Dr Monk looks at the context behind women's names in the thirteenth-century Rochester Custumal.
Enlarged and highlighted sections show the names of two women, Asceline (left) and Mabel of Lynsted (right), both of whom are listed as peasant landholders in Wouldham, Kent. From Custumale Roffensis (Rochester, 13th century), folios 13v-14r. Images by permission of the Dean and Chapter of Rochester Cathedral.
As I mentioned at the end of part 1 of this 'research snippet', I've had my curiosity piqued whenever women's names appear in Custumale Roffense – the custumal, or survey, of tenants' agricultural services, rents and other obligations rendered to their manorial lord, i.e. the priory of St Andrew at Rochester.
In the image above you can see two names of women from the monks' manor at Wouldham, which today is about a 10 minute drive from the cathedral and castle in Rochester, but more like an hour and 20 minutes in medieval footsteps.
On the left, Aceline (asceline in the manuscript) is named along with two others, William and Edmund. The heirs (heredes in the manuscript) of these three hold a small one acre plot of land, for which they pay an annual rent of seven and a half pennies.
The fact that 'heirs' are mentioned probably doesn't indicate that the three named individuals were necessarily deceased at the time when the survey was first carried out. Rather, we should understand that these three legally, and jointly, held the tenancy for this acre plot, and whoever inherited the tenancy on the demise of them all would continue to pay the fixed sum.
On the right, Amabel (the shortened form Mabel is used in the manuscript) is listed, by herself. She has a geographical byname (surname), 'of Lynsted' (de lindestede in the manuscript). This village is more than twenty miles away from Wouldham, so in medieval terms, she was not originally a local woman. She held a much more substantial piece of land, of 20 acres in fact, for which she and her heirs owed the correspondingly larger amount of 5 shillings.
In the Rochester custumal there is a significant number of women who are listed as land-holders, but by far the majority of tenants named are men. So then, in an age where women were 'married off' by their fathers, and in the context of peasant life, we might ask why it was that some women did in fact hold land.
The custumal provides us with one answer. In its section concerning the customs for Haddenham, a large manor in Buckinghamshire, which was settled on the priory in the eleventh century by Lanfranc, archbishop of Canterbury (r. 1070-1089), and confirmed by King William II ('Rufus') (r. 1097-1100), a stipulation concerning widows is given:
Also, if anyone should die, the lord will have the best beast that he (the deceased) had. And if he had but one horse, the horse must be sold and the lord must have 30 pennies for heriot (death duty) and the widow the rest of the money. And the widow must hold that land, in which she is re-pledging, as long as she is able to defend it, and as long as she remains as a chaste widow.
As we can see from my translation, a widow of Haddenham had a right, once the death duty was paid to the lord (the monks of St Andrew's, in this case), to inherit her deceased husband's tenured land. To obtain it she would have to follow the customary practice of pledging faith to the lord and would have to 'defend' the tenancy. This meant she would have to pay a 'relief' payment to the lord, allowing her officially to enter onto the land; and also a written record would be made of the transfer of tenancy.*
Also implied by the term 'defend' (Latin defendere) is the widow's ability to maintain the rent and services to the lord of the manor. Fail in that regard, a very real possibility in view of her diminished state as a widow, and she could lose the tenancy.
The stipulation that she remain a 'chaste widow' is not so much a moral requirement but a recognition that should she in the future re-marry she would have to give up the tenancy. Someone else, her heir or heirs, would have the opportunity to purchase the tenure agreement, rather than it being taken over by her new husband.
We see, then, that one reason peasant women held land in the thirteenth-century is because they inherited the tenancy from their husbands. In fact, this seems to be the case with Aceline, mentioned above, for her name appears again in a list of those tenants in Wouldham whose customs did not include agricultural services to the lord, but only a monetary rent.
Her entry reads (below): 'The widow Aceline's land of 4 acres'. So it seems that this woman not only held a shared tenure for the aforementioned one acre plot, but a larger area in her own right. Who the two men mentioned in the first of those holdings were, I cannot say, though they were likely related to her.
My research may well turn up other circumstances in which women held land. It is known, for example, that it became increasingly common throughout late medieval England for land to be held jointly by husband and wife.* And I was particularly intrigued the other day to come across the names of two women who together held land in Wouldham. But I will have to leave Aldith and Goda for another day.
In part three of this research snippet, What's in a name?, I will be taking a closer look at the meaning of surnames. So we'll catch up then. But, in the meantime, if you want to ask something about my research or leave a comment, please feel free to do so in the comments section below.
* On inheritance, see Mark Bailey, The English Manor: c.1200-c.1500 (Manchester University Press, 2002), pp. 27-29. In fact, Bailey's book is a must read for anyone wanting to understand the manorial system in medieval England.