Series: English Manor Rolls • Et. Seq: The Harvard Law School Library Blog

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 an 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.

852 Rare: An Introduction to our English Manor Roll Collection

This is the first 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 this summer to perform research on and enhance description of this internationally-important collection, including authoring these posts. Future topics include how to read the manor rolls and what you’ll find, sometimes unexpectedly, in them.

This summer, Harvard Law School Library’s Historical & Special Collections completed a multi-year project to conserve, digitize, and enhance metadata to our collection of manor rolls! Check out the newly updated finding aid, which includes links to digital content for the entire collection, plus corrected and enhanced information for each entry on each roll.

For those of you who aren’t longtime scholars of early English law, you’d be surprised at how much interest you might unknowingly have in the contents of a manor roll. So what follows is for you: the uninitiated but curious. We’ll explain what the finding aid is telling you, how to figure out what the text is about, and and muse on some fun visual treasures you might come across when using the collection.

The finding aid provides the name of the manor, county, type of roll, and date. Most are court rolls, but there are also documents related to manorial accounts, as well as charters, wills, and even a map.

 

Here’s a roll from a court session in 1517 at Haspley with Newbourne Manor in Suffolk. It is in box 8, folder 65 of HLSL’s collection. We chose to leave a margin around each shot so that the images show the irregularities of the rolls, staying as true as possible to the original material.

Here’s a roll from a court session in 1517 at Haspley with Newbourne Manor in Suffolk. It is in box 8, folder 65 of HLSL’s collection. We chose to leave a margin around each shot so that the images show the irregularities of the rolls, staying as true as possible to the original material. Head here for a zoom-able version!

 

The rolls give testimony for the realm of the medieval and early modern English manor court, a local court held by the Lord of a manor for his tenants. An English manor, a swath of territory held by a landlord, accommodated both free tenants who paid rent as well as unfree tenants (villeins) who occupied their land in return for their services to the lord. In medieval and early modern England, unfree tenants did not possess the right to file suit in royal courts, so the lord held his own court, usually in the hall of the manor house. The proceedings of each session were recorded on rolls. Despite the fact that these rolls provide only a terse listing of these court proceedings, a richer and richer picture of peasant life accumulates after reading through a few court sessions. The courtroom served as a space where the lord could control land transactions, but also where he might fine his tenants for damages to land and buildings, or for other infractions such as marrying without a license and milling grain at the wrong mill.

HSC’s collection contains records from a great deal of manors, each of which has its own way of holding court. Next time we’ll give tips on deciphering the rolls, but if you’re yearning to dig deeper now, here are some select resources on our court rolls and manor courts in general:

Professor Liz Kamali’s undergraduate thesis on Harvard’s rolls: Papp, Elizabeth Ann. “Moulton Manor and Its Court, 1306-1418: Crisis and Reaction in a Fourteenth-Century Manor.” 1997.

An introduction to the manor, its court, and historical methodologies: Razi, Zvi, and Richard Michael Smith. Medieval Society and the Manor Court. New York: Clarendon Press, 1996.

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