University of Leicester
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Courts and the community : reconstructing the fourteenth-century peasant society of Wisbech Hundred, Cambridgeshire, from manor court rolls

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posted on 2014-12-15, 10:44 authored by Kate. Parkin
This thesis assesses afresh the feasibility of social reconstruction based on court rolls, through a methodologically self-conscious analysis of records from Wisbech Hundred. It identifies a recent historiographical movement away from social history towards a 'legal' orthodoxy justified in terms of the nature of the records. It questions the definition of 'custom' implicit in this trend, while exposing and rejecting attempts to use Maitland's work to drive a wedge between legally- and sociologically-informed approaches to court rolls.;Computer-based analysis is applied to 316 sessions between 1327 and 1377 of the halimotes, leet, curia and hundred courts of Wisbech, Elm, Leverington, Newton and Tydd St. Giles. These vills were under the single lordship of the bishop of Ely, whose fourteenth-century privileges and jurisdictions are here defined.;Court rolls are taken to record court roles (juror, essoin etc.) and these are defined in detail as attributes of individuals, whose activities and interactions are thus considered strictly within the arena of the court. The predominant business of regulating land transfer receives particular attention, shedding light on custom and 'deathbed transfers'. Rudimentary social network analysis is undertaken, proving more useful as an interpretative mode than a mathematical technique. Narrative case-studies relate individuals and families to observed trends.;Finally, a refinement of existing methodologies is offered. It is suggested that, although social historians should indeed be sensitive to the limited purposes of these records, they need not abandon social reconstruction. Rather, the nature and dynamics of individuals' 'court-lives' should be defined with detailed reference to local custom and circumstances. This done, other classes of records can be utilised, each to illuminate its own aspect of individual lives. 'Identity' is advanced as a theoretical basis for keeping these lines of investigation separate until their combination in social reconstruction reflective of the multifaceted nature of society.


Date of award


Author affiliation

English Local History

Awarding institution

University of Leicester

Qualification level

  • Doctoral

Qualification name

  • PhD



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