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The Participation of Women in the Fourteenth-Century Manor Court of Sutton-in-the-Isle
Until recently rural peasant women have been extremely marginalized in medieval historical research. Documentary evidence about the medieval peasantry is generally limited to manorial documents such as accounts, extents, rentals, and manorial court rolls. Lords created these manorial records in order to maintain their seigniorial interests, and although the business of manorial courts frequently extended beyond the lord’s immediate concerns to include inter-peasant litigation, community concerns, and aspects of leet jurisdiction, landless peasants were nevertheless underrepresented. Unless women were landholders they were not required to attend the court, and were therefore only involved in a limited number of activities. Additionally, the activities of the court were not consistently documented, as the business and focus of manorial courts changed dramatically over time. Despite these shortcomings, manorial court rolls are the best source of information available about the lives of rural peasant women, and in order to further research in this area we must come to terms with their limitations.
The first part of this article introduces the manorial court rolls of Sutton-in-the-Isle and explains the methodology utilised to create a database of the business of the Sutton court. Section II addresses the issue of what information is available about women in manorial court records, and how that changed over time. Sections III and IV explore one aspect of court business, marriage fines, to emphasise first areas in which the Sutton rolls are particularly misrepresentative and then those in which the record is complete, with the intent of highlighting both the strengths and weaknesses of court records as a source for the economic and social history of peasant women.
Sutton-in-the-Isle is located in Witchford hundred, Cambridgeshire, on the western edge of the former Isle of Ely, approximately six miles from the city of Ely. The manor and vill were coterminous, and the Prior of Ely was the sole lord of the manor. The Prior’s rights of lordship were unusually comprehensive, and included the right to hold a yearly court leet. As a result, the court rolls from Sutton are extremely full, documenting nearly 200 different activities during the periods under study.
Rather than offering continuous analysis of the Sutton rolls over the entire fourteenth century, regardless of the fact that the records are clearly more complete at some times than others, this study focuses on those time periods where the records are most continuous and comprehensive. By gathering a clear picture of life on the manor in these periods of particularly full documentation a more valid comparison can be made between different periods to arrive at a picture of the change over time. The four periods under study are 1308-19, 1335-45, 1356-61, and 1377-91.
In order to capture the data from the court rolls it was necessary to determine what constitutes a single unit of activity. For the purpose of this study it was decided that each defendant fined or listed for a particular activity would be counted as one entry, regardless of whether it was an activity that was repeated from the previous court. Where two defendants were involved in an action it was entered as two cases, unless it seems most probable that one person was only involved in the case as a head of household.1 In calculating women’s involvement in the court all entries that referred to a woman have been included, whether the woman was the plaintiff or defendant, or simply referred to in the discussion of the case. Entries that referred to groups such as the ‘entire village’ or ‘whole homage’ have not been included in this total because these entries do not refer to a specific named woman, and while some female tenants were probably included under these rubrics the full extent of their participation is hidden from the record. The exception to this is two entries aimed at ‘all brewers’, because there were specifically named female brewers in the court sessions containing those entries.2 Entries that only included a woman’s name as part of a man’s name, such as Robert son of Margaret, have not been included in the total.
The total number of entries containing women for each period under study is tabulated in Table 1. These data indicate that there was a great degree of variation over time in the frequency with which women came before the court. Most significantly, it appears that the most dramatic change occurred mid-century, during the period of the Black Death, with periods of relative stability both before and after the arrival of the plague in 1349.
