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Eilert Ekwall

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'Preface', Two Early London Subsidy Rolls (1951), pp. VII-XIII. URL: Date accessed: 18 April 2014. Add to my bookshelf


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An interesting form of taxation in medieval England was a tax on movable (or personal) property. The movables of taxpayers were valued by specially appointed taxers, and a certain part of the aggregate value was paid by way of tax, a tenth, a twelfth, a fifteenth, a twentieth, etc., as the case might be. The tax was thus not an income-tax, but it was apparently held that the personal property of a taxpayer gave a clue as to his economic position and the amount he was able to pay. The tax was generally levied only from laymen, and it is therefore often referred to as a Lay Subsidy.

These subsidies were not annual, but were granted by Parliament, generally at intervals of a few years, sometimes in two or three successive years. Some goods were exempted, those for urban districts being specified on p. 11 below. For country districts the articles exempted were of a different nature, and there were special regulations for knights and gentlemen, whose armour, ridinghorses, jewels, clothing and vessels of gold, silver and brass were free of tax. Apart from goods expressly, or in some cases customarily, exempted, all property, inclusive of household furniture and implements, was to be declared and taxed. In urban districts the most important class of property taxed was doubtless the goods of merchants, and we find in the Subsidy of 1319 one London merchant whose tax (£40) was more than half the aggregate amount paid by the ward in which he resided, and far in excess of that of several less prosperous wards. A minimum value of taxable property was fixed, generally 10s., and those possessing movables of a value below the minimum were exempted from taxation altogether.

A good deal has been written on this type of taxation, the most important contributions being those of Professor J. F. Willard, especially his Parliamentary Taxes on Personal Property 1290-1332 (1934). I take this opportunity of recording the invaluable help I have derived from Professor Willard's work, particularly his book of 1934.

The returns are extant for many among these subsidies, and several have been published. As regards the City of London, the returns for three early subsidies are wholly or partially preserved, one of the time of Edward I, one of that of Edward II (1319), one, of that of Edward III (1332). That of 1332 was published in 1918 by Miss Margaret Curtis in Finance and Trade under Edward III, ed. G. Unwin, pp. 35-92. The two earlier subsidies have not been published before. In the case of the earliest one the returns are extant for 12 out of the 24 wards of the City, while in that of 1319 only Vintry ward is missing. These two rolls, reprints of which are given in the present volume, are preserved in the Public Record Office, where they are designated as Exchequer, K. R., Subsidy Rolls (E. 179), 144/2 and 144/3.

The value and importance of tax-rolls of the kind here dealt with need only be hinted at. They list numerous taxpayers with their assessments and thus give information on large sections of the population. They throw light on the social and economic position of various classes of people, the relative economic status of various districts and so on. They are sources of first-rate importance for students of names, not least surnames, and have been made ample use of by such students. They have proved valuable sources for dialect geography. The two rolls published in this volume have received attention from various scholars, especially students of social and economic history. For the earlier roll we may refer, for instance, to G. Unwin in Finance and Trade, for that of 1319 to the same author in Gilds and Companies of London (1908), Miss Curtis in her edition of the Subsidy of 1332, Professor Willard, and especially to Miss Thrupp in The Merchant Class of Medieval London (1948). The last-mentioned book, by the way, did not reach me till my own was nearly ready in manuscript.

The subsidy rolls for urban districts, especially London, in a way hold a position of their own, and contain information of a different nature from that found in rolls for country districts. In the latter the majority of taxpayers would belong to the agricultural class, and the question of the occupations of taxpayers would play an insignificant rôle. In urban districts the population consisted mainly of merchants, tradesmen and handicraftsmen. Even if agricultural pursuits were carried on also by inhabitants of urban districts, few, if any, Londoners would be exclusively or chiefly dependent on the tilling of the soil. In towns a great number of different occupations or trades would be represented, and the subsidy rolls may be expected to give valuable information on the relative economic and social position of people of various occupations. Unfortunately the London tax-rolls only occasionally indicate the occupation of taxpayers. In that of 1319 it is fairly frequently given only for the taxpayers of Cheap (29 out of 173, persons with surnames such as Brewer, Taverner not being counted). In that of 1332 Candlewick holds a special position with the occupation of 39 out of a total of 45 taxpayers indicated. But a careful study of contemporary sources enables us to a great extent to supplement the information contained in the tax-rolls themselves.

It seems to me that a simple reprint of the London tax-rolls is not really satisfactory. The chief aim of the present edition is to identify the taxpayers, as far as possible, and determine their occupation and status in the City. The voluminous commentary at the foot of the reprints of the texts is mainly devoted to this task. For the purpose all available printed sources have been minutely and systematically searched. Most valuable have been the special London sources, such as the Calendar of Wills, the LetterBooks, the Mayor's and the Coroners Rolls. But also records such as the Hundred Rolls, the Close, Fine and Patent Rolls, the Feet of Fines for various counties, or the legal records published by the Selden Society, have often given important information.

It was my hope that I should be able to supplement the collections derived from printed sources by the help of unpublished material, but I regret that various circumstances have rendered this impossible. It is to be supposed that unprinted sources, especially those in the Guildhall Library, contain a good deal of important material, by means of which a number of taxpayers could have been identified on whom the printed sources give insufficient information, or the occupation of a number of people determined or determined more safely. But it is unlikely that all small taxpayers could have been identified even if the unprinted material had been made full use of, and there would probably have remained not a few for whom only the name and the assessment are known. And though the material offered in the commentary is necessarily limited in scope, I venture to think that the printed sources on the whole give reasonably satisfactory information, and that, at least for most wards, the occupation of a sufficient number of taxpayers can be determined for conclusions of a more general nature to be warranted.

