CESMA SEMINAR Living by the coast: economy, people and identity in a fourteenth-century coastal community

Paper given by Dr Miriam Muller (Birmingham)

Tuesday 10th February 2015

In this CeSMA seminar, we were delighted to welcome the University of Birmingham’s own Dr Miriam Muller to give a paper based on her recent research in to coastal communities in medieval England. In this paper, Miriam offered a fresh narrative for understanding the complex dynamics of coastal economies. Her particular source material for this paper is drawn from the period c.1270 to c.1370, and is comprised of manorial sources, court rolls and archaeological findings, among others.

Miriam highlighted that a key problem in attaining information about marine industries in this period is inherent in the nature of the sea as external to the manorial jurisdiction; a lord did not exercise any rights over the produce and subsequent revenue of the sea (although it should be noted that he did hold authority over resources drawn from rivers). The result of this is that the manor-oriented sources remain relatively silent on issues pertaining to marine industry; it was not within their remit to record revenues outside those of that particular manor. Information regarding sea fishing, for example, can only be gleaned incidentally from these records.

The main case study for this paper was the particularly well-documented manor of Heacham in Norfolk. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, we learn, Heacham operated under the auspices of an absentee landlord in the jurisdiction of the priory at Lewes in East Sussex. In this period, it was comprised of eight hamlets, three of which were close to the sea. It is in these fishing communities that the interrelationship between land and sea resources can be seen, Miriam argues.

Should the average holdings of Heacham’s tenants (a meagre 3.4 acres per person) be taken at face value, one might be inclined to conclude that the people of this community lived a life of poverty and land hunger. However, Miriam stresses that an awareness of the contribution of marine industry, in addition to and alongside that of the land, represents an important corrective to this narrative.

A thriving salting industry existed in Heacham at this time, the size of which suggests that salt was being produced on a scale suitable for the commercial export of preserved fish and for export to Sussex. This industry would have provided at least seasonal income. Indeed, the substantial amounts paid as tithes ‘from the sea’ (as 10% of the income from that particular source) indicate that some local families must have acquired a considerable revenue from this source.

One particularly fascinating aspect of Miriam’s paper was her findings regarding how the impact of the seasonal herring migrations on the local community could be glimpsed in the manorial records despite the paucity of explicit reference to marine industry. Heacham is ideally located to take advantage of Herring migration from the North Sea to the English Channel in the autumn. Analysis of marriage licenses applied for by unfree villein tenants reveals that on average seventy percent of the applications took place between September and the end of February, thus mirroring the fluctuation of maritime income in response to this increased fishing yield. This in turn reinforces her assertion of the complex intermeshing and influence of marine industry in the lives of the people of Heacham.

Miriam also argues that the specific economic climate at Heacham, as characterised by this relationship between land and sea industries, provided an atmosphere in which women experienced greater economic and political autonomy.

The findings outlined in this paper inform an innovative perspective on several aspects of medieval English coastal communities, by highlighting the complex interplay between land and marine industries and the impact of this on the lives of those who participated in these economies. Miriam offers an important corrective to the assumption that small average land holdings necessarily indicate poverty, and more broadly highlights the pitfalls of complacency in the interpretation of medieval documentary evidence.

Seminar report written by Beth Spacey


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