To Be Worth Forty Shillings

Jonah Miller

  • Accounting for Oneself: Worth, Status and the Social Order in Early Modern England by Alexandra Shepard
    Oxford, 357 pp, £65.00, February 2015, ISBN 978 0 19 960079 3

‘What are yow worthe in goodes if all your debtes were payd?’ John Tanner was asked in 1620 when he appeared as a witness at the church court in Chichester. ‘Twenty shillings,’ he answered. He had been called by one Robert Constable to support a case for defamation against Stephen Pentecost. Pentecost’s witnesses said Tanner couldn’t be trusted: he was ‘a poore needy fellow’ with ‘a little cottage of his owne to dwell in … and noe other meanes to live’. One claimed he ‘could not find whereof he [Tanner] could levye xx s’; others that he was ‘much imployed by and under the said Mr Constable’ whom he called ‘master’, and who provided ‘most of his mayntynaunce’. Constable fought back by getting his other witnesses to denounce Pentecost’s witnesses. A local curate called them ‘poor needy fellows of small or noe credit & such as … may be easily drawne to depose an untruth’. Tanner, meanwhile, was recast as a man who ‘well performed his worke with care’ and ‘such a one as is to be beleved upon his oath’.

Alexandra Shepard has created a historical framework to help us grasp the social and economic significance of cases like this. She has analysed 13,686 answers given to the question of an individual’s worth in ecclesiastical court cases between 1550 and 1728. Church courts dealt with offences such as fornication, defamation and adultery, or with disputes between married couples. More important for Shepard’s purposes, they followed civil law procedure, which meant that instead of appearing in court to testify orally (as in criminal trials), witnesses dictated their evidence to clerks. These written accounts now offer social and cultural historians a rare opportunity to read the actual words used by early modern men and women when testifying. Shepard is unusual in focusing on what might appear to be the most banal elements of this material – most of the time, the question of worth was answered with no more than a sum of money – but she uses them in a lively way, promising a view of contemporary English society ‘from the bottom up’ and an explanation of the changing relations ‘between people and their things’.

The disagreement over Tanner’s ‘worth’ could only take place because, whether or not they told the truth in court, everyone knew the value of their own goods and everyone else’s. They had to, because such mutual assessment was ‘fundamental to the business of everyday life’ in an economy based almost entirely on credit. Two men in another Chichester case were ‘indebted the one to the other by reason they are tradesmen, the one a Carryer and the other a shoemaker and soe they have constant trading the one with the other and doe so usually go upon accompt one way [or] an other untill they fynde convenient tymes to Reckon and accompt’. With cash in short supply, small-scale borrowing was constant. A Londoner borrowed sixpence from his friend ‘towards paying a Reckoning … being in Company together in a Publick House’ and ‘not having silver then in his pocket’. So long as lenders believed borrowers could pay them back (even if they never did), commerce and social relations could be peaceably maintained.

One witness said he knew the worth of his co-witnesses because he had ‘seen theire severall goodes goinge and depastoringe [grazing] upon their severall farmeholdes’, while less visible property could be discovered by asking ‘divers the neighbours of the said Thomas Grene what the said Thomas Grene is worth’. The system of circulating credit generated its own information about property. The witness who said John Tanner couldn’t ‘levye xx s’ claimed to know that because he had recently had a writ of execution against Tanner’s goods. This suggested Tanner had defaulted on a debt to him, an especially damning accusation for a ‘needy fellow’ trying to assert his worthiness, and a humiliating one. If someone was known to be worth less than their debts required, they dropped out of the credit network: you couldn’t trust a poor man.

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