17th Century social life

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Doctors were virtually unknown and those with medical skills tended the rich

This article by the Rev George Balleine was first published in the 1941 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

Much has been written on the constitutional history and the military history of Jersey, but little on our social history.

No serious attempt has yet been made to picture how our ancestors lived during the different centuries, how they dressed, how they worked, how they played, what their homes were like, what their habits were like; in a word, what were the ordinary interests of ordinary men and women.

Sea travel was uncomfortable and hazardous

Picture of early 17th century life

I propose to take one short period, the early 1600s, from the crowning of James I to the start of the Civil War, and to fit together a few small facts gathered from many sources: Court records, wills, inventories, diaries, church registers, which will, I hope, combine to form at any rate the outline of a picture.

England was then a remote and almost unknown country. Language was one great barrier. Jersey was entirely French-speaking. The clergy were graduates of the French Huguenot University of Saumur. The lawyers were trained at Caen. A few educated Jerseymen knew English; but even in their libraries, as we find them listed for the division of their estates, it is rare to come across an English book.

The sea was the other barrier. There was no regular boat service. If you wished to cross the Channel, you had to wait till some merchant was sending a cutter to fetch goods from England. The length of the passage depended on wind and weather.

When Heylin visited Jersey in 1629, he crossed in a man-of-war, and so was better off than the ordinary traveller. They left Portsmouth at ten o'clock on a Tuesday mormng. By night they had reached the Needles, they spent the whole of Wednesday at sea. At 3 o’clock on Thursday afternoon they sighted Jersey.

They were then delayed by a fight with a Dutch warship, and did not land at St Aubin till 10 on Friday morning, having taken three days and nights on the voyage. The crossing was not only long and uncomfortable, but extremely dangerous.

The Channel swarmed with Algerian pirates and Dunkirk privateers. In March 1628 both the Governor and the Dean were captured by Dunkirkers. No one went to England but a few of the higher officials summoned to London on business, an occasional litigant appealing from the Royal Court to the Privy Council, a handful of students on their way to Oxford or Cambridge, and now and then an enterprising merchant. The average Jerseyman no more thought of visiting England than of visiting the moon. His interests all centred in his own island.

Internal travel difficulties

Indeed they did not extend far beyond his own parish. There was little communication between parishes. Roads, as we know them, did not exist. The narrow, winding, country lanes, shut in by high banks, and ovcrarched with trees, were knee deep in mud in winter.

If you had a horse, you might sometimes struggle to Town with your wife on the pillion; but sensible men preferred to stay at home. St Brelade knew little about St John, or St Ouen about St Martin. Church registers show that most Jerseymen married girls from their own parish. They had few opportunities of meeting any others.

Many things that we take for granted were then unknown; Doctors, for example. In Elizabeth's reign two French physicians had arrived among the Huguenot refugees. In 1596 the Constables raised a fund to send Solomon Journeaux to France to study surgery.

Bur for more than a century after that there were hardly any qualified medical men in Jersey. Some of the clergy made an amateur study of medicine, and physicked their parishioners; but the average Jerseyman trusted to a little manuscript book of remedies, of which many copies survive. Here is the cure for consumption: "Bruise some garden snails in a mortar. Sprinkle them with sugar. Wrap them in a cloth, and hang in a moist place, with a dish underneath to catch the syrup. Take a spoonful of this every morning."

Or in desperation he might appeal to the witches. Yet doctors were badly needed, for the island was subject to terrifying visitations of plague. In the summer of 1626 there were 132 deaths from plague in St Aubin, then quite a small village, and the dead were buried in their own gardens, as it was impossible to find men to carry them to St Brelade's churchyard.


Another feature of the time was the scarcity of money. The number of coins in the island was surprisingly small. Those that did arrive were soon sent out again to pay for goods from France or England. Almost all local transactions were carried out by barter.

