Bread and Ale for the Brethren: The Provisioning of Norwich Cathedral Priory, 1260-1536

Bread and Ale for the Brethren: The Provisioning of Norwich Cathedral Priory, 1260-1536

by Philip Slavin


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ISBN-13: 9781907396632
Publisher: University of Hertfordshire Press
Publication date: 09/01/2012
Series: Studies in Regional and Local History Series , #11
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.60(w) x 9.50(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Philip Slavin is a Mellon Fellow and a lecturer in the Department of Economics at McGill University. He lives in Montreal, Quebec.

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Bread and Ale for the Brethren

The Provisioning of Norwich Cathedral Priory, 1260â"1536

By Philip Slavin

University of Hertfordshire Press

Copyright © 2012 Philip Slavin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-907396-72-4


'A puzzling economy': demesne cultivation and seigniorial autarky in the age of commercialisation

Commercialisation and marketisation of the late medieval economy

In the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, England and other west European countries underwent a significant degree of urbanisation. Older towns grew, new ones were founded and the urban population expanded accordingly. By 1300, there were between 4.75 and 6 million people living in England, about 15 per cent of whom dwelled in towns. The single largest urban settlement was London, with a population of some 70,000 people. London, however, was clearly exceptional in its size: Norwich, the second-largest town, was inhabited by no more than perhaps 15,000 citizens around that time. Winchester, Bristol and York had between 10,000 and 12,000 burgesses each. Northampton and Gloucester housed around 3000 and 4000 individuals respectively. Most urban settlements, however, were even smaller: for example, the population of the abbatial town of Ramsey was most certainly less than 1000. Regardless of size and population density, however, one main distinguishing characteristic of towns was their pronouncedly nonagricultural nature. This meant that the urban populations did not have a direct and ready access to food supplies, which had to come from the surrounding countryside. The growth of urban populations inevitably increased the demand from towns for various raw foodstuffs and led to an expansion of commercialisation and marketisation, especially throughout the thirteenth century. On the eve of the Black Death (1348-51) there were around 2100 settlements with 'formal' markets and fairs in England, in contrast with only around 500 such places c.1200. Naturally, the figures varied from county to county, indicating different degrees of regional commercialisation. Thus, in Norfolk, one of the most commercialised counties, there were 283 markets and fairs in some 175 vills (that is, some 8 per 10,000 inhabitants and 14 per ten square miles). Similarly, in neighbouring Lincolnshire there were 238 markets and fairs (around 8 per 10,000 inhabitants and 9 per ten square miles). Even in more backward Lancashire there were 82 trade hubs (about 14 per 10,000 inhabitants and 5 per ten square miles). In other words, one can boldly state that by the early fourteenth century England had achieved a remarkable degree of commercialisation, the clear manifestations of which were a proliferation of markets and fairs; a strong reliance on monetary and credit economies; a certain degree of market integration, revealed by relatively uniform or similar commodity prices; and a dependence on international trade, with wool and textiles as the chief articles of export.

Arguably, the single most demanded product was crops (grains and legumes). In late medieval England, and especially before the Black Death, crop-based products such as bread, ale and pottage constituted the largest part (around 70 per cent) of an average commoner's diet, in both towns and villages. A daily per-capita consumption of a 2lb bread wheat loaf and some three pints of light barley ale would require the supply of 1.63 quarters of wheat and 1.42 quarters of barley on an annual basis. On the eve of the Black Death the population of Norwich, which had risen by that time to around 25,000, would have required at least 75,000 quarters of grain on a daily basis and some 27.4 million quarters of grain on an annual basis. The figures for the provisioning of pre-plague London were significantly higher. There is no doubt that ensuring a steady supply of grain to such large urban communities, notwithstanding the well-developed network of grain markets, was a challenge for a variety of reasons. First, communication and transportation systems were relatively under-developed. Second, the ongoing warfare with Scotland in the north and France in the south tended to disrupt the supply of grain because military incursions destroyed fields and granaries and because of forced extraction of grain to provision garrisons, as well as rising transportation costs resulting from these conflicts. Finally, and chiefly in bad years, some lords tended to hoard their grain either for speculation or household consumption. Speculative prices contributed to the disruption of the supply of and access to grain resources because real wages tended to be abysmally low in years with bad harvests, such as those between 1315 and 1317.

