THE VILLAGERS: WHO THEY WERE

THREE CONSIDERATIONS GOVERNED THE CONDItion of the Elton villager: his legal status (free versus unfree), his wealth in land and animals, and (related to the first two criteria but independent of them) his social standing. How the villagers interacted has only recently drawn attention from historians. Earlier, the peasant’s relationship with his lord dominated scholarly investigation. This “manorial aspect” of the peasant’s life overshadowed the “village aspect,” which, however, is older and more fundamental, the village being older than the manor. The fact that information about the village is harder to come by than information about the manor in no way alters this conclusion. The manor has been described historically as “a landowning and land management grid superimposed on the settlement patterns of villages and hamlets.”1

Both village and manor played their part in the peasant’s life. The importance of the manor’s role depended on the peasant’s status as a free man or villein, a distinction for which the lawyers strove to find a clear-cut criterion. Henry de Bracton, leading jurist of the thirteenth century, laid down the principle, “Omnes homines aut liberi sunt aut servi” (All men are either free or servile).2 Bracton and his colleagues sought to fit the villein into Roman law, and in doing so virtually identified him as a slave. Neat though that correspondence might be in legal theory, it did not work in practice. Despite their de jure unfree status, many villeins succeeded de facto in appropriating the privileges of freedom. They bought, sold, bequeathed, and inherited property, including land. Practical need created custom, and custom overrode Roman legal theory.

Back at the time of the Domesday survey, the English villein was actually catalogued among the free men, “the meanest of the free,” according to Frederic Maitland, ranking third among the five tiers of peasantry: liberi homines (free men); sokemen; villeins; cotters or bordars, equivalent to the serfs of the Continent; and slaves, employed on the lord’s land as laborers and servants.3 In the century after Domesday, slaves disappeared in England, by a process that remains obscure, apparently evolving into either manorial servants or villein tenants. But meanwhile by an equally obscure process the villein slipped down into the category of the unfree. Historians picture a series of pendulum swings in peasant status reflecting large external economic shifts, especially the growth of the towns as markets for agricultural produce. R. H. Hilton believes that the new heavy obligations were imposed on the English villein mainly in the 1180s and 1190s.4

The unfreedom of the villein or serf was never a generalized condition, like slavery, but always consisted of specific disabilities: he owed the lord substantial labor services; he was subject to a number of fines or fees, in cash or in kind; and he was under the jurisdiction of the lord’s courts. In Maitland’s words, the serf, or villein, remained “a free man in relation to all men other than his lord.”5

The very concepts of “free” and “unfree” involved a tangle of legal subtleties. On the Continent, nuances of freedom and servility developed early, and with them an array of Latin terms for the unfree: mancipium, servus, colonics, lidus, collibertus, nativus.6 In England, terminology became even more complicated. The variety of nomenclature in Domesday Book, which derived in part from regional patterns of settlement, multiplied in the two subsequent centuries to a point where in Cambridgeshire in 1279 villagers were described by twenty different terms, some meaning essentially the same thing, some indicating slight differences. A few miles north, in southern Lincolnshire, eight more designations appeared. To what Edward Miller and John Hatcher call a “positive jungle of rules governing social relationships” was added the fact that land itself was classified as free or villein, meaning that it owed money rents or labor services. Originally villein tenants had held villein land, but by the thirteenth century many villeins held some free land and many free men some villein land.7

But if legal status was clouded by complexity, economic status tended to be quite clear, visible, and tangible: one held a certain number of acres and owned a certain number of cattle and sheep. Georges Duby, speaking of the Continent, observes, “Formerly class distinctions had been drawn according to hereditary and juridical lines separating free men from unfree, but by 1300 it was a man’s economic condition which counted most.”8 In England the shift was perhaps a little slower, but unmistakably in the same direction. A rich villein was a bigger man in the village than a poor free man.

In the relations among villagers, what might be called the sociology of the village, much remains obscure, but much can be learned through analysis of the rolls of the manorial courts, which recorded not only enforcement of manorial obligations but interaction among the villagers, their quarrels, litigation, marriages, inheritance, sale and purchase of land, economic activities, and crimes.

