‘Knowing Not the Hour of My Death’: Medieval Wills and Family Relationships

will

Will of William Moreton of York, 1477. At the Borthwick Institute.

I’ve been writing a lot about misogyny in relationships, and about the records medieval people leave that show male cruelty towards and hatred of women. Class analysis bothers a lot of people, and it seems to be one of the major barriers to identifying as a feminist for women who rightly point out that all men are not oppressive.

Class analysis never states that every member of the oppressor class behaves in a uniformly and consistantly oppressive way: it describes the social structure that makes one class of people more powerful than others. If we look at medieval England, most people will accept that it was a misogynistic society. And focussing on this can get into the trap of excusing what goes on today. We are tempted – and I think, encouraged by the patriarchy – to see a clear distinction between women’s lives today (where we know of good and decent and feminist-friendly men) and women’s lives in the past (where we recognise misogyny when we see it). We’re tempted to think we live in a time that’s uniquely hard on nice men, who’re human and pleasant and don’t like misogyny any more than we do.

But the condition of living in an oppressive society with husbands, brothers, fathers, or sons we love is nothing new.

To illustrate this, I wanted to share something poignant reading I’ve been doing, which is  medieval wills. These texts were written in the knowledge that death was a constant possibility, unpredictable and often swift.

Image of the Funeral Rites, in a Book of Hours of c. 1460. London, British Library, MS Harley 2287, f. 80r

Image of the Funeral Rites, in a Book of Hours of c. 1460. London, British Library, MS Harley 2287, f. 80r

I’m not going to comment much on these texts, because I think they speak for themselves, in the voices of late-medieval family men. When we read these texts, we can see how these men felt about their wives, mothers, and children, and we can relate to them.

The first is a will written by one John Chesman, a barber living in York.  I’ve transcribed it, but I’m at a loss for the meaning of a couple of technical terms for clothing, so if you can enlighten me, please do. Chesman wrote his will on the 6th of January 1509, and it was proved on the 27th February that year, for he died just a few weeks later. His will is quite short, for his money and the land he lived on went to the church to pay for prayers for his soul.

John lists his bequests:

“To Agnes Murton – who should have been my wife, had God willed it – one gown of cloth, that should have been my wedding clothes. To Thomas Murton, a jacket of ‘blew-meld, hamsyd,’ a battle-axe, two chain-male goussets [the parts that go over joints]. To Agnes Murton his wife, a multi-coloured gown lined in black, a little shirt with red silk set through it. To William Murton, my scarlet hat with a true-love knot in silver-gilt on it, a fine steel helmet, a dublet of satin of Cypress (?).To Robert Parkin, my apprentice, a razor bag with six razors, a pair of scissors, a head comb, a basin, a washing-dish, two shaving-cloths, and some of my towels, to work well with all. To Richard Carleton, my apprentice, four razors, a little basin, a shaving cloth….”

I haven’t been able to find out who John’s wife-to-be, Agnes, eventually married, or whether she married at all, nor do I know what happened to John’s would-be in-laws, or the apprentices he set up in their work. The will simply records a moment in what must have been a relatively young man’s life, as he faced serious illness.

Just a few years later, in 1519, a wealthier man made his will. Thomas Hopton requested to be buried at Ackwith Church, in the Lady Choir, a sign of his religious devotion to the Mother of God. He left:

“… to my mother, my lady Dame Anna Hopton, the third part of the Morehill estate. The second part goes to my sister, Anne Hopton; to John and Robert, my sons; and to Anne my daughter. The last part is to be used to bring me forth [ie., bury] honestly. To John my son, I leave the better of my roses of gold. To Elizabeth my daughter, 20 sheep. To my brother William, the lesser of my roses of gold. Once my debts are paid and made final, I make my mother my executrix, to divide all amongst my children, as I trust in her the most, after our Lord Almighty.”

Finally, there’s John Williamson, whose will sounds as if it may have been written during his wife’s pregnancy. He explains:

“Knowing not the hour of my death … I will that she shall have her own goods. … Also, all other words spoken before notwithstanding, I will that if God sends my wife another son or daughter, if it be a son, he should have twenty pounds. And if it be a daughter, forty pounds …”

As this will demonstrates – and there’s the tinest hint in those ‘words spoken before’ that husband and wife had discussed this – medieval men recognised that their daughters might be less able to support themselves than their sons, and that their widows might need explicit legal statements to give them rights to property.

*

Just for light relief, I’ve also transcribed the section from the last will where John Williamson describes his hopeful plans for his son, which come straight out of the Guardian-reading ‘is my child Gifted and Talented?’ mindset. John junior must, at the time of the will writing, have been a young child. His father writes:

“… I will that John, my son, be put to study, until such time as he is 15. Then, he should be sent on to a good school, and given five pounds a year to keep himself. After that, he will go to Oxford or Cambridge, until he is 20, with five pounds every year. And after he is 2o, he will go into the Inns of Court …”

Yes, John. Of course he will.

(Wills from Testamenta Eboracensia, or Wills proved at York)

Note

The will in the picture above is by William Morton, who died in York in 1477. It’s not so much poignant as racist, really, but you can see a transcription and translation here.

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One thought on “‘Knowing Not the Hour of My Death’: Medieval Wills and Family Relationships

  1. Pingback: The Myth of the ‘Empowered Woman’ in History | Jeanne de Montbaston

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