Memory, Landscape, and a Coastal Community in 13th- and 14th-Century England

I am really looking forward to giving a short paper under the above title at the International Medieval Congress at Leeds soon in a very interesting session sponsored by the Landscape Research Group in Oxford. IMC Programme Session The Medieval Landscape. 

I have been very preoccupied in recent months with writing my book on medieval village children, and am still not quite finished with it. So it requires somewhat of a shift to think once again about my other project, a microhistory of the coastal fishing village of Heacham in Norfolk. The sources for the coastal manor of Heacham are unusually plentiful, if not always in the best of condition. Memory plays a crucial role in the rolls especially in the 13th century, when communal memory is used very actively to construct manorial court precendent to inform seigniorial policies regarding the manor. Memory was thus a communal tool to resist lordship, shape manorial custom and negotiate boundaries, physical, moral, economic and hierarchical boundaries. Whether memories are ‘true’ or not is really not of importance, it is the communal weight behind them that matters, the collectivity of an intellectual construct if you will, which establishes parameters within which community and lordship operates. On another level memory also operates in purely physical spheres, trees, fields, hills, mills, bushes, all become markers of identity.  The people who inhabit the coastline falling within the jurisdictional boundaries of the manor similarly embody a link between communal, collective memory, landscape and neighbourhood identity, forged through families holding particular tenements for generations, or living in neighbourhoods associated with particular crafts or the fishing industry. In places the land and the family identity intertwine, land being called ‘the lands of …’ followed by a family name even long after the family itself does not hold the land anymore. Memory and land thereby forges and re-enforces local identities and familial associations. So apart from the fun of seeing friends and colleagues again at Leeds, I really look forward to turning my attention and focus back to medieval Heacham.


Pots, Pans and Heriots

Image taken in the Malvern Hills by M. Muller 

Sometimes it is difficult to distance oneself from the material of one’s research. The Abbot of St Albans was hardly popular with his tenants. He treated the towns people of St Albans like unfree tenants, villeins, and even called them thus. I have previously written about his continued arguments with his tenants across various manors, which caused them to rise up in rebellion in 1381, and how even after the revolt was crushed, he continued to actively try to subjugate and humiliate his tenants. In various episodic clashes between the Abbot and his tenants, the latter kept pushing against seigniorial authority and the former striking back, occasionally with the backing of the king. When the townspeople buried their dead hanging from gibbets after the 1381 revolt secretly at night time, he ordered that their bodies be dug up again and replaced in the gibbets. Repeated arson attacks at various of the Abbot’s estates in, what seems to be revenge attacks after the suppression of the rising, show that even years after the revolt feelings ran high on the St Albans estates

One rarely commented upon fact of life in rural English society of the later Medieval period were the payments of heriots, or death duties to the lord, which fell due upon the death of a tenant, a head of a household, man or woman, holding the tenement from the lord in villeinage. The type of heriot exacted varied significantly according to locality and lordship. In some places only the best animal of the tenant who had died was collected from their heirs, and those without ‘beasts’ paid none. Some lords took cash payments instead of animals, and some do not seemed to have minded as long as something was given. If a family was impoverished, occasionally lords waived the heriot payment altogether, though admittedly this was fairly rare.

So this is where our favourite medieval Abbot comes in. At St Albans the lord took almost anything. He preferred the best animal, an oxen or horse, valuable animals and beasts of burden, we can also find him taken pigs and sheep. Things become troubling in the year the Black Death arrived in the various manors of the Abbey. Many holdings went through more than one heir in a single year as the plague took its terrible toll. The Court Books of the St Albans Manor of Winslow have been edited and translated by David Noy, and been published by the Buckinghamshire Record Society. Spanning much of teh 14th century, including the plague year of 1349, they tell a story of a ravaged population, struggling with the terrible effect of the epidemic, meanwhile the Abbot of St Albns was collecting heriot after heriot. When Ralph Kyng died holding a virgate of land a heriot of a bullock was collected. teh holdinmg went to Walter, Ralph’s brother, who died, and from whom a brass pot was collected worth 12d. The holding then went to Agnes, Walter’s sister, but she died as well and now the lord collected a heriot from her which was a mere plate which was worth a mere 6d. The next heir in line was Agnes’ uncle, John, who was finally excused from paying an entry fine to take up the holding as he was considered too poor. Or look at Henry who held nothing but a cottage from the lord and whose heriot was a dish worth a mere 1 penny and a half. While many tenants had a cow or horse when they died, their heirs often had far less valuable things left in their possessions. Joan had died holding a cottage  and her heriot payment was a cheap tunic. It makes me rather worried about the implications behind comments that individual tenants had ‘no heriot’ at all..

