What’s in a word? Two ways of legal inquiry in the medieval common law

Startscreen Mapping the Medieval Countryside

Sometimes the name of a website can be deceptive. When I encountered the website Inquisitions post mortem with the subtitle Mapping the Medieval Countryside. Properties, Places & People my first thought went to the coroners’ inquests into the causes of unnatural deaths, a very rich resource telling us much about society in late medieval England. However, soon it becomes clear inquisitions post mortem (IPM) are something else, inquiries into the property of deceased tenants of the crown. In this post I will look both at these inquiries and at the medieval coroner and the sources documenting his inquests, and I will look at some other project websites as well.

What’s in a name?

My interest in the medieval coroner stems from the research for my master thesis in medieval history focusing on late medieval Utrecht. I used a rich resource in the holdings of Het Utrechts Archief, the registers for the Vechtkeuren (finding aid 701, Stadsbestuur van Utrecht, 1122-1577, inv.no. 234) from 1477 to 1528, now all digitized, with sometimes quite long and detailed descriptions about incidents concerning wrongdoing, verbal abuse and fighting. Even digitized transcriptions of these records are now available (finding aid 1128, Verzameling fotokopieën en transcripties, inv.nos 3055-3060). They can offer you invaluable glimpses of much else around incidents. Likewise the inquests of the English coroners can show you in the description of accidents much about late medieval society, as in the study by Barbara Hanawalt, The ties that bound. Peasant families in medieval England (Oxford, etc., 1986) where coroners’ inquests are the only archival resource she used. She used inquests from London as one source among other records in her study Growing up in medieval London. The experience of childhood in history (Oxford, etc., 1993).

Doing English history can mean dealing with a wide variety of rolls, now kept at The National Archives (TNA). The general description at the website of the TNA of the coroners’ rolls and files for the JUST 2 record series reminds you the medieval coroner dealt also with matters such as deaths in prison, outlawries and felon’s confessions. One of his duties was to ascertain whether any object was involved in the death under scrutiny, because such objects were due to the crown as deodands. This record series contains 286 rolls for the period 1228-1426. Later rolls figure in other record series. You should note the use of both Latin and French. The earliest surviving rolls have been edited by Roy Frank Hunnisett, Bedfordshire coroners’ rolls (Streatley, Bedf., 1961) and used in his study The medieval coroner (Cambridge 1961). On my web page on the history of the common law you can find other editions by Hunnisett and also older calendars and editions of coroners’ rolls, a number of them available online. The TNA has a helpful concise guide How to search for coroners’ inquests indicating also other records series with inquests.

Logo Anglo-American Tradition

The coroners’ rolls are not available in digital form at the TNA’s website, but you can use photographs online at the portal Anglo-American Legal Tradition hosted by the O’Quinn Law Library of the University of Houston. On its startpage you will find at first a division of materials in several periods of English legal history. The AALT wiki helps you to navigate the digital materials, and it brings you for instance to lists of Anglo-Norman words in the digitized records. Citation Finder 1 helps you to find quickly the right items in eight record series organized by calendar years. A second Citation Finder gives for four record series, among them JUST 2, links to digitized single records. Due to their form you will find for each roll two image series, one for the recto side, the other for the verso (back). It is wise to consult the AALT’s PDF on navigation.

TNA, JUST 2/1, start verso side

The start of the verso side of the very first surviving coroners’roll – The National Archives, Just 2/1, verso

It takes time to get adjusted to viewing the originals of these rolls, but adjusting to the handwriting might be another matter, as does for me refreshing my memory for the exact years of the reigns of English kings used by the TNA to indicate the time range of each roll. The AALT provides you on its index page with tutorials in English, German and French, three paleography exercises with Latin texts and three with English texts.

Among recent projects using coroners’ inquests is Everyday life and fatal hazard in sixteenth-cnetury England (Universityof Oxford). In particular the idea to present here every month a telling case helps to gain insight into cases of misadventure. The bibliography at this website is most useful. In 2014 two studies on medieval coroners appeared, by Rab Houston, The coroners of Northern Britain, c. 1300-1700 (London-New York 2014), and Sara M. Butler, Forensic medicine and death investigation in medieval England (London-New York 2014).

A different inquiry

The website Mapping the Medieval Countryside. Properties, Peoples and Places offers a compact startscreen with both search and browse functionality, a concise introduction, a news section and a blog section. Alas there is no additional information about the remarkable Boarstal Map from 1444, but it illustrates certainly the theme of places and properties. Mapping the Medieval Countryside is a project of the UUniversity of Winchester and King’s College London.

On the project website you can find not only a general introduction to the inquisitions post-mortem, but also a most useful series of articles headed Backgrounds on various aspects of the IPM. This type of inquest happened either with a special writ, or with the standard writ diem clausit extremum devised for inquisitions upon someone’s death. The escheator was the officer acting at a IPM, instructed by this standard writ or another. The written report of an IPM contained a number of standard elements, most often presented in a fixed order. With the inclusion of the time and place where the inquest was held, the names of jurors, the name of the escheator, information about the extent, value and location of lands, the date of death of the deceased, the name and age of the heir, and when necessary information about other royal rights involved, an IPM is a most valuable record. However, an escheator did not always note everything. Sometimes he was decidedly partial or he deliberatedly hid or altered information. On the website the place of the IPM within the process of inheriting is described, a fairly lengthy and complicated affair. A more detailed introduction to IPMs by Christine Carpenter merits your close attention. Her footnotes mention the main scholarly publications.

