Larry Poos

title.none: Fenwick, ed., The Poll Taxes of 1377,1379 and 1381: Pt. 1 Bedfordshire - Leicestershire (Poos)

identifier.other: baj9928.9908.019 99.08.19

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Larry Poos, Catholic University of America,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Fenwick, Carolyn, ed. The Poll Taxes of 1377, 1379 and 1381: Part 1, Bedfordshire-Leicestershire. Records of Social and Economic History, New Series 27. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press for The British Academy, 1998. Pp. xvi, 637. $95.00. ISBN: 0-197-26186-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.08.19

Fenwick, Carolyn, ed. The Poll Taxes of 1377, 1379 and 1381: Part 1, Bedfordshire-Leicestershire. Records of Social and Economic History, New Series 27. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press for The British Academy, 1998. Pp. xvi, 637. $95.00. ISBN: 0-197-26186-8.

Reviewed by:

Larry Poos
Catholic University of America

The poll taxes imposed and collected in England in the late fourteenth century constitute one of the more remarkable phenomena of medieval English political, social, and economic history. In one respect, they represent a noteworthy experiment on the part of Parliament, seeking to extend the taxable base of government beyond its traditional boundaries and in the process helping to precipitate the most spectacular rebellion in the country during the middle ages, the revolt of 1381, in protest at the heavy-handedness of its collection. In another regard, the records of the tax's collection form one of the most important sources for many aspects of late-medieval England's social, economic, and demographic structures. It seems like poetic historical justice that when, not too many years ago, the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher sought to replace traditional rates with the "community charge", protesters immediately dubbed this late-twentieth- century imposition a new "poll tax" (which in itself immediately became a loaded political term), and organized re- enactments of the 1381 revolt's mass assemblies in order to oppose its collection.

It has been one of the most glaring deficiencies in the record- rich publication history of medieval English sources that there has been no comprehensive edition and study of the records of these three taxation experiments. Because of the wealth of topographical, occupational, and surname evidence enshrined in the records of the poll taxes, a number of local or county record societies have in fact published editions of the returns over the course of the past century. But each of these editorial ventures has its shortcomings, and the scale of the undertaking necessary to produce an edition of the entire country's returns is breathtakingly daunting.

This present volume--the first of what will ultimately be three--represents a massive labor on the part of Dr. Fenwick. It originated in a University of London PhD dissertation completed more than fifteen years ago, itself the product of more than a decade's painstaking labor in the Public Record Office in London. It has taken this long to produce the published version (and a simultaneous, machine-readable version available via the database archive at the University of Essex). The result is a most significant achievement. It is also, incidentally, a testimony to the innovative direction of the British Academy's Records of Social and Economic History series, which continues to be one of the most important venues for putting into print a wide variety of source material for British historians.

The traditional base of English Parliamentary taxation had been, before the 1370's, property. In a series of experimental levies, the principle of taxability extended from property to persons: first, in 1371, a levy per parish, and in the later 1370's, upon individual people. Carried out at a national scale this was an undertaking of some hubris; and, as Dr. Fenwick's chronology of enactment, assessment, and collection makes clear, in its earlier stages one of impressive efficiency as well. She has little to say about the political background to the taxes, but a great deal about their administrative processes.

The terms of the three collections varied in some details. The 1377 tax imposed a flat rate of 4d. per lay person aged 14 years and older; that of 1379, a graduated scale upon lay couples and unmarried lay individuals aged 16 and older; that of 1380 (enacted in that year and collected in 1381), a graduated scale upon all lay people aged 15 and above; and in each year, there was provision for excluding the poor. The surviving records also vary. Apart from records of the total sums eventually received by the Exchequer by county or borough, in 1377 for most individual places there survive only total numbers of taxpayers and sum of taxes paid, whereas the two later taxes yielded returns that list names, and often occupations and quasi-household information about taxpayers (such as names of both spouses, children of taxable age and apparently resident with the household head, and servants). For each collection, survival rates for the returns at the level of individual township or county vary widely, as do the format and informativeness of the nominative listings of taxpayers. Above all, it has taken Dr Fenwick's labors to accomplish the formidable task of sorting through the bewildering mass of sometimes semi-legible returns (some only yielding their information now through the use of modern technology such as ultraviolet lights) and reuniting stray fragments with the returns with which they belong, and finally producing a coherent summary, county by county, of each set of surviving returns.

