What Happens to Your Stuff When You Die? (Part 2)

I was intrigued by Allix Denham's recent advice on nonparents.com, Who Shall I Leave All My Money To? Here's part 2 of this series of historical examples of the legacies, small and large, that childless individuals have left to future generations.

Today we are going back to the 1300s, just before the Black Death hit England. Here's historian Judith Bennett on prosperous peasant Cecilia Penifader:

"In 1344, as Cecilia lay sick in bed, she called into her house three young people: her nephew, John, the bastard son of her brother William Penifader; Robert Malin (who had first come to Brigstock only eleven years earlier); and her niece Matilda Koryl, the daughter of her sister Agnes. As they stood around her bed, Cecilia gave them a twenty-four-year lease on her lands. In so doing, she effectively disinherited (for twenty-four years) her nearest heir, and she picked among her siblings' children, favoring some over others. Illegitimate children could make no claims of inheritance, but Cecilia chose to favor William's bastard. Girls could only claim inheritance in the absence of brothers, but Cecilia chose to favor her only legitimate niece, Matilda. The biggest puzzle is Richard Malin, for we do not know his relationship to Cecilia. He might have been a nephew born of an illegitimate liaison that is today untraceable; he might have been the lover, fiancé, or husband of a niece; he might have been tied to Cecilia by friendship or service rather than blood. In any case, when these three young people gathered around her, Cecilia sought to manipulate kinship for one last time.

Her efforts failed. After her death, two juries met to discuss the property deposition of her properties...A custom of Brigstock manor, designed to avoid disputes about deathbed bequests, required that living people who devised land had to be far enough away from death to walk out of their houses. Since Cecilia had not been able to leave her house after she granted the lease, her gift to John, Robert, and Matilda was void...

As Cecilia's kin argued over her lands, her mental health, and her last actions, they acted out the oldest and most enduring story in peasant communities: the story of inheritance, kinship, and land. Cecilia was free throughout her adult life to purchase and sell lands at will, without regard to the claims of any future heirs. She was also free throughout her adult life to use kinship in flexible ways, ignoring some kin, dearly loving others, and perhaps sharing a household with still others. But as she lay dying, these options ceased. The gentle web of kinship had on strand that always ran strong and true: the tie between blood and land."

Judith M. Bennett, A Medieval Life: Cecilia Penifader of Brigstock, c.1295-1344 (Boston: McGraw-Hill College, 1999), 85-86.

#inheritance #household #mortality #England #medieval

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© 2016 by Rachel Chrastil