Medieval Writing
Paleography Exercises
Charter of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, early 13th century (British Library, Egerton Charter 2180). All images by permission of the British Library.
This charter of the beginning of the 13th century does not record a grant to a monastic institution, but rather a grant by the abbey of Bury St Edmunds to a private individual, one Robert de Braybroc, for his homage and service. He is granted in perpetuity the tenant services of two virgates of land in Braybroc in return for an annual payment of one pound of cumin on the feast day of St Edmund. The script is a rather spiky cursive document hand.
This document is featured in Brown 1990, where the script is categorised as a littera gothica cursiva anglicana documentaria media, if you go in for that sort of thing.
This document perhaps requires a little explanation. While we don't know the exact story of Robert de Braybroc and the nature of his relationship with the abbey of Bury St Edmunds, the document illustrates something about the medieval land tenure system in England. Private individuals did not own land, with the rights to sell or bequeath it to their heirs, in the way that we can today. Private land ultimately belonged to the king, who retained rights to reassign it or to establish the heir on the death of an existing owner, or actually feudal tenant. Holding an feudal tenancy did not just give you a piece of dirt, but certain fees and services from serfs or villeins who were actually working the land for their subsistence.
Land which was granted to the church, with feudal privileges attached, was granted in perpetuity. It was referred to as alienated, as the king no longer exerted his ultimate control over it. However, church bodies could not then sell or dispose of it to private individuals. The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds could not give a faithful retainer a piece of land. What they did was give him the benefit of the tenant services in return for a peppercorn rental. A virgate of land was a variable measure, depending upon the quality of the land, but was between about 15 and 60 acres. Cumin was a spice used copiously in the middle ages. We are not too sure about the 13th century, but in the 15th century it could be bought for 2d per pound. (See Tillotson 1988) The abbey was basically providing their man with a modest pension in return for a phoney rent.

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