Joel Rosenthal

title.none: Northeast, Wills of the Archdeaconry of Sudbury (Joel Rosenthal)

identifier.other: baj9928.0210.007 02.10.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Joel Rosenthal, SUNY--Stony Brook,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Northeast, Peter, ed. Wills of the Archdeaconry of Sudbury, 1439-1474: Wills from the Register 'Baldwyne', Part I: 1439-1461. Suffok Records Society, vol. xliv. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2001. Pp. lv, 526. $45.00. ISBN: 0-85115-811-0.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.10.07

Northeast, Peter, ed. Wills of the Archdeaconry of Sudbury, 1439-1474: Wills from the Register 'Baldwyne', Part I: 1439-1461. Suffok Records Society, vol. xliv. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2001. Pp. lv, 526. $45.00. ISBN: 0-85115-811-0.

Reviewed by:

Joel Rosenthal
SUNY--Stony Brook

This volume presents, in an English calendared version, 1497 documents: testaments (dealing with the disposition of personal possessions), or wills (mostly pertaining to real property), or wills and testaments together, or very short notices of probate. If we exclude the latter category, since they are mostly one-line notices that a will has gone to probate and its executors now charged to do their duty -- we have about 1000 documents of substance. They are calendared or abstracted, that is, they are translated and stripped of much of the boiler plate wording that was a standard part of medieval administrative documents. Many are also annotated (by Northeast), giving cross references, biographical information about testators, beneficiaries, and local families, and odds bits of information about the church and the churches of late medieval Suffolk.

This is a model volume, whether for teaching or as a wide-open window into social structure and into the mentalite of hundreds of men and (some) women of the middling sort -- people with property to leave, but not enough to qualify for the jurisdiction of the archbishop of Canterbury's Prerogative Court. In his introduction Northeast offers a lucid explanation of the difference between a will and a testament, of the common or formulaic structure and style of such documents, and of the complications and peculiarities of competing probate jurisdictions within Suffolk (which in turn was within the diocese of Norwich); a map and a very full glossary help clarify matters touched on in the documents.

The editor presents so much material -- and such rich material -- that I will just try to offer a dip into it to give an idea of how and why last testaments and wills have come to be recognized as one of the motherlodes of social and local history. There are simply too many documents in this volume for tallies on the incidence of peculiar bequests, let alone for the patterns of "normality" that we can encounter in this vast collection of testaments. Some random dipping and a comment on some of the unusual features we run across will have to suffice regarding the riches here made available.

Most extant medieval testaments and wills were made very shortly before the testator's death -- even if our document might be his or her Nth such effort. Thus for a testament to open with some jejune reflection on mortality would seem to indicate the proper frame of mind and spirit: "in extremis" "in peril of death" "afflicted by bodily infirmity" are found from time to time. A little more expressive, and perhaps a bit dualistic about the before and after, is Beatrice Turnour's "sick in body, having God before my eyes, my body to Christian burial." A few of our good Suffolk souls even ventured a bit beyond this, perhaps urged by a priest who took advantage of his last chance to put last words in their mouths: "whereas it is the destiny of mankind that in death it return to ash, so that where nature had its beginning, there it reaches its end." The documents never even hint at anything we might consider heterodox, let alone heretical, and it is hard to take much umbrage at "My soul to almighty God, who created it out of nothing and redeemed it with his blood."

Many of the documents carry their date, either inserted at the instructions of the testator or, more probably, of the cleric who was serving in the mixed role of amanuensis/ editor/ advisor at its creation and its written incarnation. Thus the dating style we find in some of the documents can give a glimpse at how much of the East Anglian ecclesiastical calendar year was assimilated into the familiar culture of the laity. Or is it rather an insight into the way the clergy might try to raise awareness of the cycle of the ecclesiastical year, though in a rural and weather-driven world this may hardly have been necessary? We have the familiar and the relatively obscure: "the morrow of the exaltation of the Holy Cross" or "the feast of St Gregory" or "The feast of the Purification of the Blessed Mary," for all to know and recognize, but we get on less universal and possibly more provincial ground with "the translation of St Swithin: or "the translation of St Thomas the Martyr." Who, we might ask, came up with "the feast of St Hypolitus and his friends, martyrs?"

What about the bequests themselves? We can divide them, in their thousands, into a few basic if rough categories: directly to the church, touching its physical fabric and its personnel, including money for the burial service and later prayers; to family; to other lay recipients (servants, friends, executors, etc); for various forms of "social work," which usually meant good works in return for prayers for the soul of the testator; a bit of miscellany, as befits such a large body of data.

