15.06.23, Britnell, Durham Priory Manorial Accounts, 1277-1310

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Sherri Olson

The Medieval Review 15.06.23

Britnell, Richard. Durham Priory Manorial Accounts, 1277-1310. Publications of the Surtees Society, 218. Woodbridge: Surtees Society, 2014. pp. lxxiv, 379. ISBN: 9780854440733 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Sherri Olson
University of Connecticut

The monastic cathedral (or cathedral monastery), where a body of monks took the place of a body of secular clergy, was a (mostly) English model of ecclesiastical community, a product of the monastic reform movement of the tenth century. This transformation occurred at Durham Cathedral in 1083. Durham Cathedral Priory (hereafter DCP) survived until December 1540, when the prior signed the deed of surrender to the Crown, and by May of 1541 'a new foundation was established' with a dean and eleven prebendaries. [1] The Surtees Society has published more than thirty volumes from DCP's store of records, covering the period from its foundation to the Dissolution. The editor of this volume, Richard Britnell, passed away in December 2013 as this edition was in its final stages; thus it marks a final contribution to his many years of work on DCP materials.

The priory at Durham is represented by a wealth of evidence. Miranda Threlfall-Holmes notes that the DCP archives have long been recognized as among the most important collections of medieval monastic records in Europe. Their volume and range are especially good for the obedientiary accounts, including the bursar's accounts which begin in 1278 and survive as a good series from the fourteenth to the early sixteenth centuries. [2] Over this period, the format and content of the account rolls were almost unchanging, a 'tribute to the extraordinary conservatism and rigidity of Durham's accounting organisation.' [3] The offices of sacrist, hostillar, chamberlain, almoner and cellarer were all in existence by the end of the twelfth century, and the terrar emerged by 1230; in the 1250s a systematized central receiving officer or bursary (officium bursariatus) was created, which became and remained the central financial department at DCP. The bursar himself was first mentioned at Durham in 1265, the first rolls survive from 1278/9, and from about that time to the Dissolution, the nature of his financial responsibilities was also remarkably unchanging. The archives are also notable for their 'impressively miscellaneous' character. [4]

The priory at Durham dominated its region as a centralized lordship, as the hub of employment (and human relations!), investment, land management, and much else besides. Britnell emphasizes the priory's 'self-sufficiency' with respect to restocking herds and flocks, the manufacture of implements, timber resources, production of foodstuffs and iron, and the like (lviii-lix). Much of this self-sufficiency was informed by the fact that 'the town and suburbs of late medieval Durham [were a] heterogeneous collection of small villages rather than an integrated urban community.' [5] Proximity and interdependence must have had a significant impact on the incidence and the quality of interaction and mutual knowledge between DCP and 'St Cuthbert's people.' Indeed, Margaret Bonney describes Durham the town as remaining in a state of 'arrested development' to the end of the Middle Ages, with its ecclesiastical overlords making no concessions regarding self-government, and compares this situation with that of Bury St Edmunds, 'because of opposition from the convent to any self-government by the townsmen.' But she also points out that Durham's townsmen did not rebel against their overlords. 'Indeed, most of the evidence points to peaceful co-existence' even in the difficult economic climate of the early fifteenth century. [6]

The present volume contains eleven complete accounts for eight different manors over the period 1277 to 1306, and ninety-six 'enrolled accounts' or summaries of one manor (occasionally two), such as the grain and cash accounts only for the manor at Houghall in 1302, or the accounts for the dairy at Bearpark in 1297. The tables in the introduction are helpful in summarizing data from this corpus of early accounts, e.g., showing which manors were in the prior's hand and which were leased from 1298-9 to 1310-11 (Table 2), wages of plowmen, 1303-4 and 1304-5 (Table 9), and wool sales from Durham Priory, 1298-1311 (Table 13). Each document is fully described, and a user-friendly apparatus of glossary, notes on measures (wherein, for example, the mysteries of the short and long hundred are clearly explained), and the like, make it possible for those unfamiliar with manorial administrative documents to wander through the riches of this volume, and glimpse the complex world they faithfully but only partially reflect.

