Authors: Margaret Frazer
The Reeve’s Tale
The last clouds of yesterday’s rain were no more than high white wisps across the summer-vaulted sky, tattered out and carried away on a warm west wind that bid to hold fair for the next few days and the weather with it, perfect for the haying that needed to be done before St. Peter and Paul. Seated on the bench under the squat-trunked oak at the church-end of the village green, Simon Perryn let the satisfaction of that almost-certainty sink deep into him along with the day’s June warmth.
If all held as it was, there’d finally be a harvest worth the name this year, after three years of rain and cold and more of the crops rotting in the fields than ripened. It had been a famine winter this last year, with everything brought near to the bone; but not so near as it would have gone if the nuns had not done their part, somehow managing to buy rye from somewhere the harvests hadn’t been as bad and sharing it out with the village, and even then word was that they had been living on the hunger side of things, too.
Not that the hunger was over yet nor would be until harvest was safely done and the granaries, please God and St. Peter-in-Harvest, full, but the year was well enough on now that the early peas were ready in the pod and the young onions well up and there were greens to be had for those who went gleaning the field and hedge and wood edges for them and now and again a plumped-out rabbit if someone cared to set a snare when no one else was looking; and the villagers were most marvelous-skilled at not looking.
Not at snares anyway. Everything else they seemed to see well enough and too well, Simon thought, eyeing the cluster of folk in front of him. He was Lord Lovell’s reeve for Prior Byfield and mostly glad of it. On the whole, it was better to be reeve than not, set to overseeing village matters rather than being overseen except for when Master Spencer, Lord Lovell’s bailiff for his properties in northern Oxfordshire into Warwickshire, came twice yearly to sort out troubles, collect fees, and check records, or when—very much more rarely, thank the Blessed Virgin for mercy—Master Holt, Lord Lovell’s high steward, came on his circuit, making general survey of his lord’s properties. Happily, Lord Lovell held lands through most of England, with Prior Byfield one of the least of his holdings and not often worth Master Holt’s visiting, so long as its due services and fees were accomplished and no great troubles arose.
Dealing with troubles before they became great was one of Simon’s tasks as the manor’s reeve, for which he was excused his own fees and most of the services he owed Lord Lovell for holding of his house and lands, an exchange that he found to his good, even on days like this when it was time to hold Prior By field’s three-month court and sort out whatever village matters had collected since the last one. At least the weather could not have been better, letting them be out here in the oak shade instead of cramped into the alehouse or being chill in the church.
Beside him on the bench, Master Naylor shifted, glanced up to judge the time by the sun’s slant through the leaves, and asked, “That’s the most of this lot, then?” of Father Edmund, the village priest who sat to one side with paper, pen and ink at a table carried out from his house, keeping record of what was decided in each matter.
Father Edmund finished scratching down that Bess Underbush had been fined two pence for breach of the assize of ale, having begun to sell a brewing before the village’s ale taster—presently Philip Green, who was never one to let a chance for free ale pass him by and was therefore diligent in the office—had had chance to taste and pass it as meeting all the rules regarding ale for sale. Not that Bess had ever brewed a bad lot of ale in her life, but law was law and every brewing had to be approved as good before sold—though there was justice in Bess saying as she’d paid down her two pence that, “I’m still ahead in the matter. He always drinks down six pence worth when he comes a-tasting,” and Philip Green’s flush and the onlookers’ laughter had agreed with her.
Now Father Henry turned from noting her fine to the list of other matters to be dealt with today and said, reading ahead, “One more minor matter and then the four main ones before we’re done.”
Master Naylor looked to Simon with silent question of whether they should pause a while or go on.