Let us look briefly at bequests that went directly to some branch or aspect of the church. The local or parish church was often remembered because of tithes not-paid: "to the high altar for tithes withheld, 6s.8d." sums it up pretty concisely. This local church, and/or its incumbent, usually stood to gain at the death of a parishioner of any substance: "to the high altar, for my tithes and offerings forgotten or underpaid, 40d: for a font-cover to be made for the said church, 8 marks out of my father's goods; to a priest to celebrate divine service for a year, in the said church, a competent stipend..." And, of course, others -- both clerical and lay -- who participated in the burial service, as well as those singled out to pray on anniversary days in the coming years, were remembered with the usual assortment of clothing, money, and meals.

Leaving money for church repairs was a status bequest, and even more so, we can imagine, was money steered for entirely new work. A fair number of our testators were of sufficient substance (or thought they were) to point in this direction. It might be a window, to be installed and glazed, or leading on the roof of the nave, or emending the chapel and the church bells (though 20d. was not going to be of that much help). One testator left L2 for a painting "of a panel above the great altar," while another hedged his bets and left the "farm of a cow annually, for the life of the cow."

In turning from bequests to generalizations about beneficiaries, two things are rather striking. One is the very high level of support for (and, consequently, of the popularity of) the mendicants; the other is the strongly localized nature of ecclesiastical benefaction. Though the regular orders, and their houses, are but rarely mentioned, many men and women clearly had a warm spot for the friars of both sexes: "to Margaret my daughter the nun, 6s8d and to the nuns of Thetford 6s8d: to Friar Nicholas Dunham 3s4d and to the friars of Babwell 3s4d." William Olyve topped this quite easily: "to the four orders of friars, that is, at Clare, Sudbury, Babwell, and Cambridge, all the mass pence..." Specific bequests -- usually rather limited in size -- might be directed to the Carmelites at Ipswich, or the Dominicans at Thetford. Sometimes the bequest to the mendicants was in the form of the mass pence from a particular gild, which bespeaks of links between lay and vowed spirituality.

The other theme I mentioned touches the extremely localized nature of virtually all the ecclesiastical bequests. Northeast did not compile an index for this large volume: its size, alongside the ephemeral nature of most of the entries (and the people involved), would hardly justify the labor involved. Consequently, my views are impressionistic, though they seem supported by virtually every entry. Of the thousands of instructions concerning benefaction and transmission covered in this volume, very few indeed were for institutions beyond the boundaries of the county or the archdeaconry, let alone of the diocese (and crossing the Essex line -- into the bishopric of London -- was not much of a qualification for my generalization). London was a virtual unknown, and we need not even bother to mention Lincoln, Hull, or York. This finding is in keeping with other studies of East Anglian religious life (such as those of Marilyn Oliva), and it reminds us of the power and attracton of the localized community in at least some of its ideological and spiritual as well as in its economic and social aspects. Where people chose to leave their goods, and where they chose to be memorialized, is a pretty good key to how they "sited" their identity.

When we turn to bequests intended for the lay world, it was mostly to family, and in quantitative terms mostly to a fairly tight nuclear or immediate family. This comes as no surprise. Family rarely ran much beyond the remaining spouse, children, an occasional parent who was still alive, and an infrequent mention of a grandchild. Beyond that we can almost count on our fingers the mention of a niece or nephew, an uncle, a sibling-in-law, or a "cousin." Of course, the ubiquitous "consanguine" of the Latin, and the references to hundreds of god-children -- sometimes merely alluded to, sometimes named, but rarely with an indication of how they were linked to the testator -- might swell these numbers and extend the circles of remembered and now-enriched kinship.

The wills, of course, mostly cover the transmission of real property -- of great concern to those on the spot, but of less interest, in a broad sweep, to us. The personal bequests are more intriguing. Household items, of course, from both men and women, and in great profusion. If we have no inventories from these folk, we have long lists of their pots and pans, blankets and sheets, gowns and spoons, etc. It is always the unusual bequests that stand out, swallowed though they were in reality by the mountains of more ordinary stuff, transmitted in phrases of no singular note. Some bequests of interest tell the tale of an artisan or craftsman seeking to preserve his workshop -- perhaps left, more or less intact, to his son: "all the bark, bark-vats, and barkwose that are left after the leather now ready to be tanned has all been tanned," leaves us in no doubt about what is going on. Much the same is Thomas Rolf's bequest to "my son" of "all the tools of my trade of carpenter."

