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This article explores how far estate management and institutional constraints help to explain the transformations of rural society in England from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries. The monks of Durham Cathedral Priory and the bishops of Durham faced many of the same exogenous pressures in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries but they responded differently to these challenges. By the seventeenth century all of the dean and chapter’s lands were consolidated holdings on 21-year leases, whereas a confused mixture of copyhold and leasehold land had developed on the bishops’ estate. This had a significant impact upon the challenges and opportunities facing their tenants. Institutional constraints were often crucial factors in the transformation of the English countryside: these two neighbouring ecclesiastical estates faced broadly the same problems and yet the composition of their estates diverged significantly across this period, having a profound effect not only on levels of rent, but also on the tenure of holdings and ultimately their relative size; three of the most important factors in the formation of agrarian capitalism. This article also argues that how rural society adapted to the fifteenth-century recession greatly affected the ability of their sixteenth-century counterparts to respond to inflation.