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Land and Family
Trends and Local Variations in the Peasant Land Market on the Winchester Bishopric Estates, 1263â"1415
By John Mullan, Richard Britnell
University of Hertfordshire PressCopyright © 2010 John Mullan and Richard Britnell
All rights reserved.
The peasant land market and the Winchester pipe rolls
The peasant land market - the buying and selling of properties by smallholding tenants - attracted little interest among historians before the middle of the twentieth century. That there was such a market was well known to archivists, editors, antiquaries, to anyone who examined the content of any cartulary or any medieval archive, for documents that it produced were there in their thousands, charters recording gifts, sales and leases of often tiny pieces of arable or meadow, minutely defined. As F.M. Stenton put it in 1920, in the introduction to his important edition of Danelaw charters, 'In and after the time of Henry II the charter evidence is copious. And as time goes on we obtain ... an increasing body of charters which prove that people are selling parcels of land to one another.' These people would all be freeholders, for villein tenants, once they had been classed as servile in the early thirteenth century, could not be party to a charter that would be accepted in a royal court of law. This perhaps explains historians' lack of interest: while no one could question the existence of freeholding peasants, they were seen as of little significance, an almost anomalous strand in a social structure of manorial lords and unfree tenants, a rural economy dominated by the demesnes that were worked by these tenants' labour services.
In an article in 1938 F.M. Powicke questioned this view. He suggested that free tenants, often of quite small holdings, were more numerous and a far more important part of rural society than had been supposed. He looked at their position in general, then in detail at charters from Weston Underwood in Buckinghamshire that recorded free tenants' transactions, and he concluded that 'Under the cover of the manorial system, a network of free tenant rights, becoming ever more complicated and constantly changing, was spread over rural England.' Underlying Powicke's argument was the work of E.A. Kosminsky, published in Russian in 1935 and made known to Powicke, who did not read Russian, by M.M. Postan. From a statistical analysis of the 1279 Hundred Rolls that covered a swathe of counties across midland England, from Cambridgeshire to Warwickshire, Kosminsky showed that free tenants were far from being few and unimportant; in some areas they were more numerous and held more land than the villeins, and, indeed, villages could be found where there were no villeins at all, but only free tenants.
An English translation of Kosminsky's work was published in 1956, and the following year a book by W.G. Hoskins brought home many of its lessons. This was his study of Wigston Magna in Leicestershire, a village where free tenants probably outnumbered the unfree in the later Middle Ages and where they certainly predominated in the historical record. Hoskins's account of medieval Wigston was drawn not from the records of manorial lords and their demesnes - surveys, account rolls, court rolls - but from the free tenants' charters that recorded how lands passed between them and to others. A picture emerged that bore no relation to the classical manor of lord, demesne and villeins. At the same time, by implication Hoskins demonstrated the limitations of these charters as evidence even for these transactions and for those who took part in them. At best they present a patchy record, seldom comprehensive even when many survive; at Wigston they relate only to 'a good sample of families and tenements in one part of the village'. There they survive in the records of the early-sixteenth-century hospital or almshouse: grants of land to the hospital and the earlier documents relating to the same properties, inevitably a very partial picture. Moreover, charters can be tantalisingly uninformative. Until the later thirteenth century it was unusual for them to give the date of the transaction; this can be assessed only from what can be discovered elsewhere of the parties and witnesses or, where we have the original charter and not just a cartulary copy, by the handwriting and any endorsements. Then, just at the point when charters begin to be dated, they stop telling us how much money changed hands: in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries we are told only that the property was sold for 'a certain sum of money' or some such phrase.
It was against this background that in 1960 the Northamptonshire Record Society published a mid-fourteenth-century cartulary, edited by C.N.L. Brooke and M.M. Postan and entitled Carte nativorum, the charters of the villeins. This was a turning point in our understanding of the peasant land market in England. The manuscript was in the archives of Peterborough Abbey, its title copied on the cover in an eighteenth-century hand from its first page of text. Postan tells how, on first seeing it in 1938, he thought that 'an antiquary should have known better than to perpetuate on the cover the title of Carte nativorum. Was it not a commonplace of legal history that villeins could not acquire or transfer property by charter?' But he looked further and found that this title was entirely accurate: the manuscript was a register of charters recording the acquisition of lands by the abbey's unfree tenants, supplementary to the lands they held of the abbey in villeinage. Whether these charters would stand up to scrutiny in a court of law was beside the point. Peterborough's villeins were buying and selling lands, mostly probably free land but sometimes specifically land held in villeinage, and were recording these transactions in sealed charters; and the abbey, instead of trying to stop this traffic by confiscating the lands or annulling the purchases, merely set about regulating it by keeping copies of the documents.
