VILLAGE JUSTICE

TWICE OR MORE EACH YEAR THE VILLAGERS gathered for the hallmote: hall, meaning manor house, and mote, meeting. The records of this legal body provide unique insights into the relationship between lord and village community, and at the same time demonstrate the frictions and stresses of everyday village life.

The hallmote was the lord’s manorial court, presided over by his steward, and transacting primarily the lord’s business: collecting merchet, heriot, entry fees, and other manorial dues, enforcing labor services, electing manorial officers, granting seisin (legal possession) to heirs and receiving fealty from them, and providing the lord with substantial profits from its fines and confiscations.

Yet the principal actors in the hallmote were villagers, who in effect served as prosecutor, legal authority, witnesses, and judge. Much of the court’s business had nothing to do with the lord, but was concerned with interaction among the villagers. Finally, the hallmote’s proceedings were ruled not by the lord’s will but by the ancient and powerful body of tradition known as the custom of the manor.

The hallmote, furthermore, was a legislative as well as a judicial body, promulgating the bylaws that governed field, meadow, pasture, and woods from Michaelmas to Michaelmas, sending the men to work and the animals to graze in strict concert, stipulating who should harvest, who should glean, when, and for how long. Surviving Elton court rolls record no bylaw enactments, only references to infractions of existing bylaws, but elsewhere they are recorded as enacted by the “community,” the “homage,” the “tenants,” or the “neighbors.” The lord is rarely mentioned in their framing, though the security of his demesne cultivation was a primary object.1

A fragmentary document records the itinerary of the Ramsey Abbey steward for the twenty-three manorial courts of early 1294. Holding court first at Ramsey itself on Thursday, January 7, he rode to the nearest manors—Broughton, Wistow, Ripton, Stukeley, and Gidding—reaching Elton on January 16, a Saturday. Thence he proceeded to Weston on Monday the eighteenth, finished off the Huntingdonshire manors, rode south to Therfield in Hertfordshire, then turned back northeast and held court in the Ramsey manors of Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire, the last session falling on February 19. Nine of the courts required a second day’s sitting, the others were all concluded in a day.2

A hallmote held in January pretty surely met inside the manor house. In warmer seasons courts often met in the open air, that of St. Albans assembling under an ancient ash tree.3 The hall must have been crowded and noisy, with all the villeins gathered, reinforced by a few freeholders whose charters stipulated suit, or whose grandfathers had owed it. Though the steward presided, he did not act as judge. Rather, he lent the authority of the abbot to the judgment rendered by the jury. These twelve (sometimes six or nine) jurati, sworn men, whose oath extended to periods between court sessions, could be fined substantial sums for “concealment,” not bringing cases to court, and for “bad answering and false presentment,” as happened to Elton jurors on several occasions.4 They collected and presented evidence, along with the appropriate law, the custom of the manor and the village bylaws. In modern parlance, it was a grand jury, and in fact was sometimes so called, but the commoner term was jury of presentment. The jury’s verdict was recorded as, “It is found by the jurors that…”, “The jurors say that…”, or “And they say that…”, followed by the facts of the case and concluding, “Therefore…” and the assessment of fine and damages. The jury’s findings received the backing not only of the lord’s steward but of the assembled villagers. Their concurrence was usually expressed tacitly, but on certain occasions actively, when plaintiff or defendant or both “put themselves upon the consideration of the whole court.” In such a case, the village’s assent was inscribed in the court record as villata dicit (the village says), or coram toto halimoto (in the presence of the whole hallmote), or per totum halimotum (by the whole hallmote). In either case, the endorsement of the jury’s findings by the assembly at large was of utmost importance.5

Sometimes either a plaintiff or a defendant or both asked for an inquest by a special panel, paying for the privilege. Whatever nuances of favor or knowledgeability a litigant hoped to get from one group or the other of his fellow villagers, his fate was nearly always, for better or for worse, in the hands of people who knew him, knew his adversary, knew the circumstances of the case, knew the relevant law and custom, and had talked it over among themselves.

The court’s record was kept by the steward’s clerk, on a long strip of parchment about eight inches wide, its segments stitched end to end. At its top he inscribed the place and date: “Aylingtone, on the day of St. Clement the Pope in the 12th year of W[illiam] the Abbot”—in other words, Elton, November 23, 1279. Less accomplished than the clerk of the accounts, he left a record in not very elegant Latin, with many errors in syntax and employing numerous abbreviations. In the left margin he noted the category of case, the judgment, and the amount of the fine. At the end of the record of each court he totaled the fines, exactly as the clerk of the accounts did at the end of the reeve’s demesne account. Whatever else the court was, it was part of the lord’s business enterprise. By the late thirteenth century, the court records were carefully preserved and often consulted for precedents.6