Prior Byfield was held by two lords, part of the manor belonging to Lord Lovell, part to St. Frideswide’s nunnery, so that some of the villagers held their land of Lord Lovell, others from the nunnery, and some—though not Simon himself, thank the saints—from both. Therefore the rights and customs under which some of the villagers lived differed from the rights and customs ruling others, and whoever held from both Lord Lovell and the nunnery had to deal with both sets of rights and customs, according to which of their holdings was in the matter. Mind, Simon knew of villages owned by three and even more lords, and the tangle there must be nigh to unholy sometimes. The saints knew it could be bad enough here, but all but the worst of confusions were usually avoided because the nunnery’s steward and the village’s reeve had long since taken to holding the manors’ courts together, seeing to things all at once instead of separately. Not that that couldn’t cause troubles upon occasion; and if, as had sometimes happened in the past, either steward or reeve were unreasonable men it did not work at all, but Master Naylor and Simon had worked together for five years now, and for the most part it went well. They were both men who could see two sides of a problem at once, even when one of the sides wasn’t his own, and they both preferred fairness to greed in settling problems, so they did well enough together on most things, and Simon now nodded agreement without need for Master Naylor to ask it aloud that they should go straight on with the court rather than pause a while, because they both knew a pause would give their six jurors a chance to wander off. Then they would have to be gathered in again and time wasted doing it, whereas if they pressed straight on, things might be finished in time for Simon to finish weeding his last furlong in Shaldewell Field today.
Master Naylor passed his nod on to Father Edmund, who said in his clear priest’s voice, “Hal Millwarde, miller, come before the court.”
Simon made a silent, inward sigh and settled himself as his cousin swaggered out from the mingled gathering of onlookers to stand before him and Master Naylor, giving a sideways frown at the jurors on their two benches, a distrustful glower at the priest with his poised pen, and a deeper glower at Simon whose fault he held this all to be because the windmill on the rise west of the village, where the village’s and nunnery’s grain was ground, was Lord Lovell’s and its jurisdiction therefore under Simon. It was a thing Simon could not change nor Hal forgive him, despite they went through this every few courts. Summoned at least once a year for taking excessive toll for grinding of someone’s grain, Hal always protested he’d done nothing wrong; everyone ignored his protest because it wasn’t true; he was fined and he paid and went away grumbling that he’d been wronged yet again, though he and everyone else knew he hadn’t been, and that his family would starve, though they never did.
But Hal was ever one who loved a good grumble, and come next chance they met at the alehouse, Simon would buy him an ale, listen to his complaints, agree he had a hard life, and afterwards their friendship would be back to where it had comfortably been since childhood until the next time Hal came before the court.
It went the usual way this time. Charged with taking a larger portion of the flour he had ground than he should have for his fee from three different folk in the village just before Easter, Hal protested they had all under-judged how much grain they had brought him. Called out to testify, all three swore they had taken care to measure their grain in Father Edmund’s presence before going to the mill because everyone knew that Lent was the time of year Hal Millwarde tended most to be greedy. Father Edmund agreed he had witnessed their measuring and that it had been as they said. The jurors, knowing the miller, knowing their neighbors, and trusting the priest, found Hal guilty and, annoyed because everyone had already been going more short of food than usual this Lent after last year’s poor harvest, making Hal doubly in the wrong to take such advantage of his place, fined him three pence instead of the usual two.
Outraged, Hal swung from them to Simon, demanding, “You’re not agreeing to that, are you? Three pence? Three pence instead of two? Where’s the justice in that?”
‘I don’t know,“ Simon said. ”If it was me, I’d have said justice would have been better served in charging you four pence for it.“ Then added while Hal gaped at him, ”Or maybe I would have made it five.“
Offended past words, Hal snapped his mouth shut and swung toward the priest, plunging hand in pouch to fumble out the needed coins and throw them on the table before stalking away in perfected fury, leaving Simon to suppose it would take at least two bowls of ale to bring him around the next time they met.
To hand next was the more troublesome matter of Jenet atte Forge and Hamon Otale, and Simon was glad they were both the nunnery’s villeins and so Master Naylor’s problem, not his. As all of Prior Byfield knew, Jenet had loaned Hamon—and why she had ever thought he could repay it, Hamon being, even by the most generous estimate, hardly competent to do anything more on his own than tie up his hosen—three shillings last autumn, to be repaid at Whitsuntide. Whitsuntide being past and no sign of her money coming home, Jenet had brought plea against him.
