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13.06.16, Hicks, ed., The Fifteenth-Century Inquisitions Post Mortem: A Companion

13.06.16, Hicks, ed., The Fifteenth-Century Inquisitions Post Mortem: A Companion

The inquisition post mortem was the inquiry--and the document reporting its findings--conducted upon the death of a tenant in chief. Its purpose was to determine the extent of the land held (and under what terms), its value, and the identity (and majority or minority) of the heir. The motive behind the procedure was to protect the crown's interest in the transmission of real property and, given the considerable number of heirs not yet of legal age, to seize upon the opportunity for taking land into wardship and perhaps for controlling and profiting from the marriage of the heir. A writ, usually that of diem clausit extremum, went from the sheriff to the escheator, instructing him to summon a jury to supply the requisite and fairly standardized information about the lands in question, information then transmitted to the chancery and, despite many gaps and flaws, preserved among the public records for our perusal.

Inquisitions Port Mortem were first published in extensor as far back as 1806, as Calendarium Inquisitionum Post Mortem sive Excaetarum. They became of serious value for scholarly purposes when the Public Record Office began to publish them in 1904, in calendar form and with elaborate indices, for the reign of Henry III. They appeared at reasonable intervals into the 1970s, by which time they had run through the reign of Richard II. There was then a pause until, in the 1980s and under the diction of J. L. Kirby, volumes for Henry IV and Henry V were brought out. There was then another hiatus until the recent kick-start--heralded in the volume under review--goes back to 2003, when under supervision of Christine Carpenter of Cambridge (rather than of the National Archives) and now published by Boydell, five volumes have been produced in quick order (xxii–xxvi: 2003–2010), covering Henry VI from 1422 to 1447. All the volumes are published in calendared version and they now include such valuable material as manorial extents and marginalia, all omitted until the Kirby volumes.

The collection of papers under review offers the proceedings of a conference held at the University of Winchester in 2010, organized by the editor of this volume: to "celebrate the publication…(and) to ensure their exploitation" (xi). The idea was to survey the recent volumes, to contrast them with earlier efforts, to spur efforts to close the later-Lancastrian and Yorkist gap, and to look ahead to an AHRC grant for digitalization of the entire corpus. What we have in this volume, as the contributions of 12 authors from the conference, is a kind of erudite variety show; experts take the stage to tell what and how the IPM's shed light on their special topics and areas of research. A few papers turn a bit away from this and talk of the administrative process that produced an IPM, of what we know about the juries summoned to provide the requisite information, and about technical problems regarding editorial decisions on how to deal with place names. The volume's editor offers a wide-ranging general introduction, touching many bases in boosting the value of and the insights provided by these documents.

After his comprehensive introduction Michael Hicks opens with a discussion of what we can learn about "dower, jointure and courtesy," surveying what IPMs offer on the transmission of property in ways other than the paradigmatic male heir to male heir fashion. Though only 30% of the IPMs cover estates held by a woman, women were a much greater factor when we look at lands they hold by dower and jointure and by various other arrangements. Many examples and no argument with Hicks' reminder that "the transmission of property across the generations was complex" (44).

Christine Carpenter, author of a general introduction to the new series in volume xxii, mines the IPMs for what they tell us about "lesser landowners," moving away from the great lords who usually are the focus of attention, talking rather about estate building among the gentry. Choosing material found in volume xxii (2003) and now with access to manorial extents as well as the inquisitions, she is able to track the status and transmission of estates among many were who of local prominence but only able to claim "minimal tenures as tenants in chief" (53). We have instances of families resorting to all kinds of legal fictions to transmit lands, to many reminders of the persistent gap between the estates and resources of the middling sort and the truly rich, to glimpses of all kinds of manorial assets other than land, and to numerous indications of hard times and of negligent and absent landlords.

Kate Parkin turns to what the IPMs tell about property that came into the hands of idiots (sic). Since those deemed to be thusly impaired could not hold their lands, concealment was the obvious strategy of the family--especially of would-be heirs concerned lest property be exploited by others or even lost for good--and we see how local society could conspire to hide information from the grasping hands of the king, he always eager to profit from wardships. In some instances, at least, the escheator did seek to learn if the idiocy had been from birth or whether the afflicted landholder had intervals of lucidity, though the interest was "for tenurial, not medical purposes" (84).

Chris Dyer turns to the value of the IPMs for economic and social history, as we would expect him to do. And here the value of publishing the manorial extents (where we have them) for determining economic health (or the opposite) for estates under inquiry is shown to advantage. Dyer probes a number of economic questions, based on explicating rich examples chosen from a large body of material: the decline of labor services, the effects of border warfare and raids, the decay of buildings, the fluctuations of village and urban economy, the extent of enclosure, the wide spread existence of deserted villages, and value of miscellaneous assets (as with Carpenter). As do others in these essays, he warns of the limits and shortcomings of the documents on which all of this is based. Dyer's comments about the knowledge and honesty of those who compiled the IPMs, as well as of those whose testimony provided their raw material, are to be kept in mind.

