The disease was spread by rat fleas and normally abated in the winter as cold weather made the fleas inactive. In the winter of 1348/49 the disease appears to have developed into the more virulent pneumonic form, in which the infection moves into the lungs and causes the victim to cough up blood containing plague bacteria. The plague becomes airborne and is transmitted directly from person to person. Plague in this form resulted in nearly 100% mortality in those infected. By spring of 1349 it had reached the Midlands and continued to move north, continuing through 1349 with a fresh outbreak in 1350. Recent estimates suggest 40% to 45% of the total population of England died in the years 1348-50. By the end of 1350 the plague had subsided, but there were further outbreaks in 1361-62, 1369, 1379-83 and 1389-93, and it continued to recur in the country until the end of the seventeenth century. None, however, caused the widespread devastation of the first outbreak.
There are some suggestions in the
court roll that the Black Death might have been affecting the manor in this
year, although there are no specific references to plague. There are seventeen
descriptions of herioted land, only seven of which involve the usual descent of
land from parent to child. Four describe the land as descending from siblings
and the remaining six from kinsmen or kinswomen. Another indication of higher
mortality is the frequent mentioning of wills. Fourteen cases of debt involve
the executors of wills; in addition, there were requests by executors to
administer at least nineteen wills (an illegible section of the roll might
contain others). Several of the executors requested administration of more than
one will. For example, Robert, son of Nicholas, was the executor of Beatrice de
close, Thomas de Butterbusk
close and John, son of Beatrice de Butterbusk
close, two at least of whom were members of the same family and who appeared to have died within a short space of time. In the closest earlier surviving roll, that of 1347/48, aside from two executors of the same will who are mentioned in a plea of debt, there is no mention of executors and there are no requests to administer wills. It appears that, in Conisbrough manor, customary law allowed villeins to make wills disposing of their chattels. In 1349/50, probate was directed into the manor court, rather than the ecclesiastical courts. With no rolls surviving between 1349/50 and 1360/61, it is difficult to tell whether this was normal in the manor for the period or whether this was an emergency measure during a plague epidemic. The requests for licence to administer wills were made at three courts during 1350: 12 April, 10 May and 1 June.
The business of the court seems to have continued as usual during the year, the courts baron meeting about every three weeks and the two courts leet in spring and autumn. The bulk of the offences presented at the courts leet related to affrays and the raising, justly or unjustly, of hue and cry; brewing against the assize; straying animals and taking wood. There is little, aside from an amercement for a failure to repair ditches, that relates to husbandry of the open fields. Unlike the breaking of the pinfold to "rescue" impounded animals found in later rolls, this roll reveals strays remaining unclaimed. Some stray animals were valued and their value added into the profits of the court. A mare, three colts, a cow and a draught animal, having been impounded, were reported as sold and the sums paid into the court. Altogether, the lord profited by 15s 8d from strays during the year. These unclaimed strays and the dominance of personal conflict and violence are suggestive of some breakdown in the normal functioning of the community, a likely effect of unusually high mortality.
Other entries in the roll show the continuation of ordinary business. Couples were marrying, for instance, and tenancies continued to change hands. Transfer of land held in customary tenure was an important part of the business of the manor court and was carefully recorded. By 1349/50, procedure in manor courts had adopted a number of common law procedures from the royal courts. During the first quarter of the fourteenth century, manor court juries replaced inquisitions by the whole court. Common law land conveyancing procedures had also influenced the transfer of customary land in the manor court. Land in entail (based on the statute De Donis of 1285) and with conditional arrangements can be observed in Conisbrough in this year. Jointure arrangements, originating with freehold tenure, also became common in customary tenancies. Associated with this, the examination of the wife to ensure her independent agreement to the transfer of land developed from practices in the royal courts. In Conisbrough it can be seen that the intention of the tenant as to the ultimate destination of the lands in his or her tenure was normally included in the transfer by this date and that conditions could be imposed by the tenant. At the court held on 17 November, Robert son of Nicholas and his wife (she having agreed independently) transferred lands to his nephew and wife and to the children of the nephew. If the nephew died childless, the lands were to revert to the heirs of Robert's wife. On 27 October, Alan son of John transferred lands to Cecilia daughter of Henry Heed on condition she maintain Alan for life. Land transfers prior to a marriage are also included in the roll. Elizabeth Pacy and John Robertson each surrendered land, on 17 November, to be held in jointure, entailed on their respective next heirs if they failed to produce surviving children.
Although tenants had gained some control over the direction of their estates, both in their lifetime and after their death, the lord's exactions were heavy. Labour services for land tenancies were the norm at this time, although court rolls do not usually specify the details. Mention is made of carting services owing to the mill pond at the lord's mill. In addition, rents, heriots, fines for suit of court, entry fines, licences to marry and amercements added to tenants' burdens. Although the amounts amerced appear small, the roll reveals that these amounts could be a sizeable loss to subsistence farmers: a bushel of rye was recorded as worth 5d and half a sheep was valued at 7d. There may have been advantages for some in Conisbrough manor, gained from the fact that the last Earl de Warrene, who died in 1347, was the last of his line and therefore held only a life interest in the manor, which reverted to the Crown on his death. Warrene was not as concerned about the interests of future lords as he would have been had he had an heir. He was accused by the king of having manumitted bondmen, alienated land and approved lands taken in from the commons in the manor.1
After the first session on the roll the election of graves was recorded, one each for the graveships of Conisbrough, Clifton and Braithwell. In Wakefield manor, part of the de Warrene holdings, graves were elected from those holding certain customary tenancies, and it appears that they were elected to serve on a rota basis.2 In Conisbrough manor it seems that this might also have been the custom. The grave of Conisbrough, having been elected, appointed another to serve "in his place". The roll reveals the existence of submanors within the larger manor: John son of William held the manors of Kirksandall and Dalton Parva "of" the lord of the manor of Conisbrough. Submanors were not uncommon, and their lords owed fealty and service for them to the lord of the capital manor. They sometimes held their own courts baron.