Compassionate Capitalism in the Middle Ages: The property market in 13th century Cambridge

Compassionate Capitalism in the Middle Ages: The property market in 13th century Cambridge

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By John Lee

Property was a desirable asset in medieval Cambridge, much as it still is today. Two new books examine the records of over one thousand properties in the town, all detailed in the Hundred Rolls of 1279. These provide a new perspective on the town’s property market and property holders, and a new translation of the Hundred Rolls for Cambridge, a valuable source for our understanding of medieval urban life and social mobility.

Sometimes referred to as a ‘Second Domesday’, the Hundred Rolls of 1279 were the first royal survey that comprehensively itemised very small plots of land. The coverage in Domesday Book in 1086 was superficial in comparison with the detail given in the Hundred Rolls. The Cambridge rolls provide some of the most detailed accounts of property holdings in any large town. They have been incomplete though, until the recent discovery of an additional roll. The authors provide a new translation of all three rolls relating to the town, to replace the incomplete and inaccurate transcription made by the Record Commission in 1818.

Through a close analysis of these records, including the previously unpublished roll, the authors show that the property market of thirteenth-century Cambridge was quite sophisticated. Demand for property was particularly strong in elite residential areas, where the supply of property was limited and rents high. About half of all property transfers were made through sale and purchase. Properties provided accommodation, a place of business, and a status symbol. They also offered a source of rental income, a substitute for holding cash, and a useful means of speculating. Property speculation was by no means unusual. This arose from a booming property market, and also from the misfortune of others.

Cambridge in the thirteenth century

Cambridge was not yet a famous centre of learning; its university was less than a century old. The town’s main importance was as an inland port with waterways linking the fenlands and the coast. Situated at a river crossing with the fens to the north and farmland to the south, Cambridge was the logical place to tranship corn from cart to boat. The town was also an important centre of administration for the county and for the bishop of Ely. Cambridge was well-positioned to serve its hinterland, and its hinterland was sufficiently well-endowed with resources to support the town’s growth. Another strength of the town was that old wealth and new wealth coexisted and intermarried, and there was social cohesion among the property-owning families.

Family fortunes

How important were the leading families in the urban economy, and what contributed to their survival and success? Did new wealth generated by business activity replace old wealth based on land as a source of status and influence in the town? Evidence from the Hundred Rolls has been combined with deeds and other sources to reconstruct the family trees of leading Cambridge families. This shows that many successful Cambridge merchants were members of large families, or had relatives who married into such families. Large families seem to have diversified their risks by different members taking employment in different fields such as trade, administration, and religious offices.

The key to success often seems to have been an individual entrepreneur within the family, who could assess risks effectively. Robert of St. Edmunds for example, mayor of Cambridge in 1258, acquired considerable property in the town which his sons were able to consolidate further. In contrast, the Dunnings appear to have been an aristocratic family that had difficulty coming to terms with the economic growth in thirteenth-century Cambridge. The young generation of the family appear to have lived beyond their means, incurring debts and selling properties to pay them off.

Compassionate Capitalism

Successful property speculators frequently employed the wealth they had accumulated to the benefit of the whole community. In Cambridge in 1279, almost half of all rental income generated from local properties accrued to religious and charitable institutions. This was mainly through the gifts of townspeople – an accumulation of bequests dating back to the twelfth century. The Barton family, for example, were important patrons of the Crutched Friars and the Nuns of St. Radegund’s, while the Dunnings gave land to Barnwell Priory, the Hospital of St. John and St Radegund’s. Church rebuilding was also actively pursued. The piety of the townspeople encouraged investment in social infrastructure, recycling profits from trade back into the community. Profits from property speculation benefited individuals, family dynasties and the urban community as a whole. Compassionate capitalism involved high levels of charitable giving to hospitals, monasteries, churches and colleges which helped spread the economic benefits of the commercial revolution of the thirteenth century.

Compassionate Capitalism. Business and Community in Medieval Englanduses the Hundred Rolls to explore Cambridge’s sophisticated urban property market during the thirteenth century. A companion volume, Business and Community in Medieval England. The Cambridge Hundred Rolls Source Volume provides a new translation of the survey of 1279. Both books are published by Bristol University Press.

The authors are Catherine Casson, Mark Casson, John Lee and Katie Phillips.

Watch the video: Paul Freedman, European Slavery and Serfdom in the Middle Ages (July 2022).


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