By Martha C. Howell
Past and Present, No.150 (1996)
Introduction: Let it be known . . . that Marie Narrette Dite De Sandemont, of her own free will and of her own purpose and intention, knowing that death is certain and the hour of death is not, makes, for the spiritual health of her soul, the testament . . . of her last wishes concerning the goods which God has given her, in the manner which follows:
Thus runs the typical introductory formula to a will written in early fifteenth-century Douai, in this case composed in 1405 by Marie Narrette, a prosperous spinster. Douai was at this time a city of perhaps fifteen thousand souls, and one of the jewels in the crown of the duke of Burgundy. Once a member of the select group of bonnes villes (along with Bruges, Ghent, Ypres and Lille), which officially advised the count of Flanders, Douai had by 1405 lost some of its lustre, but it was still renowned as a premier manufacturer of luxury cloth made of English wool and the home of an important regional grain staple. Located in the most fully urbanized region of late medieval Europe, Douai’s was a commercialized society. Its residents, most of them traders and producers deeply involved in market activities, derived legitimacy from their ability to create wealth and facilitate its circulation. In this regard, Douai was not unique, but certain features of its legal institutions were. As we shall see, these peculiarities provide the essential frame for reading Narrette’s will and those of her neighbours.