It may be added that the special literature on early London has only partly been available to me here. The English department of Lund University Library, though very well equipped, naturally has many gaps, which I have only to some extent been able to fill in myself. I am referring especially to histories of the London trade companies and the like. However, my experience is that for the early period covered by the tax-rolls important information is rarely met with in special studies of the kind hinted at.

In the Commentary the etymology of surnames, so far as it can be established, is indicated. For the English place-names found as local surnames a reference is hereby given to my Dictionary of English Place-names (DEPN), supplemented by the volumes of the Place-name Society.

The Introduction contains some results of an analysis of various features of the texts. The first few chapters are devoted mainly to questions of a more or less philological character. The question of scribes and hands offers problems of some interest and is more fully gone into than is usual in editions of a similar kind. The language of the rolls, with its curious blend of Latin, French and English elements, has been discussed in a brief chapter. The earlier subsidy has a stronger French element than the later one, though even in that occupational surnames are largely French. Many of these French surnames were doubtless renderings of vernacular English occupational words into the official Anglo-French language, and need not indicate that the French word in question had been adopted into English.

A special brief chapter has been devoted to names in the Subsidies, both font-names and surnames. The London rolls do not offer much information to place-name students, apart from names of London localities and local surnames, which often give good early forms of non-London place-names. More is to be learned from the rolls on font-names and surnames. The earlier roll gives numerous welcome early examples of genuine English (or French) forms of font-names, and both rolls have interesting instances of hypocoristic names. The rolls tell us something about the relative frequency of font-names and the various types of surnames.

Chapter V is devoted to problems referring to the population of London about 1300. Most attention is here given to the question of immigration into London, both from abroad and from England outside London. Especially the latter part of the problem seems to be of considerable interest. I may add, by way of excuse for the space set aside for it, that when several years ago I turned to the study of early London it was in the hope that an examination of early London local surnames might throw some light on early immigration into London from the provinces, and give indications as to what parts of England these immigrants came from, a problem of importance for the history of the early London dialect.

In the section Tax-rolls and Population my chief aim is to try and find out if anything indicates a numerical change in the population of London in the forty years from 1292 till 1332. So far as can be judged from the tax-rolls, the population would seem to have been about the same numerically in 1332 as in 1292.

The lengthy chapter on assessments (Chap. VI) gives a fairly full account of the results of an analysis of the assessments from various points of view, a chief aim having been to determine the relative economic position of taxpayers with various callings. A detailed comparison between the assessments in the two subsidies has not been attempted, because while we know that the subsidy of 1319 was a twelfth, it is not clear what the rate of taxation was in 1292. The big taxes of some taxpayers in 1319 may indicate that there was business on a larger scale in 1319 than in 1292, but on the other hand taxes in 1319 seem in some cases to have been unduly raised owing to circumstances that cannot be judged now. In 1332 there were no taxes comparable to the top ones of 1319.

The reprints are mainly based on photostats supplied by the Public Record Office, but it is only fair to add that I am familiar with the originals of both rolls, having excerpted large portions of them a number of years ago. It is possible that different readings would have been obtained in a few cases if I could have re-examined the originals, but I trust those based on the photostats are on the whole correct. Some particularly difficult parts in the Roll of 1319 (especially in the returns for Billingsgate and Queenhithe) have been examined for me by officers of the Public Record Office. I may add here that I have accepted their readings in all cases except one, viz. that for Queenh 80. I have read the surname as Leyre, while the officers of the Public Record Office think it is rather Leyte. To me Leyre still seems the more probable form of the MS., and if the reading is really Leyte it will be a clerical error for Leyre.

The chief texts reprinted are the two Subsidies referred to above, but as a third item is included a short section on the Account of the Aldermen as collectors of the Subsidy of 1319. A verbatim reprint of the whole document would have taken too much space, and it has been held sufficient to reproduce some passages indicating the formulas used with a few comments, and to tabulate the figures found under the various wards.

I did not become aware of the existence of this Account until a fairly late date, and owing to unfortunate circumstances beyond my control a photostat of the part of the manuscript containing the Account for London did not reach me till the late spring of 1951, when the Introduction was already in type. If I had had access to the Account earlier I should no doubt have placed the information found in it in the Introduction. It was possible, however, to introduce references to the Account at various places there.

If the Account had been available to me earlier the explanation of the << t >> and the <<in Ro.>> found before taxpayers' names, which puzzled me a good deal, would have offered no real difficulty.

The facsimiles have been chosen with a view to illustrating various hands and certain features of the texts. That from Subsidy Roll 144/2 shows the change of hands in the returns for Bassishaw and Portsoken, which are included complete. Those from Subsidy Roll 144/3 represent four different hands. One contains the return for Lime Street complete, and the others illustrate the beginning or the end of returns, that from Coleman Street showing two different sums total. The four facsimiles give examples of the various abbreviations for dimidia marca, which are discussed on p. 14. The facsimiles have been produced by Malmö Ljustrycksanstalt.

I tender my grateful thanks to the authorities of the Public Record Office for permission to edit the rolls, for supplying the photostat copies of the two Subsidy Rolls and the Account, and for invaluable assistance courteously accorded to me in regard to the difficult passages referred to above. I owe a real debt of gratitude to the Librarian and Curator of the Guildhall Library for valuable information and for providing me with photographs of certain pages from the London Letter-Book E, especially that containing the Schedule referred to on p. 8 and elsewhere. Special gratitude is due to Lady Stenton for important help and advice containing certain particular readings, and especially for help in clearing up various technical points bound up with medieval English accounting, which I could not have solved myself. I also thank my former pupil, Professor M. Löfvenberg, for his help in collating two particular passages in the Rolls. Last, not least, J thank my wife for reading a proof of the Introduction and detecting not a few misprints that had escaped me.

Lund, August 1951

Eilert Ekwall