Final Public Oral Exam: Abigail Sargent

Final Public Oral Examination
Event date: 
July 25, 2022 - 10:00am
Seminar Series: 
Final Public Oral Exam

Building Fences, Guarding Grain: Balancing Autonomy and Authority in Late Medieval Normandy and Kent


William C. Jordan, adviser
Helmut Reimitz
Jack Tannous
James Masschaele, Rutgers University

Location (Hybrid):

Julis Romo Rabinowitz 399 (RSVP required) or Zoom


This dissertation explores the practices and implications of local seigneurial administration in northwest Europe during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. In the Middle Ages, the rights, resources, and rents that formed the foundation of seigneurial wealth were geographically scattered, diverse in type, and rendered by rustics who were often reluctant to part with their hard-won cash. Lords with large estates needed agents who could enforce their rights, manage their resources, and collect their rents. High medieval heavyweights evolved increasingly formalized administrative systems by which to safely delegate the necessary authority; scholars have investigated these developments especially in the church and in royal governments. But for most medieval people, seigneurial authority ranked beside these institutions in daily importance. This dissertation approaches the practices and challenges of seigneurial administration – limiting delegated authority, communicating across distance, ensuring agents’ good behavior – through two case studies around the towns of Lillebonne in Normandy and Maidstone in Kent. By examining accounts and court records related to seigneurial agents on the ground it seeks better to understand how approaches to administration could both reflect and shape the ways societies (of lords and of peasants) controlled, encountered, wielded, and conceived of authority.

Lords were hungry not just for cash and grain but also for information and control, gained through a web of interpersonal relationships and written accounts. They relied on the skills of local agents, many of whom encountered the lord’s authority from inside and out – paying their own rent, perhaps, as they collected their neighbors’. The means of income-production (mostly rooted in agriculture), and the demands on agents varied. Most notably, in Normandy, a single local officer bore almost all responsibility for income and expenditure, whereas in Kent the hierarchies were more complex, and many more humble people rendered accounts to the central administration or were named in its records. Rustics in Normandy were thus more completely divided from great lords who lived at a distance. In both regions, however, local administrators contributed their expertise and initiative as they managed seigneurial resources and learned to navigate complex administrative systems that required regular communication and detailed accounts.

A copy of the dissertation will be available for review two weeks before the exam. Contact Lee Horinko for a copy of the dissertation and the Zoom meeting link and password.

All are welcome and encouraged to attend.

Non-Princeton community members are asked to attend virtually using Zoom. Princeton in-person attendees are asked to submit the RSVP form prior to attending.