Peasant Society as Revealed by a Thirteenth-Century Manorial Extent
By Donald R. Abbott
Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Vol. 11 (1980)
Introduction: Considerable treatment has been devoted to the copious local records of late medieval England. Charters, Hundred Rolls, court records, local annals, and extents have been studied in order to learn about the conditions of the age. Much of this primary material lends itself to studies of social history: inquiries into population, social classes and status, and the lifestyles of the common man can be assisted by the scrutiny of these sources. The use of manorial extents in social and class studies has, unfortunately, been lacking. No extensive analysis of extents from various areas of England has been made. This pilot project will examine one set of thirteenth-century extents from Ramsey Abbey in order to explore methods by which these documents may illustrate our understanding of the medieval English peasantry.
An extent was an inquisition conducted for the purpose of determining the holdings of a manorial lord, either for the local lord’s own use or for a higher authority. These inquiries were not originally called ‘extents’ however, but customals. Reginald Lennard has argued in the English Historical Review that an extent must contain valuations in monetary terms for services and holdings. A customal, on the other hand, was any one of a number of documents that recorded customary rents and services and the land holdings involved. An extent then, in the original usage of the term, was a type of customal that elaborated the worth of the manor. However, even by the fourteenth century, an ‘extent’ was being used to label any examination of a manor’s holdings and holders. F.W. Maitland wrote before the turn of the century that an extent gave “…descriptions which give us the number and names of the tenants, the size of their holdings, the legal character of their tenure, and the kind and amount of their service.” It is in this more general sense that the word is now usually employed and how it will be used here.