The previous sections have outlined some of the more widely used sources for
medieval and early-modern genealogy - some other possible ones are listed below.
Beyond this, there are any number of less conventional ways in which useful
information may have been preserved. One class of possibly under-exploited
'documents' are church bells, which survive quite frequently from the early 17th
century, and occasionally from medieval times. They are often inscribed
with the date of their manufacture and the name of the benefactor who paid for them.
Antiquaries have traditionally been interested in church bells, and details may be
given in parish or county histories.
source, suggested by Doris Jones-Baker in the Genealogists' Magazine (vol.24, p.137; 1992), is
medieval graffiti in parish churches, which can occasionally record baptisms,
marriages and burials.
In a recent BBC television series,
'Meet the Ancestors',
techniques were applied to excavated skeletons, and - in two cases - the results
were brought face-to-face with suspected descendants. Although family historians are
famously obsessive, this is probably further than most of us would want - or be
allowed - to go. A more promising scientific application is the use of 'DNA
fingerprinting' to test whether pairs of
living individuals share the same male-line descent (using DNA from the Y-chromosome)
or the same female-line descent
(using mitochondrial DNA). Although these techniques have so far been applied mainly
to causes célèbres - such as the Romanovs or Thomas Jefferson -
it will probably not be too long before they become a significant weapon
in the armoury of the ordinary genealogist.
Medieval England was predominantly rural, and urban areas stood outside the
general pattern of life. Towns with borough status had their privileges
and institutions, including their own courts of law, which remained
important until Tudor times; in the medieval period a number of
wills were proved in borough courts.
Another predominantly urban institution which produced
useful records was the guild (or gild), usually
an association formed for commercial purposes, by a group of either
merchants or craftsmen - though some guilds had religious or charitable
Unsurprisingly, the largest urban settlement of all - the City of London -
produced particularly full records. They include the rolls of the
Court of Husting, which contain both wills and deeds, and
records of the City Livery Companies, a number of which begin
in the late medieval or early modern period.
An excellent web site devoted to medieval English towns - with a particular
emphasis on East Anglia - is
This site includes translations of documents, summary histories of seven towns
- Colchester, Ipswich, King's Lynn, Maldon, Norwich, Great Yarmouth and York -
maps, a glossary and a comprehensive list of links. There is also an in-depth study of
borough officers in East Anglia between 1272 and 1460,
and the Florilegium Urbanum,
a collection of illustrative contemporary texts in English translation.
More online information is listed below (and see more on urban markets in the section on
Markets and fairs below):
- Livery Company Membership Guide (Guildhall Library)
Introduction and listings of membership records for individual companies.
English medieval boroughs: privileged urban places
(David Postles, University of Leicester)
Includes extracts from documents,
a discussion of 'admission to the freedom' of the borough,
and a bibliography
- Medieval Colchester (Richard Britnell, University of Durham) [not available, 19 April 2015; see the Internet Archive's copy of this page, from December 2013]
Includes texts and calendars of records, a portrait of the borough in the early 15th century and a paper on "Business at Home in Medieval Colchester".
- Two academic articles about medieval society, with an emphasis on urban and rural economics,
by Richard Britnell (University of Durham):
Although they contain little by way of direct genealogical information,
these articles provide interesting background information about the medieval merchant classes
and their business activities
Guild Regulations and manumissions [not available, 17 December 2012; see the Internet Archive's copy of this page, from August 2006] (Joint Committee on Anglo-Saxon Charters)
Bibliography - under construction - for Anglo-Saxon guild regulations and
manumissions (freeing of slaves)
- Guilds and Commerce (Gerhard Rempel, Western New England College) [not available, 17 December 2012; see the Internet Archive's copy of this page, from July 2008]
A detailed discussion of Guilds and their role in medieval commerce and urban life, with a European emphasis
- Charles Gross, The Gild Merchant: a contribution to British Municipal History. Volume 1. (1890) (Google Books [Hints and tips])
[Other copies at: Internet Archive - Text Archive: 1 ; 2 ; 3 ; 4 ; 5 .]
- Charles Gross, The Gild Merchant: a contribution to British Municipal History. Volume 2. (1890) (Internet Archive - Text Archive)
[Other copies at: Internet Archive - Text Archive: 1 ; 2 ; 3 .]
- Mary Bateson Borough Customs (1906) (Google Books [Hints and tips])
Selden Society number 21. Volume 2 of 2. Latin and French transcripts of borough custumals, with English translations, to illustrate court rules, seignorial and family law, ecclesiastical relations etc.
