Mapping the Medieval Countryside

Every now and again, I find out about an online resource that goes on to yield information I did not know existed up until that point, either because it makes available material that was previously unpublished or that was sequestered away in hard-to-find published editions. Mapping the Medieval Countryside – inquisitionspostmortem.ac.uk – is just such a resource, and one that is worth bringing to wider attention (not for the first time, I’m behind the curve in being aware of the research project behind it, and likewise of the excellent-sounding companion book(s)). I used to put these things under my Links tab, maybe I will start doing so again, but seeing as how I’ve started I’ll plug on here and now with a brief overview of the site and then an example of what its subject matter can do to improve our understanding of the late medieval landscape of certain places.

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MMC presents the texts of all English inquisitions post mortem (IPMs) from these years – that is to say ‘formal inquiries into the lands held at their deaths by tenants-in-chief of the crown …[i.e.] those who held lands directly from the king’ (seeing as how I’ve taken this quote from the site’s About page, why don’t I just refer you there for a full account of them?) Its timespan is the period 1418-1447 (at least for the time being), a bit late on in the medieval period for my normal tastes, but for very good reasons. If you’ve never seen or heard of IPMs before, let me tell you that they are fantastic sources, particularly in terms of the shine they light upon the institutional geographies of the later medieval English countryside, be it in terms of the social relations embodied by records of knights fees and rental payments, or the land uses and acreages of demesnes.

Most of the inquisition texts are formulaic and brief, giving little away in terms of details that might be useful to the landscape historian. But a minority are more forthcoming with local-level information, and short of contemporaneous surveys or accounts, I struggle to think of textual sources that afford such a window into the medieval manorial landscape. (There are also a fair few instances of inquisitions about proof of age, which consist of assorted old codgers saying they were doing this, that or the other on the day a child was baptised – some make for unintentionally hilarious reading).

My hope is that it continues to expand beyond its current Beta status to fulfil the stated intention of covering the entirety of the period circa 1236-1509, as it would comprise a formidable online resource for researchers and so forth. Far too many projects of this ilk tend to stall for want of money or personnel and never reach their full scale (viz. LangScape and ASChart/Anglo-Saxon Charters, two excellent resources I make ample use of when and where I can), so I hope those behind MMC will be able to avoid such pitfalls and complete the project.

Before you disappear and dive into the database for yourself, I’ll give an example of what the best (in the sense of most detailed) IPMs can reveal and thus help to refine our impressions of the late medieval rural landscape. Puttenham’s sole appearance in the database is enlightening so far as it goes, but that’s not very far when compared with certain other IPMs. Therefore, I want to focus on one related to Peper Harow, something of a favourite medieval place of mine in Surrey (hence my blogging about it once, twice, thrice before). Specifically, this is the inquisition post mortem for Joan Brocas, widow of Bernard, a knight, that took place at Guildford on 8th June 1429. After summarising various lands and rents in Guildford and adjacent Artington, the inquisition text moves on to the third of the manor of Peper Harow formerly in Bernard Brocas’ tenure:

“1/3 manor with a byre, stable, and dovecot on the eastern side of the church; a meadow called ‘Roberdesmede’ containing 3 acres; a meadow called ‘Gillemede’ containing one acre; 6½ a. arable in ‘le Courtfeld’ in ‘le Northfere’; 5 a. arable in ‘le Estfeld’ in ‘Stonyfere’; 5 a. arable in the same field called ‘le Middelfere’; a moor called ‘le Frythebrok’ containing 2 acres; 3 a. arable in ‘le Colcroft’; a moor called ‘Colcroft’, containing 1 a.; a warren containing 2 a. pasture in ‘le Northfeld’ with an adjacent garth by the Peper Harow cross”

The Peper Harow section ends with a list of assize rents dues from various tenants, among which was Maud Attelford, whose second name points to her residing at Attleford, the tiny almost-hamlet on the western edge of the parish.

