The Court Rolls of Ramsey, Hepmangrove, and Bury, 1268–1600


The court rolls of Ramsey, Hepmangrove and Bury constitute a distinctive collection of primary sources for examining and  exploring the lives of ordinary people and the institutions of a rural community in the East Midlands of medieval England from the end of the 13th century to the beginning of the 17th century. The rolls themselves are the records of at least three distinct courts held over that time period: views of frankpledge, which embraced a wide variety of business that included minor criminal behavior, the regulation and enforcement of national regulations concerning the brewing and selling or ale and the baking and selling of bread, the oversight of local disruptive behavior, and enrollment of land transfers, migration to and from the region, and the monitoring of the hue and cry. In addition, there were also a handful of banlieu courts, in which the abbot of Ramsey, through his agents, presided over common law and royal felony business involving his tenants, and a small number of smaller courts, often meeting haphazardly during the year, and usually dealing with local agricultural and other interpersonal interactions and conflicts. What these rolls provide, then, is a close look at the inner workings of a medeval English community—the market town of Ramsey itself, located in a fen-bounded peninsula in the county of Huntingdon and outside the walls of the Benedictine monastery of Ramsey Abbey, the "suburb" of Hepmangrove, just beyond the marsh area that bisected the peninsula and essentially isolated Ramsey until the abbey built a causeway through the marsh in the latter 12th century to faciliate easy access to both abbey and town, and the small agrarian village of Bury, on dry land roughly a mile south of the abbey and town of Ramsey itself. The rolls permit the opportunity to investigate the economic, social and even political realities of the area over an extended period of time and to do so in relationship to the men and women who participated in such activites. The rolls embrace people and their interactions that run the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous and everything in between, because they are very human documents recording the public (and sometimes private) lives of individuals free and unfree, affluent and poor. Therefore, the rolls of Ramsey, Hepmangrove and Bury are especially valuable because they embrace a multi-facteted region in the fenland and let scholars of different backgrounds and preoccupations see first hand how all three communities were linked together and overlapped with each other. The rolls throw light on "ordinary people" and lives that can be of value to social, economic, political, cultural, religious scholars as well as historians of gender and ecology, and also to the just plain nosey, who enjoy peeking in on the sometimes bizarre and outlandish conduct of their fellow humans.

The rolls themselves were written in heavily abbreviated Latin, on parchment rolls (and haphazardly on heavy paper in the 16th century) and are now to be found in the British Library, London, in the Department of Manuscripts, and in the The National Archives (formerly the Public Record Office) in Kew. The edition reproduced here is an English language rendering of the original Latin text. Although the bulk of the entire collection had been translated verbatim by the editor, some attempt had been made to alleviate the tedium resulting from the formulaic quality of some entries by shortening them without omitting any real information (names, offense/activity, fines, pledges) but sparing the reader the mind-numbing task of reading through a standard entry form that is repeated  ad infinitum by the original scribes. (For example, in cases of violations of the national assize regulating the quality and price of ale brewed and sold locally, the original normally stated: "The ale tasters present that [N] brewed and sold also [X] times contrary to the assize and therefore is in mercy (i.e. is fined) [X d]. The pledge is [N]." Such entries have been recast here as: "[X d.] from [N] for brewing and selling ale [X]times. Pledge [N]". All other entries not relying on a listing of such presentments have been rendered into English with virtually no alteration of the original except for the ommision of the ubiquitous terms "the aforesaid" (predictus/dictus), "he/she is in mercy for [X d.]" (Ideo est in misericordia).  In the matter of personal and place names, all personal surnames have been reproduced as they appear in the rolls, but forenames have been modernized (i.e. "Matilda" for "Matillis", instead of "Maud", "Ralph" for "Radulphus"). Place names are given in their modern form, with the exception of local place names which have not survived to the present. They have been reproduced as in the original rolls. Omissions and damaged sections of the rolls have been indicated by the use of elipses enclosed in round or square brackets. The main concern was to produce as accurate and economical a text of the rolls as possible without tedious repetitions of formulae and without omitting any of the real format and substance of the entries themselves. Because of the determination to present the rolls as they exist today, damaged sections and illegible passages have not been removed but are reproduced as they are, since the editor believes that it is important to understand the actual nature of such records—their strengths and deficiencies. It is important to recognize what these rolls can and cannot reveal and what is, in fact, frequently missing because of damage and illegibility. Originally the editor had planned to produce a complete Latin edition of the rolls with a full English translation, but wiser heads prevailed, and, in the words of an esteemed palaeographer in Toronto many years ago: "For crying out loud, they're court rolls, not a lost work of the Pearl Poet!"

The editor hopes this presentation of the rolls will be useful to many, and in ways even he has never dreamed possible, and he is deeply grateful to the University of Michigan and its library staff for so carefully and exceptionally formatting the text and putting it online, where it will be available to everyone and anyone.