Thursday, June 9, 2016

Medieval Estate Management and Accounting

By Annie Whitehead

The treatises discussed here were modest products of the age of high scholasticism and of the heydey of high farming on the estates of the great English landlords. The development of education in the 12th century meant that every aspect of life was potentially a subject for study. The more scientifically oriented scholars led the field in writing treatises on practical matters, and it comes as no surprise that Robert Grosseteste was the author of the first known treatise on estate management, for as a bishop he was himself faced with the problems of the duties of a great landlord.

The subsequent literature on estate management, (the Seneschaucy, Walter, and the Husbandry,) were written really for a rising profession of estate administrators who were learning outside the universities by studying practical manuals.

Literate administration is typical of the 12th and 13th centuries. It developed in the royal exchequer where the earliest surviving accounts date from 1130, and a treatise of exchequer methods was written in the 1170s. From there it spread to the estates of the great magnates.

The Rules -
Was compiled in French, for the use of the Countess of Lincoln, from 1240-42. It was based on a set of Latin rules which Robert Grosseteste had issued for his own officers of household and estate. It consists of two sets of rules, one for the management of estate, and one for the seignorial household. Grosseteste is named as the author but the deep knowledge shown within it suggests that someone else was brought in to expand the bishop’s ideas. The larger part of the treatise, dealing with the supervision of a baronial household, was not suitable for application to monastic households, and this may explain the limited circulation of the Rules at first.

“Here begin the rules that the good bishop of Lincoln, S. Robert Groseteste, made for the Countess of Lincoln to guard and govern her lands and hostel:

The first rule teaches how a lord or lady shall know in each manor all their lands by their parcels, all their rents, customs, usages, services, franchises, fees, and tenements.”

In the later half of the 13th century, six copies were included in legal compilations however, and, translated into Latin, the treatise was revised to apply to clerical households.

Bishop Grosseteste

The Seneschaucy and Walter - 
Are the most widely known representatives of literature on estate management. They are closely linked, and it has been argued that Walter was in fact based on the Seneschaucy. Both were compiled for the legal public. The author of the Seneschaucy was unknown when the archetype of the principal tradition of copies was written. The author of Walter is known by name and calling, but there is still uncertainty about his background or the estate where he gained his experience as a bailiff. Both treatises were compiled for use on estates in the Midlands, because Walter of Henley refers to the two and three-field rotations of cultivation in some of his comments to the Seneschaucy; some information in Walter suggests a possible link with districts of Herefordshire and Gloucestershire.

The author of the Seneschaucy described the management and procedure of accounting on large seigneurial estates known to us from surviving records; Walter of Henley commented on certain points in the Seneschaucy, keeping to the same order; he outlined practices of Husbandry, some common but others unusual and apparently drawn from personal experience. He also taught the costing of certain principal expenses on the estate, such as ploughing and the keeping of plough-beasts; or the methods of assessing and checking certain yields, such as that from the dairy.

“It is usual and right that plough beasts should be in the stall between the feast of St Luke and the feast of the Holy Cross in May, five and twenty weeks, and if the horse is to be in condition to do his work, it is necessary that he should have very night at the least the sixth part of a bushel of oats…”

His advice was often difficult to accept, even to understand. To make his points he chose round figures, and his examples must not be taken at face value. For his advanced knowledge, Maitland called him a reformer, (The Collected Papers of Frederic William Maitland) and many of his contemporaries called him a ‘wise man’.

Neither treatise was written for the lords of manorial estates. Few landlords with sufficient land to employ a staff of officers, including stewards and bailiffs, would themselves have had time or inclination to take an active part in the administration and farming of their manors, while lords of small estates would have no need for an account of the duties and qualifications of high-ranking estate officers whom they would not wish to employ; but this did not stop some copyists from advocating the perusal of the texts by manorial lords.

The Seneschaucy was copied within the legal circle for which it had been compiled and is found hardly anywhere else. Walter appealed to a larger audience. Although written for and copied by lawyers, its instructions on farming attracted the monastic lords, among them especially Canterbury Cathedral Priory, and it aroused the interest of agriculturists, naturalists and antiquarians long after the Seneschaucy had gone out of circulation.

The plan of the Seneschaucy has a clear division into three parts. The office of steward, the work of bailiff and reeve, and the supervision of the manor by auditors and the lord. Walter of Henley, known to have become a friar preacher in middle life, cast his text in the form of a sermon, the advice of a father to his son.

“The father having fallen into old age said to his son, Dear Son, live prudently towards God and the world … if you can approve your lands by tillage or cattle or other means beyond the extents, put the surplus in reserve … why? I will tell you …”

The construction of the treatise is precise, even within the three main divisions - prologue, text and epilogue - and the phrasing and the use of proverbs show that the author had undergone his training as a preacher before he wrote the book.

