14.10.12, Slavin, Bread and Ale for the Brethren

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James Davis

The Medieval Review 14.10.12

Slavin, Philip. Bread and Ale for the Brethren: The Provisioning of Norwich Cathedral Priory 1260-1536. Studies in Regional and Local History, 11. Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2012. Pp. xviii, 220. ISBN: 9781907396625 (hardback) 9781907396632 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
James Davis
Queen's University Belfast

Philip Slavin provides a fascinating study of the grain provisioning for Norwich Cathedral Priory in the later Middle Ages. The Benedictine priory was one of the wealthiest landlords in Norfolk, controlling some twenty demesnes by 1300. Its directly-managed demesnes could supply the priory with a majority of its consumption needs, and Slavin uses the rich estate and obedientiary accounts in order to track the grain from the fields to storage, processing and consumption. Indeed, he is interested in why the priory chose not to engage more with market networks in its grain supply profile, particularly given the relative commercialisation of Norfolk. The main argument is that the priory pursued rational strategies of self-sufficiency at a time when harvests, supply and prices could fluctuate notably year-on-year. Even when the brethren began to lease out their demesnes, they often demanded an annual food farm from the new tenants.

Norwich Cathedral Priory consisted of some sixty monks and 240 staff in the decades before the Black Death, though there was a steady decline thereafter, with less than half that number by the early sixteenth century. All had to be fed, along with a regular influx of visitors, and Slavin identifies three main methods of grain supply: from the manor, from the market, and via food farms. The priory lay within the sphere of a larger consumer, the town of Norwich itself, which would have needed a substantial supply of some 75,000 quarters of grain annually (not the figure of 27.4 million quarters stated on p. 3, which is a miscalculation due to multiplying by 365 twice). The priory needed to manage and protect its own food provision against such competition and it thus developed trusted relationships with a variety of suppliers, from merchants to tenants. There were year-to-year fluctuations in the amount purchased, depending on both prices and the reliability of demesne supply. However, Slavin identifies important underlying trends. From the 1260s to the 1390s, the market share of this provision increased from about a fifth to a third, particularly from the 1380s onwards and especially for rye and maslin. This was part of the general tendency among many religious houses to rely more on the market after the Black Death and cut back on direct demesne management, even as the priory population and grain requirements decreased. Slavin argues that there had been a shift from leases (Grundherrschaft) to demesne-based seigneurial economies (Gutsherrschaft) in the early thirteenth century as direct production was deemed more profitable. This situation was reversed by the late fourteenth century as many demesnes were again leased out in the new post-Black Death economic environment of increased production costs for lords. The chronology of leasing was not linear, with many briefly taken back in hand in the early fifteenth century, but the last of the priory's demesnes was leased by 1431. Although such leases meant more reliance on the market for institutional grain supply, a significant supply for Norwich Cathedral Priory still derived from fixed grain rents (particularly for malt).

Throughout the book, Slavin provides broader comparisons with a sample of ten other conventual houses and their demesnes. Although the strategies of crop disposal did differ between estates, the majority also moved from Gutsherrschaft to Grundherrschaft over the course of the fourteenth century. Norwich Cathedral Priory was more unusual in its increased demesne sales in the market, alongside just Ramsey Abbey and Westminster Abbey, while of those in the sample only Westminster Abbey was a significant purchaser of grain in the market up to 1380 (65% of its supplies). In terms of other possible comparisons, there are perhaps a couple of surprising omissions from the bibliography: Miranda Threlfall-Holmes's work on Durham Cathedral and John Lee's research on Cambridge colleges, both of which look at institutional food supply networks. [1]

In Chapter 3, Slavin uses a series of obedientiary rolls, 1264-1536, to analyze grain prices. The long-term trends are mostly related to weather, money supply and war, and the figures reinforce the notion of buoyant grain prices from 1350 to 1375, with particular peaks in 1350-3 and 1370. From 1376, a combination of good harvests and a decline in the volume of coinage pushed prices down. Slavin also notes that prices differed in Norwich compared to "elsewhere in the country" (44-45), using Oxfordshire and Cambridgeshire data for comparison. Slavin links this to issues of market integration, but the urban/rural dimension does also need to be taken into account. It would be interesting to have direct comparison with prices in other major towns in the region, such as Cambridge, Ipswich and Lynn, though it is unlikely that any available data is as rich as that found in the priory accounts. On a related note, there are figures and tables in the book where the data could be presented and labelled a little more clearly in order to help the reader see how calculations were derived. For instance, in Table 3.4 one assumes that these are annual frequencies of transactions, but it is difficult to see how this shows some thirteen annual transactions in the late thirteenth century, as stated in the text, when the number appears to be closer to twenty-five in the table. This would have implications for the extent to which transaction numbers fell after the Black Death (to c.11), before a recovery after 1431. Nonetheless, Slavin rightly notes that there is a clear, changing pattern over this period in the strategies for wheat purchases.

