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Employment on a Northern English Farm, 1370-1409
By Richard Britnell
Paper given at Production, Trade, and Fraud in English Medieval Agriculture session at the 45th International Congress on Medieval Studies (2010)
Professor Britnell spoke about the manorial accounts from a small farm in Durham called Houghall, which belonged to Durham Priory. Houghall was established in the 12th century, and was small in size, cultivating on average 120 acres per year. About a twenty oxen were on the farm too, making it likely that it also served as a stud farm for cattle. Records also show that an unknown number of sheep were also raised here.
Houghall had no customary tenants (in fact no village existed around the farm) so the farm managers needed to hire workers to run the various operations. Account rolls survive for 29 years in the period 1370 to 1409, which give some fascinating insights into how the farm was run and who were the people hired to work there. It is likely that most of the people who worked there came from the town of Durham, which was about an hour’s walk away, or from a the village of Shincliffe, which was closer.
The farm manager usually employed a full-time staff of eight people, which included a carter, creter, 4 ploughman, shepherd and garden woman. A smith was also working on piece meal basis. Typically all of these people were hired for six month contracts.
The Houghall accounts are somewhat unusual for this kind of medieval record in that they actually include the names of most the people who were hired. Professor Britnell has used these records to see how the status of the labour market in the decades following the large scale population decline in England caused by the Black Death. He found that very few of these workers were staying for long periods of time, with just over half of the individuals being employed for 1 or 2 terms. Britnell sees this as evidence of tightness in the labour market as workers are moving around and looking for better employment opportunities.
The year 1380-1 was a particular difficult time for the farm to hire ploughman, and at one point they even hired a woman named Matilda of Bron for six days at a rate of one-and-a-half pence per day.
Britnell notes that wages rose modestly over this period. John Emanson, for example, was paid six shillings a year in 1376-7, but when he came back to work in 1398-9 he received a salary of fourteen shillings per year.
Information about part-time workers is less abundant, but they do show that extra people were hired for particular jobs, especially during harvest season. Britnell that women are being hired in these seasonal jobs and being paid the same rate as men. Also, in the year 1405-6, several of the women hired for casual work are named, and they seem to be the wives or daughters of the regular employees.
Overall, his paper shows that there were a lot of movement among workers in this part of England during the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries.
See also our Video Interview with Richard Britnell, which was also conducted at the congress.