My thesis explores how the commemorative, devotional and charitable functions of the will evolved as a forum for the construction of religious identity in two east-coast counties that hosted both orthodoxy and dissent. By comparing testamentary evidence from Norfolk and Kent, this research will shed light on the development of the will as a vehicle for piety and identity as well as a legal device for inheritance in the century before the Reformation. This project aims to expose patterns and varieties of lay piety and the significance of family, community, gender, geography, economy and wealth in the shaping of testamentary and wider religious practice. It will explore the interaction of legal and social conventions with local traditions, the impact of pastoral care on lay pious action, cultural transmission between generations and the opportunities offered by localities for religious devotion.
While the will remains central to studies of English lay piety its reliability as an index of religious belief and practice has been seriously questioned and scholarly understanding of testamentary practice is limited. This research will be the first concerted comparative analysis of changing practices of will-making with particular reference to religion in late medieval England. There has been some attention to the use of church courts for the purposes of probate, on the growing use of English in wills, and practices of testamentary 'cultural creativity', but a comparative study of testamentary practices across more than one county or diocese is long overdue. This study aims to show that not only the content but the nature of the will is important for our understanding of popular religion, constructions of identity and the development of administrative, legal and literary practices with regard to probate in the late medieval period. The project focuses on Norfolk and Kent, east coast counties rich in testamentary evidence. It samples wills from across these two counties to assess general themes for analysis and will then compares in more depth a more manageable selection of parishes situated in settlements of differing sizes. Other sources such as churchwardens' accounts, bishops' registers, and books of hours help to come to a fuller understanding of patterns within pre-Reformation piety and the place of testamentary practices within late medieval life. Exploration of testamentary piety is important for medievalists as it addresses questions of social and religious organisation and constructions of identity.
My research is funded by the AHRC Midlands3Cities Doctoral Training Partnership, and my supervisors are Dr Rob Lutton (University of Nottingham) and Professor Wendy Scase (University of Birmingham).