Table 1 – Number of entries involving women in each period
Source: Sutton court rolls
This evidence is surprising, as the historiography leads one to expect that women would have been more prominent in the court in the fifty years after the Black Death than in the first half of the century. The substantial fall in population due to the Black Death, which has been calculated at 48.5 percent in the diocese of Ely,4 led to a lessening of pressure on land, a scarcity of labour, and a significant increase in wages. Jan Titow has argued that in the late thirteenth century the intensity of the population pressure on non-colonising manors, such as Sutton where the margins of cultivation had probably been reached by the mid-thirteenth century,5 had created a land shortage. The result was that landed widows were in high demand, and were unlikely to remain unmarried long.6 On manors where land was in greater supply widows were more likely to remain unmarried, and thus when the population halved in the mid-fourteenth century one would expect that women would have been more likely to hold land in their own right. In a similar vein, Jeremy Goldberg has argued that as a consequence of labour scarcity, women were drawn into the labour force and were thus able to gain relative economic freedom, which allowed them to delay marriage or refuse to marry entirely.7 If this was the case in Sutton, then one would expect that women would have been more likely to be landholders and heads of households in the latter half of the fourteenth century, and thus much more likely to have reached the attention of the court. Although the Sutton evidence seems to indicate that this did not apply to the women of Sutton, it is also possible that although they did have increased economic power in the latter half of the fourteenth century it was masked from the court records by a change in the priorities and business of the court. In order to determine whether this was so, it is necessary to investigate the specific court business that involved women and how it changed over time.
There is a wide range of activities captured in the Sutton rolls, and it is therefore helpful to separate the business of the court into manageable groups. For this purpose, seven indices have been chosen, namely: the lord’s rights, consisting of fines raised from the prior’s unfree tenants, amercements when those fines were evaded, and issues concerning the prior’s property; inter-peasant litigation, including pleas of debt, trespass, broken covenant, defamation, and land disputes; community nuisance, which involved cases resulting in damage to community resources or breach of the village by-laws; officials and court function, including all entries relating to the operation of the manor or manorial court; crime and misbehaviour, encompassing offences that were socially harmful, disruptive, or outright criminal; land, which involved all aspects of land conveyance and use; and the market, containing all entries relating to the production or sale of goods. The degree of female participation in each index has been quantified and presented in Table 2, which displays both the total number of entries from each index that referred to a woman and lists the percentage of each index referring to women. This evidence indicates that the activities of women in the court changed significantly throughout the fourteenth century.
Table 2 – Number of entries involving women by index
Source: Sutton court rolls
The most dramatic change over time was in inter-peasant litigation, which contained the largest percentage of references to women in the period 1308-19, but then declined steadily throughout the century. While inter-peasant litigation as a whole declined during the fourteenth century, it did not decline steadily, or as significantly as inter-peasant pleas involving women.8 The two largest categories within the index of litigation were pleas of debt and trespass, which comprised 85.67, 77.01, 96.21, and 81.75 percent of litigation involving women in the four periods under study. Table 3 quantifies the change over time in women’s involvement in debt and trespass in comparison to the total number of entries recorded for each period, and indicates that changes in women’s involvement in those offences did not follow the same chronology as the changes in the total court business in the two categories. The percentage of debt cases involving women began at 22.41 percent in 1308-19, and then declined steadily throughout the century. Trespass cases referring to women fell even more dramatically, declining from 25.61 percent in 1308-19 to 17.39 percent in 1335, where it remained relatively stable after the Black Death, and then collapsed dramatically to the lowest recorded level in 1377-91.
Table 3 – Debt and trespass entries involving women
There is no clear explanation for these changes. The amount of debt litigation does not indicate the amount of money being borrowed at any given time – nor does it relate directly to the amount of credit available in the community. Rather, debt litigation measures the number of people unable to make repayments and breaking agreements. It is theoretically possible that massive rises in the amount of credit granted in a given community may be entirely hidden from the remit of the court because villagers did not default on their loans. Therefore, although recorded female involvement in debt decreased more significantly than overall debt cases, the evidence does not warrant any firm conclusion about changes in women’s access to credit. Interpreting the decline in trespass is also not straightforward because the court only records the number of trespasses that reached the court, not the total number of trespasses committed. So although it is possible that the decline in female involvement in trespass cases indicates that women’s economic opportunities were not significantly increased after the Black Death, it may also reflect that women were more likely than men to attempt arbitration and settle their differences out of court, or that female landowners owned fewer animals than male landowners and were thus less likely to commit trespasses.