Just at this moment a major aid in identification of individuals and families of villagers made its historic appearance: the introduction of surnames. A survey of Elton of about 1160 included in the Ramsey Abbey cartulary and listing current tenants, theirfathers, and their grandfathers, gives only a handful of surnames. Where these occur they are taken from place of origin (Ralph of Asekirche, Ralph of Walsoken, Gilbert of Newton); from occupation (Thurold Priest [Presbyter], Thomas Clerk [Clericus], Gilbert Reeve [Praepositus], Ralph Shoemaker [Sutor]); or from paternity (Richard son of Reginald). But most of the villagers are listed only by their first names: Walter, Thomas, Ralph, Roger, Robert, Edward.9

A century later, manorial court rolls and a royal survey attach surnames to nearly all the Elton tenants. Some are in Latin, like the given names, some simply in English: Robertus ad Crucem (Robert at the Cross) and Henricus Messor (Henry Hayward), but lohannes Page (John Page), Henricus Wollemonger (Henry Woolmonger), and Robertus Chapman (whose Old English name, meaning merchant, is cited in Latin elsewhere in the records as Robertus Mercator). Often it is difficult to tell whether the Latin represents a true surname or merely a trade or office: thus “Henricus Faber” may be Henry Smith; or he may be Henry the smith, and may be mentioned elsewhere in the records as Henry son of Gilbert, or Henry atte Water, or Henry of Barnwell. John Dunning’s son who left the village and became a tanner at Hayham is always referred to as “John Tanner.”

Nearly all surnames derived from the same three sources: parental (or grandparental) Christian names; occupations, offices, or occasionally legal status; and places, either of origin or in the village. In the first category are the Fraunceys family, possibly deriving from a “Franceis” in the twelfth-century survey who held a virgate and six acres; the Goscelins; the Blundels (in the twelfth century a Blundel held three virgates); the Benyts (Benedicts); the Huberts; and numerous names prefaced by “son of” (Alexander son of Gilbert, Nicholas son of Henry, Robert son of John). In a few cases villagers are identified by their mothers’ first names: William son of Letitia, Agnes daughter of Beatrice. J. A. Raftis in his study of the village of Warboys observed that surnames derived from parental Christian names gradually dropped the “son of” and became simply Alexander Gilbert, Nicholas Henry, Robert John. Finally, in the latter half of the fourteenth century, the “son” sometimes reappeared as a suffix: Johnson, Jameson, Williamson.10

In the category of occupations and offices, Elton names included Miller, Smith, Shoemaker, Carter, Carpenter, Chapelyn, Comber, Cooper, Dyer, Webster (weaver), Chapman (merchant), Shepherd, Tanner, Walker, Woolmonger, Baxter (baker), Tailor, Painter, Freeman, Hayward, and Beadle. No fewer than eight men in the court rolls in the last two decades of the thirteenth century bear the name Reeve, three in one court roll, and one man is given the name (in English) of Reeveson.

The category of names indicating origin usually derived from villages in the immediate vicinity of Elton: Warmington, Morburn, Water Newton, Stanground, and Alwalton; Barnwell, Keyston, and Brington to the south; Barton in Bedfordshire; Clipsham in Lincolnshire; and Marholm, northwest of Peterborough. Surnames that derived from the part of the village where the family lived mix Latin and English, and occasionally French: Abovebrook, Ad Portam (at the gate), Ad Pontem (at the bridge), Ad Furnam (at the oven), atte (at the) Brook, atte Water, atte Well, Ordevill (hors de ville or Extra Villam, outside the village), In Venella (in the lane), In Angulo (in the nook or corner), Ad Ripam (at the riverbank). In time these were smoothed and simplified into plain Brooks, Gates, Bridges, Lane, Banks, Atwater, or Atwell.

A few Elton surnames seem to have come from personal characteristics or obscurely derived nicknames: L’Hermite (the hermit), Prudhomme (wise man), le Wyse, Child, Hering, Saladin, Blaccalf, Le Long, Le Rus. One family was named Peppercorn, one Mustard.*

Evidence suggests that village society everywhere was stratified into three classes. The lowest held either no land at all or too little to support a family. The middle group worked holdings of a half virgate to a full virgate. A half virgate (12 to 16 acres) sufficed to feed father, mother, and children in a good season; a full virgate supplied a surplus to redeem a villein obligation or even purchase more land. At the top of the hierarchy was a small class of comparatively large peasant landholders, families whose 40, 50, or even 100 acres might in a few generations raise them to the gentry, though at present they might be villeins.