No parallel has been found to Peterborough Abbey's register of its villeins' charters, but there is no reason to suppose that such charters were peculiar to this one estate. We can now accept that customary tenants villeins - were a significant proportion of those transferring small amounts of land by charter, probably in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and certainly in the fifteenth century, when the distinction between customary and other tenants, between unfree and free, was breaking down. What proportion, however, we do not know. It was a happy chance that Postan, working on Peterborough surveys, recognised in the charters names already familiar to him as villein tenants. Charters do not normally reveal a smallholder's status, free or unfree; this can be discovered only from manorial surveys and court rolls, and their survival along with relevant charters is unusual. However, in 1953 R.H. Hilton had already found that villeins were leasing lands from Gloucester Abbey in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries by means of documents sealed with their own seals. Systematic research would almost certainly discover that what was happening at Peterborough and Gloucester was happening on many other estates as well.
Hilton thus anticipated Postan in showing that unfree villeins might be parties to sealed charters. But there were other facets as well to Postan's historical introduction to Carte nativorum, making it seminal work, one of the more important of his contributions to knowledge. In 1889 F.W. Maitland, editing the court rolls of Ramsey Abbey's manor of King's Ripton in Huntingdonshire, had noted that the villeins' frequent surrenders of property into the hands of the manorial lord showed that 'a brisk traffic was done in small parcels of land'. A.E. Levett, in work published in 1938, found that on the estates of St Albans Abbey villeins were regularly leasing parts of their holdings to one another, but no one had followed up Maitland's suggestion that villeins were effectively buying and selling unfree lands through the manorial court. Now, however, Postan set it beside the villeins' transfer of land by charter. In law the only way a villein could divest himself of his holding, or any part of it, was to surrender it - hand it back in the manorial court to the lord of the manor, who would then let it out to a new tenant in villeinage. The surrender and the entry of the new tenant would be recorded on the manor's court rolls. Sometimes the land would be surrendered specifically to the use (ad opus) of a named person who would then be admitted as the new tenant, and Postan saw these as instances of sales of land; the new tenant will have paid some form of purchase price to the old, and both will have paid fees to the lord for effecting the transfer. Taking these transfers in the manorial court along with conveyances by charter, whether by free or by unfree tenants, we have substantial evidence for what Postan called 'the village land market'.
From some manors significant series of court rolls survive complete or nearly complete over many decades. Where this is the case they provide a better record of the transfers of customary, unfree, land than any but the fullest series of charters can give us of transfers of free land, whether by free or by unfree tenants. Partly this is because it is such a full record; in theory, and mostly in practice, every change in the tenure of unfree land had to be made in the manorial court and entered on the court roll. There is a gap in the record only if a court roll is lost from the sequence, and — as is not the case in a series of charters — we can nearly always tell if this has occurred, when one or more court rolls are missing. Unlike charters, all court rolls are dated. Then again, the court rolls record every change of tenure: not only what we assume to be sales and purchases, but changes when a tenant died or became too infirm to manage the holding, so that it passed to a widow, a son or another relative whose relationship to the former tenant is often revealed in the record. However, we are more likely to find a piece of property fully described and defined in a charter than on a court roll, and court rolls are far scarcer than charters; they survive in twos and threes from many places, but the full series that tell us most have seldom survived. Moreover, while we have charters relating to small pieces of land from the mid-twelfth century onwards, the earliest known original court roll dates from 1246 and very few survive from before the 1270s.
