03.01.15, Lock, ed., The Court Rolls of Walsham Le Willows

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Anne DeWindt

The Medieval Review baj9928.0301.015


Lock, Ray, ed.. The Court Rolls of Walsham Le Willows 1351-1399. Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press, 2002. Pp. vii, 234. ISBN: 0-85115-846-3.

Reviewed by:
Anne DeWindt

When combined with the first volume of court rolls from Walsham Le Willows, also edited by Ray Lock in volume 41 of the Suffolk Record Society (1998), this carefully translated collection makes available a very good series of records; ca. two courts per year from the larger of the two local manors. There are gaps, of course, in the series, but a total of 255 courts have survived from the fourteenth century. Only one of the rolls was not included here, that of 2 October 1399 (3). The two manors of Walsham had approximately 100 tenants after the Black Death and that number remained fairly constant until the seventeenth century. Most of the manors' lords were minor gentry, making these records all the more interesting because so many edited court rolls come from the estates of ecclesiastical institutions or the nobility.

We have known for some time now that manorial court rolls are a valuable entree into the world of the medieval English peasant. One of the many advantages gained from some acquaintance with this massive body of evidence is the realization that local custom was vital, creative and thus varied widely from village to village. (Indeed, even within the village of Walsham, both partible inheritance and primogeniture were practiced.) That reason alone should make us very grateful to those who are willing to put in the massive amount of time and effort required to edit series of court rolls such as this. And rolls from the county of Suffolk are a particularly welcome addition, as that county's inhabitants played major roles in the revolt of 1381 and have been praised recently as precocious for their commercialism and "economic individualism" (Miller, 624). Along with the Field Book of Walsham-Le Willows from 1577 edited by Kenneth Melton Dodd, this new volume can thus contribute a great deal to current debates about changing relations between lords and tenants and the particular environments conducive to early forms of agrarian capitalism.

Furthermore, these rolls provide evidence of the profound social and institutional changes resulting from what the editor describes as the "worst natural disaster ever to strike the nation" -- the Black Death (19). Indeed, perhaps the most interesting court roll from volume one of this series is that dated 15 June 1349. It is four feet long in order to accommodate the record of the deaths of 103 plague victims, including mention of their heirs and descriptions of their tenements. The editor pursues this theme in his introduction to volume two. There was an obvious crisis in local leadership right after the Black Death. Both elected reeves died in 1349 and the man who had to replace them was quite obviously not up to the task (18). Putting a brave face on this incredible disaster, Lock suggests that this dramatic decline in population -- a loss of perhaps almost half of the local population -- must have provided beneficial opportunities for the landless. Indeed, he suggests that three of every five men and 19 of every 20 women in Walsham were landless just before the Black Death.

Remarkably, in spite of the fact that 119 tenants had died in the ten weeks from May to July of 1349, the local court managed to cope, as the steward and jurors supervised a relatively smooth transfer of tenements to a new generation of tenants. On the other hand, it is clear that there was a real challenge being confronted in the effort to reunite land and labor, as many heirs failed to show up in court to claim their inheritances. The resulting labor shortage in the village resulted in regular citations in court for failure to perform work services, but amercements were waived, perhaps in order to prevent organized protests against the lords (19). Villagers themselves appealed to the Statute of Labourers because it was not the lords alone who were finding it difficult to secure the services of their own neighbors (86).

Lock found no repercussions from the 1381 revolt in these rolls, but there is reference to the Statute of Labourers and complaints about villagers reaping "with other men for money" (41). In several entries villains were ordered to return to the manor, but these orders had to be repeated regularly and were obviously not enforced. Indeed, the only penalty indicated was that the absent villeins will "[surrender] their tenements in perpetuity" (80). Those individuals were apparently blissfully unaware that they were "bound to the soil" of Walsham. The editor's very useful 23 page introduction provides a good discussion of the reasons court rolls have been preserved over the course of the centuries. They were primarily used as evidence in property disputes. So, indeed, a large percentage of these Walsham court entries involve land transfers -- often to heirs of a recently deceased tenant or to family members of an ageing tenant. The editor also describes the procedure used by clerks to assemble his court records, and he provides a succinct analysis of the type of business handled in the courts.

Locke acknowledges the importance of the local jury, speculating on the procedures involved in making decisions about guilt and innocence. "They conducted their enquiries both inside and outside succeeding courts, until a new general enquiry was set up" (8). It appears also, as in many other late fourteenth-century communities, that officials such as the reeve and hayward became responsible for more and more of the court presentments as the century progressed. And just in case we are tempted to take all these questions about court procedure too seriously, there are those several entries that amerce individuals attending court sessions because they "chattered in court to the annoyance of the steward" (90). In his introduction the editor devotes one small section to the relationship between lords and tenants of Walsham with more information than was included in the first volume regarding the types of tenure at Walsham and the villeins' responsibilities as manorial officials. Lock tries to distinguish between customary and villein land, the first being held "by the rod" and not "at the lord's will" (10). But it is not easy to see a clear distinction between the two in the entry formulae for land transfers (e.g., 149), although there is a clear distinction made in the first courts held in the name of a new lord when villeins were called to give fealty and were listed separately. In 1361 a distinction was made between two groups; one of freemen holding villein land and the second a group of villein tenants of villein land -- all swearing fealty to the lord. In his introduction Locke summarizes the various dues and services required of free and villein tenements and explains the widow's dower, chevage, marriage fines, childwite, heriot and mortuary.