A statistical picture of the pattern was compiled by Soviet economic historian E. A. Kosminsky, who analyzed the landholding information supplied by the Hundred Rolls survey of 1279 of seven Midland counties, including Huntingdonshire. He found that 32 percent of all the arable land formed the lord’s demesne, 40 percent was held by villeins, and 28 percent by freeholders. About a fifth of the peasantry held approximately a virgate and more than a third held half-virgates. A few highly successful families had accumulated 100 acres or more. In general, the size of holdings was diminishing as the population grew. Out of 13,500 holdings in 1279, 46 percent amounted to 10 acres or less, probably near the minimum for subsistence.11

The Hundred Rolls data for Elton are in rough accord with the overall figures. The survey lists first the abbot’s holdings; then the tenants, their holdings and legal status, and their obligations to abbot and king.12

The abbot’s demesne contained the curia’s acre and a half, his three hides of arable land, his sixteen acres of meadow and three of pasture, his three mills, and the fishing rights he held on the river.

The list of tenants was headed by “John, son of John of Elton,” a major free tenant who held a hide (6 virgates, or 144 acres) of the abbot’s land, amounting to a small estate within the manor, with its own tenants: one free virgater and nine cotters (men holding a cottage and a small amount of land).

Next were listed the abbot’s other tenants, twenty-two free men, forty-eight villeins, and twenty-eight cotters; and finally the rector and four cotters who were his tenants.

These 114 names of heads of families by no means accounted for all the inhabitants of the village, or even the male inhabitants; at least 150 other identifiable names appear in the court rolls of 1279-1300, representing other family members, day laborers, manorial workers, and craftsmen.

John of Elton—or “John le Lord,” as he is referred to in one court record—was the village’s aristocrat, though devoid of any title of nobility. His miniature estate had been assembled by twelfth-century ancestors by one means or another.* Of his hide of land, thirty-six acres formed the demesne. He owed suit (attendance) to the abbot’s honor court at Broughton, the court for the entire estate, as well as “the third part of a suit” (attendance at every third session) to the royal shire and hundred courts. His one free tenant, John of Langetoft, held a virgate “by charter” (deed), and paid a token yearly rent of one penny. Half a virgate of the hide belonged to the abbot “freely in perpetual alms.” The rest was divided among nine cotters (averaging out to eight acres apiece).

The abbot’s twenty-two other tenants listed as free in the Hundred Rolls survey held varying amounts of land for which they owed minor labor services and money rent ranging from four shillings one penny a year to six shillings. Among them were three whose claim to freedom was later rejected by the manorial court, an indication of the uncertainty often surrounding the question of freedom.

The size of the holdings of these twenty-two tenants and the duties with which the holdings were burdened suggest a history that illustrates the changeable nature of manorial landholding. A given piece of land did not necessarily pass intact from father to son through several generations. Divided inheritance, gifts to younger sons, dowries to daughters, purchase and sale, all produced a shifting pattern which over time subdivided and multiplied holdings. In 1160 the twenty-two free tenants had been only nine, and in 1279 nine principal tenants still held the land from the lord abbot. But five of the nine had given (as dowry or inheritance) or sold parcels of their land to thirteen lesser tenants, who paid the principal tenants an annual rent.

One of these lesser tenants was Robert Chapman, listed in the rolls as a cotter on John of Elton’s land, but whose name, meaning merchant, suggests his status as a rising parvenu. Evidently a newcomer to Elton, Robert in 1279 held in addition to his cottage three parcels of land totaling eighteen acres which he had undoubtedly purchased. On the other side of the social ledger was Geoffrey Blundel, whose ancestor in 1160 had held three virgates (seventy-two acres), but who in 1279 retained only a virgate and a half, and that divided among five lesser tenants. In the fluctuations of peasant landholding, as in that of their betters, some rose, some sank.

The forty-eight villeins of Elton—“customary tenants,” subject to the “custom of the manor,” meaning its labor services and dues—included thirty-nine virgaters and nine half-virgaters. Growth of population had turned some family virgates into half-virgates, a process that had advanced much farther elsewhere, often leaving no full virgaters at all. No Elton villein held more than a virgate, though land-rich villeins were a well-known phenomenon elsewhere.14

Elton’s villeins performed substantial labor services, which were spelled out in detail in the survey, the half-virgaters owing half the work obligations of the virgaters. This work had a monetary value, and exemption could be purchased by the tenant, with the price paid going to pay hired labor.