[Other copies at: Internet Archive - Text Archive.]
City of London Livery Companies
Many early urban records have been printed by
local historical societies.
Some published works discussing the institutions
and their records are:
[Return to list of contents]
- C. Gross, The gild merchant : a contribution to British municipal history
(2 vols; Oxford, 1890; reissued 1927)
- F.J.C. Hearnshaw, Municipal records (London, 1918)
- T. Smith, ed.,
English gilds : The original ordinances of more than one hundred early English gilds ...
(Early English Text Society 40; London, 1870)
Includes the returns in English - about a tenth of the whole - of the
Guild Certificates of 12 Richard II (P.R.O. C47/38-46)
- G. Unwin, The gilds and companies of London (4th edn; London, 1963)
- J. West, Town records (Chichester, 1983)
In medieval times, the right to hold a market or fair was a valuable privilege,
which the 'manor-holding' classes often sought. Records of the royal grants of such rights
are to be found in the Chancery rolls, and the grant was often preceded by an enquiry
as to whether the rights of others would be harmed (an inquisition ad quod damnum).
The following information is available online:
Medieval markets, and in a wider sense medieval economics, are being actively studied in the
academic world. A number of articles, including those listed below, are available online.
Except where noted, they don't generally contain a lot of information about individuals,
but do shed interesting light on how people lived in medieval times,
and on relevant factors such as their mobility.
Records, such as registers of admissions, kept by educational institutions
can be a useful source for the late medieval and early modern period. A number
have been published - for some of the older public schools, and for the
four Inns of Court in London, where lawyers trained.
There are also biographical listings of those who attended
the two medieval Universities - Oxford and Cambridge.
These draw both on the University archives and on other sources -
such as ecclesiastical records - and can provide very detailed accounts
in some cases.
Some useful printed works:
- P.M. Jacobs, Registers of the universities, colleges and schools
of Great Britain and Ireland ([London,] 1964)
- Guy Holborn, Sources of Biographical Information on Past Lawyers (Warwick, 1999)
- Sir W. Sterry, ed., The Eton college register, 1441-1698
- T.F. Kirby, Winchester scholars:
A list of the wardens, fellows, and scholars of Saint Mary college of Winchester,
near Winchester, commonly called Winchester college (London, 1888)
- Alumni Cantabrigienses:
a biographical list of all known students, graduates and
holders of office at the University of Cambridge from the earliest times to 1900
[Part 1:] J. Venn and J.A. Venn, From the earliest times to 1751 (4 vols; Cambridge, 1922-1927)
Part 2: J.A. Venn, From 1752 to 1900 (6 vols; Cambridge, 1940-1954)
(reprinted in facsimile, 1974-1978)
- A.B. Emden, A biographical register of the Unversity of Cambridge to 1500
- J. Foster, ed.,
Alumni Oxonienses: the members of the University of Oxford, 1500-1714
(4 vols; Oxford, 1891-1892)
Inns of Court
[Return to list of contents]
- Sir John Baker, The Men of Court 1440-1550: A prosopography of the Inns of Court and Chancery and the Courts of Law
(Selden Society, Supplementary Series 18, 2 vols, 2012)
Biographical dictionary containing over 10,000 entries, including much previously unpublished information.
- J. Foster, The register of admissions to Gray's Inn, 1521-1889 ...
- W.H. Cooke, ed., Students admitted to the Inner Temple, 1547-1600
- W.P. Baildon, The records of the Honourable Society of Lincoln's Inn:
admissions from A.D. 1420 to A.D. 1893, and chapel registers
(2 vols; London, 1896)
- H.A.C. Sturgess and others, eds,
Register of admissions to the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple,
from the fifteenth century ... (5 vols; London, 1949-1978)
- J.B. Williamson, The Middle Temple bench book: being a register of benchers of the
Middle Temple from the earliest records to the present time ... (2nd edn; London, 1937)
Although some at least of the late-medieval gentry seem to have been avid
letter-writers, sadly little of their correspondence has come down to us.
However, apart from stray survivals, there are several substantial collections - notably
the Paston, Stonor, Plumpton and Cely letters. As well as recording genealogical
information about the families in question and their circles of acquaintance
- which could be quite wide - they give a fascinating insight into how
the 'manor-holding' classes of the 15th century actually led their lives.