“For it is said in in the English proverb, One year or two, wrong will on hand go, and ever at an end, wrong will wend.” And “The English proverb says, He that stretches farther than his whittle will reach, in the straw his feet he must stretch.”

The careful arrangement of both treatises suggest that their authors had been trained in the construction of texts, possibly at a university, where teaching was of a precise character and pupils were asked to copy and learn by heart the compositions written by their masters; a method advocated in the introduction of one tradition of the Seneschaucy.

It is doubtful whether the anonymity of the author had any influence on the more drastic treatment afforded to the Seneschaucy as compared with the given to Walter, since plagiarism had been accepted practice. It is more likely, however, that the central theme of the Seneschaucy, a discussion of the offices of the estate personnel n one type of estate, could easily be adapted to suit others by merely altering the details. Two revised versions of the Seneschaucy made during its early history are known. One, made c1290 by a lawyer imprisoned in the Flete Prison, and included in the extensive legal compilation known as the Fleta, is a conflation of the Seneschaucy and Walter. This revision was adapted for use on a small lay estate, smaller than that described in the Seneschaucy. Only one steward was in charge of the estate and household and the bailiff had for this reason greater independence.

The other revision, presumed to have been written by John of Longueville, a Northampton lawyer, c1300 for the use of lay lords, enlarges on the duty of the auditors. Although several copyists had very early, in the history of Walter, made deliberate omissions, additions, or alterations, no revision was made of the treatise apart from Fleta before the 15th century. At that time, long after the interest in the literature on estate management had waned, Walter was still copied, translated into Latin or English, and rewritten for its naturalist or farming content as well as for its antiquarian interest.

The Husbandry -
And 34 other texts deal with different aspects of accounting, such as the form of the account, the auditing, the procedure of compiling the data for the account, the assessment and the check of yields or profits etc.

Typical chapter headings in the Husbandry include: “How one must pay labourers in August and in time of haymaking” and “How the land ought to be measured.”

The Husbandry, that is to say a revised version of the treatise, is extant in many copies. The original consisted, first, of a collection of memoranda, yield tables, ready reckoners, and advice on auditing obtained from different sources, and grouped as an auditor would have wished in order to consult them at the audit; second, of some chapters discussing various duties:

“The provost must cause all the hairs of the avers to be gathered to make ropes for which he shall have need, and he must cause hemp to be sown in the court to make ropes for the waggons, for harness and other necessary things, and an allowance must be paid for making them, if there is anyone in the court who knows how to do so. For repairing houses, hedges, walls and ditches if need be an allowance must be paid according to what is right. And the provost must not buy, sell, receive or deliver anything unless by tally and good witness. And the provost must make all the servants of the court when they come for their labour work in the court in threshing corn or making walls or ditches or hedges or other works in the court to save money. And if there is a servant who knows how to do work in the court for which it would be necessary to pay another highly, let him do the work and pay another in his place. The seneschals or head-bailiffs ought to see all purchases and all sales that the provosts or under-bailiffs make to see that they are well made and to the lord’s profit.”

Author and date are unknown but it appears from the date of the extant copies and from internal evidence that the author apparently knew Walter, and that the compilation was made after Walter, but before 1300, by someone familiar with the conditions on the estates of Ramsey Abbey. The original version is transmitted only in the copy included in the remembrancer of the Abbot of Ramsey; The revision - extant in several copies - circulated with few exceptions among monastic houses.

The value of these treatises to the historian cannot be underestimated - they contain a wealth of information about ideas on estate management. They were written at a time of great learning, and reflect how widespread this renaissance had been - stretching into every field of learning. This is especially true when we consider that these treatises were indeed written to be studied and not just observed. If followed, these treatises would provide invaluable help to those faced with the duties of estate management.

(All images Public Domain)


Annie Whitehead is an author and historian, and a member of the Royal Historical Society. Her first two novels are set in tenth-century Mercia, chronicling the lives of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, who ruled a country in all but name, and Earl Alvar who served King Edgar and his son Æthelred the Unready who were both embroiled in murderous scandals. Her third novel, also set in Mercia, tells the story of seventh-century King Penda and his feud with the Northumbrian kings. Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom will be published by Amberley in September 2018.

Find out more at
Annie's Author Page
Buy Alvar the Kingmaker
Buy To Be A Queen
Buy Cometh the Hour


  1. This is a fascinating piece, thank you. A bibliography would have been helpful.

  2. Excellent post! Good advice is always current

  3. on Walter of Henley's Husbandry, together with an anonymous Husbandry, Seneschaucie, and Robert Grosseteste's Rules. The transcripts, translations, and glossary by Elizabeth Lamond ... With an introduction by W. Cunningham (1890)


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.