The numerous castles and fortifications scattered throughout Europe, like this one somewhere in Scotland, are clear reminders of the feudal age in Europe. Photo credit Miller.
Here is an example of a feudal document. It is from The Abbot of Battle's Court at Brithwaltham, edited by F. W. Maitland from Select Pleas in Manorial and Other Seignorial Courts. Volume 1: Reigns of Henry III and Edward I. London: Bernard Quaritch, 1889. Although the primary function of a manor court in medieval Europe was to hear cases involving property and inter-tenant disputes, the record of these courts (manorial court rolls) are especially useful to historians who study the daily lives of medieval people.
Lawday. Court of Brightwaltham holden on Monday next after Ascension Day in the twenty-first year of King Edward (A.D. 1293). The tithingman of Conholt with his whole tithing present that all is well save that William of Mescombe has stopped up a . . . [the word is indecipherable in the manuscript, but Maitland thinks it is a watercourse] wrongfully. Therefore he is in mercy (12 d.). Also they say that Edith of Upton has cut down trees in the enclosure and the seisin of the lord contrary to a prohibition, and they say that she has no property and has fled into foreign parts, (amercement, 12 d.). Adam Scot is made tithingman and sworn to a faithful exercise of his office. John son of Hugh Poleyn enters on the land which Randolph Tailor held saving the right of everyone and gives for entry-money 4 marks and will pay 1 mark at Michaelmas in the twenty-second year of King Edward, 1 mark at Christmas next following, 1 mark at Easter, and 1 mark at Michaelmas next following, and for the due making of all these payments the said Hugh Poleyn finds sureties, to wit, Adam Scot, John Gosselyn, William of Mescombe, John Gyote. And because the said John is a minor the wardship of the said lands and tenements is delivered to his father the said Hugh Poleyn until he be of full age, on the terms of his performing the services due and accustomed for the same. Also there is granted to the said Hugh the crop now growing on the sown land, and the heriot due on this entry, for a half-mark payable at Michaelmas next on the security of the above-named sureties. (a) Hugh Poleyn gives the lord 2 s. that he may have the judgment of the court as to his right in a certain tenement in Upton which J. son of Randolph Tailor claims as his right. And upon this the whole township of Brightwaltham sworn along with the whole township of Conholt say upon their oath that Hugh Poleyn has better right to hold the said tenement than anyone else has, and that he is the next heir by right of blood. (The Conholt case as to the tenure of Edith wife of Robert Tailor according to the inquest made by the jurors. One Alan Poleyn held a tenement in Conholt upon servile terms and had a wife Cristina by name. The said Alan died when Richard was the farmer [of the manor]. Thereupon came the friends of the said Cristina and procured for her a part of the land by way of dower making a false suggestion and as though [the land] were of free condition, and this was to the great prejudice of the lord Abbot. Upon this came one Richard Aleyn and espoused the said Cristina and begot upon her one Randolph. Then Richard died, and the said Cristina of her own motion enfeoffed Randolph her son of the said tenement. Then Cristina died, and Randolph being in seisin of the said tenement espoused Edith the present demanding; and after Randolph's death Edith married Robert Tailor. Now you can see and give your counsel about the right of the said Edith. And know this, that if I had at hand the court-rolls of the time when William of Lewes [was steward] I could certify the facts and I could show you many strange things that were improvidently done.) The whole tithing of Hartley comes as it ought to come and presents that all is well.
What does this document reveal about feudalism and medieval society? What you have here is an excerpt from a medieval manor court, a court of law convened by a local lord to dispense with local legal issues--although rarely did those issues involve criminal matters. What appears to be a relatively simple document, a court record, can actually be used to understand some aspects of medieval life. There are no absolute rights or wrong when you interpret documents like this, but there is much that you can understand about the feudal Middle Ages just from this short document. For example, the existence of the word "Lawday" in the document reveals that it was important enough that the society designated a specific day to deal with legal issues. It is also obvious that there were some pretty complicated legal processes (as well as legal terminology) at work in the court system.
Here are some sources for feudal and medieval documents:
Song of Roland, which is an extra credit reading in the course, also has information on feudalism in France.
Doomsday Book (1068, the "Great Survey" of England and Wales compiled after William the Conqueror's invasion of 1066)
Avalon Project - Medieval Documents : 400 - 1399 (very useful set of legal documents)
Florilegium Urbanum (primary documents on various aspects of medieval urban life)
De re militari (These are accounts of medieval warfare.)
Epistolae: Medieval Women's Letters (letters to and from women, 4th to 13th century)
Medieval and Renaissance Studies: Full Text Primary Sources A Guide to Research in Medieval and Renaissance Studies (a very well done, annotated list of online resources and documents)
Medieval Resources Online - University of Leeds (another great annotated list of online medieval resources)
Netserf: The Internet Connection for Medieval Resources (a very large index of sites having to do with all aspects of the Middle Ages)
Medieval Europe Online: Primary Sources (a list of online websites that have medieval primary sources)
History of Medieval & Renaissance Europe: Primary Documents (an annotated list of sites that have medieval documents)
English Medieval Legal Documents AD 600 - AD 1535 (a compilation of online sources)
TEAMS Middle English Texts (packed with documents; see, for example, all the documents dealing with Robin Hood)
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