Looking for Women in Country Life – Medieval and Early Modern Manorial Records
The phrase ‘Women in Country Life’ conjures up ladies of the manor showing off their stately homes in Country Life, the magazine which published photographs of their marriageable daughters. It also reflects the back-breaking toil of most rural women down the centuries.
In Medieval and Early Modern life women were prized as heiresses because family lands passed through them to the next generation. The custom of primogeniture, the inheritance of family manors and estates by the eldest male heir became established in the century after the Norman Conquest. Women were the glue in the feudal system, giving birth to the next generation of male heirs for their husbands’ families. When their own families died out in the male line, women as co-heiresses – the sisters or daughters of a deceased lord – carried their estates to new families when they married. This was also true for the peasants. By the 16th century farms were generally leased out for three lives. In the absence of male relatives, women’s names were added to the lease to transfer the property down the generations. A new life could be added at any time – for a fee – as births, marriages and deaths changed the family structure.
The manor and its courts organised agricultural labour. Manor court rolls and books record the names of the lord or lady of the manor who received the profits from the land, and the tenants who rented farms and grazing rights on the common fields and pastures. The lord of the manor had the right to prove tenants’ wills and a surprising number are found in court records – a treasure trove for the family historian!
In the ‘deep past’ of the Medieval and Early Modern centuries the family was more important than the individual. Men and women lived within a complex network of obligations to their family, their wider kinship network and other social groups including the manor and the parish. These networks were vital to their survival in a society where around one third of all people lived on the edge of starvation. Mass deaths from famine only ceased in England and Wales in the 17th century when grain imports from France began.
Medieval and Early Modern England was a traditional society, in which activities were strictly apportioned by gender, and by the stage in the life-cycle a person had reached. The women of gentry and peasant families did valuable work managing households. They oversaw extended families of children, young girls learning dairying, young boys learning farming skills, and older servants. The lives of Medieval abbesses and nuns in convents and hospitals were similar. All households had to produce and process almost all of what was to be eaten, worn or used in the course of daily life.
© The Holburne Museum
Manorial accounts record crop yields and customs regarding sheep and livestock rearing. Leases, rentals and surveys give field names which describe their use, and the type and number of animals grazing on the commons. They describe farmhouses and outbuildings where crops, dairy products and animal skins and fleeces were processed. All these records open a window onto how women lived and worked in the countryside.
Virginia Bainbridge, MDR project officer for Wiltshire and Swindon