Servile migration and gender in late-medieval England: The evidence of manorial court rolls

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Migration in medieval England was substantial, essential and mainly over short distances. Beyond this confident generalization, we know little about either the direction, life-histories or gendered patterns of rural migrants, and have no quantitative data. Yet, despite this, assumptions about peasant migration comprise central elements in two major debates about differential trajectories of social change in late-medieval Europe. The decline of serfdom and the emergence of the European Marriage Pattern in parts of northwest Europe — and by extension its superior economic performance to other regions of the Continent in the age of the Black Death — are attributed mainly to the preference of serfs and rural women to migrate disproportionately to towns.

This article uses the most abundant and unambiguous source of peasant migration — the record of flown serfs in English manorial court rolls — to provide the first quantitative dataset for the proportion of serfs and women moving to towns. It also reassesses the importance of circular migration through qualitative life-histories. Hitherto, no comparable rural material from medieval Europe has been published. It argues that historians have under-utilized this material because of ill-founded doubts about its reliability and quality, while remaining cautious about its typicality. It deploys information gleaned from thousands of court rolls for twenty-six manors across Midland and eastern England to reveal that 33 per cent of serfs headed for towns, and explores subtle differences in regional and gendered patterns of migration. The implications of the findings for the wider debates are discussed.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)47-85
Number of pages39
JournalPast and Present
Issue number1
Early online date7 Sep 2022
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2023

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