Development of accounts and accountancy

General points

Manorial accounts are broadly associated with the change from the leasing of demesnes in the twelfth century to their resumption in hand for direct demesne cultivation from the late twelfth century. In the twelfth century, demesnes were placed at farm (ad firmam) and leased to lessees or farmers (firmarii). From the late twelfth century, demesnes were gradually resumed in hand. One of the stimuli towards resumption may have been the inflation of 1180-1220, as leases lost their value over the term of the lease.

There are, however, some nuances to this pattern. First of all, it is possible that some demesnes were in fact kept in hand during the twelfth century; the appropriated glebes and small manors given to the houses of some new religious orders (Austin Canons, Premonstratensians) may have been kept in hand. The Cistercians, moreover, established granges which were cultivated directly and may have influenced the resumption of demesnes by other lords. Secondly, it is quite clear that direct demesne cultivation may have been conducted on many estates without written accounts until half a century later -- although that doesn't mean that they didn't have oral accounting techniques. Indeed, the Easter view of account at the Exchequer had been oral accounting. Another caveat is that not all demesnes were retained in hand during the period of 'high demesne farming'. For example, Richard Lomas has revealed the flexible policy on the estate of Durham Cathedral Priory where demesnes were intermittently leased out and then taken back in hand. That position too is evident on the estate of Bolton Priory, although hardly referenced by Kershaw. By this means, lords may have tested experientially whether it was better to continue to cultivate or lease.

There is a corollary of this, for, when some demesnes were leased out again during the period of 'high demesne farming', accounts might still be required even though the demesne was not in hand. For example, when Merton College placed the manor of Ibstone at farm (ad firmam), the farmer (firmarius -- lessee) had to render account.

During the late middle ages, in general from the late fourteenth century, but with experiments from an earlier time, demesnes were leased out again to firmarii. Again, it was a nuanced pattern, for home farms were kept in hand, such as Elvethall for Durham Cathedral Priory. At the start of the process, some demesnes were experimentally leased out and then brought back in hand, such as Islip by Westminster Abbey. Although accounts were still kept, they were now less complete.

Chronology and phases

(Paul) Harvey has identified three stages of the development of accounts:

Before 1250, Harvey reckons there are extant accounts from about a dozen estates; a few more were added between 1250 and 1270; in 1270, 'the floodgates' opened. 'There are reasons for supposing that this is not a result of chance but accurately reflects the spread of written accounts amongst estate owners' (Harvey).

Influences on development

The accounting year

The period of the account is generally assumed to be Michaelmas to Michaelmas, like the royal Exchequer, but that was not always the origin and there continued to be significant deviations. What can basically be defined as the principle is that the account followed the harvest year, but the accounting period might begin before harvest or significantly after harvest.


1249about Translation of St Swithun (15 July)
1252about St Margaret the Virgin (20 July)
1268-70Michaelmas (September 29)
1280-1Gule of August (1 August)
1319-20 St Peter in Chains (1 August)
1330-1Gule of August (1 August)
1344 Gule of August (1 August)
1351-2Gule of August (1 August)

One rationale for a pre-harvest year of account might be this: the grain accounted for after harvest had been sown in the previous year and some of the costs would have been absorbed in the previous year (sowing, weeding, ploughing); these costs could be transferred by opening the year of account in July or August, before harvest.

Accounting procedures

Some examples of targets

The responsio system involved the pre-setting of targets for yields. These targets might be complex or simply based on expected returns in an average year, such as threefold yield for grain (1:3 seed-yield ratio). More complex targets would have different expectations for each type of grain as illustrated by the precepts of the anonymous author of the Hosebondrie. On the Crowland Abbey estates, the auditors went further and required a yield per acre target for grain. These calculations could only have been achieved by the auditors by reference back to the account of the previous year to determine the amount of seed used in sowing or the amount of demesne sown. Targets for livestock sometimes exhibit a high degree of experimentation.

Examples of responsiones: grain

[Source: God's House, Southampton, manorial accounts]

Examples of responsiones: stock

Cheese (casei paragraph) -- milk

[Source: God' House, Southampton, accounts for Hickley].

[Source: God's House, Southampton, accounts for Gussage]

[Source: God's House, Southampton, manorial account]

Fleeces -- wool

[Source: God's House, Southampton, manorial accounts]

These entries for fleeces/wool illustrate the amount of experimentation conducted, changing between assessing average weight of fleeces of issue by type of sheep and the value of the fleece in general and by type of sheep.


The principal concern of manorial accounting was to assess the obligation of the accounting official to the lord, to prevent fraud -- was the local official honest?

Any further refinements would need to re-work the information in the account, since the account was constructed to answer those primary questions -- is the local official honest and what is his obligation to the lord? In fact, the information was re-worked on some estates to answer further questions about the perception of 'profitability', which usually took two forms:

Statements of this 'profit' are sometimes added to the feet of the local accounts, often as bare statements, but sometimes with evidence of how the calculation was reached. Other cases of centrally-enrolled calculations allow a closer insight into the perception of profit, such as those of Os(e)ney Abbey c.1280.

The adoption of 'profit' calculations: known cases

Canterbury Cathedral PrioryFrom c.1225
St Mary's Abbey, WinchesterFrom c.1233-4
Westminster Abbey (conventual)From 1267-8
Norwich Cathedral PrioryFrom c.1268
Southwick PrioryFrom c.1268
Beaulieu Abbeyc.1269-70
Beaumanor, Leics (lay)1277-8?
Bigod estates (lay)From the late 13th century
Os(e)ney Abbeyc.1280 and in later local accounts
Merton CollegeFrom 1281-2
Westminster Abbey (abbatial)By 1292
God's House, SouthamptonFrom 1293-4
Bolton PrioryFrom 1295-6
Lichfield episcopal estateFrom 1304-5
Abbey of Bury St EdmundsBy 1323 (probably earlier)
Clare estates (lay)1329-30 or 1338-9
Darley AbbeyEarly fourteenth century

Other methods of assessing performance

Some sample statements of 'profit'

Some sceptical reflections

'Whether the College -- or any other landlord for that matter -- ever seriously or carefully asked itself about the relative advantages of direct exploitation and leasing is, however, greatly to be doubted'.

'Modern approaches to this question have seldom been any more sophisticated, and it has been more or less assumed that of course direct exploitation was the more advantageous and the more profitable course in all but exceptional cases. This is much to be doubted'.

T.H. Aston, 'The external administration and resources of Merton College to circa 1348' in J.I. Catto, ed., The History of the University of Oxford Volume 1 The Early Oxford Schools (Oxford, 1984), p. 322.