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Louisa Foroughi, PhD Student at Fordham University, shares how the 2019 NACBS Dissertation Fellowship has supported her research project, “What Makes a Yeomen? Status, Religion, and Material Culture in Later Medieval England”

I first visited the church of St. Edmund, King and Martyr, in Acle, Norfolk, in August 2018, looking for traces of its most famous parishioner, Robert Reynes (d. 1511). In addition to holding agricultural land, Reynes worked as a scribe, and served as a bailiff, churchwarden, and guild alderman in Acle manor and parish. He was thus a quintessential “yeoman,” usually defined as an affluent farmer situated on the rural social hierarchy above husbandmen and below gentlemen.

My dissertation explores the cultural and social construction of yeoman identity in rural England, c. 1348-1538, focusing on how medieval yeomen performed their status through religion, material culture, and text. I have quantitatively and qualitatively analyzed almost 2,400 cases from the Court of Common Pleas, and over 400 wills produced by husbandmen, yeomen, and gentlemen from East Anglia. I have also produced two case studies focused on yeoman manuscript compilers, including Robert Reynes. My work reveals the practices and signifiers that yeomen used, such as dress, piety, and office holding, in order to distinguish themselves from other rural social groups.

The Church of St. Edmund, King and Martyr, in Acle, Norfolk

The men who claimed yeoman status provide, however, only a partial view of the development of their identity. Women in yeoman families were critical to their status performances, even though, unlike “gentlewomen,” they had no status identifier of their own. The NACBS Dissertation Fellowship is funding my research into the ways in which the female relatives of yeomen participated in creating, maintaining, and changing their families’ statuses. As recent studies of urban and gentry women have shown, women in medieval England performed paid and unpaid labor; made strategic decisions about inheritances; maintained their family’s standard of living; educated their sons and daughters; and upheld their family’s reputation through their behavior and religious practices. But accessing their roles in these varied arenas of life is difficult. Women were legally, socially, and economically disadvantaged in medieval society, and consequently left fewer written records. The lives of rural and non-elite women are particularly poorly documented.

But because the female relatives of yeomen came from comparatively wealthy, literate, and powerful families, they are better documented than other peasant women. In the course of my initial research on yeoman testators from Norfolk and Suffolk, I discovered that nearly fifty of their wives, widows, or daughters had left wills, simply by noting whenever a woman with the same surname as a yeoman testator appeared in wills indices or databases. As part of the NACBS grant, I have collected all of these wills and am searching for further documents written by women related to the 187 Norfolk and Suffolk testators described as “yeomen.” Beginning with women with the same surname and then advancing to those close in time and place to testators, I intend to find a core group of eighty to one hundred women linked by marriage or birth to known yeoman families. The sample size I have selected for the female relatives of yeomen is intended to offset the idiosyncrasies of wills, while still providing a manageable body of evidence. I will later select four to six women to serve as closer case studies, and seek them out in parish and manorial records. I have already spent one month in England, during which time I gathered the wills of 167 Norfolk women whom I am linking to yeoman relatives. I will continue this work when I return to archives in Norfolk, Suffolk, and London for three months in the spring.

A chance survival I encountered in Acle Church offers an example of my approach and anticipated findings. In the floor near the rood screen lies the brass of Emma and William Gay, d. 1505. Emma’s name struck me immediately because I had previously located her will, which is written in Robert Reynes’s hand and in which he is named as one of her executors. By the time she wrote her will, Emma had been widowed twice over. She provided for her daughter Margaret’s future by leaving her valuable goods, including a blue belt decorated with silver and a yellow and green coverlet. Emma also owned a house and fields, which she asked her executors to sell after her death to fund her generous religious bequests, including a new mass book for Acle church.

Through her high standard of living, Emma would have confirmed her husbands’ wealth and status—but she may have been wealthier than either of them, having survived them both. Through her religious gifts, she demonstrated the family’s faith—but she may have been especially pious, as she also left her daughter a set of prayer beads, a personal mark of faith. She herself forged connections with local yeomen when she sold her lands to three men, including Robert Reynes, whom she also named as her executor. Finally, Emma left money for the memorial brass, asking for prayers for her and her husband’s soul. Fittingly, it bears the date of her death, rather than his. Emma Gay’s will demonstrates that through wealth and longevity, women at a social level equivalent to the yeomanry could use material culture and piety to elevate their own status and that of their families.

Emma’s will and memorial brass are the most direct witnesses to her life, as women appear far less frequently in manorial and legal documents than their husbands. To augment wills written by the female relatives of yeomen, I will visit the parish churches patronized by yeoman testators and their families to search for further material evidence of their presence. I will also visit yeoman buildings such as the Bayleaf Wealden Farmhouse, which shows how architecture structured domestic life, and view artifacts comparable to those mentioned in yeoman wills, like the silver mounts on Emma’s belt. These spaces and objects lend materiality to a world that scholars not resident in England can rarely access. I am grateful to the NACBS for providing me with the opportunity to expand our knowledge of the lives of rural women, and the identities they helped to create. 

