Dr Hannah Robb, University of Durham
The more research that is conducted on medieval cities the more we are aware of the peculiarities and uniqueness of each civic centre, their economy, legal system, culture and customs. The court cases on which my recent Cultural and Social History article is based are taken from the records of York Minster, the highest court of appeal in the archdiocese, covering the 134 courts of lower ecclesiastical jurisdiction in the rural hinterlands of Yorkshire. Those cases which ended up before the Consistory Court at York represent just a fraction of those pleas heard across the ecclesiastical courts. What’s more, a single bill for the costs of the court hearing, including the fees of the prosecution proctors, food consumed by the judge and the travel costs of deponents, reveals the high cost of the appeal process coming in at over 27 shillings. Given the uniqueness of the consistory court at York and the high costs associated with the appeal process, how representative is the sample of cases in the paper and can the conclusions exploring the sociability of credit and reputation in the late medieval market be extrapolated to wider credit networks outside York?
I set out to explore the sociability of the credit market and the role of reputation in a moral economy often considered the preserve of post-Reformation England, in particular the development of the language of trustworthiness in the court records. The cause papers attached to pleas of debt and defamation in the consistory court of York provide fascinating and unparalleled details into the language of reputation and its use in the credit market. But they are limited, pursuing a case was costly and coveture means we rarely met independent female litigants at this late stage in the appeal process.
Cases often concerned debts between artisans and merchants such as that between the merchants John Marshall, Thomas Clerk, and John Bell, in the Easter of 1431 and the skinners William Barton and John Partryngton in 1434. The nuances of language of reputation and the actual tangible worth attached to ‘good fame’, ‘honest living’ and ‘industry’ when used by different social groups identified by Alex Shepard are not discernible in the cause papers. Instead the testimonies of the cause papers reveal a language of reputation limited to a middling sector of society, largely concerned with male concepts of honour and credit, that ability to access and control resources. In the case of Marshall, Clerk and Bell, it was the accusation of dealing in counterfeit coins which undermined the ability of Marshall to contract workers in York and in the case of Barton and Partryngton, the accusation of reneging on the terms of a written bond undermined Barton’s ability to conduct business with other skinners in York. The limitations of the cause papers would suggest that the conclusions drawn are for a particular middling male sect of society.
Yet having considered the issue of gender and credit further in a paper presented at the Durham Early Modern Conference, the role of women in the fifteenth century credit market emerged in the narratives of the cause papers. The wife of John Partryngton held the surety for her husband’s business deal in her own safe box before it was stolen by John Barton. The wife of Thomas Vicars bought grain for brewing on a deferred payment based on a promise on her ‘good faith’ to pay. Female litigants appear in pleas of testamentary and debt. Elizabeth Radwell successfully sued Robert Tippling for £17 after the death of her husband. In order to prove her case she drew on the support of female family ties through her sister, Adynett Gyges. The only case of usury found in the prebendal courts of Ripon was actually held against a woman, Anna Swette. Women were clearly active in the credit market of the fifteenth century and appear to have utilised the same language of trust and honesty as their male counterparts.
Though the cause papers in the archive at Borthwick represent just a fraction of those cases recorded in the act books and a smaller fraction yet of debt litigation in both secular and ecclesiastical courts combined, the individual cases all recreate a vivid picture of a reputation-based economy in the fifteenth century. Whilst there is certainly more to be done on the gendering of notions of trustworthiness and credit in the late medieval market it would appear that women played an active role within the credit market and were trusted partners to their husband’s dealings. The notion of good and honest conversation, an honest home and household creditworthiness appears to have been applied indiscriminately to both men and women and wives were able to share in their husband’s good reputation.
Though the cases are seemingly ‘tales’ from the ecclesiastical courts of York, unique to the legal system and economy of York, they do speak more broadly to a moral economy based on reputation, that undercurrent of credit which greased the wheels of commerce in the fifteenth century. Despite the limitations to the cause papers there is then a language of credit which seems to have permeated the marketplace and to have been used by both men and women. It is only because of the narrative of the depositions that we can access this language to recreate the late medieval moral economy.
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About the Author: Dr Hannah Robb is an Economic History Society Research Fellow at the University of Durham, having recently completed her PhD at the University of Manchester on the role of credit as both an economic and social means of exchange in late fifteenth-century England. She is the author of ‘Reputation in the fifteenth century credit market; some tales from the ecclesiastical courts of York’, Cultural & Social History, vol. 15, no. 3 (2018), pp. 297-313.