The court’s appearance, whether indoors or out, was informal, the crowd of villagers standing before the seated steward and clerk, but court procedure was formal and order strictly enforced. At St. Albans in 1253 a man was fined for cursing the twelve jurors, and many cases are recorded of punishment meted out for false accusations against officials and jurors, for abuse of opposing litigants, and for making a disturbance: “Fecerunt strepitum, in curia garrulando” (“they made a racket, talking much in court”).7 In Elton in 1307, John son of John Abovebrook, haled into court for a debt of 32 pence owed to Robert of Teyngton, failed to make good his promise to pay, and the following year was again cited, but “immediately in contempt of the court withdrew without finding pledges.” The court ordered that the 32 pence be levied from him, and that he be fined a stiff 40 pence for his behavior. “And afterwards he came and made fine for 40 pence…and…he will be obedient henceforth to the lord and to his neighbors.”8

A fourteenth-century manual for the instruction of novice stewards called The Court Baron (another name for the manorial court) prescribes a formality of procedure amounting to ritual. It pictures the clerk commencing by reading aloud a model presentment, a charge of battery done by a villager against an outsider:

Sir steward, Henry of Combe, who is here [pointing], complains of Stephen Carpenter, who is there [pointing], that as he was going his way in the peace of God and in the peace of the lord through this vill which is within the surety of your franchise, at such an hour on such a day in the last year, there came this Stephen Carpenter and encountered him in such a place [naming it], and assailed him with evil words which were undeserved, insomuch that he called him thief and lawless man and whatever other names seemed good to him except only his right name, and told him that he was spying from house to house the secrets of the good folk of the vill in order that he might come another time by night with his fellows to break [into] their houses and carry off their goods larcenously as a felon; whereupon this Henry answered him civilly and said that he was good and lawful in all things and that [Stephen] was talking at random; whereupon the said Stephen was enraged and snatched his staff of holly out of his hand and gave it to him about his head and across his shoulders and his loins and elsewhere all over his body as he thought fit and then went off. This trespass did the said Stephen wrongfully and against reason and against the peace of the lord and of you, who are charged to guard and maintain the peace, to his damage 20 shillings and shame a half-mark.9

The accused then answered the charge with as nice a regard for the proper formula as the clerk had shown, taking each accusation in order:

Tort and force and all that is against the peace of God and the peace of the lord and of you, who are charged to guard and maintain the peace, and his [Henry’s] damages of 20 shillings and shame of a half-mark and every penny of it, Stephen defends, who is here, and all manner of evil words against Henry of Combe, who is there, and against his suit and all that he surmises against him, that never he called him thief nor gave him evil word, nor surmised evil slander against him, nor with staff of holly nor other staff beat him across the head or shoulders or loins or any part of his body as he surmises; and that this is true, he is ready to acquit himself in all such wise as this court shall award that acquit himself he ought.10

It may be doubted that hallmotes insisted on such exquisite perfection of jargon, but it is known that defendants and litigants in serious cases were often alert to slips of language by which technical flaws could be imputed and judgment perhaps evaded.11

The steward in The Court Baron next addresses the accused: “Fair friend Stephen, this court awards that you be at your law six-handed at the next court to acquit yourself,” to which the defendant replies, “Willingly, sir.”12 “Be at your law six-handed” meant that Stephen was to bring with him five men who would join him in swearing either that his account of the case was true or that he was himself a trustworthy person. In cases of more serious character or when there was reason to doubt the accused, he might be called on to “be at your law twelve-handed,” requiring him to find eleven “oath helpers.” Oath helping, or compurgation, was by 1300 a basic element of medieval jurisprudence. The sense of it was that several men who attested the truth of their statements on the holy relics would be unlikely to swear their souls away simultaneously.13

At this point a uniquely medieval step in the court’s procedure took place: both plaintiff and defendant were ordered to “find pledges,” persons to act as sureties to guarantee their appearance in court. Such personal pledging was also used to guarantee fulfillment of a promised obligation, or even that the pledge’s subject would behave himself. Pledges were held accountable by the court and were liable to fine: “John Page and John Fraunceys were pledges of Henry Smith for the payment of two shillings to John son of Alexander in the Lane…and nothing is paid. Therefore both of them in mercy [fined]…Better pledges are William of Barnwell and Reginald son of Benedict.”14 Those needing pledges sought them among the better class of fellow villagers, those with substantial holdings, who served in village offices. Reeves and beadles were especially in demand. Pledges’ fines were usually three pence, half the standard fine for most offenses. Husbands commonly acted as pledges for wives, but otherwise most pledging was extra-familial.15