The editor draws our attention to the scarcity of such evidence for northern England, and points out some of the questions which account records invite, e.g., a study of investment on the estate (xxiii); some of the less immediately apparent lines of inquiry that might be tackled include whether there were 'signs of tension' between the Priory and the managers (xxviii), an important question given the known difficulties of supervision in the Middle Ages, and apparently borne out here by the presentments of three village juries in 1302 regarding the depredations of the seruiens (the local farm manager, a priory official) (205-7). At Ketton in 1309-10 the seruiens accounts for £22 10s 9d received for grain which he sold secretly and for which he did not charge himself on account as discovered by inquest (clam uendidit...sicut inuentum est per inquisicionem) (303). But these are the only notices in this volume of such activities on the part of the managers. The possibilities are also good for a focus on goods, services, and their circulation as aspects of social and cultural history. Below are just a few of the interesting paths one could follow.

1) Reading through the accounts of the different manors, one is struck by the evidence for the traditions of women's work and children's (youths') work on the manors, and thus the variety of employment opportunities to which they, as well as men, would have been attuned: we read of payment (in the form of a livery of grain) to a maid 'keeping the houses and fire' (domos et inguens) for twelve weeks at the manor of Wardley in 1290 (37); payment to two lads driving the plow for thirty-eight days while the other workers were doing other work (dum alii famuli fecerunt alia opera), and to two boys looking for two lost bullocks for eight days until they were found in the forest; payments to women serving the roofers, carrying hay, weeding for ten days, loading carts and wagons and raking hay (58); women tedding hay; work stopping at noon propter plouiam (68); livery of grain to the swineherd 'for his food as he goes and comes through town' (80); reapers working only until noon propter uigiliam of a feast day (59); payment to two women loading wagons and carts in the field for seven days (86); at Bearpark in 1296-7, wages were paid to twenty-two plowmen, six carters, one cowman, one swineherd, one smith, one dairymaid, four more carters, one carpenter, and to Ivo the reeve, Gilbert the granger and for the service of the clerk (99); payment to one siccatrix for drying malt (124); livery of grain 'to a certain lad (cuidam pagio) assisting Haw the shepherd for sixteen weeks' and to another lad for one month in lambing time, and to the woman who got milk for the lambs (mulieri querenti lac ad agnos) (131); wages for boys going to Muggleswick to look for wheels and withies (147); wages for a certain woman for drying malt and winnowing grain in the farm-yard for thirty-six weeks (150); grain liveries to a certain woman and a certain maid helping to winnow and in making malt (152); livery of wheat to a 'certain poor woman' for sixteen weeks, and grain to the workers for their 'yolmetis' (Christmas-fare) according to custom (ex consuetudine) (126); payment for the seeking out of sixteen cartloads of bracken for beds for the prior's visit (231); grain livery to a certain woman for curing sick oxen (250); wages for three maids sorting seed for twenty-three days (274).

2) The mix of types of expenditures, the purchase of goods and services, down to the smallest item: the purchase in 1277 of leeks at Pittingdon for the lord prior's soup (ad potagium domini prioris) (14); dishes, sacks, clay pots, a lantern, leeks to plant and the cost of neutering twelve pigs--all under the sum of 3s 6d (158); purchase of a seedlop, a cask, and sieves, the cost of fitting hoops to tubs, and carrying in haystacks to the barn (167). Further, as the editor notes (xxiii), '[e]ven quite minor supplies were sometimes centrally provided, for reasons that can only be guessed at,' instancing the bursar paying for sheep ointment at Houghall in 1300-1 and payment for 'three pans bought for the manors' in 1302-3.

3) Human relations between lord and workers (and efforts to maintain good relations): the purchase of two thousand herrings for the harrowers in Lent and in autumn, and fifteen stones of cheese for workers in the accounting year 1305-6 at Belasis (60); provision of drink for the mowers (118-9); wheat liveries for the food of the common swineherd, and to eight workers of the farmyard for their 'yolmetes,' and a gift to the fisherman of Billingham (220); a courtesy gift (in curialitate facta) to a certain roofer roofing the sheepfold, and the blacksmith of Elvet for making iron plow parts (153); grain liveries as gifts from the lord prior (de dono domini prioris) to the smith, fishermen, baker, etc. (235).