The court activity most frequently associated with women is brewing, another activity which demonstrated considerable change over time in Sutton. On some manors brewing was ‘the only reason women appeared in the court frequently’.9 In Sutton, although activities relating to the market did not constitute the largest index of activities involving women in every period under study, on average through the four periods brewing was the most common reason women were recorded in the court. As can be seen in Table 4, the percentage of brewing entries involving women (including all types of offences relating to ale) changed significantly over time, rising steadily through the first three periods, and then declining slightly in 1377-91. In this respect, however, the court records are quite misleading, as men fined for ale-related offences were frequently married men who were paying fines on behalf of their wives.10 The Sutton evidence confirms that the vast majority of men who were fined for brewing offences were husbands whose wives were known brewsters, and therefore the shifts noted were simply changes in scribal convenience. Thus, the perceived increase in the concentration of females in brewing is not an accurate reflection of reality.
Table 4 – Ale offences involving women
In contrast to brewing offences, overall female involvement in aspects of the lord’s rights decreased significantly after the Black Death. A few of these activities are compiled in Table 5. The most notable decline was that of the lord’s seigniorial dues, including marriage licenses, fines for marrying without a license, and leyrwite, a fine women paid for fornication outside of marriage.
Table 5 – Select activities concerning the lord’s rights involving women
Source: Sutton court rolls
The prior was clearly struggling to maintain his seigniorial rights, particularly in the period 1377-91, as the collection of feudal dues declined significantly. Leyrwite fines, which were always directed at women, almost completely disappeared by 1377-91, and marriage fines had significantly decreased in frequency, most likely because the lord was less able to collect them. This means that two large categories of female business declined because of the changing dynamics in the relationship between the prior and his tenants, and in this respect a decline in business actually represents an increase of power for women.
The increase in the recording of villein fugitives, both male and female, implies that the tenants themselves had become more valuable to the prior, and the general failure to return them to the manor indicates that he was losing control over his unfree tenants who were fleeing in search of better economic opportunities elsewhere.
Although the number of women recorded for owning a wasted tenement declined in comparison to men, overall female involvement in this activity rose in 1377-91, signifying that women may have been more likely to own multiple tenements. Tenants who held multiple properties would not have been motivated to maintain buildings on each holding, as it would have been in their interest to allow superfluous houses or other structures to deteriorate so their land could be amalgamated into one holding. Their lords, however, had a vested interest in maintaining houses on each holding in order to maintain the property value and to enforce their tenant’s obligation to pay a heriot, or death duty, for each individual holding. Women holding only one messuage, or house, would have been unlikely to allow it to deteriorate. In this respect it does appear that women may have been granted more economic opportunities in the last quarter of the fourteenth century.
As we have seen, the reality of life on the manor can sometimes be obscured by changes in the business and preoccupations of the manor court. In order to explore this idea further, this section will focus on one aspect of court business, marriage fines, and discuss some of the ways in which the insights these fines provide into life on the manor can be misleading.
Before we can investigate how accurately marriage fines represent life on the manor, we must understand what the fines represented. Historians have traditionally viewed marriage fines, or merchet as it is frequently referred to on other manors, as a fine all unfree tenants paid to their lords when their daughters married. Over the past 30 years, however, the precise meaning of the fines has been greatly debated. The discussion began in the 1970s, when Eleanor Searle, in response to an earlier article by Jean Scammel, argued that marriage fines could not be a reliable register of all marriages on the manor because the couple’s names were rarely recorded in the record. Instead, she proposed that they served to control inheritance by ‘taxing peasant dowries for the lord’s benefit’.12 Rosamund Faith then proposed that merchet was a tax on the marriage event itself, and was intended to prove villein status.13 The most persuasive argument, however, was that offered by Paul Brand and Paul Hyams, who argue that merchet ‘was an irregular source of incidental revenue, a windfall only worth collecting from the more prosperous families’, an interpretation which has received independent corroboration from the work of both Richard Smith and Miriam Müller.14
The first limitation of marriage fines, then, is that they are not a complete record of all peasant marriages. Not all villein marriages were recorded, and in Sutton, as on most manors, free tenants, who may have held 21 percent of the land on the Isle of Ely,15 were exempt from paying marriage fines.16 The result is that merchet fines cannot generally be used to obtain reliable demographic data. Although Zvi Razi has argued that particularly complete court records, such as those for the manor of Halesowen, can yield accurate demographic data, his view has received significant criticism.17 The only historian to argue for the universality of marriage fines is E. D. Jones, who stated that ‘virtually all’ serfs on the Spalding Priory manors paid merchet; but he has since significantly refined his argument to conclude that Larry Poos and Richard Smith are probably accurate in estimating that only between one-third and half of all marriages were recorded in the court.18 Unfortunately it is not possible to utilise Poos and Smith’s methodology to calculate the number of expected marriage fines per annum in Sutton because no documentary evidence survives to tell us what proportion of the population were unfree and thus liable to the tax.