The Court Baron stipulated a particular order in which cases should be heard. In real life the hallmote heard cases by category, but the categories followed no discernible order. The invariably lengthy list of fines for the ale brewers sometimes led off the Elton calendar, sometimes concluded it, and sometimes came in the middle. In 1279, twenty-three violations of the assize of ale were recorded at the end of the court record, just before the selection of new ale tasters. Prior to the brewing violations, thirty-four cases were presented. Ten dealt with defaults of harvest or plow work, three with chevage, the rest with a variety of offenses, from the diversion of a watercourse by a neighboring village to a theft of furrows by a villager.16 The dispatch with which cases were handled compared with that of a modern traffic court. Yet “the law’s delay” was already an established judicial feature. Most defendants were permitted three summonses, three distraints (for failing to appear), and three essoins (excuses for non-appearance), making nine successive postponements.17

Litigations between villagers began with a complaint: “John Juvet complains of John Hering.” “Robert Maynard complains of Gilbert de Raundes.” “Thomas Clerk complains of Nicholas son of Richard Smith.” The complainant brought suit—in other words, he brought men with him to vouch for the truth of his complaint. Both he and the defendant were then ordered to find pledges.

Once the suit was initiated, if the complainant did not carry it through, he and his pledge were fined. “From Ralph Hert and Isolda his wife and their pledge, namely Reginald Child, for their non-suit against Richard Reeve and John Abovebrook, six pence.”18The defendant might wage his law, as John of Elton did “sufficiently” in 1294 against Emma Prudhomme, who had made accusations against him, and who was herself consequently fined.19 Or the case might be postponed. The delay might result in settlement, either through the defendant’s offering to pay a fine or through the two litigants reaching an out-ofcourt agreement. Such compacts were encouraged by the judicial device of the “love-day” (dies amoris), on which the parties to a dispute were directed to try to reconcile their differences.20 An out-of-court settlement, however, could not be allowed to become an out-of-pocket settlement for the lord. The parties still owed a fee, in this case recorded under the title of “license to agree”: “From John son of John of Elton for license to agree with John of Langetoft and Alice his wife sixpence.” “From Nicholas le Rous for license to agree with Henry Daysterre and Emma his wife four pence.”21 Part of the agreement was the determination of which of the two parties would pay the fine.

Yet the court was lenient toward the destitute, or realistic about the difficulty of getting blood out of turnips. “In mercy, but [fined] nothing because [he or she is] poor,” recurs many times in the records.

At least once a year, usually in late winter or spring, a form of manorial court known as the view (review) of frankpledge was held. A uniquely English institution, frankpledge antedates the Conquest.22 All the village’s male residents under the age of twelve belonged to units of ten or a dozen called frankpledges or tithings, each of which was collectively responsible for the behavior of its members, and whose interests it defended. If a man was accused by a neighbor, the members of his tithing were responsible for his appearance in court. At the head of each tithing was a leader called a chief pledge, an important man in the village: “It was commanded to Hugh Achard and his tithing at the last view to have [a certain man] at this court and he had him not. Therefore he and his tithing in mercy.”23

The tithing was not kinship-based, though in some ways it served the purpose of the old clan or supra-family group. Originally it was a cell in the royal administration, and its review in some places was still performed by the king’s sheriff (shire-reeve, chief officer of the shire), but usually the local lord had acquired frankpledge along with manorial justice. Carried out by the steward, the view of frankpledge assured the integrity of the village’s tithings, making certain that every boy turning twelve years of age and every male newcomer to the village acquired membership. By the end of the thirteenth century, the tithing system and personal pledging were showing signs of decadence as the royal courts developed more modern juridical techniques, such as prison and bail.24

In theory, and perhaps at one time in fact, there was some distinction in procedure and type of case between the regular hallmote and the view of frankpledge, but by the late thirteenth century it had virtually disappeared. The Court Baron’s list of offenses typically heard by the view of frankpledge—shedding of blood, rape, theft of grain or poultry, placing a dung-heap in the high street, building a fence on a neighbor’s land or on the king’s highway—are very much the same things heard in ordinary hallmotes.25However, where the hallmote, usually held in the autumn, elected the reeve, beadle, and wardens of autumn, the view of frankpledge chose the village ale tasters.26

Killers, professional robbers, and other hardened felons, regular defendants in the royal courts, were rarely seen in the hallmote, which was nevertheless no stranger to violent crime. It was reported in several different forms: “Agnes daughter of Philip Saladin raised the hue-and-cry upon Thomas of Morburn who wanted to have sex with her.”27 “Matilda Prudhomme justly raised the hue-and-cry against John Blaccalf because he drew blood from Hugh the man of the said Matilda.”28 “The wife of Matfrid and her daughter justly raised the hue-and-cry upon Henry Marshal because he beat them.”29 “It was found by neighboring jurors that John ate Lane maliciously assaulted Alice his stepmother in her own house…and beat, ill-treated, and maimed the said Alice with a stick, breaking her right hand.”30

The last category of assault, in the victim’s own home, was considered a graver offense than similar violence on neutral ground, and was usually designated hamsoken: “Matilda Saladin justly raised the hue-and-cry upon five men of Sir Gilbert de Lyndsey who were committing hamsoken upon Philip Saladin and beat and badly treated him.”31 Similarly, drawing blood was regarded as especially serious.