Every “work,” meaning day’s work, owed by the villein was defined. One day’s harrowing counted as one work; so did winnowing thirty sheaves of barley or twenty-four sheaves of wheat; collecting a bag of nuts “well cleaned”; or working in the vineyard; or making a hedge in the fields of a certain length; or carrying hay in the peasant’s cart; or if he did not have a cart, hens, geese, cheese, and eggs “on his back.”15

The time of year affected the price of the work. Works done between August 1 and Michaelmas (September 29), the season of intensive labor, were more expensive. One Elton account records the price of a single work at a halfpenny for most of the year (September 29 to August 1), 21/2 pence from August 1 to September 8, and a penny from then to September 29.16 Later, works were simply priced at a halfpenny from Michaelmas to August 1 and a penny from August 1 to Michaelmas.17

In 1286, sixteen of the forty-eight customary tenants had all their year-round works commuted to money payments, and owed only the special works at harvest time.18 From the annual fee paid by these tenants, called the censum (quit-rent), they were said to be tenants ad censum, or censuarii. The other customary tenants were ad opus (at work [services]) and were operarii. Though such substitution of money payments for labor services was convenient for the villein in many ways, in other ways it was a disadvantage. Much, obviously, depended on the size of the payment. J. A. Raftis has calculated that the amount of the censum paid by a Ramsey Abbey villein was substantially larger than the total sum of the prices of his individual works.19 The Elton court rolls imply that it was not desirable to be placed ad censum, and in fact that tenants were so classed arbitrarily. In 1279 two villagers accused the reeve of “taking the rich off the censum and putting the poor on it,” apparently in exchange for bribes.20

In addition to work services or the censum, the customary tenants were subject to a long list of special exactions not imposed on the free tenants. These fell into four categories: charges paid only by the villeins ad opus; those paid only by the censuarii; those paid by both groups; and the monopolies held by the lord.

The first category included several fines or fees that seem to be relics of services or of contributions in kind: “woolsilver,” probably a substitute for a shearing service; “wardpenny” for serving as public watchman; “maltsilver” for making malt for the abbot’s ale; “fishsilver” for supplying fish for his Lenten meals; and “vineyard silver” for work in the vineyard. “Foddercorn” was a payment in kind of a ring of oats from each virgate. “Filstingpound” seems to have been an insurance premium paid by the villeins to protect themselves against corporal punishment or against excessive fines in the manorial court. If a villein’s daughter had sex out of wedlock, she or her father paid leirwite or legerwite.

The second category consisted of a special charge owed only by the censuarii: 120 eggs from each virgater, 60 at Christmas and 60 at Easter.21

In the third category were “heushire,” or “house hire,” rent for the house on the holding, and several charges whose French names indicate importation to England by the Conquest. Tallage was a yearly tax at Elton, set at eight pence,22 but on some manors it was levied “at the lord’s will”—whenever and however much he chose. When the villein succeeded to a holding, he paid an entry fine or gersum, in effect a tax on land. On most manors, when the villein died his family paid heriot, usually his “best beast,” the “second best beast” commonly going to the rector of the church; this was a tax on chattels. If the villein’s daughter married, she or her father paid merchet.

If the villein wished to leave the manor, he could do so with the payment of a yearly fee, at Elton usually two chickens or capons. This payment, known as chevage, was not always easy to collect. Some villagers paid regularly—Henry atte Water, Richard in the Lane, Richard Benyt who had left “to dwell on a free tenement,” Simon son of Henry Marshal. Others balked, such as Henry Marshal’s son Adam, dwelling at Alwalton with his three sisters in 1300. They were “to be distrained if they come upon the fee,” but in 1308 they were still living outside the manor.23 Another Marshal brother, Walter, refused to pay and in 1308 Robert Gamel and John Dunning, who had stood surety for him, were fined twelve pence and twelve capons “because the same Walter has not yet paid to the lord two capons which he is bound to pay him each year at Easter while he dwells with his chattels outside the fee of the said lord, and because they are in arrears during the four years past.”24

Even more intractable was John Nolly, who was recorded as living “outside the lord’s fee” in 1307. John was arrested in 1312 “in the custody of the reeve and beadle, until he finds security to make corporeal residence upon the lord’s fee with his chattels, and to make satisfaction to the lord for five capons which are in arrears.” The record added: “And because the bailiff witnesses that he is excessively disobedient and refuses to pay the said capons, and that he owes five capons in arrears for the space of five years, it is commanded that he be arrested until he pays the aforesaid capons, and henceforth he is to make corporeal residence upon the lord’s fee.” In 1322, however, the court was still calling for the arrest of John, “a bondman of the lord, who withdraws himself with his chattels from the lord’s fee without license.” The chattels—in legal theory the lord’s property—were usually mentioned along with the villein himself; he “withdrew himself with his chattels” and was ordered to return and bring them back, or to pay the annual fee.25

The fourth class of villein obligation, deriving from the lord’s monopolies, included the common mill, the common oven, his sheepfold, and his manorial court.