Apart from the record of an IPM made for the Chancery a copy was also made for the ExchequerMapping the Medieval Countryside provides you with background information about both series of records, pointing also to the enduring importance of the early nineteenth-century Calendarium inquisitionum post mortem sive escaetarum (4 vol., [London], 1806-1828) for tracing IPMs. In some cases the document in the Exchequer series is the draft of the IPM. You will need to work with the tables of references as a concordance between old locations and modern designations. Some documents are missing, others may well be held as a part of other record series in the TNA or are kept elsewhere.

You might want to consult also the concise guide about IPMs on the TNA’s website. It mentions for example the existence of separate series of IPMs four a number of counties. This guide mentions also an article an two books for further guidance. The Wikipedia article on the IPM shows a global concordance between the reigns, calendars and relevant record series (C 132 to C 142 and E 149-150) without any indication of gaps and other record series. However, it does show clearly the uncalendared periods 1447-1485 and 1509-1660. The IPMs were held in Early Modern England as well. The Wikipedia entry scores with a nice number of references to historical literature about the IPM.

The article on IPM’s and historical research concisely shows the wide variety of subjects for which the IPMs contain information, for example family and inheritance, landholding and land use, demography and jurisdiction. In view of this rich material it is good to have here also a glossary of recurrent terms in these records. It reminded me of the glossary at the website of the project Civil Law, Common Law, Customary Law (University of St. Andrews).

Mapping the Medieval Countryside focuses on medieval inquisitions post mortem (IPM), held between the mid-thirteenth century and the early sixteenth century, and within these centuries on the period 1399 to 1447. In the IPM the holdings of deceased tenants to the crown were registered. The two different periods mentioned at the start page make you curious about this difference. Here the history of research into IPM’s plays a large role. Printed calendars exist for the periods 1236-1447 and 1485-1509. A page about these calendars explains the development of the editorial policies between 1888 and 2010. The earlier calendars focused on the inheritance. The extent of lands and valuations were omitted, as were the names of jurors and the escheator. Many elements in an IPM document are repetitive, and it is alluring to summarize the contents in view of the enormous mass of archival records to be processed. For Mapping hte Medieval Countryside it was logical to start with the latest published calendars for the period 1422-1447, and to add in a second phase an enhanced version of the calendars dealing with the period 1399-1422. The modern calendars note for each IPM both the record in the Chancery series and the copy in the Exchequer.

At the portal British History Online you can find digital versions for almost every relevant calendar of inquisitions post-mortem. Two calendars for IPMs concerning London, too, have been digitized. Mapping the Medieval Countryside offers more search facilities, and it has the great asset of some 48,000 names of jurors entered for the period 1399-1422.

An IPM - source: Mapping the Medieval Countryside

Mapping the Medieval Countryside provides us on the page about the documents with some images of IPMs, however, without any reference. I show the largest images here above. It proves to be quite a task to find some images elsewhere. In the virtual exhibition Shakespeare Documented you can look at an IPM from 1599 mentioning the Globe theatre [TNA, C 142/257/68]. The Bodleian Library shows in its digital collections the IPM concerning John Paston, dated around 1466 [MS Don c. 93]. I had almost overlooked the exercise with an IPM from 1489 [C 142/23/116] in the TNA’s Latin paleography tutorial. Surely a tour of digital collections of county record offices will bring you more results.

It is perhaps good to mention here explicitly we can use images for a number of record series at the portal Anglo-American Legal Tradition thanks to great efforts of volunteers who did their best to create a clear presentation of digital images. When you realize how much work goes into this website, you will not start complaining about the absence of images of IPMs at the AALT website, nor feeling miserable about missing some other record series. At British History Online you can find many digitized guides and calendars, but not calendars with coroners’ inquests, with as the main exception four volumes with Middlesex County Records. The English Medieval Legal Documents guide of the Gould School of Law, University of Southern California, helps you to find the titles of relevant works and bibliographies.

Visiting medieval London

Logo Medieval Londoners

With Shakespeare you think also of London, and because I mentioned London already here for the coroners it is only fitting to end in this town. A few days ago Fordham University launched the portal Medieval Londoners with a database to search for late medieval Londoners. This portal has also a very detailed resources section. In the subsection for written sources you can find a very substantial commented list of legal records. On the page for resources concerning property the IPMs are mentioned. The virtual exhibition Medieval London created by students of Fordham Unirersity in 2015, 2017 and 2019 with exhibits about medieval objects and locations in London can be found at the portal under Pedagogy. Among the links at Medieval Londoners you can find the London Medieval Murder Map (Manuel Eisner, Violence Research Centre, Cambridge University) based on coroners’ rolls for nine years in the first half of the fourteenth century. An interactive map presents you some 140 murder cases.

Maybe you want to immerse yourself into the history of medieval London and Londoners with a recent book. The volume of essays Medieval Londoners, Elizabeth New and Christian Steer (eds.) (London 2019; hardcover, ePub and PDF) can form your starting point. If I had not already started writing about the medieval coroner and the inquisitions post mortem I could well have decided to devote a post to this very interesting portal concerning medieval London. Combining both resources for your research is certainly challenging, but at least I could tell you here something about a number of medieval legal records wtth very particular qualities.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s