The hue-and-cry raised by the victim, or by a relative, neighbor, friend, or passerby, obligated everyone within earshot to drop what he was doing and come to the rescue. Failure to do so brought a collective penalty: “And they say that Alexander Prudhomme badly beat Henry son of Henry Smith [who] justly raised the hue-and-cry upon him. Not prosecuted, villata fined two shillings [and] commanded to distrain Alexander to answer.”32

Blood did not have to be actually shed, or even a blow struck, to justify the hue-and-cry. Richard son of Richard Reeve gave clear indication of a desire to beat Richard Blakeman, who “by reason of terror and fear” was justified in the jurors’ eyes in raising the hue-and-cry.33

On the other hand, the hue was not to be raised lightly or wrongfully: “The jurors say that Adam Fot committed hamsoken upon Andrew son of Alkusa and nonetheless the wife of the said Adam unjustly raised the hue-and-cry upon the same Andrew. Fine sixpence.”34 Anyone raising the hue was obliged immediately to find a personal pledge to support his claim of raising it justly.

Sometimes two parties to an altercation raised the hue against each other, in which case the court decided which was justified: “Henry Abovebrook justly raised the hue-and-cry upon Richard Sabyn. Richard fined sixpence…And they say that Richard Sabyn unjustly raised the hue-and-cry upon Henry Abovebrook. Richard fined [an additional] sixpence.”35

When the hue-and-cry posse collared its quarry, he was turned over to the bailiff, the reeve, or the beadle. In Elton in 1312 the beadle was fined three pence “because he did not arrest John son of Matfrid, a bondman, to answer concerning the hue-and-cry.”36

Serious injury in an assault case brought damages along with the fine: “It is found by the jurors that Robert Sabyn assaulted Nicholas Miller and beat him to his damage of sixpence. Fine sixpence.”37 The three men who assaulted Gilbert son of Reginald le Wyse in 1279 were directed to “satisfy him for damages” as well as pay a sixpence fine.38 Similarly in cases of property damage: for the malicious injury to the house of Richard son of Elias done by Thomas of Chausey in 1308, Thomas was directed to pay sixpence damages along with the usual sixpence fine.39

Only rarely do the Elton records reveal a punishment imposed other than a fine. In the case in 1292 in which John ate Lane was convicted of maliciously assaulting his stepmother and breaking her hand, the account concludes, “Therefore the said John is put in the stocks.”40

Moral transgression was a precinct of the law in which the superior competence of the Church courts was conceded, and in which canon law had developed an extensive literature. Adultery was the most conspicuous of moral offenses, and drew the Church’s most severe penalties, typically a whipping for peasants, a heavy fine for their betters. The Church also ruled on the validity of marriage contracts (an active legal issue in the absence of state licensing or requirement of witnesses), separations, and prescribed penances for such delinquencies as departing from the traditional posture in intercourse.41

Nevertheless, the lord took an interest in sex mores, at least a financial interest, focusing on men and women previously haled into Church court for adultery, and young women detected indulging in premarital sex. The jurors were relied on to report cases of leirwite, or of matrimony without the lord’s license, and were fined for failing to do so.

A village woman, however, ran a much greater risk of being fined for her brewing than for her dallying. “[Allota] is a common brewer at a penny and sometimes at a halfpenny, and sold before the tasting [by the village ale tasters] and sometimes made [the ale] weak. Therefore [she is] in mercy two shillings.”42 “Alice wife of Blythe [sold] three times at a halfpenny and at a penny and sold before the tasting, did not bring her measures [to be checked]. Twelve pence.” “Matilda Abovebrook at a halfpenny and a penny, sometimes weak ale, she sells before the tasting, did not bring her measures. Sixpence.”43 Sometimes the lengthy list of women (only six men ever appear among Elton brewers) is simply put down in the court record with the fine noted. The unfailing frequency of the ale fines has led to a conjecture that the assize of ale was a sort of back-door license fee collected by the lord in lieu of the monopoly he had failed to obtain in this important branch of village business.44 At the same time, the very number of home brewers makes credible a need for government regulation, while the fines varied and the charges differed: the ale is “weak,” “not of full value,” “not worth the money,” the measures are not sealed, the price is too high. Enforcement of standards for price and quality was of value to consumers, and the insistence on checking brewers’ measures indicates serious purpose.