Next in the Hundred Rolls’ list of tenants were the abbot’s twenty-eight cotters, who in Elton were also villeins in legal status (though on other manors cotters might be free), but who held little or no land and consequently owed little labor. Each held a cottage and yard theoretically “containing one rod,” in return for which they helped with the haying, harvesting, sheep-shearing, and threshing but not the plowing (they lacked plows and plow beasts), and paid tallage, merchet, and a small rent. Four had besides their cottage and farmyard a croft of half an acre, but eight had only half a rod of yard, two had a sixth of a rod, and one, paying a minimum rent of sixpence a year, only a “messuage,” a house and yard with no specification of its size. Like most cotters, they scraped a precarious livelihood by turning their hand to any kind of labor they could find. Most worked as day laborers, but some had craft skills. Among their suggestive names are Comber, Shepherd, Smith, Miller, Carter, and Dyer.

Last on the Hundred Rolls’ list came the rector, who held as a free tenant a virgate of land pertaining to the church and another ten acres for which he paid the abbot a yearly rent of half a mark. Four cotters were settled on his land. One was Roger Clerk (Clericus), probably the curate. The other three were all from the same family, and may have been the rector’s servants.

Not mentioned in the Hundred Rolls survey, though present in the twelfth-century Ramsey Abbey extent, was a special category of tenant in Elton and some of the other abbey villages, the akermen or bovarii, descendants of manorial plowmen of a century earlier who were endowed with land of their own, for which they paid a yearly rent. Very little can be gathered about them from the records, except that their combined rent for five virgates of land, 7 pounds 10 shillings, was high (30 shillings per virgate).26

Servants of the villagers are omitted from the Hundred Rolls, but are mentioned occasionally in the rolls of the manorial court: Edith Comber, maidservant (ancilla) to William son of Letitia, “carried away some of the lord’s peas”;27 Alice, servant of Nicholas Miller, was fined for stealing hay and stubble;28 John Wagge’s male servant was fined for careless planting of beans in the lord’s field;29 Matilda Prudhomme’s servant Hugh was attacked and wounded by John Blaccalf.30

Among the tenants listed in the Hundred Rolls were many of the village’s principal craftsmen. In Elton, the two gristmills were kept under the management of the manorial officials and the profits paid to the abbot. The miller was probably recompensed by a share of the “multure,” the portion of flour kept as payment. In most villages the miller “farmed” the mill, paying a fixed sum to the lord and profiting from the difference between that and the multure. The popular reputation of the miller was notorious. Chaucer’s miller

…was a master-hand at stealing grain.
He felt it with his thumb and thus he knew
Its quality and took three times his due—
A thumb of gold, by God, to gauge an oat!31

At Elton, the miller collected the toll from persons using the mill as a bridge to cross the Nene. One was relieved of his office in 1300 for “letting strangers cross without paying toll,” in exchange for “a gift.”

Two others, Matefrid and Stephen Miller, successfully sued William of Barnwell in 1294 for slander in saying that they had taken two bushels of his malt “in a wrongful manner.”32 At the same court, however, the jurors found that another miller and his wife, Robert and Athelina Stekedec, had “unjustly detained” one whole ring of barley (four bushels). They were fined sixpence and ordered to make restitution.33

Two bakers farmed Elton’s communal ovens in 1286, Adam Brid paying an annual rent of 13 shillings 4 pence for one and Henry Smith 33 shillings 4 pence for the other.34 The smithy was not nearly as valuable. Robert son of Henry Smith was recorded as paying an annual rent of two shillings in 1308.35

Other tradesmen appear in the court rolls: Thomas Dyer was accused by Agnes daughter of Beatrice of “unjust detention of one cloth of linen weave,” for the dyeing of which she had promised him a bushel of barley. The jurors decided that Thomas had “only acted justly,” since Agnes had not paid him the grain, and that he was entitled to hold on to the cloth until she did so.36

Several villagers were part-time butchers and paid, “for exercising the office,” an annual fee of two capons: Ralph Hubert, Geoffrey Abbot, William of Bumstead, Robert Godswein, William of Barnwell, Thomas Godswein, Robert Stekedec (who was also a miller), and Richard Tidewell.

Robert Chapman cultivated land while at the same time practicing the trade of merchant. Robert is recorded as selling a bushel of wheat to Emma Prudhomme in 1294,37 and later of suing her for a hood which she agreed to deliver to John son of John of Elton, but Emma “did not undertake to pay” for it.38

Other villagers whose names suggest that they practiced trades were Ralph and Geoffrey Shoemaker, Elias and Stephen Carpenter, Roger and Robert Taylor (who may have made shoes, built houses, or made clothing), and William and Henry Woolmonger.

