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Manorial court roll inventories as evidence for English peasant consumption and living standards, c.1270-c.1420

Manorial court roll inventories as evidence for English peasant consumption and living standards, c.1270-c.1420

By Chris Briggs

Pautes de Consum i Nivells de Vida al Món Rural Medieval. Furio, A. and Garcia-Oliver, F. (eds.) (Valencia, 2010)

Introduction: William Lene, a peasant from the village of Walsham le Willows (in Suffolk, eastern England), died in 1329. The rolls of the Walsham seigniorial court contain a rare list of the dead man’s property. This inventory provides an exceptional insight into the circumstances of a peasant of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It shows the wide variety of agricultural equipment and household goods owned by a wealthy peasant. Unsurprisingly, historians have given considerable attention to this document and to William. Because this inventory is of considerable historical value, it is natural to look for similar examples. This paper presents the results of an attempt to do this.

Most of these inventories were made when a lord exercised his right to seize the goods of a felon (criminal) within his lordship. Most of these individuals had left their homes following their crimes. Other inventories were made when a lord seized the goods of a serf who had fled. None of the inventories discussed is as full as that of William Lene. Most certainly omit objects. However, because of the shortage of alternative sources for this period, these inventories represent valuable evidence on peasant consumption and living standards.

This paper looks at the strengths and weaknesses of the inventories as a historical source. It also looks at the evidence they give on peasant possession of household consumer goods. The inventories show that peasants in this period owned many fewer household goods than their counterparts in later periods. Instead, peasants in the period studied tended to invest in the productive side of their holdings, especially in livestock and fodder.

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