In Elton as everywhere that open field agriculture prevailed, a large proportion of the manor court’s business consisted of enforcement of the bylaws and customs governing crops and pasture. Reeve and bailiff were mainly responsible for bringing to book defaulters on work obligations, but for surveillance of the army of harvest workers they had the help of the two “wardens of autumn.” “The wardens of autumn present that Master Stephen made default at one boon-work…Therefore let him be distrained to answer [be arrested and brought to court].” “Of Reginald Child for the same at another boon-work of the autumn of one man [as] above. Pledge Richard the beadle.” “Of John Heryng for the same of one man three pence. Pledge Roger Gamel.” “Of Robert Chapman for the same of one man sixpence. Pledge John Page.”45 Failure to appear, tardiness, or simply performing the service badly brought sure, if moderate, penalties.

“I do not advise you to plead against your lord,” warned a satiric poem ascribed to a canon of Leicester Abbey. “Peasant, you will be vanquished…You must endure what the custom of the earth has given you.”46 Modern scholar George C. Homans, however, has written: “The striking fact is that many such disputes [between lord and tenant] were settled in the hallmote just as they would have been if the parties had both been simple villagers.” Homans cites a case involving tenants of the Bishop of Chichester in 1315, in which an inquest of three hallmotes backed the tenants in their refusal to cart dung for the lord. “The lord’s arbitrary will was bounded, or rather he allowed it to be bounded, by custom as found by the tenants.”47

A number of cases in Elton pitted villagers against the lord, his steward, or his lesser officials. In 1312 “John Troune entered a plea contrary to the lord’s statutes” and was fined sixpence for contempt.48 Two men who pleaded “in opposition to the steward” in the court of 1331 were fined three pence and sixpence, respectively.49 Thus an individual peasant, as the canon of Leicester warned, appears to have been at a substantial disadvantage in pleading against his betters. But in three other cases, though no final outcome is recorded, the villagers’ side of the argument is unmistakably accorded a respectful hearing. One difference in these cases is that the other party was not the lord or his steward, but a lesser official or officials. Another difference, highly significant in the light of later history, is that the village viewpoint was maintained not by an individual tenant but by a large group of villagers, or even the whole village united.

All three cases were heard in 1300. In the first the villagers accused the bailiff and his assistants of having dug a ditch to enclose “a certain place which is called Gooseholm where they planted willows, which place is a common pasture for all the men of the whole village.” In the second case, they accused the bailiffs of encroaching on a furlong called Michelgrove by taking away from all the lands abutting on it “to the breadth of four feet.”50 Presumably the officials were doing their encroaching in the interests of the lord’s demesne, though there is no indication that they were acting under instructions.

The third case involved an exchange of complaints between the villagers and Hugh Prest, the claviger. First the jurors reported that “the bailiffs of the lord unjustly hinder the community of the vill of Elton from driving by the way which is called the Greenway all their draught-beasts and other animals, whereas they ought to have it for the common of their pasture.” In turn, Hugh Prest cited nine villagers, most of them virgaters, “because they drove their beasts by the way which is called Greenway when the furlongs of the lord abbot abutting thereupon were sown.” The jurors protested strongly: “And they say that they and all men of the vill of Elton ought by right to have the said droveway at all times of the year, inasmuch as all strangers passing by the same way can have a free droveway with their animals of all kinds without challenge or hindrance.”

Hugh Prest replied that although strangers were permitted to use the droveway, in the past “the said customary tenants and their partners have sometimes contributed four shillings to the use of the lord for having their droveway when the furlongs of the lord there had been sown.” The anger and indignation of the villagers is unmistakable in the reply recorded in the court rolls: “And the aforesaid customary tenants and all others of the vill, free tenants as well as others, and also the twelve jurors whose names are contained at the beginning of the roll, say and swear that if any money has been contributed by the customary tenants of the vill to have their droveway there, the said claviger has taken that money at his will by distraint and extortion and has levied it from them unjustly.” The steward, clearly embarrassed at “seeing the dissension and discord between the claviger demanding and the said men gainsaying him, was unwilling to pronounce judgment against the claviger”—as the united villagers clearly insisted. Instead he “left this judgment wholly to the disposition of the lord abbot, that the same lord, having scrutinized the register concerning the custom in the matter of this demand, should do and ordain as he should see ought to be done according to the will of God.”51

Although no further record of the case has survived, it seems unlikely that the abbot provoked further resentment by the villagers over a problem that touched his interests only lightly and vexed them so much. Homans perhaps exaggerates in claiming that “The lord, in his own court and in a case in which his interest was involved, was treated much like any other villager.”52 Nevertheless, the steward’s conciliatory attitude toward the angry Elton tenants is noteworthy. One peasant breaking a rule was easy to deal with; a whole village up in arms over what it deemed an infringement of village rights was something else.