The Marker of Epidemic Death in Memory and Culture…


Halesowen Manor Court Roll, When in a case regarding inheritance in the village of Oldbury the ‘first pestilence’ is referred to in the late 1360s. With thanks to Wolfson Centre for Archival Research, Birmingham Library MS 346347.

Ever since I completed my BA degree my research has tended to hinge upon the Black Death. My research has often focused on teh changes which the Black Death did or did not bring to the Medieval English Countryside. Usually my conclusions were teh that effects were sweeping, momentous and vast, reaching into all areas of daily life, how people made their living, how people changed their perceptions of the world around them, which is also reflected in art, architecture, as well as written culture. Because the changes post the first arrival of the Black Death were so vast, the Black Death itself became a marker, an identifiable point in time when the clocks stopped, when everything seemed to collapse and then restart. How could it have been otherwise? When between 40 and 80 % of the population in your village is wiped out time stops, those left are traumatised and working to re-orientate themselves in a very different landscape. They have to reshape their lives around those empty spaces left by their departed loved ones and neighbours, people, whom they watched die in front of them, not hidden away in a sterile hospital, but in their cottages, their houses. One after another. The marker left was of direct relevance to the survivors and the next two generations or so which followed. It is a marker for us still. certainly for us historians, there was the time pre and post Black Death. It is all too easy to see teh Black Death with a degree of morbid fascination, followed by meaningless statistical data, which is devoid of humanity. Historians are sometimes guilty of talking in terms of ‘demographics’, rather than ‘people’, and this matters, ‘demographic decline’ sounds so much more clinical and acceptable than thousands of people died an agonising death. We feel that we need to pretend at being scientific and ‘objective’, but such scientific ‘objectivity’ can only surely be acceptable in the context of the first arrival of Yersinia Pestis because it happened such a long time ago.


Extract of the list of some of those who died in the Black Death in the mid 14th century at the manor of Halesowen, 1349. With thanks to Wolfson Centre for Archival Research, Birmingham Library MS 346 322.

For me, however, it does not seem so. I work almost daily with manorial court records which bring the men, women and children of England’s medieval villages to life. I see their agencies in buying land, arguing in teh local alehouse and hitting each other with agricultural implements. I see that many of them cared fro their relatives and their animals with whom they lived closely together. their lives were real. these were people and not statistics. When I look though the court rolls of Halesowen, as I have done last week, and I come upon the list of those tenants who died in the Black Death, and it makes me so sad that those people who only a few months ago were trading, arguing, buying, selling, agreeing, negotiating and caring had suddenly stopped mid – track. I see those lists of the dead and it fills me with a sense of responsibility as a historian. These people were not statistics , impersonal ‘demographies’, but real human beings. For the survivors of Halesowen, the arrival of this terrible mortality left a memory marker, to be referred to in future years as ‘the first pestilence’, which was the worst, the main agent of change.


Pointy Fingers


( Wolfson Centre Archive, Birmingham Halesowen Court Rolls, MS 346278 )

Pointy fingers are interesting and they appear quite frequently along the margins of manorial court rolls. As far as I know nobody has really looked at the little doodles in the margins of manorial documents. They are certainly not as engaging or colourful or plentiful as the marginal illuminations found in other medieval manuscripts, but they are still worthy of some research. Occasionally one can find sketches of faces or doodles around individual letters. The feeling conveyed is that of a scribe bored to tears sitting through convoluted cases in the manor court. However pointy fingers are very deliberately placed. They usually ‘point’ at cases involving land or status.

They are also often in a different colour than the remainder of the manuscript, which indicates that they were at least sometimes added at a different time to the original entry. Like some of these ones, all found in the court rolls of the  manor of Halesowen.


( Wolfson Centre Archive, Birmingham Halesowen Court Rolls, MS 346273 )

Or this one. WP_20160726_11_58_50_Pro

( Wolfson Centre Archive, Birmingham Halesowen Court Rolls, MS 346263 )

I suspect that some of these point fingers were inserted when inquiries into specific cases or the status of individuals or their holdings had been ordered by the court. Occasionally in such inquiries it is stated that the court rolls had been consulted to resolve the case. Pointy fingers might thus have been used as easy reference points by those searching the records.

