Photograph of Durham Cathedral by Elizabeth Gemmill
Prices from the Durham Obedientiary Accounts, 1368 – 1460
This project is a study of commodity prices in the account rolls of the obedientiaries of Durham Cathedral Priory and its dependent cells in the period 1368 - 1460.
I am very grateful to Durham Cathedral and the University of Durham Special Collections for access to the manuscripts, and to the Society of Antiquaries of London and the Institute of Historical Research for supporting the project.
What were the obedientary accounts?
The obedientiaries were the officer monks who each discharged specific responsibilities in the monastic household, supplying the community with food, drink and clothing and enabling it to carry out the spiritual, ritual and charitable functions that were expected of all great ecclesiastical institutions. Some, not all, of the obedientiaries were endowed with estates which had to be managed. The accounts are manuscripts that contain prices of a range of consumables, mostly in the form of purchases, although there are also sale prices, particularly of grain and animal produce. The data enable us to understand the monks' economic circumstances, policies and standards of living in this crucial period following the first outbreak of the Black Death in 1348-9 and the intermittent problems occasioned by war. Prices enable us to understand the monks' strategies of estate management, their standards of living, and their purchasing decisions and opportunities.
While there have been studies of the economic history of the priory (notably by Barrie Dobson, Constance Fraser and Miranda Threlfall-Holmes), systematic analysis of prices as evidence of the financial situation of the house and the economic performance and experience of the medieval northeast remains incomplete. Price series for medieval England tend to represent the situation much farther south, yet, it is clear from the price data that I have already published for the north east that the experience there was markedly different. For example, prices of wine were much higher, suggesting that the dislocation of trade with Gascony occasioned by the Anglo-French war affected this region more severely. Meanwhile wool from the priory's estates commanded lower prices than the wools of other large producers elsewhere in England, and the monks sometimes struggled to sell their clip at all. Imported commodities were increasingly sourced from local merchants rather than those based in London.
The project enables us to understand the extent to which the northeast was a discrete economic region. It sheds light on the decisions made by this large ecclesiastical institution and, crucially, on the extent to which they were responsive - or not - to economic circumstances. Studies of medieval monasteries can tend to focus on their heyday or on their demise; this study enables us to see what was happening in the intervening years.