To avoid potential subsistence crises, urban communities had to learn how to cope with difficulties in grain supply. A crucial role here was played by grain merchants, known as 'cornmongers', whose place and activities within the commercialised economy of the late medieval period is well documented. In effect, they were middlemen between the rural producers and the urban consumers. By 1300 there were some 50 grain traders in London: a truly striking figure given the fact that there were only four 'formal' grain markets in the city at that point. This, however, does not imply that these cornmongers were serving only these four markets. It is highly likely that they also provided 'door-to-door' deliveries of their merchandise to customers such as bakers, cooks and brewers. It is known that cornmongers purchased grain both from rural marketplaces and directly from demesnes. Credit-based transactions related to the grain trade were becoming increasingly widespread in that period, too, both in towns and the countryside. In some cases lords were willing to sell their grain on credit to cornmongers, while some grain-traders were found to have served as creditors to both landlords and peasants. Credit transactions were particularly crucial in years of bad harvests or economic crisis. Another measure of security against potential hazards was a sophisticated network of crop storage facilities, in the form of granaries and barns. These were found all over the country, both in the countryside and in towns. They were available for either rent or purchase and they functioned not only as space for carrying over the grain from one year to another, to avoid the risk of bad harvest and starvation, but also as intermediary stations in the process of grain delivery from producers to consumers. Paradoxically, however, there was not a single public granary in English towns similar to those established in some continental cities, such as that in Ghent created shortly after the Great Famine of 1315-17. Finally, a reliance on grain imports was yet another crucial strategy in ensuring the steady supply of provisions to the urban population. Around 1300, the shipment of grain from East Germany, Poland and Baltic lands to England was a commonplace. In 1317, amidst the Great Famine, Edward II extended special privileges to grain merchants from Sicily, Spain and Genoa, all areas unaffected by the famine. The most important grain trade hubs were Boston, Hull, Lynn and Ipswich.

Seigniorial autarky in the age of commercialisation

In other words, despite a series of potential hazards, there is no doubt that the widespread presence of local markets, both in towns and their rural hinterland, the commercial activities of cornmongers, the proliferation of credit, a sophisticated network of grain storages and the international grain trade all contributed significantly to the successful provisioning of urban communities in the late medieval period. Naturally, one would expect these communities, whether family households or religious congregations, to rely heavily on local markets. And it is precisely here where one comes upon one of the most intriguing and somewhat incomprehensible enigmas relating to the economic history of the late Middle Ages. Notwithstanding the highly developed networks of commercial crop supply, very few, if any, major urban conventual households (cathedrals, monasteries, colleges) relied entirely upon the local market to provision themselves on a daily, weekly and yearly basis. Instead, they chose to depend, for the most part, on their directly managed demesnes, which produced and dispatched considerable amounts of grain every year. For instance, in the era of direct demesne management, Norwich Cathedral Priory demesnes dispatched about 50 and 75 per cent of their annual wheat and malted barley, while about 80 per cent of all grain supplied to the priory on an annual basis derived from the demesnes. Similarly, between 1300 and 1380 only some 25 per cent of all Canterbury Cathedral Priory's grain came from the market, and comparable figures are found at Durham Cathedral Priory. Neither Peterborough Abbey nor St Paul's Cathedral in London spent anything on grain purchases around 1300. The only major conventual house to have relied on the market was Westminster Abbey: between c.1300 and 1380 some 65 per cent of its grain supply came from purchases. But the case of Westminster Abbey was an exception rather than the rule, and was attributable to its physical situation in the single most commercialised centre of the country. In the majority of cases conventual households tended to rely heavily on direct supply by their own agricultural producers, rather than on local markets.

Norwich Cathedral Priory, the subject of the present study, was by no means an exception. It was not until the late fourteenth century that these communities diverted their energy from demesne production and augmented the share of annual market purchases to meet the provisioning requirements of their houses. But even when the demesnes were leased out and the era of direct demesne management was long over, these houses still largely depended on annual fixed food farms (grain rents), paid by the farmers of their demesnes in lieu of cash rents. What accounts for that? Is it possible that local urban markets, despite their sophisticated nature, were still insufficient to satisfy the daily dietary needs of the brethren? Were these markets, in reality, not as sophisticated and developed as they seem at first sight? Were these religious institutions themselves not commercialised enough to integrate into the network of urban markets? Or was it more profitable and more efficient to rely on the direct supply of grain?

