Migration - England (Medieval)

Following the Norman Conquest (1066), the mobility of most of England's inhabitants was restricted. To legally move from one locality to another, villeins had to pay a fine, known as chevage, to the lord of the manor. Many people did, nevertheless, migrate. Several local studies have shown that surnames prevalent in manors in the late 1300s often drastically differ from those found in the same localities in the late 1400s.

Some of the tenants fled to nearby towns, where, if they dwelled for one year undetected, would receive the status of freemen. Tenants were also allowed to migrate from one estate to another when both realties fell under one overlordship, and priviledges became abundant for those who survived the Black Death (1348) to move around the country as they pleased to find better jobs. 

Extant sources that can help genealogists track medieval migrations include:

  1. Manor court records
  2. Surnames
  3. Probate records

Lords of the manor paid clerks to keep their accounting books. These records, which include chevage fines, are called manor court records.

Surnames themselves provide linguistic evidence that can help genealogists track medieval migrations. Many surnames derive from the place of origin of migrating Englishmen. These are called locative surnames. For example, if John moved from Bristol to Exeter, locals might assign him the surname "de Bristol." The surname would become hereditary and his descendants would be called the Bristol family. It might not be possible to identify the specific individual in the family that migrated; however, locative surnames will provide researchers clues as to where an ancestor lived during the surname formation period (twelfth to fourteenth centuries).

Probate records from the Late Medieval Period often contain bequests to the poor of multiple parishes. One possible motive for this is that the testator had lived or had relatives or friends in each of those parishes. Sometimes the wording is explicit, such as in the will of John Chappell of Taunton, Somerset, whose will proven in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury in 1561 states that he was "born in Chetillhampton," in Devon.

See also Chevage, Manor, and Villein.