A large electronic collection of English letters from 1417-1681 has been
compiled at the University of Helsinki, under the name of the
Corpus of Early English Correspondence (CEEC).
Two copyright-free samples are available from the
Oxford Text Archive -
The Parsed Corpus of Early English Correspondence and Corpus of Early English Correspondence Sampler.
Some published editions are listed below.
Correspondence, from the 1470s and 1480s, of a family of wool
merchants with interests in London and Calais.
- H.E. Malden, The Cely papers: selections from the correspondence and memoranda
of the Cely family, merchants of the staple, A.D. 1475-1488 (London, 1900)
An online version of this
edition is available (Richard III Society American Branch - Primary Source Materials)
- A.H. Hanham, The Cely letters, 1472-1488
(Early English Text Society 272; London, 1975)
Fifteenth-century correspondence of a Norfolk family. This is the most
famous collection of medieval English letters, and there are a number of
published selections and discussions in addition to the principal editions:
- J. Gairdner, ed., The Paston letters, A.D.1422-1509
(6 vols; London, 1904; most recent edn - microprint - Gloucester, 1983)
- N. Davis, ed., Paston letters and papers of the fifteenth century
(2 parts; Oxford, 1971, 1976)
Part 1 includes letters written by members of the family, and some associated documents;
Part 2 covers letters written to them, and contains an index to both parts.
The intended Part 3 - which was to have contained commentary and additional documents -
did not, apparently, appear.
online version of Part 1 is available
(Oxford Text Archive)
Fifteenth- and sixteenth-century correspondence of a Yorkshire family.
- T. Stapleton, ed., Plumpton correspondence.
A series of letters, chiefly domestick, written in the reigns of
Edward IV. Richard III. Henry VII. and Henry VIII...
from Sir Edward Plumpton's book of letters: with notices historical and
biographical of the family of Plumpton, of Plumpton, Com. Ebor.
(Camden Society [1st series] 4; London, 1839)
- J. Kirby, ed., The Plumpton letters and papers
(Camden Society, 5th series 8; Cambridge, 1996)
Medieval correspondence of an Oxfordshire family.
- C.L. Kingsford, ed., The Stonor letters and papers, 1290-1483
(originally published, as Camden Society, 3rd series 29,30, London, 1919;
most recent edn, ed. C. Carpenter, Cambridge, c.1996)
- C.L. Kingsford, ed., Supplementary Stonor letters and papers, 1314-1482
(in Camden Society, 3rd series 34; London, 1924)
[Return to list of contents]
- M.St.C. Byrne, ed., The Lisle Letters (6 vols; Chicago, 1981)
A selection of the - mostly private - correspondence of Arthur Plantagenet, Lord Lisle, deputy of Calais,
in the 1530s, from P.R.O. class SP3
- C. Carpenter, ed., The Armburgh papers: the Brokholes inheritance in Warwickshire,
Hertfordshire and Essex, c.1417-c.1453 ...
- Sir H. Ellis, ed., Original letters illustrative of English history,
including numerous royal letters, from autographs in the British Museum ...
and one or two other collections
[First series:] 3 vols (London, 1825; reprinted New York, )
2nd series: 4 vols (London, 1827; reprinted New York, )
3rd series: 4 vols (London, 1846; reprinted New York, )
This is the miscellaneous section of the miscellaneous page. Obviously, there's not much more I can say
to summarise it ...
[Return to list of contents]
- Deeds of Arms - A Collection of Accounts of Formal Deeds of Arms of the Fourteenth Century (Steven Muhlberger, Knighthood, Chivalry and Tournaments Resource Library)
Extracts from contemporary sources describing about forty 14th-century tournaments; modern English translations with some original Latin, French and English texts.
- A Study of the London Masters of Defense
and Prizes of the London Masters of Defense (Dylan)
[not available, 13 November 2008; see the Internet Archive's copies of
A Study of the London Masters of Defense
and Prizes of the London Masters of Defense, from October 2007]
Discussion of the guild of fencing masters in the 16th century, with
a list of contests including many names, from British Library Sloane MS 2530
- David Roffe and Christine Roffe,
and care in the community: a medieval perspective
(British Medical Journal)
Discussion - originally published as
British Medical Journal, vol. 311, pp. 1708-1712 (1995) - of medieval attitudes towards insanity, including
implications for land tenure and the records that were generated, with several examples.
On the author's website is the text of a shorter lecture on
of insanity in medieval England