In order to appreciate this economic enigma better, it is essential to consider the wider economic structures of late medieval seigniorialism in England. In essence, the period between c.1200 and 1450 can be characterised as a gradual shift from a farming-based economy to a directly managed economy and back. In other words, in the course of the first half of the thirteenth century, after a prolonged period of demesne leasing to better-off tenants, lords reverted to the direct exploitation of their demesnes. The chronology differed from estate to estate: thus, Winchester bishopric had its estates back in hand by 1207; the Abbey of St Benet at Holm in Norfolk managed its demesnes from the 1230s; Ramsey Abbey estates were exploited directly from at least the 1240s; the earliest accounts of Norwich Cathedral Priory's manors go back to the mid-1250s; and by the 1260s and 1270s Westminster Abbey, Canterbury Cathedral and Durham Cathedral priories took their demesnes back in hand (although Durham was still leasing out several of its demesnes). Meanwhile, the lay lords were catching up with their religious counterparts, so that by 1300 the vast majority of demesnes throughout the country were managed directly by their lords. Exceptional regions were the 'Celtic Fringe' (a belt stretching from the South West through the Welsh Marches and Wales to the North West) and the North East, where manorialism was at its weakest. The era of the direct cultivation of the demesne lasted until the late fourteenth century: between c.1380 and 1420 there was a gradual return to the leasing policy. With very few notable exceptions, especially in the south, by 1500 direct demesne management no longer existed.

The concepts of a rent-based economy and direct management have been classified by some German scholars, working on the early modern East German economy, as Grundherrschaft (cash- or lease-based seigniorial economy) and Gutsherrschaft (kind- or demesne-based seigniorial economy). Both terms can be applied to the study of late medieval England and, as such, they will be used throughout the book. The issue of the shift from Grundherrschaft to Gutsherrschaft and back has occasioned some debate among scholars working on the late medieval English economy. It has been contended that gradual inflation between c.1180 and 1220 (or, perhaps, more specifically, between 1200 and 1206) made demesne leasing no longer profitable, whereas relying on direct production and partial marketing of the demesne produce would increase lords' real income. As far as the post-Black Death return to the Grundherrschaft is concerned, there are largely two explanations. One, 'Ricardian' or demographic in its nature, contends that the altered labour-to-land ratio brought about by the mortality, on the one hand, and the fall in real production costs and relative prices of grain, on the other, prompted the lords to lease out their demesnes. Most recently, however, John Munro offered a complementary and compelling monetary-fiscal model, arguing that the adverse combination of the fall in prices in both the agrarian and pastoral sectors of the economy (which, however, did not occur until c.1376), wage-stickiness and royal taxation and intervention in the wool trade dramatically increased the real costs of production of the lords and thus lowered their real income. As we shall see later, the case of Norwich Cathedral Priory's demesne management and food provisioning seem to fully confirm the validity of Munro's model.

It also seems that Munro's model can equally explain the earlier shift from Grundherrschaft to Gutsherrschaft in the course of the first half of the thirteenth century. The very essence of Gutsherrschaft was that the lords were directly involved in agrarian and pastoral production, reaping the gains or bearing the losses (both financial and natural) of this production. In addition, they exercised their seigniorial power over their dependent peasants. This form of capital management was perfectly suited for the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, characterised as they were by, on the one hand, a gradual rise and sudden and unpredictable soars in commodity prices (such as theinflations of 1200-06, 1257-8, 1294-6, 1315-17, 1347-53, 1370-71, 1391 and 1401-2) and, on the other, unchanging or falling (and hence, low) real wages of labourers. When grain and livestock prices collapsed once more in the late 1370s, the option of Gutsherrschaft was no longer attractive, as John Munro has contended. This issue will be addressed in a much more detailed fashion later in this book.