The total number of taxpayers per township as enshrined in these records has for decades been a source for baseline estimates of local and national populations. Social, economic, and demographic historians have likewise used the nominative lists in attempts to investigate (admittedly rudimentary) impressions of household formations, the prevalence of marriage among subject age-groups, occupational composition of communities, patterns of given names and surnames, the structures of servanthood, even the micro-topographical features of individual communities (the present reviewer pleads guilty in this respect). Idiosyncratic variations of format in the records--from county to county, hundred to hundred, or township to township--have comprised serious barriers to such analysis, which only a careful consideration of the entire nation's record base might temper. With this publication and its eventual companion volumes, the prospect is in sight of some more informed approaches to all these problems.

One of the most vexed issues surrounding these records is how faithful they are to the terms of reference for their respective collections. Put baldly, if faced with the intoxicating prospect of knowing how many 14-year-old-plus lay males and females there were in any given community, or county, or the nation in 1377, how much faith can we presume to place in the data? Traditionally, the bulk of historians' opinion has tended to be skeptical. There was a demonstrably sharp falloff in numbers paying the poll tax from the 1377 collection to that of 1381, even allowing for the slight differences that one might expect due to the different terms of reference of the respective collections (exactly the same community would yield fewer 15-year-old-plus people than 14-year-old-plus people). It was clearly in response to what authorities perceived as a large shortfall in expected revenues in the early months of 1381 that attempts at second collections sparked the immediate hostility eventually erupting in mass revolt. In this regard Parliament in the later fourteenth century rivalled modern American political debate in its uncertainties and misperceptions regarding the effects of flat versus graduated tax rates.

Fenwick's introduction, as did her earlier dissertation, includes a compelling argument that the poll tax returns are a much more faithful reflection of what they purport to represent than most historians have given them credit for. She argues that, far from being a census-like enumeration of local populations (the measuring-stick by which historians have sought to judge them), akin for example to the Tuscan catasto of 1427, the tax returns record a taxpaying population more or less faithfully reflecting the terms of reference of the enacting legislation and the corresponding perceptions of local collectors. That is to say: what prevailing historical opinion has tended to regard as "evasion" of the tax--people liable to pay but escaping payment--must be more properly understood as "exemption"--people missing from the returns because both Parliament and local collectors felt themselves confident in regarding them as not liable in the first place. In particular she argues that the phrase most commonly employed by contemporaries to describe those who need not have paid--pauperes et mendicantes--does not mean, as many have taken it to mean, actual beggars, but rather was taken by the collectors to connote simply the poor--and there were many reasons why, for instance, there might have been fewer taxpayers and more poor by the terms of the tax in 1381 (being asked to pay up in the wake of a severe winter and harvest shortfall, in contrast to earlier collections which occurred at more bountiful times of the calendar) than in 1377 and 1379.

Debate may continue on these points. The real achievement here is the monumental work Dr. Fenwick has done in assembling the entire corpus of material into a coherent whole and making it available to historians. The present reviewer has compared her edition to his own transcriptions of one county represented in this first volume (Essex) and can find little beyond very picayune quibbles in her rendering of details such as the reading of surnames, certainly nothing of substance. One might occasionally detect some slight miscues in the interpretative introduction (for example, p. xxv, where the author appears to be saying that the age differences between the 1377 and 1381 collections would be expected to increase the proportion of single to married people in the latter, mutatis mutandis, in comparison with the former). It also makes one wish that some future (one hopes, near-future) scholar will attempt to do the same thing with the clerical poll taxes that were simultaneously collected. In short, this is going to be both a compelling addition to the current literature on this experiment in late-medieval English taxation and an indispensable reference work for historians working in a wide range of topics, to be put side by side with the British Academy series' earlier edition of the early-fourteenth-century lay subsidy returns (Robin E. Glasscock, ed., The Lay Subsidy of 1334. British Academy Records of Social and Economic History, new series 2 (Oxford, 1975)). It is a very impressive accomplishment.