One of our Bulletins gave extracts from the account book of Samuel de la Place, Rector of St Mary, one of the medical parsons. This showed that Madame De Quetteville paid "a little barrel of beer" for a dose of senna, rhubarb, and jalap, and that widow Brehaut paid a dozen eggs for a plaster for her child's tummy. Other fees received in 1620 were a pot of honey, a rabbit, some dried cod, a cheese, a bushel of rye and some candles.

The population was about half what it is now. In 1628 the Governor reported to the Privy Council: "The inhabitants number about 25,000". These fell into several clearly defined groups. At the top of the tree were the Squirearchy, the Seigneurs. The number of these varied from time to time, as Fiefs were amalgamated by marriage or divided, but it ranged from about 100 to 130.

Seigneurs' relations

To the actual Seigneurs we must add their relations. And Seigneurial families were large. Sir Philippe de Carteret of St Ouen had ten children, and his eldest son had eleven. Elie Pipon of Noirmont had eight brothers and sisters and nine children, while his cousin, Thomas Pipon of La Moye, had ten. Jean Messervy of Saval had 13 children.

So this Seigneurial group may have numbered six hundred persons. There were subtle distinctions of dignity among them, and childish squabbles about precedence. In 1624 Philippe Lempriere of Dielament preferred to go to prison rather than take a seat on the bench of Jurats lower than that of Philippe de Carteret of Vinchelez de Bas; and the two men spent a small fortune on a four-year lawsuit before the Privy Council to decide which of them should sit nearest the Bailiff.

The greatest fiefs had their own gallows, and were very proud of the privilege. Even when the victim was only some old hag accused of witchcraft, who had no property to be confiscated (and so no question of pecuniary benefit could arise), they insisted stiffly on their right to hang her in their own grounds, and would not allow her to be executed by the hangman on Gallows Hill. Some fiefs had the right to build gigantic dovecots, so that, no matter what damage was done to the farmers' crops, the Seigneur might never be without his pigeon pie.

Justice was often dispensed by the seigneurs of major fiefs

Manorial courts

Many, but by no means all the Seigneurs were permitted to hold Manorial Courts to settle disputes between tenants. In one of our Bulletins Guy de Gruchy gave extracts from the Rolls of the Court at Noirmont. These include claims for vegetables destroyed by a pig, for a pig killed by a dog, for a woman kicked by a horse, for camomile picked on private property.

There were disputes about the ownership of a swarm of bees, about the blocking of a right of way, about a pair of boots lent to a man who had gone to Newfoundland, which show that human nature was much the same then as now.

But to return to our Seigneurs. One Seigneur differed from another in glory. The Seigneur of Saval was by no means the equal of the Seigneur of Meleches, Bur as a class they stood apart from the common herd. They expected to be addressed by the name of their fiefs, Monsieur de Samares, Monsieur de Sotel, Monsieur de St Ouen. They spoke of themselves as the Noblesse, for in Jersey, as in France, nobility was considered to begin with the Ecuyer (Esquire) and not as in England with the Baron. And they were at any rate well-to-do men, proud of keeping a good stable and a good table, swaggering about in smart clothes with rapiers at their sides.

Guibray Fair

The study of our island dress is a task waiting for some industrious ladies of our society. However, for Seigneurs of the 17th Century, Miss Marett has provided material in the Dumaresq papers, which she published in the Bulletin for 1935. These include bills from Elie Dumaresq's tailor and draper at St Malo, for his bootmaker at Caen, and a shopping list that he gave to a friend who was visiting Guibray Fair.

This August Fair, the second largest in France, which William the Conqueror had established under the walls of Falaise, was Jersey's great shopping orgy. Here in a veritable city of booths the merchants of Paris spread their wares. Here was the Street of the Silversmiths, the Street of the Clothiers, the Street of the Cutlers, and so on.

