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The function and evasion of marriage fines on a fourteenth-century English manor



Since Vinogradoff described merchet payments as ‘the most odious’ of the numerous manorial exactions for which villein tenants were liable, the fine for marriage, classically defined as a levy due from the villein upon the marriage of his daughter, has received a good deal of attention from historians. Although the issue of marriage licences has accordingly been tackled from various perspectives, in recent years the subject at the heart of a number of contributions to the topic was the question of seigneurial control. In tackling this matter, one has to ask what kind of control a manorial lord could or would want to exercise over the matters of matrimony of his social inferiors.

An important contribution to the debate was provided in 1979 by Eleanor Searle. A key element in her argument was that marriage licences essentially constituted a tax on the chattels taken as dowry by the bride into her marriage, and as such were not universally enforced. Further, in her view merchet did not so much constitute a test of the status of the individual as one of tenure. At the same time she argued that merchets could be used by the lord to vet prospective marriage partners and thus control the transfers of tenant property lest the latter should slip into freehold tenure. By imposing financial disincentives, merchets, it was argued, also encouraged endogenous marriages. Richard Smith, while arguing that the rates of licences to marry were unlikely to reflect a proportional tax on dowries, nevertheless showed that merchets were not universally exacted and tended to fall predominantly upon richer tenants. Thus he took issue with R. Faith, who in a rejoinder to Searle's contribution suggested that the marriage licence constituted a tax on the marriage itself and was as such universally exacted.

In order to consider these problems and test some of the propositions that have been made, this study aims to examine the practice of seigneurial exaction and hence the function of marriage licences, on the one hand, and the relevance and nature of tenant evasion of merchet payments on the other, on one manor from 1330 to 1377. Changes in seigneurial policy towards merchet payments will be analysed and placed in the wider context of the demographic and socio-economic changes affecting manorial life in this period. Within this framework three intertwined aspects of the licence to marry will be examined. First, focusing on the question of which tenants were liable to pay merchets and what constituted the criteria for this liability, the theory and practice of merchet exaction will be considered. Secondly the reasons for the lord's interest in the marriages of his tenants in conjunction with the routes open to him to influence villein marriages to his advantage will be explored. Thirdly the extent and consequences of tenant evasion of merchet fines will be assessed, whilst the clash between lord and tenant over marriage fines will be viewed in the wider context of lord–tenant friction, especially in the post-Black Death period. Central to this discussion, the role and importance of women in this particular act of non-compliance will be examined.


The function and evasion of marriage fines on a fourteenth-century English manor



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