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Wills of Men and Women in Canterbury and York 1380-1800

Wills of Men and Women in Canterbury and York 1380-1800


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Wills of Men and Women in Canterbury and York 1380-1800

By Moto Takahashi

XIV International Economic History Congress (2006)

Introduction: This paper is a part of the ‘parallel and contrast’ study of early modern rural societies in England and Japan, in which I am focusing in particular on women’s wills in the context of the making and survival of wills in general.

Large numbers of wills from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries survive in England. These constitute a wonderful historical source. Japan has no equivalent historical source available over such a long period. A significant distinction between the two societies is that in Japan there are no probate wills. Through examining English society from the view point of making wills and the preservation of probat wills as ecclesiastical documents, it might reasonably be expected that we will be able to identify some distinctive features of Japanese society where there had been no such system, although there were written wills. Such a basic foreign perspective is the starting point of this investigation. Of course, there have been many studies based on testamentary data but these tend to be local and limited to relatively short periods of time. In other words, these studies lack a long-term national context.

To provide such a context requires the following questions to be posed,

(1) How many wills survive?

(2) How did this vary geographically and over time?

(3) How does this relate to the wills that were actually drawn up?

(4) What proportion of people left wills?

(5) How does this vary geographically, over time and by social class?

(6) What proportion of wills were left by women?

(7) How did this vary geographically, over time and by social status?

(8) What proportion of testators described their occupations and or status?

(9) How did this vary geographically and over time?

We need answers to all these questions to fully contextualise the numerous studies based on testamentary data. To do this, it is surely necessary to write a book and the present paper cannot provide full answers to all these questions. Therefore, it is only possible to provide an initial foundation. In particular, I am focusing on women’s wills, that is the 6th and 7th questions listed above.


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