Durham Cloister

Crisis in Durham

RESEARCH: Different way of conducting crisis management in Late-Medieval Durham might teach us a lesson

The archives of both the monks of Durham Cathedral Priory and the bishops of Durham have been preserved to such an extent that it has been possible for the historian, Alex Brown at Durham University, to do a very thorough comparison of the different strategies the two institutions chose to follow during and after the late-medieval crisis in the 15th century; with indeed very interesting results.

Both institutions owned land and resources in the same region and with some of the same characteristics. And both faced some of the same exogenous pressures in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries where the deteriorating climate and the drastic post-plague reduction in man-power made it complicated to keep a steady income. However, they met these challenges in distinctly different ways, thus creating very different outcomes in the 16th century for their dependents.

Brown concludes that “by the seventeenth century all of the dean and chapter’s lands were consolidated holdings on 21-year leases, whereas a confused mixture of copyhold and leasehold land had developed on the bishops’ estate.” The reason behind this was the need for the monks to keep access to a wide variety of resources, not least its coal-mines (to supply their community of between 50 -100 monks with heating etc). The bishop, on the other hand, was living off the land as an absentee landlord and was able to juggle his different resources, complementing the deteriorating income from copy-held land by leasing out his coal-mines to local entrepreneurs.

In the end this created a more diverse portfolio of economic advantageous possibilities for the tenants of the Diocese than those belonging to the Priory. Later on – in the 16th century – this resulted in two types of dependents. On the estate of the Priory the tenants seem to have lived off the land as more traditional peasants; on the estates belonging to the Diocese, some tenants had the possibility to amass a fortune and in general get up in life.

A.T. Brown is prudent and does not speculate upon the morale of his research for the way in which we ought to evaluate our present-day-politicians (our modern landlords) and how they organize their taxes (rent-extraction) in order to secure a vibrant future. However, reading the article does make you ponder on the long-term consequences, which might be the result of the way in which modern European welfare-states confronted with a likewise crisis anno 2014 (credit-crunch plus aging population) seek to micro-manage their administration of taxation; as opposed to the way in which US and UK foster economic disparity amongst its citizens by opening up for business-ventures of a more shady art – this time not coal-mining, but fracking.

The article is to the point, very well executed and highly recommendable. And – as can be seen from the comments here – should be cause for some reflection among modern politicians and administrators. 


Estate Management and institutional constraints in Pre-industrial England: the ecclesiastical estates of Durham c. 1400 – 1640
By A. T. Brown
In: Economic History Review 2013. Article first published online: 24 DEC 2013
DOI: 10.1111/1468-0289.12036


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