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Interview with Melissa Glass

Published: February 21, 2020

Melissa Glass of Dalhousie University, winner of the 2019 NACBS M.A. Essay Prize, tells us about her project, “‘The Rust of Antiquity’? Print Culture, Custom, and the Manorial Court Guidebooks of Early Modern England”

I have a reputation among my friends for being a bit obsessed with manor courts. My twitter handle is even @ManorCourts, for goodness sake (which, yes, is both evidence of my obsession and shameless self-promotion)! Manor courts were local administrative and judicial tribunals in medieval and early modern England that functioned partly as small claims courts and partly as forums to resolve issues that impacted the community—all administrated by the landlord and his steward representative. Usually held twice a year, these courts expected participation from people throughout the manorial community in order to settle minor disputes between tenants (especially regarding debts), create local byelaws (especially to protect communal agricultural resources), and present and punish misdemeanours that disrupted the peace. They also created a public record of customary land transactions, elected local officials, and ensured all obligations to the landlord were met. At their heyday before the Black Death, at least 10,000 of these courts existed throughout England, but they slowly and steadily dwindled as economic and social circumstances changed and other institutions gained power—especially parishes and the petty sessions of the Justices of the Peace. These courts left behind terse entries written in Latin on parchment rolls and books, with very few details regarding the events’ circumstances or the court’s decision-making process. Their quotidian entries with lack of context or explanation make manor court records simultaneously revealing, yet opaque sources.

I first stumbled upon the existence of manor courts at the Lancashire Archives in Preston, England, while I was on a semester studying abroad in the UK as an undergraduate student. It was my first time at an archive, and I was looking for a topic for my honours thesis. I started ordering—almost randomly—the oldest documents in the archive, mostly just for the thrill of handling parchment that was over 450 years old for the first time. My first discovery was the manor court rolls from the Honour of Clitheroe. The challenge of the handwriting and Latin was initially very daunting, but luckily the archive had a published translation of the records, and a new window into the world of early modern England suddenly opened up to me. The squabbles between individuals, the attempts to manage shared resources as a group of neighbours, and the complex arrangements of land sales were not at all what I had expected from this “antique” society. The idea that nearly every community in medieval and early modern England had a public institution where everyday problems could be sorted out and recorded, and that many of these records still existed, simply blew my mind.

My honours undergraduate thesis ultimately became a close examination of the early Elizabethan records of the Honour of Clitheroe, and I am currently completing my master’s thesis on women’s role at a variety of manor courts from 1558 to 1700. I started my master’s program at Dalhousie University by taking a seminar on “Print Culture in Early Modern England” with my supervisor, Dr. Krista Kesselring. In this class, I realized that before I progressed any further with my research I needed a better understanding of what these courts were, how people viewed them at the time, and how they fit into the broader English legal system. I turned to the various manuals that were written for court stewards that provided step-by-step instructions on how to properly run a manor court. These manuals explained whose participation at the courts was expected, what issues were within the courts’ jurisdiction, and added some thoughts on how these courts had come into being. This essay won me the 2019 NACBS MA essay prize—possibly only due to the wonderful wealth of material provided by Early English Books Online. I was particularly interested in a group of manuals written between 1561 to 1666 because they were the first ones written in English as opposed to Latin or French (making them accessible to a wider audience) and they were written during the manor court’s main period of decline. I was much less interested in the authors’ detailed explanations of court procedure than in their brief but illuminating comments on the broader function of the manor courts in English society. I scoured the texts for clues about the authors’ opinions hidden in between dry, legalistic descriptions.

Ultimately, I found that the legal scholars who wrote these guidebooks saw manor courts as a still necessary but old-fashioned form of justice without a clear role in the legal system moving forward. The function of custom and communal memory, so fundamental to local manorial courts, continued to play an important role in the organization of early modern English society, but these unwritten “ancient” customs were increasingly in tension with broader cultural impulses towards codification and uniformity. The authors nevertheless treated manor courts as subjects worthy of study, examining them with sincerity and solemnity as institutions integral to the traditional functioning of the commonwealth and the execution of justice throughout the country. However, these guidebooks helped to articulate an ideal form of court procedure, which, apart from never actually existing in any one court, ultimately hindered the flexibility and localism that had been so central to manor courts’ operation for many centuries. This genre of early modern manorial court guidebooks demonstrates an unusually clear sense of the transition from “medieval” to “modern”.

I am hoping to start a PhD in early modern English history in September 2021, and my research is broadening into a much wider range of topics as I progress. But I believe that focusing on manor courts as an undergraduate and master’s student has helped me to build a stronger foundation of knowledge than many other subjects would have done. In studying manor courts, I have had to become familiar with early modern agricultural practices, the economics of the land market, the social dynamics and politics of landlord-tenant relations, how civil litigation could transfer between jurisdictions, the importance of stewards and lawyers in the countryside, women’s work, and the impact of coverture—and much, much more. Writing my essay on manorial court guidebooks was essential for helping me to develop a holistic understanding of the often-disparate pieces of daily life that were handled by manor courts and place them within the intellectual context of their time. It is truly an honour and so encouraging that this research has been recognized by the NACBS – thank you!

Melissa Glass with fellow NACBS prize winner, Zach Bates of the University of Calgary, at the 2019 NACBS in Vancouver. 

 

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