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19.05.03 Rosenthal, Social Memory in Late Medieval England

19.05.03 Rosenthal, Social Memory in Late Medieval England

In Social Memory in Late Medieval England: Village Life and Proofs of Age, Joel T. Rosenthal pries open a bit wider the window on the quotidian existence of the lower ranks of late medieval English society through a systematic examination of the Proofs of Age preserved in the Inquisitions Post Mortem. The Proof of Age was an inquest conducted by the royal escheator when the heir or heiress of a deceased tenant-in-chief attained majority. The escheator empaneled a jury from the community and instructed each juror to plumb his memory--twenty-one years into the past for an heir and fourteen or sixteen years for an heiress--and to present a recollection to verify the claimant's date of birth and baptism. A juror's memory, once offered, was virtually never gainsaid.

Rosenthal mines a rich vein of evidence. The dozen volumes of the Calendar of Inquisitions Post Mortem he assesses, those stretching from 1377 through 1447, contain 414 Proofs of Age and nigh onto five thousand individual memories. He characterizes his undertaking metaphorically: the creation of a mosaic in which each individual memory is a tessera.

Rosenthal is aware of potential pitfalls in his source. It is not unusual for a jury's dozen memories in a Proof to be virtually identical, for the first juror's testimony to be aped by the eleven others. Rosenthal speculates that the escheator may have ridden into the village with a handful of administratively acceptable types of memories in his pocket, prompts to jog the jurors' recall. He thinks, moreover, that the first juror may have become a de facto foreman whose statement blazed the mnemonic trail for his colleagues. Whatever the case, the repetition of memories within a Proof broaches the question of the veracity of any individual memory, the question of whether it is rooted in something that indeed happened. This is largely beyond demonstration in individual instances but Rosenthal notes that a memory had to be "socially credible" (2), plausible within a community's shared social experience and collective knowledge and memory, a requirement that imbues these memories with value independent of their accuracy. This being said, many of the memories Rosenthal presents, especially more detailed and idiosyncratic ones, at least have verisimilitude.

For Rosenthal, the corpus of memories sorts itself readily into categories. It is unsurprising that the largest category, nearly half, revolves around birth and especially baptism since this was the inquest's raison d'être. The memories run the gamut from the preliminaries to birth through the churching of the mother more than a month afterward. They sometimes reflect a juror's personal recollection of the experience of the heir or heiress. Others recount a juror's recalling of the same events in his family's lives. It is within these memories that the role of women is most pronounced. Not only the mother but also the midwife and the wet nurse move to the front of the stage; however, the woman, even here, does not address the audience directly. Baptism and churching were public ceremonies in which a juror could have direct personal experience, but birth was a private and overwhelmingly female matter in which the juror's memory has an "as told to" quality. Every memory, regardless of context, then passed through a second male filter, the escheator's, before its memorialization in the Proof. While the medieval woman of lower social status rarely speaks her own words, it seems especially paradoxical that her voice is so muffled when her role is so central and crucial.

Rosenthal moves then to memories that speak more generally to life in the village rather than narrowly to birth or baptism. He fits these recollections under the rubric of "memories of coincidence," "memories of things that happened to happen around the time of that critical birth or baptism" (56). These memories sometimes arise from life-cycle milestones in a juror's family or circle of acquaintances, such as birth, marriage, or death. Others reflect misfortune, the reality that "bad things happen" (63), whether it be a destructive storm, an injury, poor health, or local sociopathy, anything from brawling to robbery to murder. A juror's memory is sometimes bound with his perception of his status and his projects in the community. Perhaps his son was ordained to the priesthood or the juror held a local or even royal position of responsibility or he had a coup in his commercial dealings.

A juror's witnessing of a baptism was sometimes pure happenstance, so his memory might revolve around the reason he was in church in the first place, to attend mass or to hear a lesson or to celebrate a wedding or to seek the rector's counsel and comfort. In this circumstance, the church itself might offer the anchoring memory. Its belfry collapses, its interior is refurbished, or its parishioners augment its possessions through a pious donation.