From Dumaresq's purchases we call picture him in his Sunday best, his olive green suit trimmed with 22 ells of satin ribbon, his gold-fringed gloves, his sky-blue stockings. Other Seigneurs, too, were decidedly dressy. When the Seigneur of Trinity died, there was a dispute as to who should inherit his two collars of pearls, one with a rose of diamonds, as to whether the heir who received the clothes was entitled to the gold buttons, as to who should have the gold chain and the silver-hilted sword,

These Seigneurs had begun to take a pride in their grounds. There were peacocks at Trinity Manor and also tulips. The latter are rather a surprise, for tulips were a novelty, which had only reached western Europe coward the end of the previous century. There were swans at Samares and St Ouen. A Seigneur's dinner-table was furnished mainly with pewter. When the Seigneur of Trinity died, he left 96 pewter plates, 34 pewter dishes, 14 pewter sauce-boats, and 11 pewter tankards. But a good deal of silver also was found in the manors. Wills mention two-handled silver beer-mugs, and silver wine-cups without handles; and the Trinity inventory contains three large silver-gilt salt-cellars, which marked social distinctions at table, where all he household sat down together. You sat either above or below the salt.

Hawking was popular with the seigneurs


The Seigneurs were keen sportsmen. Hawking and falconry were still their favourite pastimes, and the island abounded with red-legged partridges.

Since the Royal Court at this time was entirely in the seigneurs’ hands, and was a much more powerful body than the States (most of the legislation of the period consisted of Orders of the Court), there were innumerable laws against poaching. Ferret-keeping was heavily punished; so was possession of rabbit snares or sporting-guns ; while anyone who injured, even by accident, one of the Seigneurs' falcons, was, scourged till the blood ran.

Many Orders of the Court were flagrant class-legislation. An Act was passed "to stop the abuse committed by many of the lower orders, who dress in a style unsuited to their station".

No woman who was not a lady was to wear a cap of taffeta (watered silk), or to wear lace anywhere but in her cap, and then only of the cheapest quality, A list of maximum wages was to be read out in every parish church. The most expert woolcombers and tailors were not to receive more than 3 sous a day, Thatchers 3½ sous, masons 5 sous, carpenters 6 sous; and there was a 10 livres fine for anyone who demanded more.

The value of money is, of course, what it will buy. De la Place's account book, already mentioned, helps us to understand these figures, for he entered, not only the goods he received, but what he considered them worth. From him we learn that a dozen eggs cost 2 sous, a wild rabbit 3 sous, and a pound of butter 5 sous. So an expert tailor had to work all day for the price of a wild rabbit, and a mason for the price of a pound of butter.

These Seigneurs were by no means merely sporting squires. Many of them had been educated at English Universities. The Seigneur of Samares was a graduate of Oxford; so was the Seigneur of Vinchelez de Bas; so were the Seigneurs of La Hague, of Diélament, and of St Ouen.

Shopping list

On Dumaresq's shopping-list for Guibray Fair we find 16 books. He evidently admired the French Huguenot poets, for he ordered the complete works of Marot and d' Aubigny and the Deux Semaines of de Barras, the great epic of Creation and the Fall, which suggested to Milton his subject for Paradise Lost.

No Jersey gentleman's library was complete without the Deux Semaines. We find it again and again in inventories of the period. Dumaresq, however, did not scorn more frivolous verse, He added the Vers Satiriques of Desportes, and that cynical old French poem, La Grande Malice des Femmes. He evidently meant to keep up his classics, for he ordered the Works of Pliny, a Commentary on Martial’s Epigrams, and Etienne's Apologie pour Herodote, the last not as dull as It sounds, but a good compendium of after-dinner anecdotes, for all Herodutus' tall stories arc capped by even taller ones from medieval sources.

He probably hoped to be a Jurat some day, for he asked for Godefroi on the Laws of Normandy ; and the universal interest in theology is shown by his adding a Commentary on the Book of Revelation. Other items were Aesop's Fables, Crespin's Book of Martyrs (the French equivalent of Foxe), and a version of the Faust legend. Not a bad selection for a young sportsman, who had just kept his 21st birthday.

The majority of islanders were involved in farming


But it is time to leave the Seigneurs, and to look at what Robert Owen would have called the industrious classes. First among these came the farmers, the backbone of the community, peasant-proprietors cultivating their tiny estates with the help of their families.

