Medieval Dating: The Modernisation of Dates and the Enhancement of Earlier Volumes

Dr. Gordon McKelvie explains the importance of adding modernized dates to the earlier CIPM volumes, and explores the research possibilities offered by the original dates found in the documents themselves.

A primary objective of this project is to make the Inquisitions Post Mortem accessible to as wide an audience as possible. Part of this process involves enabling non-specialists, who may very well be unaware of medieval concepts and conventions, to interpret and understand the information contained with IPMs. Standardisation of information contained with the IPMs into modern forms increases their accessibility. A prime example is the dates. During the middle ages there was no fixed method of expressing the date. Most years were denoted by the regnal year, while the day was given in relation to a particular liturgical feast. For instance, the inquisition for Richard de Halsam in Yorkshire is dated to ‘Thursday after St John the Baptist 29 Edward I' (which was 29 June 1301). [1. See CIPM iv.3.] Earlier calendars did not convert these dates into modern form, whereas volumes 19-26 for 1399-1447 substitute modern dates.  The various dates of writs, inquisitions, extents, deaths and proofs of ages contained within the IPMs up to 1399 therefore requires standardisation.  Converting the dates is a time-consuming task. Those requiring modern calendar equivalents need to look the date up in C.R. Cheney's A Handbook of Dates for Students of British History, (an impressive feat of scholarship but something that non-specialists are unlikely to have close to hand).[2. C.R. Cheney, A Handbook of Dates for Students of British History, revised edition by Michael Jones (Cambridge, 2000). See also:] Providing the modern equivalent of the dates will make the IPMs more user-friendly and accessible to a wider audience. Currently, around 25,000 dates have been converted. It is estimated that the final number will be around 40,000. The dates will be inserted into the XML markup in ISO format (YYYY-MM-DD), while the original dates will be retained in the calendar text. The online edition of the IPMs will in this respect be superior to the printed calendars.

The rendering of all dates into the Gregorian calendar, moreover, can tell us more about the inquisitions themselves and the efficiency of government.  What was the average time between someone dying and a writ being issued? Or between the issuing of a writ and the inquisition being conducted? What was the impact of war, famine and pestilence on the system? During the Black Death there is at times a marked variation in the dates of death of the tenant-in-chief given between counties,[3. E.g. CIPM ix. 46, 49, 164, 174-7, 180, 188, 212, 216, 218, 223-4, 226, 233, 235-6, 251, 287-8, 295, 344, 377, 379, 417-18, 510, 578, 599, 664.] yet the impact of the Black Death on the administration of the system is an area yet to be explored.[4. The impact of the Black Death on medieval government more generally has been discussed more generally by Mark Ormrod: 'The English government and the Black Death of 1348-9' in England in The Fourteenth Century: Proceedings of the 1985 Harlaxton Symposium ed. W. Mark Ormrod (Woodbridge, 1986), 175-88 and ‘The Politics of Pestilence: Government in England after the Black Death' in The Black Death in England, eds. W. Mark Ormrod and Philip G. Lindley (Stamford, 1996), 147-91.] Did the increase in number of deaths have an impact on the efficiency of government? Presumably the number of inquisitions to undertake increased while the number of local officials to carry them out or sit on juries decreased. Similarly, did the famine of 1315-17, the Scottish invasions of the early 14th century or the turmoil of Edward II's reign have an impact upon the efficiency of the system?

Another area for further exploration is the precise choice of saints which many enable light to be shed on the more personal aspects of medieval belief, normally absent in contemporary records. K.B McFarlane, the most influential late medieval historian of the twentieth century, believed that it was impossible to provide fully rounded biographies of medieval men and women due to the insufficient survival of material that provides a sense of a person's motivations or personality.[5. K.B. McFarlane, The Nobility of Late Medieval England: The Ford Lectures of 1953 and Related Studies (Oxford, 1973), ix-x. More recently: A.J Pollard, Warwick the Kingmaker: Politics, Power and Fame (London, 2007), 6-7 makes similar arguments.] Religious expression, however, has at times been regarded as a deeply personal aspect of someone's life and therefore a window through which the preferences of medieval people can be glimpsed.[6. Michael Hicks, Richard III and His Rivals: Magnates and their Motives in the Wars of the Roses, (London, 1991), xi, 99-118.] Leaving aside the obvious caveat that the population was almost entirely Christian and anyone wishing to a be subject of the English king needed to be baptised,[7. ‘It is notoriously difficult to assess and individual's personal beliefs, and in an age where outward conformity to religious norms was obligatory, it is sometimes only when exceptional or excessive behaviour is found that one can comment'. James Ross, John de Vere, Thirteenth Early of Oxford, 1442-1516: ‘The Foremost Man of the Kingdom', (Woodbridge, 2011), 211; Mark Ormrod, ‘Call Me Edward', England's Immigrants 1330-1550 website, April 2013 (] it is clear that when scribes dated a writs, inquisitions, extents etc., to the feast of a particular saint they were making a choice. Indeed, the editors of The Westminster Chronicle have taken the choice of obscure saints such as St Basilides and St Cyrinus, St Milburga, St Processue and St Martinianus to date certain events as indicative of a stylistic difference in the writing of the chronicle between 1381 and 1383 that suggests there were two chroniclers as opposed to one.[8. The Westminster Chronicle, 1381-1394, eds. L.C Hector and Barbara F. Harvey (Oxford, 1982), xxii-xxiv.] Similar choices were made by scribes at Westminster when drafting writs and escheators in the counties when writing inquisitions. To modern eyes some of the choices of feast days may seem bizarre. In 1361, the inquisition in Hampshire for William de Overton was dated to the ‘Saturday after the feast of St Thomas the Apostle' which was the 25 December.[9. CIPM, xi, no. 153.] Why not Christmas?

The reasons that variation exists in the first place is clear: almost every day was a liturgical feast day. No-one could observe the liturgical feast of every minor saint since that would mean they would have little time to grow crops, hunt and train in arms. What is not always clear is why some people chose certain saints instead of others. In Essex in 1366 the feasts of St Barnabas and the Nativity of St John the Baptist were used to date inquisitions taken in the same week.[10. CIPM xii. 81.] Important feasts, especially Easter and Michaelmas, were almost always noted, but the prominence of others varies. The collection of dates has meant the collection of data regarding the use of particular feasts to express certain dates, which itself can be expanded and answer further questions. Did the popularity of certain saints change over time? What saints were favoured in what areas of the country? Moreover, were there even any great regional variations? St Cuthbert is traditionally associated with the Bishopric of Durham but that did not prevent an escheator from Hampshire in 1292 from dating the extent of Peter Spilleman (alias Espileman, Spyleman) to ‘the morrow of St Cuthbert 20 Ed I'.[11. CIPM iii. 19.] The data collected should, in theory make it possibly to chart the popularity of certain saints over time and between counties: at least until 1399, when the dates in the calendars were modernized. That decision is understandable. Editorial practices have changed and developed since the first calendars were produced in the nineteenth century.[12. Sean Cunningham, ‘A Great Historical Enterprise: The Public Record Office and the Making of the Calendars of Inquisitions Post Mortem', in The Fifteenth Century Inquisitions Post Mortem: A Companion, ed. Michael Hicks (Woodbridge, 2012), 169-82.] Before the development of electronic publication editors had to make a decision to either stay true to the original manuscript or provide the modern equivalent. We no longer have to make such decisions. When the earlier volumes are made accessible online it will be possible to see the date as it appeared in the manuscript and its modern equivalent. By enabling both the original date and the modern equivalent to be shown simultaneously, we can now have our cake and eat it!