James Murray

title.none: Razi and Smith, eds., Medieval Society and the Manor Court (Murray)

identifier.other: baj9928.9805.003 98.05.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: James Murray, University of Cincinnati,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Razi, Zvi and Richard Smith, eds. Medieval Society and the Manor Court. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Pp. xiii, 709. $130. ISBN: ISBN 0-19-820190-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.05.03

Razi, Zvi and Richard Smith, eds. Medieval Society and the Manor Court. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Pp. xiii, 709. $130. ISBN: ISBN 0-19-820190-7.

Reviewed by:

James Murray
University of Cincinnati

A volume whose raison d'etre is the English manorial court roll calls to mind a favorite F.W. Maitland quotation: "And then one never dares to say that a MS has been used up, that everything that was in it has been got out of it. This has been said over and over again; but there has come the gifted man who knew what to look for, and he has seen for the first time what had indeed been under many eyes but had never been seen before."[1] It is fitting that Maitland's name be invoked here because it was he of all Victorian scholars who recognized the historical value of manorial court rolls, and he was also among the first to edit one in the still extant series of the Selden Society.[2] And it is still Maitland's university, Cambridge, where the study of these sources has flourished and whose students (still chiefly, though not exclusively, male) have gone forth to colonize other universities from Tel Aviv to Washington, D.C. But this book, ably edited by Zvi Razi and Richard Smith, is neither so narrow as to follow only the paths blazed by Maitland, nor exclusive of those not trained at the university on the Cam (although professors and students from the university on Lake Ontario are notably absent). It is instead a treasure trove of articles, which ably summarize the century-long scientific study of court rolls and sketch out directions for future research.

The book embraces numerous themes, each in turn developed in one or several essays. These are roughly speaking the use and importance of manorial court rolls in legal, political, social, demographic, and economic history, completed by an outstandingly helpful survey of medieval manorial court rolls in England. This list alone demonstrates that Maitland's belief in the value of court rolls not just for legal, but also for social and economic, history was not unfounded.

The book begins with two essays co-authored by the editors, Razi and Smith, which attempt first to define what manorial court rolls are, how they came to be, and to discuss what historians have done with them. Here we learn of the uniqueness of the English custom of committing to parchment the proceedings of manorial courts -- even Norman monasteries with possessions in both France and England kept records only of their English possessions. Only one example of a continental equivalent survives from the Middle Ages, and that seems to be due more to individual initiative than institutional innovation. What accounts for this English exceptionalism? Razi and Smith argue for a complex mixture of competition from royal courts, traditions of record keeping on English manors connected with the direct exploitation of demesnes, and a ready availability of clerical skills and practical literacy in the English countryside. The historiography of manor court rolls is a more straightforward story, though Razi and Smith point out the error of the so-called Toronto school in claiming their use in the study of medieval English villages is a recent phenomenon. In fact local historians have used the rolls as historical sources since the seventeenth century, but only in the work of Seebohm, Vinogradoff and Maitland did they come into their own. As Razi points out "only with the works of [these] three great historians . . . was the unique potentiality of court rolls as an historical source realized." But even the prescience of a Maitland could not embrace all the possibilities or difficulties inherent in this source.

The problems and possibilities of manorial court rolls are obvious in essays 2-5, in which questions germane to legal history predominate. Paul Hyams and Lloyd Bonfield renew a debate initiated by the latter (the only lawyer in the group) about what Hyams calls the "unique character of the manor court." Was the court merely a passive recipient of royal (or common) law, which displaced and altered village custom, or was the manor court a different creature altogether, relying on custom stressing equity over precedent? As a result of their disagreements on these and other questions, Hyams and Bonfield come to different conclusions when they pose the question about what English villagers understood by Law. As if to demonstrate the remarkable innovative and adaptive powers of customary law, Bonfield, L.R. Poos and in a separate essay, Elaine Clark, explore one form of customary law, the Deathbed bequest, as a means of intergenerational wealth transfer among the technically unfree peasantry. The authors come to the interesting and suggestive conclusion that despite absolute power lords exercised over land transfers, they seldom challenged their peasants' wishes as long as seigneurial interests were not damaged. Thus by the fourteenth century, peasants on many (but not all) English manors had broad and complex legal means to pass on landed wealth to their designated heirs and provide for charitable works for the good of their souls.

If lord-peasant relations were not always adversarial they were most often so according to Peter Franklin's study based on the court rolls of Thornbury Manor near Bristol in the West Midlands. Based upon evidence of resistance to labor services exacted by the increasingly aggressive dukes of Gloucester, Franklin argues for large-scale resistance to the seigneurial regime expressed not in open revolt but in passive resistance on the part of both peasant men and women. To him manorial court rolls of the thirteenth and fourteenth century reveal "a rural society seething with discontent." Ralph Evans' study of Thorncraft Manor in Surrey, owned by Merton College, leads him to a rather more benign conclusion about the relationship of lord and peasant. Though admitting that the manorial court existed primarily to protect the lord's interests, he points out that it could also serve the peasant as a means of resistance particularly against the lord's officials. Calling the Thorncroft court an extraordinarily efficient means of control of both free and unfree tenants, he also remarks on the absence of any overt resistance or defiance of the court's authority. His conclusion is that the sources convey "an astounding level of manorial discipline," apart from some resistance to labor services like roofing and gathering straw.