The grain production of the priory's demesnes is explored in more depth in Chapter 4, highlighting the influence of both ecology and institutions in crop choices. Slavin notes that the direct consumption needs of the brethren were as important as market factors in determining crop specialisation on the demesnes. Figures are provided for the annual gross crop receipt, comprising of harvest issues from the field, tithes, grain rents (or food farms) from tenants, grain carryovers, and gifts. The granary accounts show that before the 1350s a third of this crop receipt went to provision the priory, but this gradually fell thereafter to 18% until the last demesne was leased out in 1431. However, rye, oats and legumes were rarely part of this supply, with malted barley and wheat the main constituents. Slavin also produces some interesting estimates relating to grain production costs for the priory. Whether or not the wage data can be entirely trusted, per unit costs rose remarkably after the Black Death from 41% before 1350 to perhaps 92% and higher after 1376 (when grain prices collapsed). One can see in such figures the difficulties that lords were facing by the 1370s, leading to many leasing out demesnes, as well as possible broader social tensions.

Provisioning the priory, of course, needed transportation of the agricultural produce and in Chapter 5 Slavin examines the strategies and costs involved. The priory used a mix of customary carting services, the labour of hired famuli, and two permanent priory carters and two priory boatmen. As Slavin notes, reconstructing transportation costs is not an easy task given both the limited evidence in accounts and the varied use of permanent, temporary and customary labour. Nevertheless, he provides some useful estimates based on the known delivered grain and thus the number of cartloads and horses needed to transport it. Before the Black Death, he suggests that the priory annually required 500 cartloads or 1570 horse-trips, which would have been a logistical challenge and may suggest collaboration with other manors and the hiring of further horses and carters. With a fall in the priory's grain consumption after 1350, it is unsurprising to see the number of cartloads reduced to about 570 horse-trips a year. More importantly, Slavin attempts to calculate how this translates in terms of annual transportation costs, including wages, rentals, fodder and repairs. He argues that the costs of transporting one quarter of grain from an average demesne to the priory increased over time, from 1s. 11d. in the 1290s to 4s. 11d. in the 1380s. However, it is rather difficult to determine how these figures were derived from Figure 5.3. There is certainly an increase in transportation costs in relation to overall grain value, but would it really cost up to 3-5 shillings to transport a quarter of grain when it was worth a similar amount on the open market? Further on in the chapter (111), Slavin provides figures for 1431-1440, whereby the total transport costs (land and sea) are 1488d. for 860.3 quarters transported, which equates to about 1.7d. per quarter, which is much less than the 10d. suggested. Similarly, recalculating the stated 1421-1430 figure of 4s. 2 1/2 d. per quarter appears to give a cost closer to 12s. 6d. It is possible that a different calculation is intended by the author, but it is difficult to reconstruct with the information given, even in the appendix. However, although these figures perhaps need revision or more explanation, the main argument stands that the costs of production and transportation were becoming more burdensome for the priory, largely due to rising wages and despite the increasing use of boats. This would have been another factor that pushed the priory towards purchasing at the market in the fifteenth century.

Footnote 93 (p. 111) seems to provide a more accurate sense of the costs of transport, whereby a quarter of malted barley would cost 0.086d. by boat and 0.19d. by cart (presumably per mile), but there is no indication of how these figures were calculated. Slavin argues that the transport cost per quarter per mile for Norwich was much lower, perhaps by a factor of six, than the estimates of Bruce Campbell (or James Masschaele) of about 0.35d to transport a quarter of wheat per mile and 0.23d for a quarter of malted barley. [2] Again, the calculations appear uncertain. Using Campbell's figures, if an annual average of 2250 quarters of grain (two-thirds wheat and one-third barley, as per Figure 4.6) were transported to Norwich between 1291 and 1300, then it would cost 0.31d per quarter and a total of 697.5d to transport this amount for one mile. To reach the £240 annual figure stated by Slavin, the whole amount of grain would have to be transported some 82 miles, whereas the furthest inland destination from the priory was 60 miles away and the majority much closer. The actual priory costs of £46 could be the result of transporting this full amount an average of about 16 miles. Slavin suggests he multiplied the figure by both the amounts of grain and by the "total mileage," but it is unclear what this actually means. If he included return trips then it should be noted that neither Campbell nor Masschaele did so. One wonders if a recalculation might yield a figure much closer to Campbell's estimates. As Slavin suggests, it is certainly possible that professional carters were more expensive than using famuli or customary dues, but not to the stark extent proposed. Any differential was counterbalanced by the former using their own horses and carts and by the possibility that purveyance incurred a higher premium.