Gender and some rather naughty (you have been warned) names…


(Image from Halesowen Manor Court Rolls, Wolfson Centre Archive, Birmingham, MS 346261)

The people appearing in medieval manorial records are identified by first name, surname and various relationships as well as offices. Nicknames as identifiers were still very common throughout the 14th and into the early modern period, but historians have quite rightly identified a development whereby surnames tend to become more fixed in the course of teh 14th century. To confuse matters individuals might be referred to by various names in manorial documents. Let us take a fictitious Richard Gruggan, for example. He  might be identified as Richard the Hayward ( as he was the manor’s acting hayward) in one court roll, or Richard Gruggan in the next roll. Richard is also the son of Adam Gruggan, so he might be referred to as Richard the son of Adam, or Richard Adamson. Let’s say Richard had red hair, which, his neighbours felt was a sufficiently notable feature to make him stand out from the crowd, so some days Richard the Redhead makes an appearance. Such issues cause potential methodological mayhem for people like myself, who spend a lot of time analysing networks and reconstructing familial relationships.

However, such methodological headaches is not what concerns me primarily today. I find the nicknames people gave to each other fascinating and compelling, and in truth little work has been done to analyse these. Nicknames were very descriptive, although it is not always clear to what extend they were ironic. John the Monk, for example might make us smile, but was he nicknamed ‘Monk’ because he was very pious or because he was the opposite? Richard the Pope might also fall into this category. A poor cottager referred to as ‘the king’ certainly has a ring of sarcasm to it. Other nicknames are focused on character or appearance. ‘The Redhead’ or ‘the Red’ is far from uncommon, nor is ‘the skinny’, while  ‘the cripple’  is rarer. In particular nicknames have, in my view, a clear gendered dimension.

Interestingly, and I have to stress that I have not yet conducted any in- depth empirical research into this issue, so my points here are based on impressions, women have fewer nicknames than men. Women are much more often identified through their occupations, like Heacham’s Agnes the Fisherwoman, regular surnames or marital relationships than their habits, characters or looks. Still some women are identified by nicknames, and sometimes women’s nicknames are rather touching, and somehow feel more emotive than the nicknames of men. Matilda ‘the Blossom’ falls into that category for example, or Agnes ‘the Sweet’. One set of nicknames appears to have been entirely absent in reference to women, and these are sexual in nature. Across several manors I have come across many men who were frequently referred to as ‘loverboy’ or more rarely but also more explicitly ‘lovecock’ or ‘lover’ but never a women. The reasons must be obvious. Women and men were very concerned to maintain their reputations, manorial courts regularly feature both men and women suing their neighbours for calling them potentially defamatory names. There was nothing worse than calling a merchant a thief, or indeed a woman a whore. So here is a clear gendered dichotomy. Men were perfectly able to go around calling themselves or each other ‘loverboy’ while women could not. The acceptability of the use of sexualised nicknames for men thus represented a mechanism for social control within medieval communities re-enforcing the idea that sex for men – even perhaps outside marriage – was acceptable – and perhaps something even to be proudly legitimised- as it was entered into court records, while for women this was – at least officially taboo. Maybe one day I will write an article on this, as it strikes me as rather interesting.

A girl called Edith…

In the late winter of 1318 a child appeared before the court of the manor of Halesowen, an 11 year old girl, called Edith, the sole heir of her father Henry who had died recently. She was considered far too young to be held responsible for her own holding and the court decided to find her a guardian by the name of John who paid the lord 12d to have custody of the heir and her property. Edith came from a poor family, all the girl had to her name was a cottage. She had no significant acreages and no livestock is mentioned. She was not the only child who was left orphaned in that year at the manor. Her property is also quite typical. A smallholding left to a child in the middle of the famine years, when repeated harvest failures due to torrential rainfalls drove up grain prices and peasant families were often forced to eat into their seedgrain to survive the winter. Poor families like Edith’s were the most vulnerable at that time. Did Edith’s parents die from hunger or malnutrition were they weakened and could not withstand a common illness like flu? Did the girl survive because they starved themselves to feed her? Just two short lines in a manorial court roll, and yet, it has so much to tell us, and keep so much more still hidden.WP_20141228_10_11_48_Pro