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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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