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Wills and Will-making in Anglo-Saxon England

Wills and Will-making in Anglo-Saxon England

Linda Tollerton
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Wills and Will-making in Anglo-Saxon England
    Book Description:

    A remarkable series of Anglo-Saxon wills have survived, spanning the period from the beginning of the ninth century to the years immediately following the Norman Conquest. Written in Old English, they reflect the significance of the vernacular, not only i

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-851-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. List of illustrations
    (pp. vi-viii)
    (pp. ix-ix)
    (pp. x-xiii)
    (pp. xiv-xiv)
    (pp. 1-10)

    It seems to have been the fate of Anglo-Saxon vernacular wills to be valued by scholars as a resource, yet neglected as a genre worthy of study in its own right. The History of English Law, published in 1898, describes Anglo-Saxon will-making as ‘ill-defined’, warranting only a few pages which seem largely designed to determine that it was neither the Roman testament nor the legal instrument of the later medieval period.¹ Since that date, only two detailed studies of the full corpus have appeared.

    The first, published in 1963, is the important and wide-ranging survey by Sheehan.² He considers the...

  8. CHAPTER ONE Anglo-Saxon written wills: the nature of the evidence
    (pp. 11-55)

    The sixty-eight documents which make up the corpus of Anglo-Saxon vernacular wills on which this book is based survive in the archives of the religious houses which, almost invariably, were named as beneficiaries.¹ However, extant wills are unevenly distributed both chronologically and across archives, as Map 1 and Table 1 show, with none recorded further north than Burton-upon-Trent (Staffs.).² Ninth-century wills survive largely in the archive of Christ Church, Canterbury, dating between approximately 805 and 889;³ six wills are extant, five as single sheet contemporary manuscripts, and one in a thirteenth-century cartulary associated with Christ Church.⁴ In addition to this...

  9. CHAPTER TWO The process of will-making
    (pp. 56-79)

    Since the vernacular wills themselves provide little insight into the process which produced them, any attempt to reconstruct that process must draw on other contemporary documents as well as narrative sources. One text is particularly valuable: the account in the twelfth-century Liber Eliensis of a sequence of post obitum dispositions made by a certain Siferth of Downham (Cambs.). Bishop Æthelwold’s accumulation of land at Downham was not without incident, as in the case of many of Æthelwold’s land deals; this appears to have prompted the compiler of the earlier Libellus, on which the chronicle account is based, to include a...

  10. CHAPTER THREE Politics, power and the bequest of land
    (pp. 80-139)

    Land was at the heart of wealth and status in Anglo-Saxon England, and the seriousness with which its transmission was viewed is demonstrated by the process of will-making described in the previous chapter, hedged around as it was with witnesses, documentation and the protection of king and church. It can often be difficult to determine the factors which influenced donors’ decisions, hampered as we are by the limited information in the sources about the donors themselves, their beneficiaries and the history of the estates. However, where donors belonged to the highest echelons of Anglo-Saxon society both they and their families...

  11. CHAPTER FOUR Lay bequest of land: pious gifts and family strategy
    (pp. 140-179)

    For lay donors across the full social spectrum, two factors consistently influenced bequests of land: the Church and the family. The alienation of land to the Church for spiritual benefit, for individual or family commemoration, needed to be balanced with the needs, or expectations, of the kindred. The way in which men and women managed these apparently conflicting claims in their wills is the focus of this chapter.

    Compared with the kings, ealdormen and bishops whose wills were the primary focus of the previous chapter, the majority of lay donors were of lower social status, rarely featuring in the historical...

  12. CHAPTER FIVE The bequest of movable wealth
    (pp. 180-227)

    Since truncation of the text in the course of the transmission of wills is possible, and in one or two instances demonstrable, particularly in cartulary versions, it is more than likely that we do not have the full picture of donors’ bequests of chattels, which were particularly vulnerable to omission.¹ No doubt Bede’s deathbed distribution of his ‘few treasures’ (quaedam preciosa) among the priests of his monastery was a typical scenario for both laity and religious, usually unrecorded.² As the evidence stands, movable wealth features almost exclusively in multi-gift wills: three are royal wills, five are the wills of ealdormen,...

  13. CHAPTER SIX Wills, commemoration and lay piety
    (pp. 228-278)

    Previous chapters have established the significance of bequests to the church, particularly of land, as an aspect of social cohesion involving the interaction of donor, kindred, the king, the local network and beneficiary churches. Bequests of movable wealth were more personal in the sense that they represented the donor and the donor’s family within the locus sanctus itself, on the altar or within the refectory. In the context of gift-giving, all bequests, even though deferred, posit a counter-gift. This chapter explores the spiritual benefits which donors might hope to receive in response to their gifts. In the wills themselves, such...

  14. CONCLUSION: Why make a written will in Anglo-Saxon England?
    (pp. 279-284)

    The phenomenon of the Anglo-Saxon written will was associated with a wealthy elite. The extent to which the documentation of post obitum disposition became customary among the nobility in the tenth and eleventh centuries cannot now be known, although (as Chapter One has shown) it seems likely that the procedure was more widely embraced than the number of surviving wills suggests. More amenable to discussion is why such an instrument came to be valued and used in a society which by custom privileged oral testimony and procedures.

    There can be little doubt that the documentation of bequests had its roots...

  15. Appendices

    • APPENDIX 1 The corpus of Anglo-Saxon wills
      (pp. 285-288)
    • APPENDIX 2 The evidence for wills and will-making in the Liber Eliensis and Chronicon Abbatiæ Rameseiensis
      (pp. 289-294)
    • APPENDIX 3 The bequest of movable wealth
      (pp. 295-298)
    • APPENDIX 4 Local churches mentioned in wills
      (pp. 299-301)
    • APPENDIX 5 Note on unpublished material by Patrick Wormald
      (pp. 302-304)
    (pp. 305-320)
  17. INDEX
    (pp. 321-328)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 329-333)