Another aspect of marriage fines that makes them difficult to interpret is that some villeins were fined for marrying without a license, while others were not. It is not clear if even the peasants themselves knew whether or not they would be liable to pay a marriage fine. Miriam Müller has argued that fines for marrying without a license represent peasant resistance to their obligation to obtain a license.19 This does not appear to have been the case in Sutton during the first three quarters of the fourteenth century, as the average charge for a marriage license was significantly higher than the fine for marrying without a license.
Table 6 lists the total number of unique entries relating to licenses to marry and marriage without a license recorded in the court, their percentage of the total court business, and the average fine recorded. It is hard to get a reliable average for marriage fines because they are frequently combined with entry fines for a land holding. In an attempt to combat this, the average fine has been calculated for all marriage licences as well as for all marriage licenses acquired independently of a land transfer. This provides a maximum and minimum value, because the average fine for license to marry excluding licenses involving entry fines is likely to be low, as those tenants who were entering land may have been able to pay higher fines. This evidence indicates that a significant change occurred in the period 1377-91, which was the first period under study in which fines for marrying without a licence outnumbered licences to marry.
Table 6 – All marriages recorded in the court
Source: Sutton court rolls
Certainly the change in emphasis from collecting licenses to marry to collecting punitive fines for failure to obtain a license reflects a real change in the court, and the most probable explanation is that peasants were less willing to pay for such licenses and the prior was struggling to make them do so. As with many other aspects of the lord’s seigniorial rights, such as fines for failure to perform services and folding sheep outside the lord’s fold, there were no fines for licences to marry or marriage without a license after 1389. It is extremely unlikely that no marriages took place on the manor in 1390-1; instead, it seems probable that this was yet another area where the prior was losing the battle against his villeins.
One aspect in which the Sutton court records are relatively complete is in the recording of who paid for marriage licences and fines for failure to obtain a license. Although traditionally historians believed that marriage licenses were dues that villeins paid upon the marriage of their daughters, Judith Bennett has convincingly argued that women frequently paid their own fines.22 In her study of the 426 merchet payments recorded in the Liber Gersumarum of Ramsey Abbey between 1398-1458, she demonstrated that 33 percent of marriage fines were actually paid by women.23 Bennett’s findings have been corroborated by Miriam Müller, who found that on the St. Albans manor of Winslow during the period 1330-77 nearly 40 percent of women purchased their own marriage licenses.24
A similar investigation is possible utilising the Sutton data. The percentages of fines paid by the groom, the bride, jointly by the bride and groom, the bride’s father, and the bride’s mother have been compiled for all four periods, and is presented in Table 7. The fact that women were frequently recorded paying fines in all periods under study indicates that they were both required and able to do so. The evidence from Table 7, however, indicates that, at least in Sutton, the necessity (or ability) for women to pay marriage fines changed dramatically over time. In 1308-19 women accounted for just under 30 percent of fines, and this fell by almost half in 1335-45. Just after the Black Death, in 1356-61, the percentage of fines paid for by women quadrupled. By 1377-91, this trend had already been reversed, and women were again paying just over 30 percent of fines. The main difference between 1308-19 and 1377-91 is that in the latter period women constituted a smaller percentage of those paying marriage fines in retrospect. This is significant, because the average fine for failure to obtain a license in 1308-19 was only 11d, whereas the average fine in 1377-91 was nearly 4s, indicating that, on average, women paying marriage fines in the latter period may have been wealthier than those paying their own fines in the first part of the century.
