Land, fraud and vulnerability in medieval Yorkshire

Just in case anyone is not convinced that medieval land cases are worth the bother, here’s a tale of fairly outrageous behaviour from Yorkshire, found in a plea roll of the eyre of 1293-4 (JUST 1/1084 m. 48; AALT image 4715; ), which might have something of interest for those looking at several different aspects of medieval history.

The record tells us that the Prioress of Yedingham (a Benedictine house) had previously appeared before the royal justices by attorney and claimed some land on behalf of her foundation, from Agnes daughter of Raph Bertram. Agnes had defaulted and the Prioress had been awarded seisin (more or less possession in this context) of the land. This was thought to be a little fishy, and possibly a collusive transfer, done in this way to get around Edward I’s legislation against transfers into ‘mortmain’. The mischief being fought in this legislation was the sort of transfer which meant that lords would lose the windfalls they usually received in connection with the normal human lifecycle (death, marriage, wardship): i.e. transfers to the ‘dead hand’ of an ecclesiastical institution. One way of trying to do this without being obvious about it would be by pretending to have lost the land to the transferee in a legal case, rather than making a straightforward transfer. To find out what had happened in this case, an inquiry was to be held, and 12 jurors were sworn to tell the truth of the matter.

They said that the land had indeed been lost by agreement and collusion, then went on to tell a rather strange tale. Agnes had been unwell (infirmabatur) for six months before the enactment of ‘the statute’ (this might refer to the Statute of Mortmain 1279, but more likely to mean the statute Quia Emptores 1290, which also dealt with mortmain). The description of the illness is no more specific than that, but the effect of it is stated to be that she was not in good mental health: quasi non compos mentis sue. During this period, a clerk with whom (they said) she used to sleep came and found her in that state, and at once had her taken away from her own land to another house. Once there, he made a charter in Agnes’s name, then used that to transfer Agnes’s land to the predecessor of the current Prioress.  Afterwards, Agnes returned to full mental health (revenit ad statum suum). A servant (ancilla) who was living with her told her what had happened. As soon as Agnes heard and understood this, she had herself put in what seems to be a basket (in quodam corbello; I assume this is a slightly unusual twist on corbis, and it certainly makes more sense than my initial guess of ‘crow’…] and had herself taken to the manor of one Richard de Breaus, chief lord of the tenement. Richard reseised her of the land, which she held for three years before the collusive action with the new Prioress.

There seem to be some annoying gaps in the narrative here. What was the naughty clerk’s game? Was the business with a basket a way of concealing herself and escaping from the house to which she had been taken (in the manner of St Paul in Acts 9) or was she physically incapacitated and unable to move without being carried?  And why, after making heroic efforts to get the land back, would Agnes arrange to transfer it to the priory in any case? I hope she was being well paid, either in temporal or spiritual currency, not being bullied out of it. Still – despite the usual holes, there is some good material in this case on mental health and ideas about it, on the vulnerability of those in ill-health, but also on the possibility of recovery of mind and determination to get back control of land out of which one had been cheated.