Master Naylor, with his usual intent attention, listened to Hamon’s shuffle-footed admitting that he hadn’t the money anymore or anything even close to it. “I meant to buy a cart and do some carting,” he said. “Only the cart broke down at midwinter, see. Past fixing, it was, and nothing I could do about, so there I am, aren’t I?”
There he was indeed, Master Naylor agreed, forbearing to point out what everyone in the village knew—that the cart had been almost past use even when Hamon had first brought it back from Banbury. But Hamon was not someone who learned from anything he ever did or anything he was ever told, and Master Naylor merely asked Father Edmund to read out, for the jurors to hear, the indenture drawn up between Jenet and Hamon last autumn. It was among the first things Father Edmund had done when he first came to be priest here. After the rather under-learned and under-devoted priest they had had for a while between Father Clement’s death and him, his clerkly skills were almost as welcome as his churchly ones. He had laid out the indenture simply and clearly, and the jurors nodded easy understanding at its end and asked Hamon’s sureties, Walter Hopper and Dick Blakeman, to come forward.
Because manor law required everyone who held property in Prior Byfield manor to attend all manor courts, Walter and Dick were inevitably there, even if they had not known this was coming, and came elbowing out from among the other holders to acknowledge that those were their sign manuals, yes, they had agreed to stand surety for Hamon repaying Jenet her three shillings, and since he could not, yes, they agreed—Dick very unhappily— that they were responsible to Jenet for her money.
‘And since I talked Dick into it, when he would rather have not,“ Walter said, ”I’ll take the whole of it on myself, please you, Master Naylor.“
Dick and Master Naylor and everyone else fixed surprised looks on Walter.
‘You’ve the money to hand to pay her?“ Master Naylor asked, ready money in that quantity not easily come by for most folk, even someone who made the best of his holding and something more on the side with leather work the way Walter did, and it was no surprise he answered, ”Nay.“ But he went on, ”But I’ve a cow in milk that I’ll turn over to Jenet’s use until I can repay her, if she will. Though likely that won’t be until after Michaelmas,“ he added apologetically.
‘It’s your brown-spotted cow you mean?“ Jenet asked. ”With the cracked horn?“ There was as little about each other’s livestock as about each other’s lives the villagers didn’t know, and if that was the cow Walter was offering, it was a good offer indeed.
‘Aye, that’s her,“ Walter said.
‘Done,“ Jenet answered and looked toward the jurors for confirmation. ”Yes? You agree it’s fair?“
If Jenet thought a thing was fair, there was unlikely to be anyone foolish enough to disagree with her. Six heads nodded ready agreement and she nodded back, saying, “Good, then. Father Edmund, put it down.”
Simon was not altogether sure he saw a twitch that might have been a smile in a more open man at the corner of Master Naylor’s mouth, but there were smiles enough among the onlookers, and Dick Blakeman was shaking Walter Hopper’s hand with gratitude at being saved responsibility for three shillings he could ill afford just now, what with his wife being near to birthing their fourth child and Dick needing to hire the help she wouldn’t be able to give him in their fields this summer.
The question was, for Simon, why either man had agreed to stand surety for someone as hapless as Hamon Otale. Or, more to the point, why Walter had been willing to stand surety and talked Dick into it. But maybe Dick would hire Hamon for the summer and then Hamon would be able to pay Walter something back.
For the time being anyway, everyone seemed satisfied on all sides and that was better than the next matter was likely to turn out, Simon thought uncomfortably as Father Edmund called Tomkin Goddard and John Gregory forward.
Probably sharing Simon’s certainty of trouble coming and knowing the brunt of the decision and the displeasures that would fall on them afterward, the jurors shifted on their benches, while the onlookers roused to smothered laughter and elbowing among themselves as Tomkin and John shoved out from opposite sides of the crowd into the open in front of Simon and Master Naylor, sending each other angry looks and keeping what distance between them they could. Even as boys, the two of them had never been able to abide each other, and that wasn’t helped by their messuages—their houses and garths—being side by each at the green’s lower end, making it easy for them to be forever able to find ways of offending one another. Nor did it help that Tomkin Goddard was Lord Lovell’s villein while John Gregory was the nunnery’s, and each expected reeve or steward to back whatever they did against the other, no matter what it was.