The cornerstone of this book is a set of three rolls in The National Archives that make up the Cambridge Hundred Rolls of 1279. The Hundred Rolls as a whole are important because they are the first royal survey that comprehensively and systematically itemized very small plots of land. Anglo-Saxon charters transferring land go back to the 9th century in several counties, but the lands to which they refer were typically large plots held by royalty, aristocrats or powerful religious institutions. The coverage in the Domesday Book in 1086 was superficial in comparison with the detail given in the Hundred Rolls. When investigating issues such as the incidence of hawgable, the Hundred Rolls provide some of the earliest written evidence.
The Hundred Rolls have long been recognized by historians as an important source. Raban noted that:
The real afterlife of the 1279–80 inquiry began, not in the Middle Ages, but in the early nineteenth century, with the publication of the Record Commission edition. Since then the rolls have attracted the fitful but increasingly sophisticated attention of scholars … The future is exciting, with the expectation of more results stimulated by the resources of modern technology.
This book has aspired to fulfil these expectations. The Cambridge Rolls are a good starting point because, together with the Huntingdon Rolls, they provide the most detailed and comprehensive account of property holdings in any large town.
The importance of property transactions
The first question addressed in this book was whether the urban property market in late 13th-century Cambridge was a direct antecedent of property markets today. In particular, how common was the buying and selling of property? How were property rents determined? Were there professional speculators, and if so how did they operate?
The evidence shows that the property market was well developed by 1279, and indeed quite sophisticated. Demand for property was especially strong in elite residential areas, where the supply of property was limited and rents were consequently high. About half of all property transfers were effected through sale and purchase.
Properties were held by perpetual rents. Where properties increased in value additional rents could be added by vendors. Many properties carried multiple rents, suggesting that they had changed hands several times.