The farmer had hardly any money; but that did not trouble him. His house and fields were his own; so he had no rent to pay. He grew enough wheat to provide home-made bread for a year, taking the corn to be ground at the manorial mill, and leaving a small proportion of the flour behind as a fee.

His farm provided milk and eggs, cheese and butter, poultry, meat, and vegetables. He made his cider in his own press from his own apples. He gathered his vraic free for manure and fuel. His bees supplied him with honey, and with wax for his candles. He caught fish, and salted some for the winter, and preserved the livers of the conger and ray to give oil for his hanging lamp.

His wife made most of the family's clothes of wool from their own sheep. Every farm was an almost entirely self-supporting institution. Things which could not be made at home - boots for example - were paid for in eggs or cider. The modem idea of farming for money was entirely unheard of. You farmed to provide what you and your family needed.

The farmer kept a couple of oxen to draw his cart and plough, a couple of cows for milk and butter, a fairly large flock of sheep, bred mainly for their wool and milk. His chief form of meat was pork. There were so many pigs in the island that every parish swore in a Porcher before the Royal Court, a Pig-Warden, whose duty was to see that every pig was ringed, and to impound any found damaging property.

The farmyards were full of fowls, and there were also geese; and it is surprising to find turkeys twice mentioned as early as 1620. And dogs were so numerous that the Court was always issuing orders to reduce the number.

Wheat was the farmer's chief crop; and in a good year he often had a small surplus, which he could sell to merchants for export, and thus provide some ready money for outside expenditure. It was a hard-working life for every member of the family.

When Heylin visited Jersey in 1629 these country-folk seemed to him "very painful and laborious, but by reason of their continual toil, not a little affected by the kind of melancholy surliness incident to ploughmen".

But he had never been invited to a Veille. These merry gatherings were I think without a counterpart in France and England. Twice or thrice a week on the long winter evenings, groups of neighbours gathered in one or other of the great farm-kitchens, to sit round the fire, and sing, and tell stories; and sometimes they clubbed together to hire a fiddler.


Almost every farmer had his boat, and went fishing occasionally; bur there were also whole-time fishermen, a far larger class then than now, for loaves and fishes, specially congers, were still the staple food of the island.

"The sea about these islands", wrote Falle toward the end of the century, "might be called the Kingdom of Congers, so great is the quantity taken at all seasons, some weighing from 30 to 40 lb".

The tithe of fish was an important item in every Rector's income. And, even in those Protestant days, it was illegal to sell meat during Lent. In 1627 the Royal Court instructed every Constable to see that this order was strictly obeyed. And with the fishermen must be reckoned the Terreneuviers, the hundreds of men who every spring crossed the Atlantic for the Newfoundland codfisheries, returning to Jersey in time for the autumn ploughing with a supply of salted cod for the winter, and money in their pockets, which would provide some welcome luxuries for the family.

Knitting was a favourite and profitable occupation for many families


And everywhere there were knitters. Knitting was invented about the middle of the 16th century, and the first purpose to which it was put was the making of stockings. Hitherto men and women everywhere had clothed their lower limbs in an awkward garment called hose, which reached from the waist to the feet. It was knickers and stockings in one. For the poor it was made of blanket-cloth, and for the rich of velvet.

But, when knitting was invented, someone saw how much more convenient it would be to put on the lower parts of the hose (hence the French word bas) separately. One of Queen Elizabeth's ladies knitted her a pair of woollen stockings, and at once they became fashionable.

In some mysterious way Jersey captured a large part of this new trade. The demand for Jersey stockings was inexhaustible. England, France, America, even Italy, bought them as fast as they could be knitted. In 1624, when Jersey petitioned for an extra supply of wool from England, the Royal Court wrote: "More than a thousand souls have no other means to get their living than by knitting stockings".

And in addition to the whole-time knitters, the farm folk and the fishing-folk knitted in their spare moments. You hardly ever saw a Jerseywoman without her knitting needles. She knitted by the fire at night. She knitted as she walked through the lanes. It was whispered that the very wicked even knitted secretly on Sunday.

