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One interpretation placed on personal pledging in medieval villages emphasizes solidarity--a concept reminiscent of sociological and anthropological investigations into twentieth-century rural communities, although notions about the commonality of the medieval village have an historiographical tradition that dates from the nineteenth century. In the case of medieval villagers, it has always been easy, if not necessarily accurate, to move from pragmatic communal organization--such as field systems and coaration (joint ploughing by villagers)--to symbolic representations of community. The criterion that justified this interpretation in the case of personal pledging was its perceived personal commitment. (1)
Personal pledging, or suretyship, required peasants to stand as security for other villagers in a variety of circumstances at the manorial court, whether in cases of litigation between peasants, such as debt/detinue, trespass, and covenant or vis-a-vis their lord in cases of trespass, admission to land, or guarantee of good behavior. Although some sureties were short-term obligations, others--such as for the maintenance of tenements--were of indeterminate length. Serving as a pledger was a common role within the English medieval rural community.
This article examines pledging at Kibworth Harcourt--a manor of Merton College in Leicestershire--using social-network-analysis software. One of the principal arguments throughout is that pledging was an institutional relationship, not necessarily a multiplex, affective, or ideological one, and that its use by the peasant elite reinforced social differentiation. Moreover, pledging was not based on such primary sociological elements as friendship, gender, or current peer group, but was socially imposed. (2)
DeWindt's study of Holywell-cum-Needingworth (a manor of Ramsey Abbey) cogently presented the case that personal pledging was partially responsible for villagers' solidarity before the plague. Although the village community was socioeconomically stratified, personal pledging extended from the peasant elite to the margins of the community, thereby reflecting communal identity. Since most pledgers were drawn predominantly from outside the family, neighborliness was significant. (3)
In contrast, Pimsler, considering another Ramsey Abbey manor (Elton), found that although personal pledges were drawn largely from neighbors rather than kin, pledging often involved asymmetrical relationships. He also suspected that pledgers were paid. Smith also found that socioeconomic divisions remained significant in relationships of pledging, since smaller landholders were more likely to pledge within their own quantile of landholding, contrary to any notion of reciprocity. (4)
More recently, Razi's study of Halesowen suggested that pledging was a genuine binding force: That pledgers were fined between 2d. and 4d. if their pledgee lost implied a personal commitment (though the level of free was no higher than the common scale). Razi also maintained that it was "very unlikely that pledges were normally paid for their service"; that the constant need for sureties was an incentive for reciprocity (between 1270 and 1349 men acted as pledgers a mean of 16.3 times); and that, although pledging was dominated by the peasant elite, 80 percent of the male peasant population pledged for their neighbors or received pledges, "at least a few times." Olson's examination of pledging by two core families in Ellington (also Ramsey Abbey) tended toward a similar notion of solidarity. (5)
Any discussion of pledging should treat the following broad questions: Could pledging have had alternative symbolic meanings, how personal was the commitment, and how inclusive was pledging within the community? Pledging in unequal relationships may not necessarily demonstrate solidarity. Bordieu, writing about North African societies, regards such relationships--whether of debt or other obligation--as "symbolic capital," extending influence. (6)
Material aspects of personal commitment may be assessed by crude cost-benefit analysis. It is well established, for example, that pledgers were placed in mercy for non-suit by their principal, that pledgers as well as principals were fined in lost cases, and that pledgers could be liable for their principals' debts or, in trespass, damages. Pledgers had something tangible to lose. Despite the difficulty of accumulating evidence partly--because of the peremptory nature of many court rolls--material loss was not always drastic. Referring to cases of debt at common law, as early as 1187-1189, the author of Glanvill acknowledged that pledgers were responsible for debts, but described the principal plea of debt by which they could recover their losses against the pledge's chattels, excluding fines. (7)
Similar recourse was available in numerous pleas of pledge at manorial courts, for example in William Pert v. Agnes Holcombe at Uplyme in 1366, in which Pert claimed 40s. lost as pledge for Thomas Skittish. Skittish was a member of the Holcomes kinship group. Agnes defended the issue that, since she had requested Pert to be Skittish's pledger, she should redeem Pert's losses. (8)
Unredeemed losses were normally restricted to fines incurred by non-suit or loss of the case, determined by Razi at Halesowen as 2d. to 4d., and in many other courts, a consistent 3d.--perhaps equivalent to three days of labor. This cost, too, may have been liquidated, if, as Pimsler held, pledgers were commonly paid. That peasants placed in mercy were exonerated from finding a pledge, for reasons of poverty, is evidence in Pimsler's favor. Although uncertainty remained, reasonable expectation prevailed that pledges would not be out of pocket. (9)
The potential costs may have been low, but the corresponding benefits to the peasant elite were considerable--foremost among them social control. It was in the interests of the peasant elite, as well as of lords, to preserve harmony in the community by controlling the margins of society.
Pledging across socioeconomic transects may have been entirely self-interested. Recent research into population turnover and migration in late medieval, agrarian society suggests a highly volatile fringe: "Extensive geographical mobility had already become an integral experience of county life …