We are in the middle of the examination period here at the University of Birmingham and while many students are worried and stressing about sitting exams and hoped for or feared grades, I feel it is only appropriate to take a few minutes out of my rather busy marking schedule to thank my students. My teaching and my research are integral to each other, and I am forever grateful to my students for asking questions which I cannot answer, for such questions often form the root for more research. It was endless discussions about the position of peasant women in the later medieval village which finally prompted me to write a paper about this issue which was published in the wonderful volume edited by Cordelia Beattie and Matthew Frank Stevens, Married Women and the Law. Last year some students asked me some rather incisive questions about the care of orphans in the medieval village, so thanks to them I am currently working on answering at least some of those questions. Teaching, I am convinced stops my research from going stale, so I would like to wish all our students the best of luck in their exams, and thank you, and please keep asking me things I have no answers to!
Patience with court rolls is often richly rewarded. Manorial court rolls are not among the most user- friendly of primary sources, but they are certainly worth all the effort.
In 1344, in a village in East Anglia, a village rather typical for the region, with more than one lord and considerable numbers of freeholders, a baby girl was born. Like so many families in her village, her parents were smallholders with just a few acres to their name. Her parents named her Hilary. Things were looking fairly good at the time of little Hilary’s birth. The famine was in the past, and while we might shudder at the thought of what was to come, Hilary and her parents had no inkling that catastrophe was soon to befall their village. In the middle of the summer just a few years later, in 1349, the 5-year-old Hilary was left orphaned after her parents died from the Black Death. The child then was handed over to another villager who took her into his house, while the free land she was due to inherit as the sole heir remained in the hands of the lord. When she was 18 years old a marriage licence – a permission to marry – was purchased, and it is certainly the case that when in her mid 30s she was still married to the same man. At that time she had also inherited more land from what looks likely to have been her cousin.
A life, a snippet of a life, traced through manorial court rolls. We will never know what Hilary looked like, whether the experience of the loss of her father and mother at such a young age left her traumatised for the rest of her life, we do not even know how old she was when she died. We will never know any more about her, except this, when she had no one left someone took her in, looked after her and brought her up, made sure she married and got her rightful inheritance.