852 Rare: How to Read a Manor Court Roll

852 Rare: How to Read a Manor Court Roll

This is the second in a series of five blogs about Historical & Special Collections’ English Manor Rolls (1305-1770). HSC was honored to have Eleanor Goerss, Pforzheimer Fellow ’17, with us last summer to perform research on and enhance description of this internationally-important collection, including authoring these posts. Future topics include what you’ll find, sometimes unexpectedly, in them.

Having resolved to attempt to decipher a medieval court roll, where do you begin? Well, at the top.

English Manor Rolls, 1283-1765. Folder 8. Moulton (Multone), Norfolk. Harvard Law School Library. Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

The first line tells you where and when the court occurred, what type of court it is, and sometimes the name of the Lord. For instance, the top line of this roll in HSC’s collection reads: Multone Curia ibidem tenta die Sabbati proximam post festum de Corpore XPI Anno regni Regis Edwardi tercii a conquestum XXIX, which is: Moulton, court held on the Saturday after the feast of Corpus Christi, in the 29th year of the reign of Edward III. So this session occurred early in June of 1355. Calculating a date that makes sense to us requires having some reference resources on hand that tell us the years of Edward III’s reign and what the Christian feast dates were for that year. Here’s a online resource for that.

Just below the heading appears the names of those tenants who have “essoined” themselves. This means they have opted out of coming to court by paying a fee and designating proxies in their stead.

Then the proceedings of the session are listed. Here is an example of what an entry looks like:

English Manor Rolls, 1283-1765. Folder 8. Moulton (Multone), Norfolk. Harvard Law School Library. Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Item presentat quod Johannes Bateman fecit dampnum in frumento domini cum vi bobus [The jury presents that John Bateman did damage to the Lord’s grain with six oxen]…”

You might have noticed that the court scribes used a radically abbreviated mode of writing: frumento = frō and domini = dm̄. You will also notice that many entries begin with words such as, “The jury presents…” This “jury,” anywhere from ten to twenty-four men selected from the attendees of the court, both presented and decided the cases. Each fine (marked with an M for misericordia) is recorded in the left margin. In this case, the fine amounts to 2 s (pence) and 3 d (shillings).

If this seems a bit challenging, don’t panic! There are plenty of resources with which to tackle court rolls. Here’s one of our favorites:

Stuart, Denis. Manorial Records: An Introduction to Their Transcription and Translation. Chichester, Sussex: Phillimore, 1992.

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