The Court realized the value of this trade, and appointed inspectors to keep up the quality of Jersey stockings. Marie Tourgis, later a nororious witch, made her first appearance in the dock for selling stockings of two-ply wool instead of three-ply. But the authorities were also rather frightened. If knitting grew more profitable than farming, the land might go out of cultivation. Strict orders were issued forbidding knitting during the vraicing or the harvest.

The church was central to the life of the island, which was very Calvinistic


The great centre of social life was the parish church. Nonconformity was unknown in the island. Everyone, even from the remotest farms, came to church in those days. On Sunday all work ceased, and everybody met everybody. It is outside the scope of this paper to discuss the religious value of these services; but no one can doubt that it was good for men and women once every week to leave behind the pigs and the ploughing and the poultry, to meet their neighbours, and to turn their thoughts into entirely new channels; often very deep channels.

For the church in Jersey was Calvinist, and he burning comroversy at the moment was the dispute between Calvinism and Arminianism, the most baffiing of philosophical problems, Determination versus Free Will.

These Jersey farmers heard this discussed almost every Sunday, and apparently they were interested. Jean Messervy, Centenier of St Saviour, was no ecclesiastic. He never held any church office, even as Surveillant. But, when his small library was divided among his heirs, quite a number of the books were Anti-Arminian theological treatise. To grasp even an outline of the points in such a recondite controversy was no mean mental gymnastic.

Many non-theological interests centred round these church services. The latest Orders of the Royal Court were read. Parish notices were given out. The Constable announced when vraic could be cut or cattle turned loose to graze. Property was transferred by proclaiming the fact "in the hearing of the parish".


Elections always took place on Sunday in the church porch, every voter proclaming his vote publicly as he left the building. After morning service those who came from a distance took their lunch into the large room of the inn, which everywhere stood opposite the shurch, and washed it down with draughts of the landlord's cider. Here there was much discussion of parish business among the men, and gossip among the women, and chattering among the children, till the bell summoned all back for the afternoon service.

A bad feature of Church life at this time was a plague of quarrels about pews. Your status in the parish largely depended on the position of your pew. At St Ouen, for example, the front of the church was occupied by four square horse-box-like erections, private rooms where the noblesse could worship without being overlooked, two belonging to St Ouen's Manor, and one to each of the Manors of Vinchelez.

Behind these according to rank were the pews of the lesser folk. On one occasion the wife of Jean Le Marchant created "a great tumult and uproar to the disturbance of the hearing of God's Word" by seating herself in a covered pew and refusing to leave. For the next two Sundays the lady had to sit in the churchyard with her legs in the stocks.

A few years later, when the owners of a certain pew arrived, it was not there. Jean Le Brun and Pierre Le Cornu had entered the church during the night, and chopped It into firewood. A never-ceasmg stream of lawsuits about pews flows through the Court records .

A good work of the Calvinist Church was its care for education. A religion which lays such stress on. Bible-study was bound to make certain that all its followers could read. We have seen that many Seigneurs were well-educated; and the same is true to a lesser degree of the farming-folk.

Education standards were high

Education standard high

Nowhere in Europe, except perhaps in Presbyterian Scotland, was the level of general education as high as in the Channel Islands. Every parish had its school of which the master was generally a university man and the church brought strong pressure to bear on parents whose children did not attend regularly.

There were also the two grammar schools, St Mannelier and St Anastase, founded in the reign of Henry VII, which taught both Greek and Latin. Moreover, all schoolmasters were ordered "whenever they recognize any of their children to be hopeful scholars to advise their relations to support them and push them forward in the knowledge of good literature, and to follow the matter up with the Magistrates, that they may be supported out of the public funds".

Nor was this a vain hope. From time to time we find the state making grants to support a promising boy at an English or French University.

The betrothal ceremony was very important


The Church intervened in many functions of social life. Betrothal was a religious ceremony. The two families met in the young lady's home. The parents on each side announced what they proposed to do for their children. Then the man and the girl stood before the Minister and declared their desire to marry. The man gave a ring "in confirmation of his promise".