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Last summer, I was fortunate to receive a dissertation travel grant from the NACBS. This grant funded a seven-week archival research trip to the United Kingdom, during which I combed through sermon manuscripts and psalters in fourteen different archives in London, Oxford, Cambridge, Dublin, and York. In these archives, I looked at manuscripts dating from the late thirteenth century to the early seventeenth century. I poured over tiny psalters that fit in the palm of my hand and paged through other manuscripts that were so large that opening them required multiple desks. Some manuscripts had light brown ink, tiny cramped script, and no illumination or decoration—the vellum often dark and spotted, with multiple defects that scribes carefully wrote around in order to not waste a single bit of writing surface. Clearly, these were made with economy in mind. Other manuscripts contrasted starkly: covered in illumination and gilt, written in jet-black ink on pale and flawless vellum. These manuscripts had well-spaced words and carefully drawn margins, filled with flowers, vines, biblical characters, and fantastical creatures. Yet, all of these manuscripts presented the same texts, the same sermons and sermon tales, the same messages about what it meant to live as a medieval Christian, often verbatim

Both the diversity and consistency of these manuscripts act as a tangible representation of my findings in my dissertation. My project looks at discussions of dance in vernacular religious texts from 1280 to 1640. Tracing presentations of the psalms, of specific Scripture verses that mention dance, of David and Salome, and of medieval sermon tales across this several-hundred year span means considering texts aimed at dramatically different audiences, texts placed in very different political, social, and economic contexts. Heading into the archives this past summer, having only worked with edited and printed editions of these medieval sermon cycles and psalters, I expected that the discussions of dance in these manuscripts would reflect this variation. I anticipated that the big shifts in ideas about worship, about sacred space, about profane bodies, about gender, and about dance that my project engages would show up in these individual manuscripts in gradual modifications in wording, in small changes to each narrative over time, or in additional comments added to later versions of each sermon tale. And in my first few days in the archives, confronted with such dramatic discrepancies in the physical manuscripts themselves, this expectation seemed to be proven correct.

What I found instead, as I dug deeper into the manuscripts and archives, was consistency, across multiple regions, years, and audiences. Changes in the message presented about dance occurred as entirely new sermon cycles or glosses of the psalms were created, not in small shifts within individual versions of sermon cycles.  This approach to dance speaks to a broader insight into medieval religion and the late medieval church. In the years leading up to the Reformation in England, priests and clerics of all stations presented their congregations with a consistent message about what it meant to live out an orthodox version of one's faith, for all members of the church and community. However, orthodoxy was not static or rigid, for, as the changes that occurred during my project show, the medieval church was also a vital and evolving institution. Changes in theology drove changes in sermon texts and in the messages presented to lay audiences about what it meant to live out their faith. Consistency in message was met with diversity in parish practice, as shown in much of the scholarship on the late medieval parish and on ritual in late medieval England. Yet, the significance of consistency in teaching should not be overlooked, as the ideas about dance, gender, and sacred bodies preached Sunday after Sunday from the late medieval pulpit exerted a noticeable influence on the treatment of women in early modern congregations and on definitions of the proper performance of gender for men and women alike.

These manuscripts, with their consistency and diversity, embody the key findings of my research. However, they also provide glimpses of the individuality and humanity of the medieval bodies my research studies. One manuscript in the Bodleian stands out to me as a reminder of the humanity of my subjects. In this manuscript, one with imperfect vellum and pale ink, the scribe starts to add tiny fish into the margins at intervals. As the manuscript continues, so do the fish– and as the scribe's apparent boredom increases, so do the number of teeth on each fish. By the end of the manuscript, the margins contain fish with rows of teeth that bring to mind sharks rather than fish, and each fish clutches elaborate flowers or vines in its rather toothy mouth. In reading that collection of sermons, I suddenly had a vision of a medieval scribe much like the students I know: a young man who doodles to stay awake in the long hours spent copying sermons and moral texts, and who probably counted down the hours until his day ended. The NACBS dissertation travel grant provided me with a chance to not only deepen and strengthen my research and argument, but also to experience the history I study in a new way. My time in the archives made my medieval subjects tangible in a way I found personally meaningful. The chance to work with these physical manuscripts gave me new ways to teach and talk about the people of the medieval past in ways that I have seen resonate with my students. And on the best of days, these tales from the archives even draw my students' attention away from their own doodles to ideas, people, and events far removed from their present reality.

Lynneth J. Miller is a PhD candidate at Baylor University

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