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Response to Review no. 835

I wish to thank Miriam Müller for taking the time to write a review that engages so closely and thoughtfully with my book. The review seems to me to give a careful and comprehensive summary of my main themes and arguments. Müller also mentions a few points I make which seem open to debate, and areas which I did not pursue as fully as I might have done. Those aspects of the review are especially valuable and welcome, as they reflect Müller’s own extensive first-hand knowledge of the book’s main source, the manorial court roll.

I do of course hope that Credit and Village Society will help to stimulate further debate and research on the whole question of credit in medieval society. It is a topic on which a lot of work remains to be done. Müller’s review gives some pointers for future investigation of the English material. Given our own present economic situation, and the profound effects of lending, borrowing, and financial risk at every level in today’s society, it would be particularly interesting and perhaps even instructive to reach a fuller understanding of the structures and consequences of credit in earlier centuries.

I would like to say something about two specific sections of my book where Müller wished for greater clarity. The first involves my use of debt cases taken from the manorial court rolls of West Halton, Lincolnshire. On the basis of my brief discussion, Müller finds it hard to determine exactly what types of credit deal underlay these cases. It is perhaps worth pointing out that the West Halton records did not form one of the book’s core case studies. Instead, I quarried those rolls for specific examples, because they contain an unusually high number of debt cases that reveal both the date of credit extension, and the date at which repayment was due.

The resulting 11 debts discussed on p. 72 of the book arose from a mixture of credit transactions, one that is fairly typical of the 14th-century countryside. There are several instances there of what appear to be straightforward loans of cash and grain. However, as I found more generally in my research for the book, the most common transaction in this West Halton group was the sale of goods with payment delayed to a later date. So for example, we find that in October 1314 at West Halton, Thomas de Amcotes brought a lawsuit against William de Brotherstone. Thomas claimed that William owed him 25 shillings, because in March that year William had brought from Thomas five quarters (about 14 hectolitres) of barley, with payment to be made at the end of September. Thomas asserted that payment had not been made. William acknowledged that he did still owe 12 shillings of the purchase price, but called for a jury decision with respect to the remainder of the alleged debt.

As Müller notes, several of these disputed West Halton credit arrangements were initiated in one of the several periods of harvest failure and economic crisis for which the early 14th century is well known. At the very least, this evidence shows that local credit sales of agricultural produce and loans of grain and cash did not cease as a result of the economic dislocation of those years.

Müller also wondered how, in my discussion of women and credit, I arrived at the conclusion that most of the women who appeared in manor court debt litigation were widows. The answer, as I say on p. 115, is that the vast majority of the women who appeared in the debt cases I studied were recorded without any indication of their dependency status in relation to a male household member. By that I mean that the person in question was named in the document as (for example) ‘Emma Isond’, not as ‘Emma wife of John Isond’, or ‘Emma daughter of John Isond’. Previous research has shown that women recorded without ‘dependency status’ tended to be unmarried, and were usually widows. This section of the book depends quite heavily on an earlier article for its methodological underpinnings, which may explain the perceived lack of clarity here.(1)

Several themes for future research on medieval credit seem particularly pressing. A key aim should be to squeeze the documentary evidence harder, in order to discover how lenders made a profit on their transactions, and how big a profit they made. The church’s laws against usury of course drove creditors to omit references to interest, or to other types of gain, from the credit instruments and legal records which have come down to us. It may therefore prove very difficult or even impossible to say anything definitive in the future about interest rates at village level. However, there is more that can be done on this issue. Müller’s comments about damages payments as a possible source of profit for lenders are suggestive, and demand investigation. As part of this, we need to understand more fully the basis on which damages were sought and awarded in civil actions in the local law courts of medieval England. This is among the topics that I am dealing with in a separate research project on legal process in medieval manor courts.(2)

Based as she is at the University of Birmingham, from whence the eminent Marxist medieval historian Rodney Hilton exercised such a profound influence over many years, it seems fitting that Müller should point disapprovingly to an apparent lack of attention to lordship in my study. It is true that my book is concerned primarily with credit as part of the internal dynamics of the medieval village community. However, as Müller rightly says, the pressures of lordship upon peasant tenants must have been a major factor in the use of and demand for credit among those tenants. I tried to take account of this in several ways. For example, when a new tenant came to acquire a landholding, he or she had to pay an entry fine to the lord. I sought evidence that peasants borrowed money on the local credit market in order to be able to pay the entry fine (pp. 50–3). Interestingly, there seems to be relatively little evidence of borrowing for this purpose.

Müller usefully suggests other possible issues that might be treated in a study of village credit that takes fuller account of the impact of lordship. For example, she points out that lords could effectively give credit to their peasant tenants by allowing them to defer instalments of rent or other payments. However, if this was a form of credit, it was arguably a rather narrow and inflexible one. When a medieval English peasant wanted to buy livestock or food on credit, or to borrow money or grain for a wide range of purposes, the evidence I studied suggests that he or she would normally seek a creditor within the village community, or sometimes in a local town. I found no evidence of landlords extending credit directly to their tenants in the form of such loans or sales on credit. It must, however, be admitted that the lords of the manors I studied were among the richest ecclesiastical landlords. Remote and powerful figures, these were perhaps the landlords least likely to be involved in personalized credit relationships with their tenants. Other more modest lords, less removed from their tenants both physically and socially, may have played a different and fuller role in the village credit network.

Lordship also comes into my book in the various discussions of the institution that gave rise to the main source used: the manor court itself. At the heart of the system of village lending and borrowing described in the book were medieval England’s thousands of manor courts. Although these courts were essentially instruments of lordship, through which seigniorial rights were asserted, they were at the same time used by local peasants as a means of enforcing debts and contracts against their fellows. It is this peculiar dual quality which makes the manor court so fascinating. As an institution for the enforcement of contracts in rural society, the manor court does not appear to have existed in other parts of medieval Europe in quite the same form as it did in England. This tentative conclusion is worth investigating further, because it suggests the possibility of important regional differences in the institutional framework shaping the development of rural commerce and agrarian society in the medieval period and later.


  1. C. Briggs, ‘Empowered or marginalized? Rural women and credit in later thirteenth- and fourteenth-century England’, Continuity and Change, 19 (2004), 13–43.Back to (1)
  2. Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project ‘Private law and medieval village society: personal actions in manor courts, c.1250-c.1350’.Back to (2)