Manorial court rolls as sources of demographic history are explored in articles about the Welsh Marcher lordship of Dyffryn Clwyd and a much broader article, again with shared authorship among L.R. Poos, and the editors. The Wales project is still in a preliminary phase, but it is interesting to see a project to build a database encompassing an entire lordship utilizing a free-text system and not the more common relational database software. When the project is completed, it should provide researchers with a much more accessible means to search the wealth of data contained in these court rolls. The Poos, Smith and Razi piece is really a tag-team match pitting Poos and Smith against Poos over the question of the utility of manor court rolls for demographic analysis. The debate rages across seventy pages of text, fourteen charts and graphs, in the form of point, counterpoint, reply and counter-reply. The result is a draw. Poos and Smith are certainly correct in pointing out the problems inherent in data drawn from court rolls particularly in calculating population replacement rates, age at marriage, life expectancy, or even how complete a record court records give of all males living on a manor. Razi is justified in claiming that his critics are too harsh and dismissive of the evidence, especially that gleaned from well- documented manors. The future will show which side is right.

Razi is on firmer ground with his contribution on "Interfamilial Ties and Relationships in the Medieval Village." Here he quantifies the interactions of relatives as attested by the court rolls of Halesowen court between 1270 and 1400. Razi argues that quantifying mitigates some of the inherent problems in these records, chiefly the underreporting of women and absence of children. His conclusions are interesting if unsurprising: kin solidarity was significant as the frequency of pledging, care for the poor and elderly and the settling of multiple generations in separate dwellings on the same land attest. These attributes remained, in slightly altered form, after the plague when kin networks often expanded to take over land left vacant by dead relatives. So successful was this strategy that despite 40 per cent mortality, 60 per cent of the families in Halesowen at the end of the fourteenth century were descended from those present in 1300.

Three essays of the collection are devoted to economic issues, chiefly the history of the peasant land market, urbanization and markets and Britnell's theory of commercialization. Paul Harvey contributes a survey of the historiography of the peasant land market in England, with a call for a synthesis of the many local works written in the past forty years while at the same time urging research into charter evidence to supplement with price data the evidence gleaned from manor court rolls. Richard Smith joins in the debate occasioned by the publication of Richard Britnell's Commercialisation of English Society in 1992. Selecting a single market established by the abbot of Bury St Edmunds, Botesdale in the manor of Redgrave, Smith seeks to assess the "degree of interaction between the 'market' and 'manorial' communities" and its relation to the "commercialization thesis." His conclusions offer mixed support for the thesis: he criticizes Britnell for ignoring the sometimes spontaneous nature of market creation in the thirteenth century, and though Smith finds increasing evidence of market forces in this small corner of Suffolk, he does not believe that commercialization alone was sufficient to "escape from the 'Malthusian trap' of the mid fourteenth century." The last in this trio of essays is by Rodney Hilton on the seigneurial borough of Thornbury. Hilton reminds us of the importance of small towns, whose populations, though small, still practiced occupations dependent on the market. The borough of Thornbury, whose surviving court rolls give information about life in the English small town, exemplifies this "low-level" urbanization. Those that survive before 1366 yield some interesting information. Based on names appearing in the rolls between 1324 and 1346, Hilton estimates that there were 600 people living in Thornbury, evidence of immigration is spotty, but judging from surnames some families seemingly migrated from the agricultural hinterland. Working further with surnames from the pre-plague and immediate post-plague period, Hilton finds that 22.4 % of the names disappear, thus leading him to the conclusion that a similar number of families either died out or emigrated in the period. Turning to the occupational structure of the borough, he finds 35 separate occupations, with the largest number being brewers; there were manufacturing craftsmen as well and there may have been some specialization in woolen textiles. The question of the chief economic focus of Thornbury, either textiles or food processing, leads Hilton to an analysis of the leading families as culled from the court rolls of those holding official positions. His conclusion was that given the town elite's economic interests in food processing, it was unlikely that textiles were very significant except perhaps as an appendage of the Bristol industry.

It is difficult to generalize about a collection of essays on so many subjects, whose sole link is the manor court roll. One clear message is the buoyancy and depth of interest in the use of manor court rolls. A century's scholarship has clearly revealed the possibilities of such records; the next century should show that their historical value is far from exhausted.


[1] C.H.S. Fifoot, Frederic William Maitland: a Life Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1971, p. 104.

[2] Selden Society. A Centenary guide to the publications of the Selden Society. London: The Society, 1987.