Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Women, Work, and Life Cycle in a Medieval EconomyWomen in York and Yorkshire c.1300-1520$

P. J. P. Goldberg

Print publication date: 1992

Print ISBN-13: 9780198201540

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198201540.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2017. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use (for details see http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: null; date: 25 February 2017

(p.362) Appendix I Probate Evidence

(p.362) Appendix I Probate Evidence

Women, Work, and Life Cycle in a Medieval Economy
Oxford University Press

This study has made substantial use of some of the very considerable quantity of testamentary material preserved, usually as registered copies, from the later Middle Ages. Two major wills series survive for York, namely the registers of the peculiar jurisdiction of the Dean and Chapter, which survive in unbroken sequence from 1321, and the more substantial registers of the Exchequer and Prerogative Court dating from 1389. These last are not free from loss and a serious lacuna exists between 1409 and 1425. Comprehensive alphabetical listings for both these early probate series have been published by the Record Series of the Yorkshire Archaeological Society. These print both the date of making the will and the date of probate as recorded in the original registers and are thus invaluable when compiling biographical data.1 The core of the will sample used here comprises the 2286 wills registered within these two series up to c. 1500 relating to lay persons normally resident within a York parish. This encompasses a few individuals who died away from their normal place of residence, but may accidentally fail to eliminate a handful of male religious whose status was not specifically indicated in their wills and does not always exclude the small number of non-city residents whose parish church lay within the city. This last was especially true of the large suburban parish of St Olave in Bootham. To this sample were added the wills of a further 75 York women dating between 1500 and 1520 registered in the Exchequer Court registers. The registered wills of some 350 female testators within the county of Yorkshire as a whole were also read, as were a comparatively small number of other wills separately registered. These include wills proved within the peculiar jurisdiction of St Leonard's hospital and wills proved within the Consistory Court of York and recorded in the archbishops' registers.2

The only major series not included here comprises wills registered in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury. These concern usually very wealthy individuals whose property was located in more than one diocese or testamentary jurisdiction. The number of such individuals normally (p.363)

Fig. I.1. Will Form

resident within York was probably very small. Some such wills are, however, published in Testamenta Eboracensia. Only limited use has been made here of this printed edition, which was published in the last century, since the material is highly selective and indifferently edited, although the volumes for the early years of the sixteenth century have been consulted for comparative purposes.3 Outside York, the enrolled wills of the Norwich City Court, which relate exclusively to bequests of property, have been read, and Furnivall's edition of the fifty earliest wills in English and Wadley's abstract of wills from the Great Orphan Book of Bristol have likewise been consulted, as also has Weaver's edition of medieval Somerset wills from the Prerogative Court of Canterbury.4

To record data from the two main series of wills relating to over two thousand York residents a standard form was devised. This was used to record a range of information, some of it actually superfluous to the needs of this present study. Additional material unsuited to being recorded in so brief a manner was separately noted, but indication of this was given on the will form. It was originally intended to use these forms to compile a machine-readable data file, but in the event the data were analysed without the aid of a computer. The form is illustrated in Fig. I.1. The name (N) and status or occupation (S, where C = citizen) of the testator together with the testator's parish (p) and requested place of burial (Bur), either in the church (Ch) or cemetery (Cm), are all quite (p.364) regularly recorded. A few testators asked merely that they be buried ‘ecclesiastically’ (EB) or ‘where God wills’ (WGW) and the name of the parish is thus not always specified. This can, however, often be reconstructed from bequests to the fabric (f), for tithes ‘forgotten’, or bequests to the parish clergy, although again the parish need not always be named.

To identify parishes on the will form a parish code was adopted by which all parishes were represented by a two-digit number, the first digit (0–4) representing the district (e.g. 1 = Walmgate, 4 = extra-mural suburbs) and the second the actual parish (e.g. 01 = All Saints, North Street, 35 = St Saviour). Additional two-digit codes were devised to represent the conventual and friary churches (50–5, 05 = Holy Trinity, Micklegate, and 60 = St Clement's nunnery). The Minster church of St Peter was similarly identified (70) as were the various hospitals and more frequently recorded maisons-dieu (80–9, 80 = St Leonard's hospital, 8– = all other hospitals and maisons-dieu). Some types of pious bequest were also codified, including those to the poor, usually on the day of burial by way of a general distribution (91). Most wills were in Latin, but increasingly through the fifteenth century, and especially in the case of female testators, English (E) was used. The use of French (F) was very rare.

Increasing use seems to be made of wills by medievalists to a variety of ends. Moran has used Yorkshire wills to ask questions about education and the provision of schools during the pre-Reformation period, whereas Vale and Cullum employ the same source to approach the problem of piety and charity among Yorkshire gentry families and Yorkshire women respectively.5 Wills were a major source in Swanson's important study of York craftsmen.6 Elsewhere Gottfried has employed East Anglian probate evidence to analyse secular patterns of mortality and morbidity.7 Only one study to date, that by Lorcin in respect of Lyonnais wills for the period c. 1300–1500, has attempted a more comprehensive range of questions over a long time period. Lorcin's analysis helped to shape the will form just described and increased the present writer's awareness of the possibilities of will data at an early stage.8 The wills analysed here (p.365) were considered on several levels. Those made by female testators were of obvious interest. A handful related to unmarried women who, significantly, were identified by their occupation, e.g. sempster, silkwoman, but rather more provided evidence for women, especially widows, working since they included bequests of tools (T) or terms in apprenticeships.