The fact that few decisions in the hallmote went against the lord was less owing to pressure on the court exerted by his officials than to the basic relationship between lord and village. His rights, privileges, and monopolies made it unlikely for him to infringe legally on the villagers while making it easy for them to infringe on him.

In the endless small fines levied for default of work obligations, it may even be possible to discern the same rationale as that suggested for the fines for violation of the ale regulations. Edward Britton, reviewing the evidence from Broughton, suggests that the moderation of the fines makes them amount to a standard fee which a villager could pay if he wished to skip a day’s work on the demesne.53

Not all the infractions by villagers were against the lord. Villagers also infringed on each other: “It is found that Robert of Teygnton carried away the fittings of the plow of John Abovebrook, in consequence whereof the same John lost his plowing during one day to his damage of one halfpenny, which he will pay him,” plus a three-penny fine.54 John Allot was convicted of carrying away the hay of Reginald of Brington “to the value of four pence which he will pay to the same Reginald before the next court, fine pardoned.”55

Nor did all the cases originate in the fields: “John Ivet has not repaired the house of Richard Crane satisfactorily, as agreed between them, to the damage of Richard sixpence, which John will pay. For trespass, fine three pence.”56 Some court cases were family matters, as when Robert Smith “unjustly detained in his smithy the horse of Sarah his mother against her will,” and was fined sixpence.57

Debts were a frequent subject of villager-versus-villager suits: “Richard Blythe acknowledges himself to be bound to Andrew Noppe for one ring of barley, which he will pay him. Unjust detention, fine three pence.”58 “John Roger unjustly detains from Richard Baxter one quarter of barley to his damage of two pence, which he will pay him. Sixpence fine.”59 In one case the debt was between two men, both of whom had died: “Sarah widow of Henry Smith, and John and Robert her sons, executors of the testament of Henry, bound to John Hering and Joan widow of Robert Hering for one quarter of barley which Henry borrowed from Robert in their lifetime. Will satisfy them concerning the grain, sixpence fine.”60 The creditor was sometimes an outsider: in 1294 two Elton villagers, Geoffrey in Angulo and Philip Noppe, owed grain to Richard Abraham of Haddon, and were instructed to pay but were excused the court’s fine because they were poor.61

The Elton records contain no outright references to money-lending, though some of the cases of debt may have been loans disguised as purchases. Other sources show it to have been a common feature of rural life, often leading to court judgment and seizure of property. The loan was often in the form of a pawn. Interest rates were always high and frequently condemned by the Church as usurious, without stemming the flow of loans, in which churchmen themselves engaged. Debtors often took refuge in flight, leading down the path of vagabondage to crime.62

One frequently heard suit of villager against villager was for slander. In 1279 Andrew Reeve accused Gilbert Gamel of malingering and working in his own barn and yard instead of performing his labor services. The accusation was public enough so that it “came to the ears of the bailiffs.” The jurors cleared Gilbert and fined Andrew twelve pence.63 Slander could also bring damages. John Page was fined sixpence, and paid Richard Benyt twelve pence damages for “defaming” him.64 Sarah Wagge “unjustly defamed” Nicholas son of Elias, accusing him of having stolen two of her hens and “eating them to her damage of sixpence”; Sarah was fined sixpence and had to pay Nicholas damages of sixpence, the price of the hens she claimed he had stolen.65 Another villager “defamed Adam son of Hubert by calling him false and faithless,” and was fined three pence.66 In one case in 1300, Allota of Langetoft accused Robert Harpe of defaming her “by calling her a thief”; the jury found Robert innocent and fined Allota sixpence for false claim.67

In the hallmote, a decision might be appealed to the documents, especially the “register of customs” (meaning in all probability the Ramsey Abbey cartulary), as in the case of the Greenway dispute of 1300. The cartulary contained information about tenure, customary obligations, and servile status. When it failed to resolve a question, an appeal could be made to the lord, who might be an impartial arbiter if his own interest was not involved, or perhaps a fair or reasonable one if it was.

There is also evidence of a more modern system of appeal. This was one made from the hallmote to the honor court, the court of the whole estate (honor), which for Ramsey Abbey met at Broughton, with suit owed by the free tenants of Elton and the other manors. A case of 1259 involved a dispute among the villagers about repairs to the millpond after flooding. The twelve jurors of the Elton hallmote, all villeins, accused five free tenants—Reginald Benyt, Ralph Blaccalf, Andrew L’Hermite, Henry Miller, and Henry Fraunceys—of refusing to help, the accused claiming that they were not obligated because of their free status.68 The case may have been referred to the court at Broughton because of the defendants’ allegiance to that court, but in other instances Broughton seems to have acted as a true court of appeal, with villeins summoned thither from their hallmotes. The principal function of the Broughton honor court, however, was not judicial but administrative, the arrangement of the military service owed by the abbey.69 Elsewhere, the central court of an estate is known to have acted at times as an appeals court. The court of St. Albans, assembled under its famous ash tree, regularly heard cases forwarded to it by the other St. Albans manors, returning its interpretation to the local courts.70

