Occasionally one comes across deeply touching cases in manorial court rolls, cases which allow rare glimpses into medieval peasant mentalities. In this sense manorial court rolls tell us so much more than merely that which happened in a small medieval village somewhere. Rather they tell us something about medieval society more broadly, and how communities coped in a world without formalised welfare and systems of care for the needy. In the case of orphans the community made sure to find suitable wards to look after the children and any land they might have inherited before reaching the age of majority. This task was taken very seriously and occasionally clauses were added to court entries concerned with underaged heirs stipulating that those holding the wardship were to ensure not only that the heir’s property was to be looked after, but that the heirs themselves should be clothed and fed properly.
Wardships were usually awarded primarily to the closest surviving adult relatives, and if no close relative was found wards were sought further down the line of kinship networks. I have never seen a child relocated to another village though, therefore the village community seemed to make an effort to keep the child and their inheritance close to home. This system came under severe pressure in some localities when the Black Death was responsible for leaving many children orphaned, and it is apparent that occasionally village communities struggled to find suitable wards for such bereaved young people.
Taking on the wardship over a child and their land was a great responsibiliy, could be costly and involved additional work, as the land had to be looked after, farmed and appropriate rent handed over to the lord annually. On the other hand such wardships were limited in time, they concluded upon the heir reaching the age of majority, which was typically somewhere between the age of 18 and 21. A very different scenario is created by heirs with more profound needs which were life long, such as learning disabilities.
After the arrival of the Black Death in the manor of Norton, which was part of the estates belonging to the Abbey of St Albans, a tenant who held a rather substantial holding died, leaving his heir, Alice behind. Alice, however, as the court noted, was ‘foolish by nature’, which is the wording typically used in later medieval sources to describe someone with some form of learning disability. Alice was known to simply be like this, she was born different (‘by nature’) and the sources thus imply that this was known and accepted in the community. It was also understood that because of Alice’s particular nature she could not be expected to hold a tenement in her own right, and the potentially rather arduous task of looking after the holding and the heir until the end of her life was granted a another villager, who appears to have been related to Alice, although the precise relationship cannot be established. There is no judgement in the record, only a profound understanding that Alice was going to need looking after for the remainder of her life, together with the lands she held by right. Importantly she was recognised as the only legitimate heir, and in fact she kept her inheritance, despite her ‘nature’. This speaks to me of a mentality of acceptance and care, as well as the ability to sort out various practical problems within the community