Matthew Holford, in a salutary check upon our enthusiasm for this brave new world of these IPMs, turns to manorial valuations and extents--records that are "Notoriously Unreliable," as characterized in his chapter title. His theme is to determine if the IPMs consistently or invariably under-valued the estates being examined, the motives for such being obvious. He looks at some estates where a variety of kinds of documents allows for such a comparison. And while the general impressions is that IPMs do err (and probably deliberately) in the direction of under-evaluation, Halford offers many instances of "not always" or "not by very much," to set against cases where the figures diverge widely (as they do for the Scrope of Bolton lands, p.125, or those of Sir William Plumpton, p. 128). If the pattern of under-evaluation is the prevailing pattern, it is hardly the only game in town and Halford's concluding comments take us back to the lessons about "the difficulty of generalizing about the reliability of IPMs…and about the uses that can be made of the documents" (142). We know little about the sources of local knowledge or the bias of jurors, witnesses, or officials. As with the idiots, the desire to hide information and to under-value assets set problems we cannot expect to solve with any finality.

Margaret Yates looks at Berkshire Feet of Fines for a comparison with the data derived from IPMs for the county. Berkshire has been chosen because its varied topography and agricultural profile allow us to track different economic trends, such as the shift from arable to pasture at a time of "low population densities" (151). That the data of the IPMs are not too far from those of the Feet of Fines is welcome news as we gauge reliability of the sources.

L. R. Poos, J. E. Oeppen, and R. M. Smith revisit Josiah Russell's use of the demographic data based on the IPMs. With appropriate tribute to a pioneer who was so far "ahead of his time" in 1948, they point to some weak links in Russell's chain of logic (and in his interpretation of the sources) regarding life expectancy. And when we ask about the seasonality of mortality, fourtheenth-century material seems to argue against any dramatic spiking in certain months, at least not on a consistent basis. We now have detailed studies of monastic life expectancies that indicate Russell under-estimated survival and longevity, though the difficulty of tracing individuals over a generation-plus keeps demographic assessments in the realm of educated guesses.

The volume concludes with four chapters that turn away from efforts to extract data from the IPMs and turn to administrative procedures, to those jurors on whose labors the edifice of inquisition supposedly rested, and to problems of editing and accessibility. Sean Cunningham tells of the efforts to publish IPMs, going back to the early nineteenth century and continuing through the creation of the PRO in 1832. Though calendaring the entries was accepted by the Public Record Office, disagreements about whether to include extents and valuations (and jurors' names and heirs' death dates) were but slowly resolved. Much is to be said for recent decisions to include as much information as possible and to index the volume to maximize access to subjects as well as to people and places. Claire Noble surveys the many kinds of writs actually used to ferret out answers to the king's questions--writs often resorted to in order to prod heirs or widows or guardians or even local officials who were slow to act or to tell the full story. If the writ of diem clausit extremum was the bread and butter of the procedure, there were quite a number of what we might think of as back-up or supplementary writs, if needed: amotus when an escheator had failed to act before his term of office expired, de melius inquirendo when more or better information was needed, de dote assignanda when the widow's dower had to be established, etc. Chancery was kept busy, often flooded with "information from interested parties who wished to activate the process by which they could legally regain control of their lands" (189). If the king could be impatient, so could be those who had waited in line for what they thought would soon be theirs.

Matthew Holford filters out what we can learn about the jurors. Usually they were men of the lower "middling sort," local free men, though on the jury for a nobleman we often find some of higher status, which is hardly a surprise. Jurors were usually locals, and when they can be identified in other records the one or two stints of jury duty for most of "our" men was apt to be their only known form of public or governmental service. But Holford casts a wide net and instances of extremely uninformed jurors and of men selected well in advance to assure the desired response can be set against records of estimable figures who can be identified as churchwardens, bailiffs and constables, and town clerks. Oliver Padel, in the final paper, seeks a middle ground where such complicated matters as how to publish Cornish place names when set against the agenda of orthography, onomastic variation, and indexing are best ironed out. The needs of the specialist in local or regional history should not be all that far from what is useful to the more general reader or to one who wishes to range across the landscape beyond a given region and its root stock of place names and local usage.

What emerges from these impressive and specialized papers is a confirmation of the idea that the king's government, in some fashion or other--and not always in the interests of those who were most concerned--was an affair touching a vast number of people. By the standards of the day it was big business. Also by those standards, it was a well recorded big business. To use an anachronism, a diem clausit extremum was an ignition key that started many engines.

To ignore the adage about not criticizing a book for what it does not treat, several aspects of the IPMs--and especially of the Proofs of Age proceedings held to determine when a minor heir had come of age (launched by a writ of de etate probanda)--have been ignored. And since the Winchester conference was the opportunity to discuss all aspects of these procedures and records, an opportunity to air differing views about Proofs of Age was allowed to go by the boards. The formulaic and widespread use of the same reminiscences as testimony can be weighed against such on-the-ground factors as jurors' ages, social memory, and cohort bonding. As to the IPMs themselves, when the heir was not easily identified a jury (or the escheator) might get involved in some genealogical research and we have instances of distant cousins, great nephews and nieces, and others well beyond the obvious and nuclear family being put forth as the winner. Apart from genealogical interest--no longer the high priority it once was in the use of IPMs--such inquiries tell us of extended family links and local awareness of and records about such matters.

For what the conference and the resulting volumes have chosen to cover, a compliment to all concerned. As we open a wider agenda regarding the links between the interest of the king's government and the give-and-take of local society, we have come to appreciate the complicated links whereby the local community, at the base, and the higher levels of the socio-political pyramid, fed each other. Also, as funded and joint projects are likely to be the way of much future research this volume is an impressive tribute to collective and collaborative work. Though there is always more that could be done, what has been done has been done very well.