Issues with Inventories

The minutae of detail sometimes present in Probate inventories makes them a useful tool for helping to understand ordinary life. However the interpretation of such information is often imaginative and without due consideration of any limtations of that evidence. In this article I hope to raise awareness of some of the issues that treating inventories at face value cause.

A quote from “Household & Farm Inventories in Oxfordshire”:
The probate inventory is a document which was required by ecclesiastical courts in connection with the granting of the probate of a will. Its object is to safeguard the deceased’s executors from excessive claims upon the estate and to protect the next of kin from fraud.

Points to remember about inventories:

  • They are taken after death; usually more than a week; often weeks; sometimes months after. So they are not from the stand point of the owner. A lot can happen in that time and you would be naive to assume that nothing has gone missing.
  • They are usually drawn up by the deceased’s neighbours (in theory by 4 of them); not necessarily all of whom can write, in fact on inventories where it is noted who could or could not write it is often only one person who can (though that does not assume the other takers cannot read & verify what has been written).
  • Inventories were required where recourse was required to the Perogative Courts – that is where someone owns land in two or more diocese (typically in the poorer sort where they lived on the diocese boundary). Further those with estate worth less than £5 were not required to make a will (and hence an inventory was not necessary).
  • Inventories typically only cover moveable assetts of notable value. There are of course exceptions.
  • They are subjective and must be interpreted in the context of the taker of the inventory; having multiple inventories taken by the same people helps to indicate trends in what was considered as “valued” and the priorities that people assumed while taking inventories.
  • Individual items of clothing appear to become less important in inventories as time goes on; by the 1620s the lack of density of such mentions is a significant hinderance to drawing any confident conclusions.
  • Various items are removed from the estate prior to the inventory being taken; notably kitchenware by the widow; and many bequeathed items (ie good clothes) to near family and friends; without the corresponding will you would have not idea that such things may have happened.
  • There are many possible reasons for abscence – typically items which are disproportionately absent (requiring careful interpretation):- coifs; forecloths; caps (ie Monmouths); farthingales (of any sort); shirts; smocks; underbreeches; shoes; ruffs(though terminology is extremely difficult in this area);body/face/hair cloths; knives; general gardening tools; horses (though saddles are); treen; earthenware (esp. cooking pots).
  • Terminology is something which is (even to this day) subjective in the common people; a word taken out of context can easily be assumed to mean fact whereas it is only a word.

After looking at (studying would be a pretentious term) around 1,000 inventories of 1560 to 1620 predominantly from 5 midland counties – when trying to draw any conclusion you get the feeling you are on extremely thin ice. Abscence in a single particular inventory prooves little; typically only prescence prooves something which can usefully be interpreted. Further, it is only when you understand the social context of inventory taking that you have any chance to interpret it in a meaningful way. Remember – interpretation is not fact.

Useful information

Local History & Records Societies may hold information of Diocese wills & inventories.

Local records offices usually have some wills (less often inventories); but it depends on the diocese. Reading them is sometimes difficult & always time-consuming; transcriptions are a good way to obtain a depth of familiarisation. Just remember the possibility of errors.

The easiest transcriptions to get hold of are : Banbury Wills & Inventories and Household & Farm Inventories in Oxfordshire.

Written by Mark Goodman, 2001