Life Stories as Told by Probate Inventories

Guest post written by Barbara Tearle, editor of Bedfordshire Probate Inventories before 1660.

Since being drawn into projects to transcribe early modern probate material about twenty years ago, I have become fascinated by the unexpected pictures of daily life that are presented in inventories (the list of a person’s goods that was required to be submitted to the church courts as part of the process of proving a person’s will or obtaining letters of administration).  Ostensibly an account of a deceased’s possessions at the time of death and usually focussing on furniture, textiles, cooking equipment, trade goods, agricultural equipment and produce, in fact these inventories reveal a way of life generally and sometimes even individual life stories, especially when augmented by other records.   

The ‘feel’ of an inventory

It has taken a lot of reading, re-reading, reading yet again and analysing these Bedfordshire inventories to build up a ‘feel’ for the people themselves.  One ‘feel’ was for a country yeoman who seemed to be farming in a well-established way, but there was something about his list of ‘household stuff’ (the contemporary term) in comparison with similar inventories that just did not seem right.  For his status and farming possessions, they looked unusually sparse.  Digging deeper into his will, I discovered that he was not a well-established farmer at the height of his prosperity (as I had at first assumed) but a man in his 30s who had recently set up an independent household with his father’s financial help and with the intention of marrying.  He died a short time before the wedding and left £40 to his bride to be.  

Providing for old age

This discovery led me to look more critically (or constructively) at the goods or lack of them in other inventories. Some people had possessions valued at a few pounds only and were owed several times that amount in money.  What was going on?  Again, digging into studies of rural debt and some constructive thinking suggested to me that many of these were people at the end of their lives and had provided for old age by selling up and lending out the proceeds to produce an income.   

Others had no money nor visible means of support; they may have been living with family or have been provided for in some way.  Many wills contain provisions for an income by way of an annual sum for (usually) a widow from the rent on property.  As income, this does not show up in inventories.  Similarly, the evidence given to the church court in the case of a disputed will, showed that the deceased herself had made a deed of gift of her possessions to someone in exchange for care in her last years.  These circumstances can illuminate an otherwise frustratingly meagre inventory. 

Poverty

Throughout this period, which was one of high inflation, there are people whose possessions were valued at less than £5 (two of whom were described as paupers) but whose family decided that it was necessary to go through the expensive process of probate.  Each occurrence is worth investigating not only for the evidence it provides for individual life-styles but also for levels of poverty.    

Behind the process

On a different tack, procedural details hint at what actually happened in preparing and exhibiting inventories.  It is well-established that probate was normally carried out within a few months after a person’s death.  However, many inventories were prepared and exhibited to a timescale that suggests they were made before death, almost with the intention of catching the next court sitting at the nearest town.  (It was not until months after this book was finished that I found evidence to support this impression about timescale in a will for an innkeeper in St Albans.  He had commissioned an inventory before his death in order to find out how much he was worth so that he could leave affordable amounts to his children.)  Although most inventories were exhibited at a court near the deceased’s home, some were taken to other courts many miles across the county.  These procedural details help build up a nuanced picture of how families dealt with this landmark event in their life. 

Inventories have long been used to build pictures of material culture: the changes in houses, the use (and names) of rooms, the range of household goods, clothes and textiles, the types of agriculture in an area and how it changed, the availability of trade and shop goods.  Most of these features are evident in the Bedfordshire inventories and some stand out, such as the sixty pairs of sheets owned by a bachelor clergyman, the luxuriously furnished inn at Dunstable on Watling Street and the detailed descriptions of farming equipment, including three references to seeding ploughs, which are earlier by decades than contemporary published advice on farming.  But these inventories throw so much more light on daily life for anyone willing to dig deeply.  


BARBARA TEARLE is a long-standing member of Bedfordshire Historical Record Society, previously its General Editor and the editor of the 2012 volume The Accounts of the Luton Guild of the Holy Trinity, 1526/7-1546/7. She is a retired librarian, most recently working in the Bodleian Law Library, Oxford. 

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