Family Lessons 111: Heriot and Mortuary

In the course of researching one's family tree, it is pleasing to find that some medieval ancestors were manor lords, not because they were a virtuous class of people but because they kept useful records. Most of my lines on ancestors' names disappear in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, probably because they came from the rural working classes, or peasantry. These are the folk whose forbears worked the land which fed the landlords, enabling them to spend their lives praying or fighting each other.

I have been reading H.S. Bennet’s 1937 Life on the English Manor, a lucid and fascinating account of the silent mass of the English populace. Someone has calculated that, thanks to saints’ and feast days, the average peasant enjoyed more days off work than his modern descendant; life in the village and countryside might certainly have been more pleasant than some aspects of modern life. Yet we cannot escape from the fact that the peasant was most terribly exploited. One instance that Bennet gives is when the villein or serf died, his landlord was entitled to claim ‘heriot’, that is, his best surviving animal, such as an ox. The local priest could also exact 'mortuary', that is, the right to take his second-best surviving animal. If the landlord was a prior or bishop, both animals went to the Church, his widow and children could keeping the remainder. For the right to pass the tenancy onto one of the sons, a fee had to be paid to the manor lord, often a shilling. There is one instance cited of a widow having no sons, so she was charged a fee for terminating her family’s tenancy, even though she had already paid heriot and mortuary.

As I read these appalling conditions imposed on the poorest, most vulnerable folk, I became angry. My upper-class ancestors exploited the poor; my lower-class ancestors were exploited by the rich. Although the Middle Ages are awash with examples and patterns of exploitation, and few made any attempt to conceal or address them, human nature has not changed. We in the West might do more to assist the weak, the poor and the elderly with welfare states and benign legislation, but we still exploit on a global scale. When we seek cheap food and cheaper clothing, do you think that the poor of another nation are much better off than Agnes Atwater or John Pennyman who spent their lives labouring for Sir Henry Lazybones or Abbot Flabwaist? Exploited peasants may no longer till the fields and shear their lord’s sheep, but they are working all hours in Far Eastern sweatshops and cramped garment factories. Our villeins and serfs may have darker skin and live thousands of miles’ distance, but their cries are still heard by the God of heaven:

Lo! the hire of your workmen, that reaped your fields, which is defrauded of, crieth; and the cry of them hath entered into the ears of the Lord of hosts. Ye have eaten on the earth, and in your lecheries ye have nourished your hearts. In the day of slaying ye brought, and slew the just man, and he against-stood not you. James 5:4-6. Wycliffe's Bible

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