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Medieval Landlords

Medieval Landlords

Main terms: 

Direct Management – Central management of estates. Turned to if inflation puts economic pressure on lords or if they are confident they can make profit from continued inflation.


Early C12th = farming out.
1240 -> 1315 = direct exploitation says Britnell.
From 1180s -> says Harvey. Pipe rolls 1155 – 1216: last estate wholly at farm in 1169, the first wholly under direct management in 1194. By 1214 nearly all 42 estates in the sample still had some manors at farm.
Contraction of the demesne. Postan says it happened c13th, Mate argues for the 1380s. Lomas says the process was more gradual. Tavistock abbey still held large parts of the estate in hand as late as c16th. And at Durham only 8 of 22 manors were continuously in hand from 1290 to 1325.


Monetary Inflation: (Harvey) eg. Winchester estates, price of corn, livestock, etc almost trebled 1180-1220. Land prices rose. Inflation was expected to continue, meaning that it made financial sense to replace relatively low customary rents with direct management. Lords bought more land or reclaimed lease land; Abbot Samson of Bury St. Edmund cancelled £19 of arrears owed by Walter of Hatfield to reclaim four manors. The number of markets increased, c13th 8 new ones in Breckland alone, meant cash crops were viable. Corn sales made up 2/3 of the manors total income 1201/02 at Tewkesbury. They needed money to feed the vogue for conspicuous consumption. Thomas de Berkley for example spent £148 in 1345/6 *just* on bedding and feeding guests horses! Direct management was the best way to do this.

Changing attitudes of the lords explains timing. Previously local areas couldn’t support large households so they moved around; by c13th markets meant time was divided between 2 or 3 fave residences. Eg. Earl Marshal ordered supplies to be sent to Soham and Framlingham from a manor at Kennet, Cambridgeshire in 1299. Cash crops were grown and sold for absentee lords. Greater centralisation was thus needed. Eg. Isabelle de Forz had a dispersed flock of 7000 sheep in 1260 controlled centrally through a stock keeper and 10 shepherds.

Growth in number and scope of estate bureaucrats. C12th progress in education = literacy and legal training. Estate management guides (eg. That by Walter de Henley) were in wide circulation, they advised employment of a steward trained in the law (increasingly important) to oversee the estate. Bailiffs to make accurate accounts, reeves to oversee day to day work. On smaller estates literate lords could take on these offices – eg. Henry de Bray served as a steward at St. Andrew’s priory before becoming a landlord himself at Harleston, Northampton. Annual records being kept from the 1270s. Record keeping became invaluable for lords, for example at the manor courts – especially following the statute of Westminster in 1275 which introduced novel disseisin. Problems: pluralism of office, falsification of accounts. But there were auditiors to check accounts. Office could be held for many years – eg. William Kille was reeve of Oakington for 16 years. Could lead to experience rather than corruption.

Population Growth. The population doubled between 1086-1347. This resulted in land hunger, which pushed up land value. But farming out was characterised by long term leases and fixed rents. Eg. Over was leased for life to William Pecche at £6 p.a. in 1088. In 1237 it was still in the family’s possession but the rent had only risen to £7. Commutation of labour services -> landless labourers cheaper to employ. 1310 Abbot of Battle found it cost more to provide meals for tenants doing customary labour services than to hire workers. This made DM economically viable. Large workforce + high demand for goods.


Abuse of the bureaucratic system: Manorial courts were increasingly restricted by red tape and cases were often delayed and otherwise obstructed. Reeves in particular were accused of not recording all payments and keeping stuff back for themselves. Arbitration meant things weren’t recorded. Statute of Quia Emptores, 1290, loans sub-infeudation of the lords land, making farming out safer.

Decline in population. Agrarian crisis of 1315-22 killed off 10% and the Black Death of 1348 50%. This meant there were less workers, who were thus able to demand (and receive) higher wages and concessions despite the Ordinance (1349) and Statute (1351) of Labourers. Economic recession in the 1370s led to enforcements of these and “manorial reaction”. Land fell vacant and became a means of patronage rather than income – longer lease terms became the norm. By the early c16th 99 years was the average, 40 had seemed exceptional in 1250.

End of inflation. After the Black Death prices remained fairly stable. In 1370 most landlords’ income was scarcely 10% less that it had been before the plague. Mid 1370s = poor harvests, flooding, murrain caused some to revert to farming out. Eg. The monks of Canterbury Cathedral priory in 1337/8. But they reclaimed the land the following year when the situation improved. Bumper harvests of 1370s (“Indian Summer”) leads to a fall in grain prices. Specialisation wasn’t feasible for most, although some did (eg. Great Chart focussed on making tiles 1373 -> price rose from 2s. per thousand in 1340s to 3s. 6d – 5s. per thousand in the 1370s.

How successful were landlords at exploiting their lands? 
Postan: subsistence economy. No investment by lords.
Marxists: Lords consume rather invest profits. Crisis of distribution.
But poor evidence for secular lords, we rely on generalising ecclesiastical lords.
Evidence is only for the really great lords.
Lords *did* reinvest (c. 5%), they assarted land, kept accounts, intensive farming, etc.
Lords position is precarious. They need to consume conspicuously, etc.


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