Some of the entries that attract attention immediately are those where a husband holds his dead wife's land for the duration of his life (40) and an entry where a woman, who is preparing to marry the man with whom she has been living and with whom she bore a child, was pledged by her future sister-in-law. Husbands could be required to pay heriot when their wives died (60), and villeins by blood purchased free woodland by charter (64). One rarely finds much information about the religious life of villagers in court rolls, so the entry from 1376 recording a transfer of land on condition that money be distributed "[to pray] for the soul of Richard Patel" also attracts attention.

The courts are described at the head of the rolls as a "court general" (curia generalis) or simply "court." There are no leet courts here because the village fell within the liberty of the abbots of Bury St. Edmunds. In spite of that fact, there are entries imposing fines for brewing, baking and poaching offences. These rolls do not begin with a list of sworn men, or jurors, but they often include lists of from 10 to 18 names introduced simply by the heading inquisitio. Infrequently an entry begins with the phrase "the jurors say that."

It is easy to underestimate the power wielded by these villein/jurors and by the local community of tenants as a whole. In the first court held in the name of their new lord, the Earl of Suffolk in 1361, the suitors were asked about the fine they had paid in the past in recognition of a new lord. The response is quite interesting: "in this manor recognition is not of a fixed amount nor at the lord's will, but only so much as at the courtesy (curialitionem) of the homage" (59). At that same court "the whole homage was ordered to prepare a new rental by the next court, under penalty of 40s." Reeves and other local officials were chosen by the homage (88).

The editor carefully explains the difference between modern juries and those of fourteenth- century manorial courts. And he reads between the lines to speculate about the methods used to determine who was cited and/or fined, suggesting that much of the jury's work was done between actual court sessions (8-9). One indication of some process of interrogation comes from those entries where, after the description of the offence, it is written "which he cannot deny" (9). One particularly interesting entry from 1363 involves two men being fined for assaulting the reeve. The clerk recorded that "Elias being questioned could not deny [the charge] and placed himself on the lord's mercy..." The jurors' authority was not always respected, of course, as seen on p. 154, when one villager was amerced "because he contested the verdict of the enquiry in open court, and slandered them and called one of the lord's tenants dishonest."

Editorial Methods: A Latin transcription is provided for the courts of January and June of 1351. The rest of the volume is described as a calendar because the rolls have all been translated into English with space saving condensations -- particularly in the cases involving land transfers. But no entries have been omitted.

The editor's introduction is very similar to the introduction to his first volume of early fourteenth-century Walsham court rolls, but does provide some corrections to that earlier version. There are two maps and four plates provided which show the village street plan, location of archaeological sites, and photos of three of the court rolls.

The volume includes a very useful five-page glossary and indices of persons, places and subjects. The index of subjects allows the reader to pursue a number of topics. For example local jurisdiction includes pleas of covenant, debt, trespass, defamation and unlawful detention. The local economy can be explored through mention of the variety of crops, livestock (including one reference to murrain in 1367) and of the household goods that constituted local wealth. A variety of occupations are classed under the index heading "tradesmen." Women do not have their own index reference, but the many entries where wives were examined to confirm their assent to land transfers are listed under "land and tenements," and there are index entries for childwite and ale. A brief sampling of the name index entries revealed that c. 30 percent of the names from these court rolls are those of women. By the 1360s most of the ale brewers appear to have been men, although for a fairly large village there are relatively few brewers fined in these courts. In two very unusual entries men were fined for permission to marry (114).

One might wish the introduction had been more carefully proofread, as there is an unfortunate misprint on p. 13 which refers to the tenements of 1577 and reads: "The average holding for all was over 3a." This should read 30a. The editor also omitted the "le" prefix from some of the surnames and apparently also omitted at least some of the phrases in the rolls that were crossed out by the clerk (46-7). But there is no question that this new volume will be of great interest to a variety of historians -- both professional and amateur -- who have come to appreciate the wealth of information that can be found in manorial court rolls.

Works Cited:

Kenneth Melton Dodd, The Field Book of Walsham-Le-Willows 1577. Suffolk Records Society, v. 17. Woodbridge, 1974.

Edward Miller, ed., The Agrarian History of England and Wales, 1348-1500, vol. 3. Cambridge, 1991.

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Anne DeWindt