4) The different categories of laborers, i.e., gradations of type of worker (and type of remuneration), where neat categories are rarely apparent: the clerk distinguishes between the work of outsiders and locals (in seruicio extraneorum, in seruicio notorum) (69); at Bewley, the wages of two plowmen are increased (in augmentacione stipendiorum) because one was also a carpenter and the other a roofer (70, 177); payment to women carrying water for three days for making walls per proprios seruos, between the chamber and the dovecote (158). Here it is not clear exactly who those proprios seruos are: was this work performed by customary tenants? hired workers? famuli (who, according to Britnell in note 611, would have been paid extra)? How marked was the distinction between customary tenants, hired workers, occasional laborers; and how to properly understand the extensive vocabulary for workers? e.g., operarii, ancille, quidam mulier, unus pagus, unus garcio, familia, famulus, cuidam...ex conuencione (i.e., 'to a certain person' performing some job 'by agreement,' such as carrying timber or making a dovecote) (174); payment of the wages 'of one man' tearing off the old roof of the barn at Billingham, and the wages 'of women carrying grain from the said barn and removing the old roofing' (158).

5) A built landscape emerges: repairs to the house of the farm manager, the chamber of the lord prior, the doorway of the larder (68); repairs to the walls of a chamber, roofing the hay barn and the wardrobe at Billingham (85); at the manor of Bearpark alone in 1302-3, we read of repairs to doorways, benches, trestles, animal stalls, the oven and a lead vessel in the kitchen, the making of a window of glass in the hall, mending the walls around the manor, making hedges and ditches, cleaning ditches, and making gates (198); wages to twelve men and four women for tearing down part of the hall and taking off the old roof and cleaning within the hall at Belasis for one day; and wages for four women serving the mason around the walls of the camera for three and a half days (major renovations, in short) (254).

6) Livestock management: at Ketton in 1296-7, the farm manager accounts for the numbers of geese: how many are left from the previous year, how many have been born, how many purchased, how many sent to the community at Durham, how many died of disease (2), as well as the sixteen that died from dog bites (54); chickens eaten by foxes (in morsu wlpium) (93); renewing of one thousand sheep markings (i.e., raddle or color mark) (177); purchase of bread and ale for the great pig slaughter (ad magnum porcum ante mastacionem) (14); oxen being fattened for the kitchen (fuerunt pasti pro coquina) (87).

A world comes alive through such fragments. The manorial accounts in this volume give us a glimpse of life at Durham and in its region: a vast web of people, goods, services and necessary tasks, which runs from priory to people, and in which most people (perhaps nearly everyone?) could find a place, carve out a niche for themselves--surely this helps to explain not only that 'extraordinary rigidity' in the documents, but also that 'impressively miscellaneous' character of the archives as a whole. One has a recurring sense of an underlying ad hoc character, fluid and varied, with respect to all aspects of personnel and management issues, and yet it derives from a plan. E. Brehaut's comment in his study of Cato the Censor's De Agri Cultura, a manual on farming operations of the second century BC, seems perfectly applicable here: many of the digressions of that text do fit into a plan, but 'the logic is not ours' and there are 'numerous afterthoughts.' [7]



1. Margaret Bonney, Lordship and the Urban Community: Durham and its Overlords, 1250-1540 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 234.

2. Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, Monks and Markets: Durham Cathedral Priory, 1460-1520 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 16.

3. For the following points and a full discussion of the monastic economy at DCP, see Barrie Dobson, Durham Priory 1400-1450 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), ch. 8, esp. 254-260; quotation at p. 255.

4. Dobson, Durham Priory, 4.

5. Dobson, Durham Priory, 42.

6. Margaret Bonney, Lordship, 230-231 and n. 1.

7. Quoted in K.D. White, Roman Farming (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1970), 44.

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