12.10.04, Tollerton, Wills and Will-Making in Anglo-Saxon England

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Charles Insley

The Medieval Review 12.10.04

Tollerton, Linda. Wills and Will-Making in Anglo-Saxon England. Woodbridge: York Medieval Press with The Boydel Press, 2011. Pp. xiv, 327. ISBN: 978-1-903153-37-6.

Reviewed by:
Charles Insley
Canterbury Christ Church University

A study of the corpus of Anglo-Saxon wills, especially in their social and cultural contexts is long overdue, which makes Wills and Will Making in Anglo-Saxon England by Linda Tollerton all the more welcome. There have been earlier treatments of the corpus, by legal historians and those of manuscript culture, notably those, respectively, of Sheehan and Lowe, as well as Dorothy Whitelock's edition and translation of a majority, but not all, of the surviving wills. However, the former were concerned with technical issues--the will as a legal instrument, for instance, or the transmission of texts across time--while Whitelock's edition was first published over seventy years ago. Much water has flowed under the historical bridge since then.

In the present volume, Tollerton is concerned to place the wills primarily in their socio-political context; the book is divided into six chapters, respectively dealing with the nature of the evidence; the process of will making; politics, power and the bequest of land; lay bequest of land; the bequest of movable wealth and finally the relationship between the wills, commemoration and lay piety. The volume is completed with some extremely useful appendices, listing the corpus of wills; the evidence for will-making in the Liber Elienisis and the Chronicon Abbatiae Rameseiensis (texts which feature large in Tollerton's work); bequests of movable wealth; churches mentioned in wills and finally a brief note on the late Patrick Wormald's unpublished material relating to wills.

The chapters themselves approach the Anglo-Saxon will on a broad front. Chapter two, in particular, is of great interest since it looks at the processes behind the making of wills, rather than the text themselves. Here Tollerton explores a world of intersecting social networks, lay and ecclesiastical, as well as an increasingly (during the tenth century) hegemonic monastic church. We also get a discussion of the various stages in the production of the will, whether a single item or multi-item bequest; from the disposition made in advance of mortal illness, the deathbed bequest, and the processes of contestation and confirmation that often followed the death of the testator. Crucially, Tollerton allows us to see the will in a dynamic framework, rather than simply as a documentary snapshot; while wills did not seem to have the evidential force of a solemn diploma, for instance, they seem to have spoken to future audiences, as well as present. Inevitably, perhaps, there is a Fenland character to this chapter, since it is the material produced during the 11th and 12th centuries in the great Fenland houses of Ramsey and Ely, whether the Liber Elienisis or the Chronicon Abbatiae Rameseiensis that provides the bulk of the narratives concerning processes, rather than the texts themselves. The refoundation of these abbeys as part of the Aethelwoldian familia may have created very specific circumstances concerning commemoration and bequest in this part of eastern England during the later tenth and eleventh centuries, but even so they provide a window into a lively and competitive local society, one in which testamentary disposition loomed large.

Subsequent chapters look at wills in an explicitly political context (Chapter 3), as well as evidence for the land strategies of great and the good of the tenth century. Chapter 3 provides some useful synopses of the royal wills from Alfred onwards, in particular the very interesting and rather understudied will of the Aetheling Aethelstan, eldest son of Aethelred "the Unready," who died in 1014. Again, Tollerton provides the signal service of placing the wills in a much wider political context, seeing wills as an integral part of the way in which Alfred's dynasty and, more broadly, the landed elite of the tenth century sought to husband and manipulate their landed resources.

Chapter 5 dwells not on land, but on movable wealth, whether slaves, livestock, rich objects, books or textiles. This chapter makes a couple of observations of fundamental importance. First, multi-item bequests involving land and movable wealth are very much a tenth century phenomena. In fact, as an aside, one of the best aspects of this impressive book is that Tollerton does not treat will making in a static way, but highlights important developments over the lifetime of the will; in other words, will-making reflected changes in elite culture across the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries. Returning the movable wealth, Tollerton argues, convincingly to my mind, that the placing of movables in wills was not simply chance or haphazard, but served an important social function. In essence, the placing of movable goods in wills replaced the placing of movable wealth in graves as part of funery ritual while serving the same function: that of displaying and negotiating status. The items bequeathed in the will were therefore selected carefully--wills sometimes contain references to the testator's "best" item--to construct and reify the status of the testator and his family, what Timothy Reuter called "positional goods" (188). There are, of course, crucial differences between the early Anglo-Saxon period and later, most notably the involvement of the testator in constructing the will, whereas in earlier funery display, it was the family of the deceased who generally orchestrated things.

In terms of slaves and livestock, Tollerton makes the important point that here, too, matters were carefully thought through and that while slaves were freed as an act of piety, often it was only a certain group--frequently the witetheowum, or penally enslaved. In any event, the bequest of stock and slaves and the manumission of the latter was designed not to affect the agrarian functioning of the testator's landed property. Further in this chapter Tollerton provides in a gendered exploration of the surviving will corpus, noting that the handful of female wills that survive tend to have a much more extensive range of movable goods than those of laymen and, just as interesting, in many respects the wills of ecclesiastics resemble more female wills than those of men, in particular in bequests of books.

Perhaps the most useful service this book renders is to place the surviving corpus of wills in a chronological frame. The wills reflect the dynamism of Anglo-Saxon society across the ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries, as well as providing crucial evidence for that dynamism. It is striking, as Tollerton notes, that the corpus contains so much material from after 900, for this was a period that saw profound changes in Anglo-Saxon society and its economics. The wills, especially the non-royal ones, are witness to the emergence of an elite rather different from that of the seventh to late ninth centuries, with a different relationship to the church, especially the monastic church and a different approach to property. The wills, therefore, are not simply a resource to be quarried for indicators of wealth and status, but a key part in understanding the society that evolved in southern England in the century and a half before 1066.

This is an important and very useful book. It provides the first systematic multi-thematic treatment of these neglected sources, and does so in an interesting and engaging way. The author's conclusions are underpinned by an impressive level of scholarship drawn from right across the world of early medieval history, and synthesised in a way that does not appear forced. This book is now the thing to read on Anglo-Saxon wills.

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Author Biography

Charles Insley

Canterbury Christ Church University