Wills as "Witnesses" to Cultural Values, Material Culture, Economics, Social Structure

        Modern legal customs in most of the world rely on each individual to generate, before her/his death, some kind of document that contains testimony about the individual's last will or wishes regarding how the individual's remaining estate, real and moveable, should be distributed after death.  People who die "intestate" set into motion some form of court procedure to determine what their will would have or should have been (e.g., Probate Court).  The "Testament" part of a "Last Will and Testament" defines such a document as also religious, usually Christian, because the testimony specifically designates the Deity and persons the testator wishes to take charge of her/his soul and body.  Historians and literary scholars have learned to treasure surviving wills as evidence of how people value their worldly possessions and how they use their disposal to construct precisely calibrated statements about their relationships to their surviving relatives, loved ones, cultural institutions, and larger beliefs.  If you review the first few of Furnivall's edition of the surviving earliest wills in English, you will see that they all follow the same pattern, and that pattern reflects a commonly held set of understandings about religion, private and public property, kinship and other social relations, and the relationship between the testator and the big social organizations of their world (monasteries, churches, towns, noble courts).

        Robert Corn's will in Furnivall's Earliest English Wills,  dated 1387, is the oldest surviving will composed in Middle English.  Prior to this date, surviving wills are written entirely in Latin and Norman French by scribes who appear to be translating for testators who speak only Middle English.  This, in itself, tells you something about the long-delayed emergence of Middle English as an official language of the English people.  You will note a Latin third-person codicil is added after Corn, the testator, had recorded his will in first person Middle English.  After Corn's death in 1389, the scribe's Latin recuses (absolves of legal responsibility) Bartholomeo Neue, whom Corn had appointed co-executor--apparently the job was too difficult, or Neue had a falling out with Corn's son, Watkyn.  Corn's words, as he considered how to dispose of his worldly property, speak to us from the years of Chaucer's adult prime as a poet, telling us how a man took care of his last business on earth.