The law ran: "The contract shall be made with invocation of the Name of God without which it is no contract. And from a promise thus made there is no departing". Breach of promise was regarded as a serious offence, and was sometimes punished by imprisonment in the dungeons of Mont Orgueil.

But in regulating social life the Church grew too ambitious. Calvinists always laid great stress on Church Discipline. "Doctrine without Discipline", they said, "is like a body without a backbone". And by discipline they meant Argus-eyed supervision of the life of the whole community. Jersey elders were called Sur veillants. Each was responsible for a Vingtaine. His duty was to watch for scandals, and to summon offenders before the Consistory, the Court of Morals, which met in Church every Sunday after Service.

Jerseymen liked their Calvinist services, and were proud of their Calvinist Creed, which they regarded as far superior to "the superstitions of the Papists", but they came more and more to resent these petty parochial courts and their ecclesiastical police. When this revolt reached a head, James I, who hated Presbyterianism, took advantage of it to sweep the whole Calvinist system away, and to establish Anglicanism.

This tussle belongs to the ecclesiastical history of the island, not to its social history, so I mast not dwell on it now. But the change made little difference to the Church as the social centre of the parish. A French translation of the Anglican Prayer Book took the place of the Huguenot Service Book; and met with a certain amount of passive resistance. For generations no Jerseyman would join in the responses or kneel to receive the Communion. But no one stayed away from the Church. It remained the place where everybody met everyone.

All men were involved with the militia


The Militia Drills also drew the men of the parish together; and the Douets did the same for the women; the open-air communal pools, where the clothes were washed in running-water as is still done in Normandy. Here week by week much friendly gossip was interchanged. Good examples of these remain at St John, St. Ouen, Trinity, and Bagot.

The majority of Jersey people were sober, hard-working, churchgoing folk; but there was a rowdy minority, which gave the authorities trouble. The Court records make many references to mysterious masked bands, which alarmed quiet, orderly people at night. An Act of 1600 complained that "large bands of people, masked and carrying clubs, rush by night from house to house to the great terror of the public, committing innumerable outrages and obscenities ". The Court ordered all who took part in these orgies to be imprisoned in the Castle for a month on bread and water.


At the bottom of the social scale was a surprisingly large proletariat of real paupers. In a place like Jersey, where farms were worked by the farmer's family, and little outside labour employed, the lot of the landless man was not enviable.

Outside every Church was the tronc, marked "pour les pauvres". After every service Deacons stood at the door holding collecting-pots for the poor fund. Every parish had a number of wheat rentes, known as the Tresor des Pauvres.

Yet nothing seemed able to reduce the number of beggars. In 1597 the Court tried to billet the beggars on the other inhabitants, but three parishes went on dtrike. In 1618 it established a compulsory Poor Rate; but St Ouen refused to pay.

In 1625 the Court was still complaining that swarms of beggars were wandering from parish to parish. It ordered that anyone who begged outside his own parish, or even within his own parish without a licence from the Constable, should be put in the stocks for the first offence, and for each repetition of it be flogged by the public hangman. But 17th-century Jurats proved as helpless to solve the unemployment problem as 20th-century politicians.

A word should also be said about the witch movement, which reached its peak during the 17th century. This was an organized revolt, not only against Christianity, but against all ordinary conceptions of decent living. The frequent execution of male and female witches reminded everyone of the existence of this hidden danger. No one knew which of his neighbours might belong to this secret society. But I dealt fairly fully with this subject in a recent Bulletin; so I say no more about it now.

We have glanced at the population of our island from the Seigneurs to the beggar. It has only been a hurried sketch, as a sample of what needs doing systematically. One of our members is studying the agricultural history of the island. We want others to specialise on differenr subjects - homes and furniture, dress and ornaments, food and cooking, sports and amusements, health and disease, crime and punishment, books and education, folklore and superstition, religion and morals, trade and travel, Immigration and emigration.

When those investigations have been carried right through the centuries, then and not till then will it be possible for anyone to write a real history of Jersey.

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