Dwelling uneasily on the fringes of the village, outside its organization, were a shifting set of “strangers.” Several times villagers were fined for “harboring” them. They are characterized as “outside the assize”: day laborers, itinerant craftsmen, and vagabonds, the latter a class who turn up frequently in the royal coroners’ rolls. In 1312 six villagers were fined and commanded to desist from harboring strangers. Richard le Wyse harbored Henry the Cooper and his wife “to the harm of the village”; Robert Gamel harbored Gilbert from Lancashire; Margery daughter of Beatrice harbored Youn the Beggar; John Ballard, Geoffrey atte Cross, and Richard le Wyse commonly entertained strangers “to the terror of the villagers.”39

In addition to these suspect outsiders, the village had its eccentrics and mentally ill. In 1306 John Chapman was admonished by the court to see that his son Thomas “who is partly a lunatic” (in parte lunaticus) should “henceforth behave himself among his neighbors.”40 The coroners’ rolls record other cases involving mental aberration. In 1316 a peasant woman at Yelden, Bedfordshire, afflicted with “an illness called frenzy,” got out of bed, seized an axe, slew her son and three daughters, and “hanged herself in her house on a beam with two cords of hemp.”41

The peasants of a medieval village were once pictured as coexisting in a state of what might be called mediocre equality. Actually wide differences in wealth existed. Land was the most important kind of wealth, and the distribution of land was far from equal. Furthermore, some tenants, both villein and free, were increasing their holdings by buying or leasing from the others.

In theory, all land needed to be preserved and transmitted intact to heirs, both to protect the integrity of the holding for the family and to assure the lord of his rents and services. Alienation—sale—was therefore theoretically forbidden. In reality, sale and lease of land were prominent features of the court rolls of the late thirteenth century, and not new phenomena. The lord’s acquiescence reflected the profits to be made from the transaction—the opportunity of raising rents and collecting license fees.

In Elton, where a substantial number of the tenants were free, many of the sales recorded were by free men, some of whom sold consistently, some of whom bought, some of whom both bought and sold. Transactions were nearly all small. John Hering appears in the court rolls in 1292 selling two and a half rods to Alice daughter of Bateman of Clipsham,42 and again in 1300 selling an acre to Joan wife of Gilbert Engayne of Wansford and also half an acre to Richard of Thorpe Waterville.43 In 1312 Thomas Chausey sold half an acre to Reginald of Yarwell and two rods to Richard Carpenter.44 In 1322 Richard Fraunceys sold half an acre to John Smith and half an acre to Richard Eliot;45 Richard Eliot, meanwhile, acquired another two acres from John Ketel, who also sold a rod of land to Richard Chapleyn of Wansford;46 John Ketel at the same time bought half an acre of meadow from Clement Crane.47 Among the villeins, Muriel atte Gate and William Harpe each sold an acre to Nicholas Miller “without the license of the lord” and were fined sixpence each.48 The only sizable transaction before 1350 was that of Reginald Child and John son of Henry Reeve, who in 1325 divided between them a virgate of land that had belonged to John Wagge. Apparently because they had done so without license, they were fined two shillings “for having the judgment of the court,” though the transaction seems to have stood.49

Anne De Windt, analyzing land transfers in the Ramsey Abbey village of King’s Ripton, where only one of the tenants was free, found 292 transfers among the unfree tenants between 1280 and 1397, the majority dealing with plots of between one-half and two and a half acres in the open fields, the others houses, auxiliary buildings, houseplots, and closes. Approximately one-third of the population participated at one time or another in the real-estate market. Thirty-six percent of the deals involved less than an acre of land, 57 percent from one to ten acres, 7 percent from ten to twenty acres. Some of the buyers were evidently newcomers to the village, purchasing holdings. Others apparently bought to satisfy the needs of daughters and younger sons. Still others leased the land they had acquired to subtenants, becoming peasant landlords. By the last half of the fourteenth century, a few families in nearly every English village had accumulated enough land to constitute an elite peasant class.50