For the typical villein tenant, nearly any offense he might commit, from default of his work obligations to hamsoken against his neighbor, brought him to the hallmote, attended by his fellow villagers acting as his judges. Members of his tithing supported his appearance in court. Twelve villagers examined and discussed his case, made accusation against him, and found him guilty or not guilty. If he was required to corroborate his defense or his claim, he called on friends and neighbors to give him oath-help so that he could “be at his law six-handed.” When he was fined he appealed to a fellow villager to act as his pledge and guarantee his payment. Rarely was he subjected to either imprisonment or corporal punishment, though aggravated assault might land him in the stocks on the village green.

Fundamental to the system of justice was the inequality between lord and villager. If the villager missed an autumn boon-work, neglected his demesne plowing, or defaulted on any of his other obligations, he was certain of being fined. The system was onerous and exploitative, yet it apparently felt less oppressive to those who lived under it than it appears to modern eyes. The villager knew the rules and could rely on them. If they were not equal for everybody, they were the same for all villeins, a fact which doubtless contributed to the success with which they were applied—“neighbors” who turned out for the harvest boon would feel little sympathy for one who did not.

The hallmote’s emphasis on the united voice of the community in judgment reflected the need of a weakly policed society for acceptance of its judicial decisions by all parties. No single individual or small group could be blamed by a losing party in court when his fate had been pronounced per totum halimotum.

The apparatus of the law was certainly the more readily accepted because it was operated by the villagers themselves. As Paul Vinogradoff says, in the hallmote, “customs are declared by [the villagers] and not [by the lord]; inquests and juries are empaneled from among them; the agrarian business of the customary court is entirely of their making.”71

The hallmote was the sole court with which most villeins ever had contact. It belonged to one of the three great medieval systems of justice, the manorial, or seigneurial, courts, the other two systems being the Church courts and the royal courts. Though the three overlapped in some degree, each had its own clientele and its own law. Church courts dispensed canon law in cases either involving clergy or dealing with moral and marital problems of the laity. In England the royal courts dispensed the “common law,” created by William the Conqueror out of Saxon, Danish, and Norman precedents and made common to the whole kingdom. Royal courts sat in the shires and hundreds, the political divisions of the kingdom, and royal eyres (circuit courts) visited the districts at intervals.

As the clergy formed the main clientele of the Church courts, the free men of the kingdom formed that of the royal courts, and the villeins, subject to the “customary law” of their own manors, that of the manorial courts. But the royal courts also held a monopoly on felony, sometimes known as “high justice,” and defined as homicide, rape, larceny, burglary, arson, and petty treason (a crime by a servant or apprentice against a master).72 Trespass, the other major category of crime, which included assault, breaking and entering, theft of goods worth less than twelve pence, issuing threats, abduction, extortion, false weights and measures, and other petty offenses, was left to the manorial courts in cases involving villeins, and was awarded to the royal courts in those involving free men.73 Rape was also sometimes dealt with in the manorial court.

The division of function was never as neat as theory suggested. Many lords enjoyed “high justice” as a result of some past concession by the monarch. The abbot of Ramsey held what amounted to exclusive judicial power within his banlieu, a radius of one league (three miles) from the high altar of the abbey church. Lords often held rights to special kinds of crimes, such as “infangenethef,” the thief caught in the act within the manor, whose belongings could be confiscated when he was hanged.

Thus any villager who committed homicide or any other felony and was apprehended by the hue-and-cry was subject to the jurisdiction of the royal courts. The case was likely to be given a preliminary investigation by the coroner’s court, which held an inquest whenever a death was either accidental, sudden, or in suspicious circumstances. The coroner was a knight or a substantial freeholder, elected in the county court by other knights and freeholders. His jury was made up of twelve freeholders of the hundred where the death had occurred.74 The coroner examined the body for signs of violence, and questioned neighbors and witnesses, with particular attention to the person or persons who discovered the body. In cases of accidental death, the object that had caused the accident was adjudged the “deodand” (gift to God) and was sold and the price given to the king—a Norman adaptation of an old Anglo-Saxon custom of selling the deodand to buy prayers for the soul of the victim. The deodand might be a horse that threw its rider, the timber of a wall that collapsed, a cart that ran over a man, or a vat of boiling water that overturned.75

