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17.07.14, Hicks, ed., The Later Medieval Inquisitions Post Mortem

17.07.14, Hicks, ed., The Later Medieval Inquisitions Post Mortem

The medieval English Inquisitions post mortem (IPMs) have attracted considerable interest from historians over the past decade and this new volume demonstrates once again how much can be learned from a careful and thorough sifting of their contents. Long the preserve of antiquarians and genealogists, the documents have found new life in the hands of social and economic historians, who have mined them for information about land values, resource exploitation, capital investments, collective memory, and religious practices, among many other things. This collection of thirteen essays, featuring a wide range of methodological approaches and topical concerns, amply demonstrates the wealth and variety of information available in the surviving corpus of IPMs.

Thematically, the essays fall into four discrete categories. The first consists of three essays focused on the adoption and adaptation of IPM procedure beyond its conventional use by English royal administrators to document the succession of tenants in chief. Gordon McKelvie examines the surviving inquests taken in Scotland and Calais, documenting the surprising geographical spread of IPM procedure and exploring the association between the making of IPMs and the public display of royal power in territories brought under the authority of English monarchs. Similarly, Paul Dryburgh explores the expansion of IPM procedure to Ireland, where a well-developed and effective system operated in Dublin both to provide information to Westminster about the lands of English lords with Irish estates and to document estate succession within Ireland itself. Jennifer Ward looks at an interesting offshoot of traditional IPM practice implemented on the Clare estate to keep track of its major tenants, with the lord's honour court serving as a proxy for Chancery. Taken together, these three essays demonstrate both the wide dissemination of inquest procedure and the close association between the taking of IPMs and the pursuit of effective governance.

A second distinct theme of the volume considers how the IPMs can enrich our understanding of agrarian history. Christopher Dyer's essay mines the IPMs from the west Midlands for data about local and regional variation of landscapes, land use, and farming practices. He uses the data to explore how environmental conditions mapped onto estate structures, lord-tenant relationships, and changes in resource exploitation over time. Stephen Mileson focuses on what IPMs reveal about place-names, field names, and other local topographical features, using south Oxfordshire as a test case. Careful attention to such incidental information, he shows, allows us a richer understanding of medieval perceptions of space and place. Matthew Holford assembles data about markets and fairs recorded in the IPMs, including some that are undocumented in other standard sources. While acknowledging that the monetary values attributed to markets and fairs in the IPMs are inconsistent and difficult to interpret, he argues that they provide a rough approximation of general levels of activity and shed a modicum of light on the fortunes of marginal venues that failed to survive into the sixteenth century. A similar resource-based approach informs Matthew Tompkins's study of mills and milling in the IPMs. Giving particular attention to material from the 1420s and '30s, Tompkins confirms the general reliability of current scholarly opinion about a late medieval decline in milling activity and the differing fortunes of watermills and windmills in the course of the decline.

A third group of essays seeks to illustrate cultural and religious sensibilities conveyed by the IPMs, particularly in the juror statements made to verify the birth date of heirs who claimed to have reached the age of majority, known as "proofs of age." In this category, William Deller contributes an excellent article about how we should understand the tendency for juror statements to repeat each other within single inquests and even across different inquests. He then goes on to consider what the cumulative evidence of the proofs of age reveal about employment situations, commercial transactions, and gift exchange as memory markers. Katie Clarke and Michael Hicks make a similar point about the prominence of religious ceremonies as memory sites, particularly baptisms and the churching of women after childbirth. They suggest that the IPM evidence casts a more favorable light on women's participation in parish life than is generally recognized while also illustrating the importance of parish churches as settings for a range of secular activities such as arranging sales and contracts. Michael Hicks rounds out this group, providing a somewhat disjointed essay on ceremonial display by social elites, monks participating in social activities outside their monasteries, and wine consumption and trade. The common thread, he suggests, is that each topic appears in a new light thanks to information gleaned from the IPMs.

Deller's essay about repetitive content in the proofs of age straddles the bounds of the fourth major thematic grouping in the volume, dealing with the nature of the sources and their immediate purpose and use. Included in this group is Janette Garrett's study of administrative efficiency in Northumberland as revealed in the county's surviving IPMs. She asks if one of the most remote English counties orbited around Westminster as consistently as counties that were more proximate and answers that it did, with some allowance for the extra time needed for writs and other documents to travel back and forth. Simon Payling's superb article on how tenants-in-chief used IPM procedure to gain legal advantage when contesting uncertain inheritance rights ends the volume on a high note. Payling argues that IPM jurors were poorly equipped to resolve disputes and evaluate conflicting claims and were therefore prone to manipulation. He demonstrates that in at least some situations, legal professionals drafted the verdict ascribed to the IPM jurors. Aggressive claimants used such drafts as prima facie evidence of the validity of their claim. They also worked assiduously to persuade escheators and other local officials to support their version of a property's descent, with the hope that such co-opting would yield a sympathetic jury.

Collections of essays are always heterogeneous and eclectic works of scholarship, and this collection is no different. It successfully maintains its focus on the IPMs as an exceptionally rich body of source material, but the very richness of the sources gives scholars considerable latitude in how to use them. Featuring a documentary source, rather than a topic or theme, as the organizing principle of a volume poses a challenge for editors and authors alike to make the whole something greater than the sum of its parts. These contributors have largely succeeded at the task, providing a volume that is engaging and insightful although sometimes individually limited in scope. While fully engaging the issue of what we can learn from the IPMs, many of the contributors sacrifice a wider field of vision in the process. They tend to fulfill their mandate by testing prevailing models and hypotheses and generally verifying their reliability or by making modest additions to the data available to evaluate broader issues. Collectively, however, the thirteen essays present some important perspectives on the period. They illuminate periods of darkness, particularly in the fifteenth century, when many other favored sources either peter out or are less informative. They demonstrate the scope and ambition of the medieval English state, including its ability to penetrate deeply into the social hierarchy. They offer impressive breadth of coverage, both temporally and geographically. Finally, they also provide information about a remarkably wide swathe of medieval society and allow us to see aspects of everyday life that are often difficult to discern in other sources. Collectively, they make a valuable contribution to existing scholarship.