The most interesting details the inquisition supplies for Peper Harow relate to the geography of the medieval village and the surrounding agricultural landscape. Most direct evidence was lost when Peper Harow manor was rebuilt as a mansion, the village remodelled and the surrounding land emparked, all of which occurred in the latter half of the 18th century. In the early 15th century, the demesne centre is stated to have lain due east of the church(yard), and I think the wording indicates the three named structures were on the west of the manorial enclosure. Even if not, the inquisition text confirms that the present mansion and grounds stand on the same spot as their late medieval precursors. 

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Looking south-west across Peper Harow Park towards the floodplain of the River Wey. The land in the foreground may have fallen within the medieval “Court Field”, beyond which were the meadows.

The 1429 inquisition specifies three types of non-arable land use: meadow, i.e. grassland kept for mowing, moor, land of marshy or otherwise not notably productive character used for grazing, and pasture – in this case logically for rabbits. The two meadows unsurprisingly have names ending with Middle English (ME) mēde, ‘meadow, grassland’: the first half of the former is evidently the personal name Robert, but the latter is harder to ascertain – a personal name Gille is one possibility, in which case it reinforces the impression that Peper Harow’s meadow resources were under several rather than communal tenure from a date much earlier than that of the IPM. The moor named le Frythebrok is appropriately damp and marginal in its implication (being from ME frith, “woodland/woodland meadow/enclosure/fence” + brōk, “(small) stream”), whereas (le) Colcroft, named as a location for arable land as well, is suitably less immediately explicable (take your pick from ME cōl, “vegetable”, cōl, “charcoal”, or cōl, “cool, cold” + croft, “enclosure, small piece of ground”).

A long time ago, I cited evidence that suggested Peper Harow may not have had a system of multiple open fields, rather its arable was operated on an infield-outfield system. I’m not sure if it’s a source of regret or not to learn from the 1429 inquisition that Peper Harow did after all have a multiplicity of open fields. Indeed, the nomenclature of these fields is very similar to that found in Puttenham. The first named, le Courtfeld, was probably situated close to the demesne centre (its specific most probably being ME court, ‘manor house with its court, enclosed yard’). The second, le Estfeld, i.e. “the East Field”, must have lain to the east of the village and, well, it doesn’t take much to deduce where le Northfeld sat in relation to them, even if it’s not identified as the location of any arable acres by the inquisition. The names of the three named subdivisions of these fields all end in -fere, a ME agricultural term which ultimately comes from Old English furh, ‘a strip for ploughing’, and seems to have been something of a Godalming-area vernacular speciality.

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Looking north-west across Peper Harow Park towards Elstead Road and Warren Hill (visible on the horizon on the left-hand side). The footpath running across the park meets Elstead Road by Warren Hill, where the rabbit warren and associated garth lay at the suggested site of “the Peper Harow cross”. The road may have separated the medieval Court and North Fields.

The ‘warren containing 2 acres [of] pasture in “the North Field” with an adjacent garth by the Peper Harow cross’ is of considerable interest from a topographical point of view. To judge from the approximate location intimated by the field-name, it was to be found in the northernmost parts of the manor’s arable. This puts it in the vicinity of Warren Hill, and surely accounts for the surviving place-name. Of course, this then begs the question of what was meant by ‘the Peper Harow cross’. A wayside cross, or a crossroads? As much as I would like it to be the former, I suspect the latter offers a better explanation. It is feasible that the line of the present footpath between Peper Harow village and Warren Hill once continued north from where it meets Elstead Road towards Michen Hall and Rodsall. In fact, there’s still a farm track along this line, and it may mark a much older route than would be suspected without the testimony of the 1429 inquisition. All in all, a window to a world that may have seemed lost to us but, with care, is susceptible to partial reconstruction to a remarkably fine level of detail.

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About Robert J S Briggs

Back to being a part-time early medievalist; Surrey born, London based, been known to travel
This entry was posted in Agriculture, Documents, Field-names, History, Landscape, Middle English, Peper Harow, Surrey and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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