By Judith M. Bennett
Journal of British Studies, Vol. 23, No. 1 (1983)
Introduction: Advocates of the “new social history” have buttressed their efforts to recreate the past lives of ordinary people with concepts, models, and quantitative methods taken from the social sciences. These new approaches have allowed scholars to extract vivid and dynamic reconstructions of past human experiences from the dry folios of civil and ecclesiastical registers. Their successes, as exemplified by the many publications of the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, have focused largely on the demographic and familial histories of the early modern era. The manipulation of parish listings of baptisms, marriages, and burials is now a fairly precise science that has taught us much (and will doubtless teach us more) about the daily lives of common people and their families in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. But the tracing into the past of the social, familial, and demographic characteristics of the English people need not start abruptly with the auspicious advent of parish registers in 1538. Indeed, we can only hope to trace the origins of fundamental features of Tudor-Stuart life (such as the pronounced tendency towards late marriage and the high incidence of persons who never married) if we develop accurate techniques for analyzing the pre-1500, pre-parish register materials at our disposal.
From the perspective of a medievalist, this work is clearly essential; most medieval people, quite simply, were peasants, and we shall better understand the histories of medieval parliaments, towns, and universities when we have successfully uncovered their rural underpinnings. As demonstrated more than four decades ago in the creative study of thirteenth-century English villagers by the sociologist George C. Homans, our best sources in this venture must be manorial record. Although manorial records differ radically from parish registers in both content and context, each provides, within its appropriate centuries, the best available materials for studying the past lives of ordinary people. Analysts of parish registers have their sanctioned and standardized systems for reconstructing historical experiences, but students of manorial records have produced, as yet, only methodological confusion and controversy.
The causes of this disorder are twofold. First, the social data found in the manorial records of the later Middle Ages have languished in the shadow, overwhelmed by the enormous interest and effort directed at rediscovering the societies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Comparison with parish registers has neither flattered nor benefitted the medieval sources. Parish registers excel at providing accurate demographic and genealogical data; manorial records are notoriously weak in both areas. Because many of the research questions that currently pre-occupy social historians have been formed in parish register studies, the medieval sources have been inappropriately used to address demographic problems that they simply cannot solve.