In cases of murder, the coroner’s jury appraised the chattels of the accused, with a view to later confiscation by the king. Sometimes it reported that “nothing could be discovered about his chattels,” or that “he had no chattels,” but often they were listed in detail: animals, household goods, grain, and tools, with their monetary value. Sometimes only the value was recorded. One such list turns up in the Elton records because the hanged man’s forfeited property had disappeared. The villagers (villata) were “commanded to answer for the chattels of Richard son of Thomas Frelond of Pappele who was hanged at Peterborough,” said chattels consisting of boots, harness, knife, belt, dog collar with silver fittings, gloves, wooden chest, and slippers—total 18 pence 2 farthings.76

The prisoner was turned over either to the itinerant justices of the royal eyre, or to the shire or hundred courts, where trial was usually by jury. Jury trial was not, however, perceived as especially protective. Early in the thirteenth century, a prisoner could be tried by jury only with his consent, but the principle was annulled by Edward I in the First Statute of Westminster (1275) mandating jury trial in criminal cases in the interest of more reliable prosecution.

Trial by combat was by now archaic, as was trial by ordeal (immersion in water or exposure to fire), condemned by the Church in 1215. The sense of participation by Providence in the judicial process which combat and ordeal had invoked was retained in the more civilized method of compurgation, or joint oath-swearing on the sacred relics.

In 1285 Edward I issued the Second Statute of Westminster, holding the men of the village and hundred collectively responsible for arresting and holding malefactors—in effect, making the hue-and-cry royal as well as manorial law. Not very surprisingly, large numbers of wrongdoers continued to escape capture. Bands of thieves flourished, terrorizing whole districts. Sometimes they were abetted by wealthy sponsors known as “receivers” or “maintainers.” As John Bellamy observes, “There was…less of a gulf between honest men and criminals than in modern society,” a situation that also made corruption of officials easier.77

Of those tried by royal justice sitting in cases where the accused was actually detained, only some 10 to 30 percent of the defendants were convicted. One popular technique for evading punishment was the claim of “benefit of clergy,” meaning that the accused was a cleric and could only be tried in Church court where capital punishment was not used. Felons not only took the tonsure (clerical haircut) in prison but even learned to read. Benefit of clergy was of limited value to habitual criminals, however, since it could only be claimed once.78

The same limitation applied to another Church-related evasion of justice, the sanctuary. All consecrated buildings and land, including every parish church and churchyard, were sanctuary, on a one-time basis, but not for everyone. Excluded were notorious offenders, traitors, heretics, sorcerers, clerics, perpetrators of felonies in church, criminals caught red-handed, and minor offenders in no danger of loss of life or limb. The fugitive had to confess his misdeeds, surrender his weapons, attend Mass, and ring the church bells. In a parish church, where he could remain for forty days, he had to beg food from the priest. The royal coroner came, heard his oath to abjure the realm forever, assigned him a port or border town by which to depart, and saw him branded on the thumb with an A (for abjuror). He was obliged to keep to the highway, to avoid footpaths, to take the first ship available, and until one appeared, to walk into the sea up to his knees each day in sign of his renewed intention. Very often, however, the abjuror never reached his assigned port, but went into hiding as an outlaw.79

Prison as punishment was virtually unknown to the Middle Ages. The Church courts dealt in penances and pilgrimages, the manor court in fines, and the royal court in death penalties, abjuration, and outlawry. The outlaw could be captured or slain by anyone, and his goods appropriated. Outlaws, however, often had powerful protectors and sometimes popular sympathy. The prototype of Robin Hood probably flourished in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century rather than in the twelfth century of Richard Lionheart favored by Walter Scott.80

Capital punishment was generally by hanging, with the chief alternative, reserved for better-class offenders, the headsman’s axe. Since hanging was by strangulation, the axe was normally less cruel. By a custom that was a relic of ancient Germanic law, the felon’s principal accuser, usually the victim or a relative, was often obliged to find a hangman or perform the office himself. Lack of professionalism may account for recorded cases of the hanged man’s surviving.

Deliberately cruel executions were limited to extraordinary crimes: heresy, treason, witchcraft. Mutilation, a common form of punishment in the earlier Middle Ages, was rare by the thirteenth century, but a thief might still lose an ear or thumb, a rapist be castrated, or a vicious assailant blinded. The stocks sometimes caused loss of limb. Torture was a rarity, except when the defendant stood mute, or on the part of some jailers or coroners practicing extortion.81

A condemned prisoner in a royal court had a single avenue of appeal, that of royal pardon. His hope of getting one depended on one of two aids: a powerful protector with influence at court, or an ongoing war. In the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, the king’s expeditions against the Scots saved many English felons from the scaffold.82

Historically, medieval justice stood somewhere between the ancient system of family-and-clan justice by which an offender was punished or protected by his kin, and the modern system of state-organized police and prosecution. Perhaps it resembled other systems in the discrepancy in outcomes between serious felonies, so often unpunished, and minor offenses against the custom of the manor, so frequently pursued and penalized, though rarely beyond a fine of sixpence.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!