I first came across the marvellously named Register of Wills and Inventories of the Diocese of Dublin in the Time of Archbishops Tregury and Walton, 1457-1483, when taking a course on the history of medieval Dublin as an undergrad. The Register is one of our best sources of information for the material life of Dubliners towards the end of the fifteenth century. Read the right way, it becomes more than just a dry collection of legal documents: it provides us intriguing glimpses of how these people decorated their houses, forged friendships and engaged in economic activity not just in the city’s hinterland, but as far afield as Italy.

Using wills as a source of social history is not, of course, a new one for historians, but my teenage self was fascinated by the Register. There were far more women than I’d expected, and some of them were doing things that, since we’ve lost the broader context, came across as delightfully weird: why did Joan White of Leixlip leave her three-legged pan and a trough with two trundles “for the use of her neighbours” in 1473? We can’t know anymore, but your imagination can conjure up whole worlds of interactions from that one little act.

Similarly, the 1474 will of northsider Nicholas Barrett:

I the aforesaid Nicholas, though weak in body yet (God granting it) sound in mind, do make my testament in this manner: first, I bequeath my soul to God, St. Mary and all his Saints, my body to be buried in St. Mary’s chapel in the church of St. Michan near Dublin. Item, I leave to the works of the aforesaid chapel 40d. Item, to the altar of St. Sithe 6s 8d. Item, to the high altar of the church of St. Michan 20d. Item, to the works of the church of the Holy Trinity Dublin 6s 8d. Item, to the works of the House of the Blessed Virgin Mary near Dublin 40d. Item, to the priests and clerks on the day of my burial 4s. Item, for spices and wine 40d. Item, I leave to each order of Friars Dublin 20d. Item, for bread and ale 40d. Item, for wax 6s 8d. Item, for a Trental 10s 5d. Item, I leave to the works of the chancel in the church of Glasnevin 12d. Item, to John Barret a small pot with a broken leg. The residue of my goods not bequeathed I leave to my executors, to discharge faithfully to my creditors my just debts not recorded. I ordain, make, and constitute Isabella Proutfote, my wife, and Joan Barret, my daughter, executors, and John Broun overseer of this my testament.

Be it remembered that on the day and year aforesaid, this agreement was made between Nicholas Barret and his sons John and Thomas, as well concerning houses, lands, tenements as concerning goods, before these witnesses, Sir Nicholas Barrey, then chaplain of the parish, Thomas Archebold, clerk of the parish, Thomas Bround, and Richard Boll. In the first place they have agreed that his wife Isabella shall have the house in which she now dwells during her life, and after her death, the aforesaid Nicholas wills that his daughter Joan Barret have the sum of 10 pounds, to be made up from the rent of the aforesaid house, unless it please John that she receive it out of the rent of the old hall of Sir Edward Howet in his wife’s life-time. Item, that Thomas Barret have the tenements of Finglas with their appurtenances to him and his heirs for ever. And if it happen (which may it not!) that my daughter Joan die before she be married, I will that the aforesaid sum of 10 pounds be expended in the best possible way for the health of my soul.

—pp. 70-72

Now, what John Barret had done that he ended up with only a small pot with a broken leg while his siblings were given property and cash is anyone’s guess, but those guesses are fun to contemplate. There are of course problems with using wills as sources: they’re mostly made by men, and by men who had enough property to make drawing up a will worthwhile; the executors might not have carried out the dying person’s wishes; they record the bequests and donations made at the moment of death, not throughout a person’s life, and so on. And yet they are some of the best written evidence we have for how middle-class Dubliners went about their daily lives towards the end of the medieval period.

My article about the Register, “Family and Finances in Fifteenth-Century Dublin,” will appear in the new May/June 2014 issue of History Ireland.

Further Reading:

This is a brief selection of primary and secondary sources which show the kinds of histories you can do using wills as a source—everything from economic history, to labour history, to the history of material culture.

  • British History Online, “Wills and Inventories.” [Link]
  • Lester, Anne E. “Crafting a charitable landscape: urban topographies in charters and testaments from medieval Champagne.” in Caroline Goodson, Anne E. Lester, and Carol Symes (eds.), Cities, Texts and Social Networks 400-1500: Experiences and Perceptions of Medieval Urban Space (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2010), 125-148.
  • Lowe, Nicola A. “Women’s devotional bequests of textiles in the late medieval English parish church, c. 1350-1550” in Gender and History, 22:2 (2010) 407-429.
  • Sheehan, Michael McMahon. The Will in Medieval England: From the Conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to the End of the Thirteenth Century. PIMS: Toronto, 1963.
  • Whittle, Jane. “Housewives and servants in rural England, 1440-1650: evidence of women’s work from probate documents” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Series 6, Vol. 15 (2005), 51-74.
  • Wray, Shona Kelly and Roisin Cossar, “The Medieval Will,” in Joel Rosenthal, ed., Understanding Medieval Primary Sources: Using Historical Sources To Discover Medieval Europe. Routledge, 2011.