12th century research gems

“…there is none of the above stock [i.e., livestock] there now except for the 2 plough-teams. John, the clerk, who was at that time Thomas fitz Bernard’s steward, transferred 40 hoggets [i.e., 2-year-old male sheep] to the vill of Whitfield at the feast of Saint Martin (11 November) and unjustly took as many good ewes for them at Easter together with their lambs.” — Walmsley, p. 45

[The bracketed words are mine (based on the editor/translator’s footnotes & text), added for clarification.] The quote is from Widows, Heirs, and Heiresses of the Late Twelfth Century and goes on to say that John took many casks of beer and an ox. I wonder what became of John the clerk…

Now you’re wondering why I’m perusing this tome, right? I stumbled across it via a footnote in another book. Widows didn’t turn out to be what I expected, but it is a fascinating resource: a translation of a primary text published in 1185, the Rotuli de Dominabus et Pueris et Puellis. The entries in the original rolls reflect a report of 4 itinerant justices gathering information on widows and wardships in 12 counties in England.

A king must know what his subjects’ lands and properties are worth to have an “adequate flow of income and services from royal and non-royal sources.” (Walmsley, p. ix.)  And a writer of 12th century English historical fiction must understand what widowhood meant to a woman. Widowhood, of course, was preceded by marriage. 🙂 Marriages were often arranged when the prospective bride and/or groom were children. In the second half of the 12th century, the Church decreed that consent was the basis for a marriage. Whilst a girl and boy might be contracted to marry by their parents, the age of consent was reasoned to be 12 for girls and 14 for boys. However, this didn’t mean children weren’t married:

“Richard Neville was aged six when he married Anne Beauchamp, the daughter of Richard, earl of Warwick…” –Ward, p.13

Once married, a girl/young woman went from her father’s house to her husband’s and was subject to his will. Medieval women may have run their estates, but they had no legal  rights in the eyes of the law. If widowed, that changed:

“…the widow…was regarded as an independent figure able to plead in the courts and act as head of her household and estates.” –Ward, p.34

On a widow remarrying:

“According to the 1225 issue of Magna Carta no widow should be distrained to remarry while she wished to live without a husband, but she had to give security that she would not remarry without the king’s consent if she was a tenant-in-chief or without the consent of the lord of whom she held her lands.” –Ward, p. 40

While the law might reflect one thing, politics, land, money, or other reasons were at issue and some women were forced to take a second (or third, etc.) husband. There are also tales of women abducted by prospective suitors!  Once remarried, the former widow relinquished her rights and her new husband took over responsibility for her property, and he would hold them if she died.

Fascinating, isn’t it? And ladies… aren’t you glad you live in the 21st century?


Walmsley, J. (2006). Widows, Heirs, and Heiresses of the Late Twelfth Century. Aldershot: SCOLAR.

Ward, J. C. (1992). English noblewomen in the later Middle Ages. London: Longman.


  1. Sue Millard Avatar

    hoggs or hoggets round here (Cumbria) are female sheep 12 to 18 months old or so, that have not yet had a lamb – ie, left to grow up a bit more before they go through the wear and tear of pregnancy. Definitely not male! – they have potential but are not of equal value to ewes with lambs.

    1. Char Avatar

      HI Sue – the translation was in the text itself as a footnote from the editor/translator Walmsley, so I just included it. Perhaps he used that based on the original Latin text (hogastros)? I added that info to my bracketed text to clarify it further. Thanks for chiming in!

  2. Raji Singh Avatar

    Great line, Char, ‘…itinerant justices gathering information on widows and warships in 12 counties in England.’ And lots of well presented, juicy material in this piece. Who knew, that nearly a thousand year old gossip could be so interesting!

    1. Char Avatar

      Raji – There are plenty of neat tidbits in the justices reports – many would make great fiction!

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