Thursday, 21 August 2014

Sequere pecuniam: Follow the money

The Tythe Barn, Harrold. Close to the Priory site but
not medieval.    Source:
The foundation of Harrold Priory was based on the grant of the churches of Harrold and Brayfield to the new community.  These had been inherited by Albreda de Blosseville from her father, who held the manor of Harrold. They were then gifted by Albreda's husband Samson le Fort to the priory.  These churches would in turn yield an income sufficient to pay for the upkeep of the churches, the costs of the cannons (priests) serving in them, and provide a surplus besides.  The revenue would mostly have come in the form of tithes (a quantity of the crops grown each year), or occasionally in services rendered or rarely in coin.  The immediate area was some of the richest agricultural land in England and so the priory should have been well provided for.  A 17th century building named 'The Tythe Barn' still stands today on Church Walk in Harrold, right on the corner of what would have been the precincts of the St Peter's church and the priory. This is unlikely to have ever served for receiving tythes as the practice had died out by this period.

This type of transaction was normal in the early medieval period, especially in England, when there was very little coin in circulation in the countryside except at harvest time, when accounts were settled and labourers were paid their wages for the year.  So it was normal practice to gift property to the monasteries and nunneries, and many of these were adept at managing these effectively to maximise their revenues. Bruce Vernarde points to the detailed accounts for Fontevraud abbey in France in the 12th century to show that almost all donations were of land, with building and revenue from customs and tolls coming a distant second and third.  It was also the case that most of Fontevraud's purchases were of land and buildings (especially mills).  It is not known if the water mill which still exists in Harrold was ever part of the priory's patrimony: a mill is listed in the 11th century Domesday book but it does not appear explicitly in Harrold Priory's cartulary.

During the four centuries following the foundation, the priory would have continued to receive grants of land and buildings, as well as occasional sums of money and annual grants of grain or other produce.  These 'gifts' would invariably accompany the entry of a new nun or novice to the community.  Religious communities were not allowed to charge new members or their families for entry - this constituted 'simony' and was frowned on by the church.  Instead they had to rely on 'donations' accompanying the 'gift' of the woman in question to the community.   In the formal documentation which accompanied a new arrival, these gifts may have been expressed in spiritual terms: but as Kathleen Cooke has observed they were understandable in terms of cost-effective solutions to long-term care for elderly widows, provision for unmarried daughters or care homes for the terminally ill. A life in a nunnery, as far as families were concerned, could be seen as a good investment.

From the Harrold cartulary we know that Baldwin des Ardres, Count of Guisnes granted the church of Stevington some time before 1153.  The church of Shakerstone in Leicestershire came to Harrold in the 15th century but the priory, historians seem agreed, was never rich. While at Fontevraud the first prioress Petronille de Chemillé proved to be an excellent steward, actively developing 'the business' through shrewd management and acquisitions, there appears to have been no equivalent prioress at Harrold, which continued to live off its modest landholdings until the end, making the occasional plea for charity.

Bedford's Community Archives describe the priory's financial position as follows:

"A partially complete account roll for 1401-1402 has survived in the ownership of the Boteler family and was transcribed by G.D.Gilmore in Volume 49 of the Bedfordshire Historical Records Society publications called Miscellanea [1970]. It shows that the priory made a small surplus but was certainly not rich.

"The house's lands were never great, in fact in 1291 Pope Nicholas did not bother to include the house in his taxation of the church. In the Hundred Rolls of 1274-1279 the priory is recorded as owning 410 acres of land. By 1340 this figure had actually fallen to about 360 acres. 

"When the foundation was dissolved it was described as having an income of £57/10/- of which £31 came from four rectories (Harrold, Cold Brayfield, Stevington and Shakerstone) £13/18/- from land in Harrold and £12/12/- from small rents in seventeen different villages."

  • Cooke, Kathleen (1990), "Donors and Daughters: Shaftesbury Abbey's benefactors, endowments and nuns, c1086-1130", Anglo Norman Studies. 12 pp. 29-45
  • Venarde, Bruce L. (1997), Women's monasticism and medieval society: nunneries in France and England, 890-1215, Ithaca: Cornell University Press
  • 'House of Austin nuns: The priory of Harrold', A History of the County of Bedford: Volume 1 (1904), pp. 387-390.

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