Rosenthal emphasizes that a juror's mnemonic points of reference need not be located exclusively inside his village. The ascension of an heir or heiress might coincide in a juror's recollection with a traversing of the village's metes or at least with passage into a different social space: embarkation or return from pilgrimage, the embracing by a son or daughter of religious orders, the placing of a son in apprenticeship. A juror's memory, moreover, might expose his cognizance and even personal experience of the crown's entanglements with adversaries, both domestic and foreign.

Rosenthal completes his exploration of the Proofs with a few words about "odd memories," unique recollections that defy easy categorization. These memories underscore for Rosenthal that, regardless of the social content of most memories, a juror did not have to succumb to peer pressure and always remained capable of offering an individualistic response to the escheator's standardized query: "How do you remember?" (3).

There is much to commend in Social Memory. Rosenthal accepts a perennial scholarly challenge: piercing the veil that obscures the thoughts of the lower orders of English medieval society. His resourcefulness in making new use of an old source toward this end is admirable. Even better, the source in its entirety is freely available online. The problem remains tantalizing and a fully satisfying solution likely will remain beyond scholarly reach unless the mythical peasant diary materializes; nevertheless, Rosenthal's analysis closes the distance.

As an analysis of memory, Social Memory offers a tepid conclusion encapsulated in a single sentence: "So the conclusion is that memory is both our link to a social identity--what we shared with others--and a key to our separate, individualized existence" (115). The decision by the series and perhaps also by the publisher to constrain Rosenthal from offering a précis of the state of play in the study of social memory is unfortunate. A prudent path would have been to jettison the largely superfluous abstract opening each chapter to make space for historiography. This would have enabled Rosenthal to situate his work more securely within the literature and increase the book's accessibility and value to a broader readership.

As an exploration of rural society, Social Memory renders useful service. Rosenthal's scouring of the Proofs adds to the growing corpus of anecdotal evidence drawn from the predominate sources for rural history (i.e., manorial court rolls, accounts, rentals, customals, and extents). The amalgamation of all these materials offers the best path, indeed likely the only path, to better understanding of medieval society's lower strata. The completion of Rosenthal's mosaic will ultimately be a cooperative venture relying on accretion of the scattered bits and pieces incidentally preserved in every possible source. Rosenthal of course grapples with the inherent limitations of the Proofs: testimony from a mature, reasonably prosperous male juror whose gaze was pushed upward by focus of the inquest and then perhaps drawn side to side as he stood among his fellow jurors but only then directed toward the most voiceless in the community--women and marginals--as dictated by the quirks of his memory and his interests.

It would be a dereliction of responsibility not to address shortcomings in presentation in Social Memory. In a lengthy work, the odd typographical error is not especially noteworthy and nearly inevitable; in publishing's primeval, pre-digital era, the inclusion of an errata sheet in the late stages of production was common, the publisher's signal of a commitment to offer the cleanest text possible. Social Memory is not lengthy and something went amiss editorially in Chapter 2. Its handful of proofreading errors and inconsistencies in pattern of citation can be overlooked. Perhaps the word-processing tyrants autocomplete and autoformat can be blamed when Table 2.3 (20) offers as its column headings decades from the mid-twentieth century (1930s, etc.) instead of the intended decennial age cohorts (30s, etc.). More concerning is the appearance of fifty-three notes in the text but only fifty-two in the chapter's endnotes. There was no nefarious intent but merely a failure to attach a number to the materials for note three in the endnotes, an omission made more perplexing by an internal citation to the unnumbered note in endnote two (23). The result is that fifty notes in the text direct the reader to the wrong endnote. Considered in toto, these errors create a "bad look." First impressions count and plural errors undermine the reader's confidence in what follows, though the balance of the monograph is relatively clean.