Bequests to servants (Servt.) were a very regular feature of the will sample. Sometimes servants are not identified by name, possibly because the testator could not always assume that the servants in the household at the time of making the will would still be in service at the point of death. But most wills were probably made in anticipation of imminent demise and servants are often identified by their first name and sometimes by both Christian name and surname. From this data it was possible to analyse the sexual composition of servant groups as recorded and, in the case of female servants, to attempt to assemble a range of biographical material to further our understanding of service as an institution. Bequests to gilds and confraternities (Fr.) were regularly recorded so as to throw light on their sex-specific popularity. Bequests of books (B) were noted and patterns of female book-ownership were consequently observed. Charitable bequests (80, 8–, 91 etc.) were also noted in the hope that these could be related to economic movements and the changing welfare needs of various groups, and specifically of women.

One further use has been made here of the registered wills, namely to reconstruct the marital status of testators at the time of their making their wills, but in effect at death since this invariably followed the making of the will by less than a year.9 This novel usage was designed to provide evidence of long-term secular trends in matrimony. The actual marital status of individual will-makers is, however, not always immediately apparent. In the case of female testators identification is uncomplicated where the testator is described in terms of her marital status, thus Μ the wife of N, or M formerly the wife of N. Unmarried women will bear the same surname as their fathers or brothers, although there is no difference in terminology between brothers and brothers-in-law. (All relatives specified in the will, together with persons of like surname not specified as relatives, were recorded on the will form. Parents were noted after ‘P’, blood relatives after ‘Con’, relatives by marriage after ‘Cog’. Deceased individuals were represented in parenthesis.) A few unmarried women made bequests to their masters or mistresses, and it is this that suggests that they were servants and thus single. Married persons of both sexes (p.366) invariably nominate their spouse (recorded on the will form after ‘SP’) to act as executor. The presence of children among the named beneficiaries (recorded after ‘S’ for sons and ‘D’ for daughters) can provide evidence of marriage or even remarriage, but this is again complicated by the common failure to distinguish children from children-in-law, and even children from step-children. In the case of widows and more especially widowers, deceased marriage partners are not necessarily noted, although where provision for memorial masses or prayers is made these are then regularly remembered. It follows that currently married testators are relatively easy to identify, but, in the absence of children, the widowed cannot always be distinguished with certainty from the never-married, and the remarried cannot always be identified as such. Where identification was made this was recorded on the will form as ‘S’ for single, ‘M’ for married, ‘R’ for remarried, ‘W’ for widowed, ‘W×’ for widowed after remarriage, and ‘?’ for status uncertain.

Despite the rich possibilities of the source, will evidence suffers certain limitations, not least the class bias of the sample. Whether will-making was confined to the wealthier members of society or was more widespread, as the York sample might suggest, it was clearly only a minority who made and had registered their wills. The poor are not represented at all. It is of interest to note the comment recorded in the first surviving register of the York Exchequer Court against one John Whitteby, barber, that ‘quia pauper non condidit testamentum’.10 To argue from the basis of the will sample to society as a whole is, therefore, fraught with difficulty. The consistency with which certain types of information is recorded in wills also varies and an uncritical acceptance of will data is bound to lead to error. Thus children need not be recorded if otherwise provided for.11 Servants, if noted, may not be fully represented and it is possible to argue that only older or longer serving servants would be likely to receive bequests and thus be recorded. Such arguments cannot be disproved, but they are not thought to detract seriously from the quality of the servant data generated. It may be noted, however, that servants do appear to be more liable to be remembered in the wills of female testators.12 Many wills are in fact comparatively brief and uninformative, so much so that they raise questions as to the purpose of the will, and some male testators make no specific bequests, but merely name their wives as executors. Presumably they considered their widows fully competent to administer their estates in accordance with their wishes (p.367) without need of formal written directions. The wills of female testators, in contrast, frequently include a range of small bequests to kin, servants, and, very often, female neighbours and friends, a pattern of bequests that may suggest a slightly differing set of concerns on the part of women as against men.


(1) YML, D/C Reg. 1, 2; BIHR, Prob. Reg. 1–8; Index of Wills, etc. from the Dean and Chapter's Court, 1321–1636 (Yorkshire Archaeological Society Record Ser. 38; 1907); Index of Wills in the York Registry.

(2) YML, M2/6e; BIHR, Reg. 5A, 10, 12, 14–16, 18–20, 23.

(3) J. Raine (ed.), Testamenta Eboracensia, iv–v.

(4) NRO, NCR Case 1, shelf b, 14–19; F. J. Furnivall (ed.), The Fifty Earliest English Wills; Wadley, Notes or Abstracts of the Wills; Weaver (ed.), Somerset Medieval Wills.

(5) J. H. Moran, The Growth of English Schooling, 1340–1548: Learning, Literacy, and Laicization in Pre-Reformation York Diocese (Princeton, NJ, 1985); M. G. A. Vale, Piety, Charity and Literacy among the Yorkshire Gentry (Borthwick Paper, 50; 1976); Cullum, ‘And Hir Name was Charite’; Tanner, The Church in Late Medieval Norwich; Heath, ‘Urban Piety in the Later Middle Ages’; Thomson, ‘Piety and Charity in Late Medieval London’.

(6) Swanson, ‘Craftsmen and Industry’; ead., Medieval Artisans.

(7) R. S. Gottfried, Epidemic Disease in Fifteenth Century England (Leicester, 1978).

(8) M.-T. Lorcin, Vivre et mourir en Lyonnais à la fin du moyen âge (Lyons, 1981).

(9) Space was provided on the will form to record both the date of making a will and the date of probate, though in the event the printed index was found sufficient. From this it appeared that the probate date was generally a reasonable guide to the actual date of death since probate might follow the making of the will by only a few days: Goldberg, ‘Mortality and Economic Change’, 40.

(10) BIHR, Prob. Reg. 1, fo. 15v.

(11) This was especially true of married daughters.

(12) Lorcin, Vivre et mourir, 109.