A single red rose every Christmas, and a snowball at Midsummer—that’s what one landlord in medieval England charged his tenants. In an era before refrigeration and greenhouses, he might as well have commanded them to spin straw into gold.
The demand was impossible by design. It symbolized that the tenants stayed on the landlord’s generosity, that he could terminate their lease at his whim. Yet this landlord was far from alone in asking such odd payment. There was another who, every year, had one of his farms present him with a right-hand glove, and the other with a left. Others called for a fat hen every Christmas, or a ginger root, or a pound of cumin.
In 1623, John Salkeld willed to his son Thomas, “the house now building in Rock, for 60 years, paying a peppercorn yearlie to my son John.” Charging a rent of a single peppercorn was a common practice between relatives, as it allowed them to retain the rights of landlord and tenant without fleecing their family members.
There are a few examples of these odd nominal rents continuing to the present day. One such tradition dates back to 1381, when the wife of Sir Robert Knollys planted a rose-garden without first seeking permission from the City of London. The City imposed a rent of a single red rose from the garden every year, to be presented to the Lord Mayor. Although Sir Robert and his wife are long buried, to this day, the city continues to exact its yearly penalty.
These curious practices reflect the philosophy of land ownership that developed under the feudal system. In this system, the king was considered to be the true owner of the land. He granted his lords estates, in exchange for their loyalty. They, in turn, granted parcels of their estates to vassals.
In this light, we can start to make sense of the petty payments, in blossoms and peppercorns, that medieval landlords demanded from their tenants. They weren’t rents in the way we use the term today. Rather, they were symbols of interpersonal ties and obligations. The lord swore loyalty to his king, the vassal fealty to his lord. The services and gifts tendered from these oaths were ways of reinforcing their debt, not of discharging it.
In effect, the system of land ownership was based on a hierarchy of personal relationships, an interconnected network of services and obligations. This is why, rather than exchanging money, which is abstract and impersonal, lords and vassals often paid for their tenures with idiosyncratic and even intimate gifts and gestures. Bringing the king a cup of wine at breakfast, setting up his chessmen, tying his boots, holding his head when he got seasick: With these small, tender acts, called “serjainties,” lords retained the claims to their grand estates.
The coronation, in particular, was crowded with these ritual duties. There was a lord to bear the sword, a lord to support the king’s scepter arm, a lord to carve the king’s meat, and a lord to bring a wash-basin for the king to clean his hands. One lord had the solemn task of presenting the king with a “mess of Pottage,” a rather sickening-sound mash of chicken brain, almond milk, and vinegar. The most exciting role, though, was King’s Champion. On the coronation day, the Champion would ride into the hall on horseback, throw down his gauntlet, and offer to fight to the death any false traitor who challenged the king’s right to the throne.
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Although this part of the ceremony was abandoned in 1838, the serjeanty still exists. Let us hope that the current holder of the office, a 63-year-old accountant named Francis John Fane Marmion Dymoke, is never called upon to fight for the Queen’s honor.
If you don’t relish the idea of fighting for the king’s honor, you might prefer the office of farting for his amusement. One serjeant, Roland Le Pettour, was obliged to come before the king every Christmas and “Dance, Puff up his Cheeks and let a Crack.” Roland held thirty acres by grace of his spectacular flatulence. Sadly, in later years, the service was judged to be indecent and converted to a payment of 26 shillings.