Chapter 6 investigates the storage of grain in barns and granaries, seeking to calculate the actual costs involved compared to the volume and value of grain stored, as well as any priory policies related to carryover. Various types of barns were used for threshed or unthreshed crops, which variously incurred costs of maintenance, threshing, winnowing, barn-keepers, and porterage. Slavin suggests this equated to annual storage costs per quarter of unthreshed crop of 1.2d before the Black Death and 2.8d after, far lower than many historians have calculated. However, it is unclear why threshing costs are included in the storage costs for unthreshed crop (Table 6.1), and then why an additional multiplication is applied (eg. 2.33 for wheat, related to the weight difference between straw and the resultant grain) in order to reach the cost for threshed storage. Surely the latter, by value, weighed less and took up less volume? Slavin's storage costs are also calculated after spoilage, whereas for most calculations of storage costs this would constitute the prime component. It is not clear how much of the crop value is lost to spoilage in Table 6.1 and no spoilage costs are included in the storage calculations for the Great Granary. Claridge and Langdon, in looking at purveyance accounts, included 6d for spoilage in their total calculation of 11d storage costs per quarter per year for threshed grain, so the comparable figure for direct storage costs is actually 5d for 1295-1349, compared to Slavin's rough average of 3.2d for those years. This still suggests that rented storage costs more than manorial space, but not to the same extent originally proffered of 70%.

An important question is asked as to whether barns acted as a means of risk dispersal against bad harvests. Slavin emphasises that the amount carried over between agricultural years was relatively insignificant, just 1.5% of the crop before the Black Death and 8.1% after for manorial barns. Slavin could determine no correlation between poor harvests and the amount of carryover in manorial barns, so there is little evidence for policies of risk-aversion or speculation, except for malt in the summers of the 1360s-1380s. This latter strategy appears to be due to over-supply of barley malt from tenant food rents as much as a deliberate policy of hoarding. There was too great a concern about the hazard of spoilage to make carryover a prominent aspect of grain management. Generally, stored grain was gradually depleted over the course of the agricultural year in provisioning the priory, feeding animals and for seed. The only evidence of more significant carryover was in the Great Granary, possibly as security against dearth since little was sold.

The last two chapters of the book deal with the actual processing and consumption of grain, from milling to baking and brewing. The priory had two permanent bakers and two brewers, and different types of loaves and quality of ale were produced for monks and guests or servants and famuli. In total, the brethren consumed 19% of the total wheat supply and 13% of the bread baked at the priory, which equates to c.2600 kcal per brethren per day compared to c.1000 kcal for famuli. The vast majority of the malt supply went to the brewer, who used two-thirds of this to provide the non-monastic population of the priory with a gallon of weaker ale each day, and the remaining third was converted to strong ale for the brethren and guests. A gallon of strong ale provided some 3360 kcal, but Slavin argues that it is unlikely that a monk would have consumed more than 1280 kcal of this. Nonetheless, together with the bread allowance, this is well beyond the normal calorific requirements for an adult male. Indeed, this is before we include in the monks' diet the priory's extensive purchases of meat, dairy and fish: "we may estimate, perhaps quite crudely, that in 1329-1330 a Norwich monk was offered daily food worth perhaps as much as 7600 kcal.", compared to a recommended 2500 kcal for non-labourers (171). It seems unlikely that the monks could have consumed their entire estimated provision, but it does still hint at the feasibility of traditional accusations of gluttony and obesity among the monastic ranks. [3] There were periods of relative abstinence during Advent and Lent but, in general, either large portions were the norm or there was significant waste or redistribution. It is the latter that Slavin emphasises, with waste accounting for 10% of the allocation and perhaps 40% given as charity for servants, paupers and prisoners. Indeed, the priory was perhaps capable of charitably feeding over 500 daily (alongside more from the almoner's soup kitchen). However, this still left the monks with a stomach-busting 3800 kcal a day.

Overall, this valuable book strikingly highlights the varied, responsive strategies employed by Norwich Cathedral Priory in order to ensure a steady supply of grain. A "dual provisioning" approach was used, with the self-sufficiency of demesne output supplemented by the market, but with the former remaining prominent until the mid-fifteenth century. Even when demesnes were leased out due to prevailing price/wage conditions, with interlinked increases in the costs of production, transport and storage, a significant part of the tenants' rent might include an annual food farm. Slavin argues that "economic conservativism on the part of the priory should by no means be equated with 'irrationality', 'inefficiency' or 'backwardness'" (189). The priory's policies suited late medieval socio-economic and environmental conditions.



1. Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, Monks and Markets: Durham Cathedral Priory, 1460-1520 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); John Lee, Cambridge and its Economic Region, 1450-1560 (Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2005).

2. Bruce M.S. Campbell, James A. Galloway, Derek Keene, and Margaret Murphy, A Medieval Capital and its Grain Supply: Agrarian Production and Distribution in the London Region, c.1300 (London: Institute of British Geographers, 1993), 193-198; James Masschaele, "Transport Costs in Medieval England," Economic History Review 46 (1993): 266-279.

3. Barbara Harvey, Living and Dying in England 1100-1540 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 34-71.

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Author Biography

James Davis

Queen's University Belfast