look back on the origins of features in their town, and they look forward to their children growing up.

Sometimes historical accounts idealize the past, but I felt like this really showed days and days of work. There are some warm moments of friendship and laughter in the story. There’s a constant threat of illness and danger in this time, which adds so much tension to the children’s growth. So many children didn’t survive. Marion’s son, young Peterkin, struggles after a serious injury, and for most of the book, I was worried he wouldn’t make it. There’s a really human moment when he proudly presents the results of his hunting to his mother, and knows he’s helped to support the family.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading this monthly account of a family and a village surviving a typical year in Down the Common.

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