Ellington, Huntingdonshire, a village belonging to the estates of the abbot of Ramsey from the tenth to the sixteenth centuries, was a typical East Midlands open-field village of 2,700 acres, with a largely villein population and a mixed farming economy. In these and other respects, Ellington was fairly representative of the rural settlements that housed the vast bulk of European populations throughout the Middle Ages. In the last several decades historians have intensified their efforts to understand the economy and society of these peasant communities, using records of local provenance, primarily the minutes of the semiannual manorial courts. The present article, based upon a larger socioeconomic study of the village community of Ellington from 1280 to 1600, examines the local response of that community to the long-term crises engendered by the arrival of plague in the mid-fourteenth century. Here, we are interested in examining the social underpinnings of village government, specifically, the dynamic complex of community standards or expectations that informed the selection of local leaders in the village.
Thanks to the evidence of court rolls, which begin in the thirteenth century, and other local records uniquely available for the English peasantry, we can study a number of indices of change in peasant communities and thus identify some of the aspirations and choices that constituted one dimension of the “mental world of the non-literate folk.” A study of village government through local leadership is a direct and significant avenue of investigation, first, because the surviving data allow us to identify the village's official leaders, both as individuals and as a group.