Land was not the only form of wealth. Few areas in the thirteenth century as yet put sheep- or cattle-raising ahead of crop farming, but many villagers owned animals. Information about village stock is scanty, but some has been gleaned from the records of royal taxes levied at intervals to finance war. Villagers were assessed on the basis of their livestock, grain, and other products. M. M. Postan has extracted valuable information from the assessment record of 1291, including data on five Ramsey Abbey villages. Elton was not among the five, but the figures may be taken as broadly typical of the region. They show the average taxpaying villager owning 6.2 sheep, 4.5 cows and calves, 3.1 pigs, and 2.35 horses and oxen. These figures do not mean that each villager owned approximately 16 animals. Exempt were the poor cotters who owned property worth less than 6 shillings 8 pence, about the value of one ox or cow. Furthermore, as Postan demonstrates, many taxpaying villagers owned no sheep, while a few rich peasants held a large fraction of the total village flock. Plow animals, cows, and pigs appear to have been distributed more evenly,51 though another scholar, speaking of England in general, asserts that “the bulk of the people owned no more working animals, cows, and sheep, than were necessary for their own subsistence.”52

The Elton manorial court rolls of the early 1300s list numbers of villagers, mostly customary tenants with virgates, but also a few cotters, whose “beasts” or “draught beasts” had committed trespasses “in the lord’s meadow” or “in the lord’s grain.” In 1312 the beasts of twelve villagers grazed in the fields at a time prohibited by the village bylaws, or “trod the grain” of fellow villagers.53 A number of villagers are mentioned as having horses, many as having sheep or pigs.

The village poor are specifically identified many times in the court rolls when they are forgiven their fines for offenses. Most are cotters. The coroners’ rolls record the small tragedies of destitute villagers who “went from door to door to seek bread.” Beatrice Bone, “a poor woman,” was begging in Turvey, Bedfordshire, in 1273 when she “fell down because she was weak and infirm and died there…between prime and tierce,” to be found two days later by a kinswoman.54 Joan, “a poor child aged five,” walked through Risely begging for bread, fell from a bridge, and drowned.55

Perhaps as important as either legal status or wealth to most villagers was their standing among their neighbors, their place in the community. As in two other Ramsey Abbey villages studied by Edward Britton (Broughton)56 and Edwin De Windt (Holywell-cum-Needingworth),57 Elton shows evidence of a village hierarchy, signaled by the repeated service of certain families in village office, as reeve, beadle, jurors, ale tasters, and heads of tithings. All these officials were chosen by the villagers themselves. All the offices were positions of responsibility, served under oath, and subject to fines for dereliction. A total of over two hundred Elton families can be identified by name in the records between 1279 and 1346.* Of these two hundred families, only forty-nine are recorded as providing village officials. The service of these elite families, moreover, was unevenly distributed:

8 families had four or more members who served in a total of 101 offices

14 families had two members who served in a total of 39 offices

27 families had one member who served in a total of 41 offices

Thus eight families, 3.5 percent of the total village households, filled well over half the terms of office. The number of terms per individual officeholder varied from one to six.

Most of Elton’s families who were active in public service, including all eight very active families, were villein virgaters. Four members of the In Angulo family (literal translation: in the nook or corner, English equivalent unknown), accounted for a total of fourteen offices: Geoffrey, listed in the Hundred Rolls of 1279 as a villein and a virgater, served as juror in 1279; Michael as juror in 1294, 1300, 1306, 1307, and 1312; Hugh as juror in 1300, 1307, 1312, and 1331, as reeve in 1323-1324 and again in 1324-1325; and William as juror in 1318 and 1322. Five members of the Gamel family served: Roger as juror in 1279 and 1294, ale taster in 1279; Robert as juror in 1292 and 1308; Philip as juror in 1300, ale taster in 1312; John as juror in 1308 and 1312 and ale taster in 1331; and Edmund as juror in 1342 and ale taster the same year. Four members of the Brington family served as juror, Reginald three times. Four of the Child family served in eight offices, three as jurors, William Child three times as reeve. Four Abovebrooks were jurors, and one was also an ale taster. Four atte Crosses served, Alexander four times as juror and once as reeve. The Goscelins contributed jurors, two reeves, and a beadle. The Reeves were jurors, ale tasters, and, naturally, reeves.

That these same families also figure prominently in the court rolls for quarrels, suits, infractions, and acts of violence is a striking fact, corroborating Edward Britton’s observations to the same effect about Broughton. Members of three of the most active families were fined and assessed damages in 1279 when Alexander atte Cross, Gilbert son of Richard Reeve, and Henry son of Henry Abovebrook “badly beat” the son of another virgater, Reginald le Wyse.58 In 1294 Roger Goscelin “drew blood from Richer Chapeleyn,” while the wives of two of the In Angulo men quarreled and Michael’s wife, Alice, “did hamsoken” on Geoffrey’s wife, also named Alice—that is, assaulted her in her own house; Michael’s wife paid a fine and also gave sixpence for “license to agree” with her sister-in-law. Richard Benyt, twice a juror, “badly beat Thomas Clerk and did hamsoken upon him in his own house.” John son of John Abovebrook, both father and son officeholders, “took the beasts of Maud wife of John Abovebrook,” apparently his stepmother, “and drove them out of her close.”59