The present study endeavours to address these issues by considering the managerial and provisioning policies of one particular estate, that of Norwich Cathedral Priory. This was a house of a Benedictine community of some 60 monks and a further permanent staff of some 240 people (workers and lay brethren) in the pre-Black Death period. By the time of the dissolution of the priory in 1538, there were 22 brethren and probably less than a further 100 servants and workers. As we shall see later, Norwich Cathedral Priory was one of the wealthiest lords in East Anglia. Like the majority of other landed lords, Norwich Cathedral Priory exercised direct management of its demesnes both before and after the Black Death and, although several demesnes were leased out between the 1360s and 1380s, the era of direct demesne management continued until 1431, when the last of its manors, Sedgeford, was farmed out. Paradoxically enough, however, the end of the demesne exploitation era did not mean the end of direct supply of manorial grain. Although the demesnes were farmed out to better-off tenants, the priory community was not yet ready to break away from its traditional and seemingly outdated form of grain provisioning. The leased manors were roughly divided into two categories: 14 'cash-paying manors' and 6 'grain-rendering farms'. As a part of leasing contracts, the farmers of the 'grain-rendering' manors were obliged to provide the priory with fixed amounts of grain, normally in lieu of cash-rent payments.


Excerpted from Bread and Ale for the Brethren by Philip Slavin. Copyright © 2012 Philip Slavin. Excerpted by permission of University of Hertfordshire Press.
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Table of Contents

List of figures ix

List of tables xi

Acknowledgements xiii

General Editor's preface xv

Abbreviations xvii

1 'A puzzling economy': demesne cultivation and seigniorial autarky in the age of commercialisation 1

Commercialisation and marketisation of the late medieval economy 1

Seigniorial autarky in the age of commercialisation 4

2 Norwich Cathedral Priory: population, food requirements and provisioning channels 8

The priory population, 1096-1538 8

The grain requirements of Norwich Cathedral Priory 15

Getting grain: sources and resources 21

The grain supply of Norwich Cathedral Priory in a wider context 23

Why two channels? Economic instability, risk aversion and diversified portfolios 24

3 Norwich Cathedral Priory's grain market, 1260-1538 26

Geographic extent of the priory grain market 26

The grain trade: reputation and trust 29

Quantities of purchased grain 33

Frequency and seasonality of transactions 36

Norwich grain prices, 1264-1536: between endogenous factors and exogenous shocks 39

Market integration? 44

4 Grain production on Norwich Cathedral Priory demesnes 48

The era of direct management 48

Regional and chronological trends in crop geography 57

Crop geography determinants: environment, markets and consumption 63

Annual crop disposal: chronological and regional patterns 69

Crop disposal in a wider context 75

Production costs 77

Food farms 81

Conclusions 83

5 Shipping the produce: transportation requirements, strategies and costs 84

Grain transportation: sources and resources 84

Demesne horses 85

The 'Great Boat' (magna navis) 87

Transporting services: customary dues 87

Transporting services: harvest famuli 88

Transporting services: stipendiary famuli 102

Transporting services: priory carters and boatmen 103

Carting requirements and logistics 105

Transportation costs and savings 109

Transportation logistics: the case of Eaton carters 113

Road versus river transportation: advantages and drawbacks 115

Conclusions 116

6 Space for grain: barns and granaries 119

The medieval barn and modern scholarship 119

Demesne barns: nature, layout and capacity 120

Demesne barns: storage costs 122

The Great Granary: layout and costs 126

The almoner's granary 130

Barns and granaries: a tool for insurance, speculation or practical storage? 130

Grain storage mechanisms and depletion rates 136

Conclusions 139

7 Grain into bread and ale: processing and consumption 140

Cathedral mills 140

Cathedral bakery and brewery 142

Annual baking patterns 145

Panis monachorum 147

Panis ponderis minoris 150

Panis militum 153

Bread consumption patterns 156

Two kinds of ale 159

Annual brewing patterns 163

Turning malt into ale: gallons and calories 163

Grain consumption in a comparative perspective 167

Bread and ale consumption in a wider perspective 169

8 Economics of charity: grain alms as poor relief 173

Hermits and anchorites 173

Prisoners in the castle prison 175

Almoner's soup kitchen for Norwich paupers 179

Grain alms in a wider context, theological and social 183

Conclusions 186

Conclusion: Seigniorial conservativism as an economic strategy 188

Appendix: Transportation costs, requirements and speed estimates 193

Bibliography 199

Index 211

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