March 10, 2015, by Kathryn Steenson
Lifting the Lid on North Wheatley Manor
My name is Hannah and I am a Masters History student at the University of Nottingham, specialising in Medieval English history. I decided to do some voluntary archive work as I am considering a career as an archivist and so applied to Manuscripts and Special Collections.
My research interests mainly involve manorial documents and so I jumped at the chance to work with the collection of North Wheatley Manor. Quite simply, manorial documents are those connected with an English manor or estate and can include court rolls, deeds, property transactions, accounts and surveys to name but a few. They are especially exciting for the historian of English history, because they tell us so much about people at the local level, for instance giving insight into their relationships with each other, the functioning of local government, the handling of property and so on. Without such documents it would be virtually impossible for historians to get close to ‘ordinary’ people because they are so rarely mentioned in other types of sources.
The project I am working on is ongoing, involving organising and cataloguing of the material to make it more accessible for others. At first the task was rather daunting as there were lots of documents of all different types, spread over several boxes and I was informed that the collection had been left largely untouched since it came to the archives in the 1980s. However once I began sorting and reading the material, the unique history of North Wheatley Manor began to unfold and the image created was of one a small Nottinghamshire manor which was home to a variety of different people, all with a separate story to tell. The manorial court rolls are particularly fascinating as it is where you encounter the ordinary people of the manor, coming to the local court to lodge their complaints or problems and seek remedy from the presiding lord. Very quickly it became clear that North Wheatley had its fair share of troublemakers, as the same names kept cropping up in connection with various misdemeanours. These kinds of insights, kind of like an historical soap opera, made it hard not to stop and read all the entries in the manorial court books and I had to keep reminding myself I had a job to do!
The North Wheatley Manor collection also contains a lot of property documents, such as deeds, sales and transfers. Sadly these kinds of documents are often overlooked, as they are perceived to be less exciting. Whilst it is true they are not as action-packed as some other kinds of historical documents, their value must not be underestimated. They are crucial to understanding many things, including the business activities of local people, the ownership history of particular buildings, as well as local society more generally. What is more, these documents are beautiful to look at, often boasting exquisite calligraphy and colourful seals, demonstrating the tremendous value they held for the people who possessed them. Indeed what I find so exciting about these sources is their physicality, as many of these documents are folded, creased, have tears, smudges and the like, showing how they were carried around by their owners as proof of their landholdings. Every time I unfolded a deed I could not help wondering how many times this had been done in the past and in what circumstances.
Manorial documents are by no means limited to deeds and court rolls, although these are often the more common types of documents. The North Wheatley Manor collection is unusually diverse in the types of documents it contains, even including several extremely detailed maps. Most of these maps are post-18th century but are beautifully sketched, with the pastureland shaded green and minute little labels scrawled next to the different dwellings showing who lived where. One of the maps in the collection is especially comprehensive and details much of the land surrounding North Wheatley, with the result I got quite a surprise when I unfolded it as it took up most of the table!
I plan to continue my work with the collection and I hope that other people will be encouraged to give manorial documents a go, they aren’t as scary as they seem!