There were growing signs of interest in the peasant land market before Postan wrote in 1960; Rosamond Faith, for example, was already at work on the fourteenth-and fifteenth-century land market on nine manors in Berkshire and one in Wiltshire. Even so, Postan's introduction to Carte nativorum was a huge stimulus to further investigation; this was the first publication to look at the land market as a whole, and the evidence of the court rolls along with the evidence of the charters showed that the buying and selling of small areas of land, customary as well as free, was a normal feature of rural life from the early thirteenth century. Historians working on a particular area, a particular estate or a particular place now examined the land market as an integral part of the local economy and society: David Roden on the Chiltern Hills in 1969, Barbara Harvey on the estates of Westminster Abbey in 1977 and Zvi Razi on family structure at Halesowen in Worcestershire are examples. But the peasant land market of itself now attracted research. P.R. Hyams argued in 1970 that it first developed in East Anglia and Kent in the early thirteenth century, and that it was the middle of the century before it became widespread in the rest of England, and in 1988 L.A. Slota looked at the way manorial courts of St Albans Abbey accommodated, willingly or unwillingly, the growing number of land transfers.
Others followed the lead of Rosamond Faith and investigated the way the land market worked on a single manor or a small group. They found that some phenomena recurred in many places: the fragmentation of virgates and other standard holdings through the agency of the land market; the tendency of holdings to polarise so that a range of uniform holdings would be replaced by some large, some small; a few tenants who would build up substantial holdings only to reduce them again years later; participation of townsmen in the land market in nearby manors; and so on. But they also found that there was no universal pattern. A few broad regional differences emerged: for instance, standard holdings disappeared much earlier in Norfolk than in County Durham. Otherwise there was enormous variety of experience between one place and another. On neighbouring manors the land market might be quite different in its form and in its effects for no apparent reason: different lordship, different topography, different agrarian history, different traditions may, any or all, have been responsible, but none could be pinpointed.
This came out clearly in four regional studies of the peasant land market that were published together in 1984, each an abridged version of a doctoral thesis. Rosamond Faith, with her work on Berkshire and Wiltshire, was joined by Janet Williamson on three manors in Norfolk, Andrew Jones on five places in Bedfordshire and Tim Lomas on the south-east corner of County Durham, while P.D.A. Harvey contributed general discussion on the chronology of the land market and the forms of the peasant holding. But while the focus of the book was the peasant land market, its chronology and the way it worked in all these places, the authors inevitably looked at other questions too. The inheritance of holdings, the provision for non-inheriting children, the position of widows, migration to or from the manor, the whole structure of the peasant family - all these were relevant to the land market which, indeed, could not be viewed in isolation, and it is the peculiar merit of manorial court rolls that they throw light on all these matters in a way that the charters recording the market in free land do not. It was in just this context, a detailed and ground-breaking demographic study of the village, that Zvi Razi in 1980 had looked at the land market in Halesowen. Now, in 1984, a second collection of essays edited by Richard Smith, entitled Land, kinship and life-cycle and not confined to the Middle Ages, explored this rather broader theme. But the medieval land market was part of this picture, and the book included essays on its working, along with inheritance, on single manors in Norfolk by B.M.S. Campbell, in Suffolk by Smith himself, in Cambridgeshire by Jack Ravensdale and - a postscript to his earlier work - at Halesowen by Zvi Razi. In the same volume Ian Blanchard looked at groups of manors in Derbyshire and east Somerset with special reference to the effect of local industries on the land market, and two essays by Christopher Dyer examined peasant families and their holdings more generally in the late medieval west Midlands.
All these studies showed how much we depend on the chance survival of particularly complete series of manorial court rolls; the fewer gaps there are in a series, the more likely we are to gain an accurate picture of the manor's peasantry and their transactions, and for work on this topic we are as likely to be misled as enlightened if no more than a few stray rolls survive. It was thus as a natural corollary to their work on medieval peasant families and their land that in 1996 Zvi Razi and Richard Smith edited another collection of essays, this time focused specifically on these documents as an historical source: Medieval society and the manor court. It included a complete catalogue, by Judith Cripps, Rodney Hilton and Janet Williamson, of court rolls that survive in significant series. For the rest, one contribution, by P.D.A. Harvey, looked at the current state of research on the land market and at possible ways forward, and some of the other essays were also concerned with peasant families and their holdings. But the land market is only one of the areas of work that depend on court-roll evidence, and the essays covered a number of other topics, among them the law applied in manorial courts and its relation to the common law, an interesting question of current debate.
Excerpted from Land and Family by John Mullan, Richard Britnell. Copyright © 2010 John Mullan and Richard Britnell. Excerpted by permission of University of Hertfordshire Press.
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