But more whimsical, perhaps, are such bequests as those of "my worst tabard" (worsted?), or "the whole of my bed in which I happen to die," or "a cloth painted with the story of Robert, king of Sicily" (Robert of Anjou, d. 1343). And as money was left for tithes that had gone unpaid, so the squaring of debts might cover "recompense for rabbits I have taken unjustly from them." Mere hints at tales untold: the short if not-so-simple annals of the poor.

One bequest that historians always invest with great significance is that of The Book. Here we are on very bare ground indeed; I only noticed one testament with a bequest of a book, and that hardly went very far down the favored path: to "my son, a missal and a gilt chalice [and] my psalter in which is written all the rents." Otherwise, we have to be content with a dozen or so bequests of money or goods to a church so that a book could be purchased for the church: "for the buying of a book called a portasse (porteus)," or "for a book called an antiphoner 5 marks." So much for reading a large collection of wills to uncover buried secrets about lay literacy and home-reading. While the silence of these documents must not be taken to argue that there were no books and little by way of lay literacy, we have to respect what these men and women of some property, some substance, and some sophistication did choose to talk about and to set it beside what they chose not to talk about.

One area where Peter Northeast might be said to have fallen down a bit has to do with the translations of forenames (first names). There are some unusual ones in these documents -- mostly for women -- and it is intriguing to be able to enrich a pool that to an overwhelming degree consisted of John, Richard, Thomas, William, Eleanor, and Agnes, Katherine, and a (very) few more. The names are usually translated without their Latin original in parenthesis, so it is hard to know how firmly based these comments are. But it does seem, at this level of society, that a few parents or god-parents did chance their arm a bit at the christening: an occasional Lettice, Armflote or Amfritha, Isador, Seyva, Meliora, Audrey (Etheldrede), Olive, Petronilla, Sabina, Beatrice, Clarice, and Denise would liven up the local day-care roster. Men, as various studies have shown, were less likely to be named in such an idiosyncratic style, and a single Augustine is about as daring as it seems to get.

What else is worth noting? Some of our testators left a bequest meant to send someone else on a pilgrimage; it was too late to go on their own. Money was earmarked for a journey to a St. James in Spain (by a "suitable man" who was to received 40s), and for a two-man expedition to Rome (to "visit the court of the apostles Peter and Paul"), among the number of bequests of this sort. In a nuncupative will of 1458-59, Thomas Pekerall asked that his wife Joan, either in person "or through others," carry out his vow to make "all his pilgrimages which he had promised, that is, to Norwich, Ely, Lowestoft, Walsingham, Bury, and Peterthorp."

The category that I refer to as "Christian social work" covers bequests intended for the worldly comfort of the living and the spiritual comfort of the departed. This too, with almost no exceptions, confirms the picture of a highly localized focus for benefaction. This form of good works generally followed standardized channels of giving: a small sum for "repairing the common way," a bit to "the 12 poor men at Melford in greatest need," four acres of land whose income might help the town pay "the king's tax whenever a collection is demanded." Nothing in these wills for the redemption (and honorable marriage) of fallen women; perhaps they were not a social problem for rural Suffolk in the good old days.

I noted above that an occasional testator was moved to reflect (or to allow his priest to reflect) on the imminence of death. But perhaps even more poignant than the pieties about the time that has now come are those that reflect on the uncertainties of that which is yet to be: all those if clauses with which the wills are sprinkled. These are the clauses that say "if my wife turns out to be pregnant," or "if she have a baby and if it live," or "if she does not remarry," or "if my son accepts these conditions," or "if my wife falls into poverty" or "if my son or daughter lives to legal age," or something of this sort. We are reminded of the way in which a last will and testament is a document of hope and intention and of social control. Through it the dead are seeking to determine the fate and fortunes of the living; the dying are trying to do their best for themselves and for those they leave behind. Their power to control is as little compared to their impotence. They try their hedges against fate and fortune, and we can still hear their death-bed worries over that which was yet to be.

Document by document, Peter Northeast has made accessible a huge collection of minor pieces. In aggregate, he has offered us, in a labor of love and of many years, a vast medieval panorama upon whose surface we can follow countless vignettes and themes. The general and the particular, the transcendental and the ephemeral, all touching and running together. This is a wonderful volume and my only regret it that the volume to follow, covering 1461-74, is probably still some years in the future.