In 1306 what sounds like a free-for-all involving the members of several of the elite families occurred. John Ketel, twice juror and twice ale taster, “broke the head” of Nicholas son of Richard Smith and badly beat Richard Benyt, “and moreover did hamsoken upon him”; John son of Henry Smith, four times juror, “struck Robert Stekedec and drew blood from him,” while his brother Henry Smith “pursued John [Smith]…with a knife in order that he might strike and wound him.”60

Members of the elite families sued each other for debt, accused each other of libel, and committed infractions such as coming late to the reaping in the fall or not sending all of their household or “not binding the lord’s wheat in the autumn as [their] neighbors did.” Their daughters were convicted of “fornication”: in 1303, Matilda daughter of John Abovebrook;61 in 1307, Athelina Blakeman;62 in 1312, Alice daughter of Robert atte Cross;63 in 1316, two women of the In Angulo family, Muriel and Alice.64

In short, a handful of village families were active leaders in village affairs, on both sides of the law. Their official posts may have helped them maintain and improve their status, which in turn perhaps lent them a truculence reminiscent of the Tybalts and Mercutios of the Italian cities, with somewhat similar results.

From the terse wording of the court records, a few village personalities emerge. One is that of Henry Godswein, virgater, ale taster, and juror, who in 1279 was fined “because he refused to work at the second boon-work of the autumn and because he impeded said boon-work by ordering that everyone should go home early and without the permission of the bailiffs, to the lord’s damage of half a mark.”65 Another is that of John of Elton the younger, whose troubles with his neighbors recur with regularity: a quarrel with his free tenant, John of Langetoft in 1292;66 one with Emma Prudhomme in 1294;67 a conviction of adultery in 1292 with Alice wife of Reginald le Wyse;68 then an accusation of trespass by John Hering in 1306;69 and finally an episode in 1306 in which John attacked one of his own tenants, John Chapman, “drove him out of his own house,” and carried off the hay of Joan wife of Robert Chapman.70

Not all the troublemakers were from the elite families. One family that never appeared in the lists of officials but often in the court rolls was the Prudhommes, of whom William was one of John of Elton’s cotters and Walter a free virgater. Walter’s wife Emma and Matilda, possibly William’s wife, appear a number of times, quarreling with their neighbors, suing or being sued, or as brewers. The family produced the only murderer among the Elton villagers to be named in the court rolls (homicides were judged in royal courts): Richard Prudhomme, who in 1300 was convicted of killing Goscelyna Crane.71 The Sabbes, also, were prominent mainly for their participation in quarrels and violence, and one of their members, Emma, was fined for being a “fornicatrix” and “as it were a common woman,” a whore.72

Through the formulas and the abbreviated Latin of the court rolls, the villagers’ speech echoes only remotely. Prudence Andrew, in The Constant Star, a novel about the Peasants’ Rebellion of 1381, follows a popular tradition by recording her hero’s speech as on an intellectual level just above that of the donkey with whom he sometimes sleeps. No reliable real-life source exists for the everyday speech of the English peasantry (though Chaucer yields hints), but the Inquisition records for the village of Montaillou, in the Pyrenees, roughly contemporary with the court records of Elton, cast valuable light.73 The Montaillou peasants talk freely, even glibly, about politics, religion, and morality, philosophizing and displaying lively intelligence, imagination, humor, and wisdom. The Elton court records give us a single glimpse of peasants in an informal dialogue. The villagers were gathered in the churchyard on the Sunday before All Saints, when three people belonging to the elite families, Richer son of Goscelin and Richard Reeve and his wife, confronted Michael Reeve “with most base words in front of the whole parish.” They accused Michael of a number of corrupt practices often imputed to reeves: “that he reaped his grain in the autumn by boon-works performed by the abbot’s customary tenants, and plowed his land in Eversholmfield with the boon plows of the village; that he excused customary tenants from works and carrying services on condition that they leased their lands to him at a low price”; and finally “that he had taken bribes from the rich so that they should not be censuarii, and [instead] put the poor ad censum.”

Michael sued for libel, and the jurors pronounced him “in no article guilty,” fined Richard Reeve and Richer Goscelin two shillings and 12 pence respectively, and ordered Richard Reeve to pay Michael the substantial sum of ten shillings in damages. Michael later forgave all but two shillings of the award.74

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