Table 7 – Percentage of marriage fines paid by the groom, the bride, jointly by the bride and groom, the bride’s father, and the bride’s mother
Source: Sutton court rolls
Further evidence pointing towards this supposition is provided by Table 8, which lists the average fines paid for marriage licenses by the groom, the bride, the bride’s father, and the bride’s mother, and indicates that the average fine paid by women increased dramatically after the period 1308-19. The significant rise in the average fine paid by brides between 1308-19 and 1335-45 may be explained by changes in the type of women purchasing fines. One distinguishing feature of the brides who obtained their own licences in this early period is that perhaps 50 percent of them were also fined for leyrwite in this period, whereas in the later periods this was never the case. Of the ten women purchasing fines in 1308-19 none of them were expressly stated to be widows, one was listed as the daughter of a known man, and the other nine were known by their own name. In contrast, in 1335-45 three of the four brides who paid their own fines were widows and one was listed as a daughter. This pattern changed again after the Black Death, with all eleven brides in 1356-61 and 1377-91 listed as daughters. When widows required marriage licences after the Black Death, this appears to have been paid for by their husbands.
Table 8 – Average fines for marriage licenses, all periods under study
Source: Sutton court rolls
In some respects the Sutton data is similar to that found by E. D. Jones for Spalding Priory, where he noted that 35 percent of women paid their own fine in the 1310s and 13 percent paid in the 1340s. The major difference in the Spalding records, however, is that the percentage of women paying fines decreased after the Black Death, and did not rise above 13 percent until the fifteenth century.26 While this divergence is not easily explained, it illustrates how dramatically court business can change over time, and serves as a warning for how different the business of manor courts can be, even over short distances such as that between Ely Cathedral and Spalding Priory.
The only detailed evidence available about the lives of rural peasant women in the fourteenth century are the records of local manorial courts, and in order to utilise these sources to their fullest, we must understand their limitations. This study has demonstrated that the involvement of women in the manor court of Sutton changed dramatically over time during the fourteenth century, not only because of their changing position on the manor, but also because of internal changes in the business and priorities of the court itself. Individual activities within the court can be difficult to interpret as their importance changed over time both in reaction to changing social and economic circumstances and in response to the whim of the lord. In the future, careful statistical analysis of the court rolls, which takes into account gaps in the record and changes over time, is likely to produce the most reliable data about rural peasant women. Even then, however, the conclusions reached must be considered in their local context, and cannot be presumed to be representative of the region as a whole.
Erin McGibbon Smith, U. of Cambridge
1. This was most common in land transfers where both husband and wife were listed as transferring or receiving land, but could also regularly be found when husbands and fathers pled (or responded to a plaint) alongside their spouse, under-age child, or servant.
2. Ely Dean and Chapter (EDC), 7/4, 15.12.1310 and 29.09.1357 (Cambridge University Library).
3. Entries with illegible names were subtracted from the total number of entries per period; these totalled 28 in 1308-19, 6 in 1335-45, 40 in 1356-61, and 18 in 1377-91.
4. John Aberth, ‘The Black Death in the Diocese of Ely: The Evidence of the Bishop’s Register’, Journal of Medieval History, 21 (1995), pp. 257-87 (p. 276).
5. Edward Miller, The Abbey and Bishopric of Ely (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951), p. 100.
6. Jan Titow, ‘Some Differences between Manors and their Effects on the Condition of the Peasant in the Thirteenth Century’, Agricultural History Review, 10 (1962), pp. 1-13.
7. Jeremy Goldberg, Women, Work and Life Cycle in a Medieval Economy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), p. 7.
8. A decline in female participation in litigation was also noted in Oakington (Cambs.) and Brigstock (Northants.); Chris Briggs, ‘Empowered or Marginalized? Rural Women and Credit in Later Thirteenth- and Fourteenth-Century England’, in Continuity and Change, 19 (2004), pp. 13-43 (pp. 16-9); Judith Bennett, Women in the Medieval English Countryside: Gender and Household in Brigstock Before the Plauge (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 194-5.
