One of the earliest cartularies – or a collection of legal transcripts – in Worcester Cathedral Library is a register of the Priory of Worcester. It is made up of 178 folios and contains a record of the Priory’s property in the 13th Century. This manuscript, finished probably around 1285, appears to be the work of a single monk. It must have taken months for this poor monk to write, all the time sitting in a cold draughty cloister – which is where we believe our scriptorium was situated.
The cartulary known as the Register of the Priory of Worcester gives a window onto the social status of the people of Worcestershire, at least those living on the Priory’s estates. In the medieval period the majority of the population lived in the countryside, and the majority of those would be described as peasants. The countryside was divided into estates run either by a lord, or an establishment, such as the Priory of Worcester, and their lands were farmed by the peasants.
The listings for each manor in this cartulary show a social hierarchy divided the peasantry. At the bottom of the pile were the ‘villains’ or operarii – they had to work throughout the whole year with no rest except in Lent, when they worked only until three o’clock, and a half-holiday on two days in Christmas, Easter, and Whitsun weeks. They were legally tied to the land and were in effect owned by the landowner. Above them there would have been the ‘sokemen’ or socmanni, who held land in return for agricultural service or by payment of a grain or money rent. At the top end were the freemen who rented their land from the lord and could own land in their own right. There were many others societal ranks in-between. The Worcester cartulary mentions the following [sic]: bordarii, presbyters, prsepositus, radchenista ,liberis, soccagiis, forlandiis, cotmannis,cottariis, servi and ancillse – the latter two being terms explicitly applied to slaves.
The power of the Priory over their tenants was extensive. It held the right of sequela molendini, which meant every peasant could only grind their grain – for a fee – at the Priory’s own manorial mill. Should anybody be caught grinding their grain elsewhere, the penalty was severe. The horse that brought the grain was forfeited to the Priory, and the grain to the steward. Other ways the Priory used to earn more money from its manors was the levying of strange taxes such as soc (on land), thac (on pigs), thol (on the sale of horses or oxen) and merchet (on marriage).
Many other things can be learned from this cartulary, like the lists of churches and chapels attached to these manors, some of which have vanished without trace. Yet as to how many people lived on the Priory’s eighteen manors it is impossible to tell. The manors comprised of approximately 21,000 acres but only some 500 people are mentioned as holding land.
Although the register does not answer every question that historians have about the past, it remains an extremely useful source for studying medieval society.