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19.08.23 Woods, Medieval Hadleigh

19.08.23 Woods, Medieval Hadleigh

Medieval Hadleigh is a dedicated and capable amateur historian's account of the structure and operation of the manor of Hadleigh, Suffolk, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The author explains in the preface that the book is a labor of love written in the first instance for fellow enthusiasts of the town's history. While the author's lack of professional familiarity with the extensive secondary literature associated with manorial and urban history is readily apparent, her deep familiarity with the town's primary source material and her thorough treatment of the evidence yields an engaging monograph that even specialists can learn from.

The principal manor in Hadleigh belonged to the Benedictine Priory of Christ Church, Canterbury. Woods makes judicious use of two earlier accounts of Christ Church's manorial history, a 1930 thesis by J. F. Nichols on the management of the Priory's East Anglian holdings, and the classic 1943 estate study by R. A. L. Smith. She also benefits from more recent work by specialists in the history of medieval Suffolk, notably Mark Bailey, David Dymond, and Nicholas Amor. Drawing on these works, she makes a wide range of empirical comparisons between Hadleigh and other manors, providing a detailed account of conditions on the ground and bringing to light many of Hadleigh's distinctive traits as both a manor and a small town.

The book's ten chapters deal with many topics that have long been staples of manorial history. Chapters 1-4 provide contextual information about the lord, the tenants, and the general structure of the manor. Chapters 5 and 6 continue in the same vein, with greater detail about the administration of the manor and the types of tenancies found on it. The author moves away from the history of the manor in chapters 7 and 8 to explore Hadleigh's growth as a small town with a successful textile industry. Chapter 9 adopts a more topical approach, looking specifically at the types of courts and legal activity conducted in Hadleigh, emphasizing the workings of the local manor court. Chapter 10 provides a chronological overview of the longer-term development of the manor between Domesday and the Dissolution, focusing in particular on the financial benefits accruing to Christ Church from its possession.

Hadleigh was, in many respects, a classic Benedictine manor with a history common to many such entities. Christ Church used its landed endowment for self-provisioning and rent income in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, switching to market production by the 1270s. Estate managers moved away from market production at some point between 1377 and 1405, opting to lease Hadleigh's lands to local entrepreneurs for the remainder of the convent's history. During the period of direct market production--the primary focus of the study--Christ Church used its demesne of roughly 600 acres to grow a standard combination of wheat, rye, barley, and oats and to maintain a flock of about 100 sheep. A mix of permanent staff, hired laborers, and customary tenants owing work services provided the requisite labor. Villein tenants constituted 61 percent of the manorial population, a relatively high proportion by Suffolk standards but in line with large ecclesiastical estates in other parts of the country. The total manorial population was over 1,000 people in the early fourteenth century with perhaps 500 more residents living in the town and on other small manors under different lordship, making it a sizeable settlement, more like a small town than a rural village. The local courts generated a healthy share of total manorial income through most of its history, as did several mills and a local market and fair.

While Hadleigh can be described as a classic ecclesiastical manor, it also had some exceptional features. It shows the influence of Prior Henry of Eastry's unusually entrepreneurial management style, as described so well in Smith's study of the estate. A notable byproduct of Eastry's efforts is an unusually detailed survey of the manor in 1306, which Woods uses to good effect in many parts of the book. Hadleigh's success as a cloth producer is another notable feature. The town specialized in the production of brightly colored straits and other cheaper types of cloth and made significant contributions to Suffolk's national prominence in textile manufacturing in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Woods managed to identify 72 individual dyers residing in the town in the period from 1272 to 1381, a testament to the importance of the industry in the local economy. Another surprising feature of the manor and town was the level of investment in mills and milling, with no fewer than seven mills in operation in or near the town, including a valuable overshot fulling mill, possibly one of the earliest in the county. The court system also presents some interesting features, notably the operation of a "court general" alongside the traditional manor and leet courts, although Woods' description of the court general is decidedly thin. It appears to have operated as an amalgam of the other two courts but the precise relationship between the courts is unclear. A final distinctive feature worth noting is the possibility, endorsed by Woods, that Wat Tyler, one of the leaders of the 1381 revolt, lived in Hadleigh for a period of time before taking up residence in Maidstone.

The author's limited reliance on secondary literature filters through the discussion of these distinctive features and sometimes reduces the value of her analysis. An understanding of John Langdon's work on mills, for example, would have added depth to the author's account of the subject. Similarly, her account of the local manor court would have benefitted from greater familiarity with work by Zvi Razi and Richard Smith, among others. Other influential interpreters of the period's social and economic history, such as Richard Britnell and John Hatcher, are similarly notable omissions from the bibliography. The author's lack of engagement with the literature of legal history is particularly problematic. On two occasions (110 and 219), she refers to customary tenants having "seisin" of their lands, apparently unaware that only freeholders could have seisin of their holding (the seisin of villein land was vested in the lord, not the tenant). She also makes some ill-informed statements about the relationship between Hadleigh's local courts and the Common Law courts. In her discussion of criminal activity handled in the leet court, for example, she shows no awareness that justices of gaol delivery handled most felony trials in the later thirteenth century and virtually all in the fourteenth century (e.g. 217, 220).

Considering that the author's goal in writing the book was to squeeze as much detail as possible about Hadleigh's local history from manorial documents, it is perhaps unfair to be overly critical about missing connections to the work of professional historians with different interests. While the book is likely to be of limited interest to experts in the field, it has considerable value for readers interested more generally in medieval social and economic history. The author's prose is clear and direct, her organization of material is praiseworthy, and her presentation of facts is careful and thorough. The book is copiously illustrated with scenes of medieval rural life and provides a wealth of accessible material in tables and appendices. Considering how the author came to the subject and what she aimed to accomplish, it is remarkable how well she succeeded in her efforts.