9. Helena Graham, ‘“A Woman’s Work…’: Labour and Gender in the Late Medieval Countryside’, in Woman is a Worthy Wight: Women in English Society c. 1200-1500, ed. by P. J. P. Goldberg (Gloucestershire: Stroud, 1992), pp. 126-148 (p. 129).
10. Judith Bennett, Ale, Beer and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World, 1300 – 1600 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 163-5; Graham, pp. 140-44.
11. This includes fines for failure to reside on the manor or removing chattels from the manor, in addition to the listing of villain fugitives.
12. Eleanor Searle, ‘Seigneurial Control of Women’s Marriage: The Antecedents and Functions of Merchet in England’ Past and Present, 82 (1979), pp. 3-43 (p. 6); Jean Scammel, ‘Freedom and Marriage in Medieval England’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 27 (1974), pp. 523-37; Eleanor Searle, ‘Freedom and Marriage in Medieval England: An Alternative Hypothesis’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 29 (1976), pp. 482-486.
13. Rosamund Faith, ‘Debate: Seigneurial Control of Women’s Marriage’, Past and Present, 99 (1983), pp. 133-48.
14. Paul Brand and Paul Hyams, ‘Debate: Seigneurial Control of Women’s Marriage’, Past and Present, 99 (1983), pp. 123-33 (p. 133); Richard Smith, ‘Further Models of Medieval Marriage: Landlords, serfs and Priests in Rural England c. 1290-1370’, in George Duby: l’écriture de l’histoire, ed. by Claudie Duhamel-Amado and Guy Lobrichon (Brussels: De Boeck University Press, 1996), pp. 160-73; Miriam Müller, ‘The Function and Evasion of Marriage Fines on a Fourteenth-Century English Manor’, Continuity and Change, 14, 2 (1999), pp. 169-90.
15. Miller, p. 87.
16. EDC, 7/4, 26.05.1309.
17. Zvi Razi, Life, Marriage and Death in a Medieval Parish: Economy, Society and Demography in Halesowen, 1270-1400 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), pp. 3-4; Larry Poos and Richard Smith, ‘Legal Windows onto Historical Populations? Recent Research on Demography and the Manor Court in Medieval England’, Law and History Review, 2 (1984), pp. 128-52 (pp.144-8); Zvi Razi, ‘Use of Manor Court Rolls in Demographic Analysis: A Reconsideration’, Law and History Review, 3 (1985), pp. 191-200 (pp. 198-200); Larry Poos and Richard Smith, ‘“Shades still on the window”: A Reply to Zvi Razi’, Law and History Review, 2 (1985), pp. 407-29 (pp. 424-7). This debate has been reprinted as ch. 9 of Medieval Society and the Manor Court, ed. by Zvi Razi and Richard Smith.
18. E. D. Jones (as E. J. Smith), ‘Medieval Merchet. A Late Contribution to the Debate’, Medieval History, 2 (1992), pp. 26-35 (p. 27); E. D. Jones, ‘Medieval Merchets as Demographic Data: Some Evidence from the Spalding Priory Estates, Lincolnshire’, Continuity and Change, 11 (1996), pp. 459-70 (p. 461).
19. Müller, pp. 181-5.
20. The average fine was calculated using only those entries where the fine was recorded, legible, and not pardoned. This comprised 56 entries in 1308-19, 34 in 1335-45, 9 in 1356-61, and 6 in 1377-81.
21. The average fine for licenses acquired independently of entry fines was calculated using the same method, and was comprised of 43 entries in 1308-19, 24 in 1335-45, 8 in 1356-61, and 5 in 1377-81.
22. Judith Bennett, ‘Medieval Peasant Marriage: An Examination of Marriage License Fines in the Liber Gersumarum’, in Pathways to Medieval Peasants, ed. by J. A. Raftis (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1981), pp. 193-246.
23. Bennett, pp. 194, 197.
24. Müller, p. 172.
25. The total number of fines does not match the total number of licenses to marry listed in Table 6 because four of those licences were paid by joint fines.
26. Jones, ‘A Late Contribution’, p. 29.