Private law and medieval village society: personal actions in manor courts c.1250-1350
A project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (Research Grant PID Number 10197/AID Number 120209)
- Introduction to the project
- Background and rationale
- Archival work
- Manor court rolls studied
- The scope of the evidence
- Project outputs
- Related research
- Presentations on the project given to date
- Contact the project team
- Select bibliography
Introduction to the project
Imagine you are an ordinary villager living in the English countryside around the year 1300, and you find yourself involved in a private dispute. Perhaps someone from a nearby village owes you money and refuses to repay it; or perhaps a neighbour has damaged your crops, causing you a severe financial loss. What would you do to get justice?
In the vast majority of such instances, a villager in this situation would have brought legal proceedings in the local manor court. The manor courts were special legal jurisdictions run by landlords, and attended by their manorial tenants and other local people. Thousands of them existed across the English countryside, and for the majority of the population these courts formed the most important point of contact with the formal legal system. From the middle of the thirteenth century the manor courts kept records of their proceedings, known as manor court rolls. Only a small minority of these records are available in print. Many of the court rolls are full of details of lawsuits in which one peasant sued another over a debt, a broken contract, or a trespass. This group of lawsuits is known as the 'personal actions'. Using the manor court records, the broad aim of our project is to understand in as much detail as possible what happened when an individual prosecuted a personal action in a manor court.
The project was funded by the Arts and Humanities and Research Council through a grant which ran from 2006 to 2009. During this period the project team collected a large quantity of new evidence from unpublished court rolls, and began to sift and investigate what they had collected. Since 2009, analysis and reporting of the material in a variety of forms has continued. This page describes the aims of the project, the evidence gathered, and some findings to date.
Background and rationale
Manor court rolls are among the most valuable written sources for the social and economic life of medieval England. The manor court had a variety of functions, ranging from oversight of the transfer of peasant land, to the regulation of peasant marriage and the administration of bylaws concerning the sale of bread and ale. This diversity of business is reflected in the wide variety of subjects that crop up in the entries in each court roll. Many important studies have been written which employ different aspects of this wealth of evidence. Quite often those studies have focused on individual manors where the surviving series of court records is particularly rich (for further reading, see bibliography).
One category of manor court business that in the past has perhaps not received the attention it deserves is the personal actions. Few scholars have looked closely at how the courts worked to handle civil lawsuits of this type. There have been relatively few attempts to investigate manorial actions of debt, trespass, and broken agreement from the perspective of legal history. We think, however, that such an understanding of the personal actions is important. Many of the disputes underlying personal actions were commercial. The peasantry in this period was engaged in a wide variety of market activities, ranging from the buying and selling of produce, to the leasing of land. The willingness of peasants to commit resources to such activity was in large part influenced by their ability to get a remedy in the courts if disputes occurred. As it was the manor courts which heard the bulk of cases of this kind, these courts' conception of the law in the area of debt and contract is clearly worth reconstructing in detail.
Our project is interested in every aspect of the procedures and legal principles observed when a villager initiated a personal action in a manor court. Among many other questions, it ask whether the courts were haphazard in their methods and rules, or did those rules form a rigid system? Who made the rules in each court, and where did they come from? To what extent were the manor courts influenced by other areas of the legal system, most notably the common law? How good was peasant litigants' knowledge of the manorial rules? Did the litigants get 'professionals' to conduct lawsuits on their behalf? Were all the manor courts the same in their rules and procedures, or did they vary from place to place, and if so, why?
The project is a collaboration involving several medievalists. The principal investigator of the AHRC project was Professor Richard Smith, Director of the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge, and the co-investigator was Professor Phillipp Schofield of the Department of History and Welsh History, Aberystwyth University. As described more fully below, the project focuses on manors within two groups each of five English counties, a 'western group' and an 'eastern group'. Work on the 'eastern group' of manors was led by Richard Smith, working with Dr Chris Briggs [http://firstname.lastname@example.org] who was a Research Associate at the Cambridge Group working on the project from 2006 to 2009. Chris has continued his involvement with the project since moving to the University of Southampton in 2009 and back to Cambridge in 2011. The bulk of archival work on the 'western group' of manors was done by the project's other research associate, Dr Matthew Tompkins, now a senior research fellow at the Centre for English Local History, University of Leicester.
The main aim of the archival research was to work through the manor court records looking for detailed entries relating to personal actions. The full texts of such entries were transcribed into a database. These entries provide revealing information about what was said and done in court as a particular lawsuit was heard. We have also found that such entries can shed light on the legal principles observed in the case concerned. We knew from previous experience that such detailed cases might be widely scattered. So, in order to gather enough of them, we chose to investigate the records of as large a number of manor courts as practically possible. The plan to cover a large number of courts also made sense because we are interested in the extent of variation in practices and rules among individual manor courts.
As well as harvesting the texts of the most revealing - and hence, perhaps, most unusual – cases, we also wanted to be able to describe the basic character of litigation in personal actions in each individual court. We wanted to produce a coherent summary of each court's practices: for example, what forms of trial did this particular court use in personal actions (did it use jury trial, or 'compurgation', an elaborate oathswearing ritual, or both); did this court fine defendants who failed to appear to answer charges, or not; and so on. To produce such a summary, we needed to take account of all relevant litigation surviving in that manor's court records. That was a challenge, because the written records of personal litigation are very voluminous in many court roll series. If we had set out to transcribe every entry relating to personal actions, the number of courts worked on would have been much too small. As a consequence, in order to produce a summary statement of litigation procedures in each manor court we developed a methodology in which only a sample of key entries was transcribed from the court rolls of a particular manor, and a checklist was completed for each to show whether certain features were present or absent.
Manor court rolls studied
The project involved the collection of material from 103 different series of manor court rolls. These records are held across 26 different repositories (see Table 3; we are grateful to staff at all the archives mentioned for permission to consult records in their care). We wanted to find out whether there were systematic contrasts between western and eastern parts of the country with respect to manorial law and procedure in personal actions. As a result, 58 of the series relate to manors in an 'western group' of five counties (Staffordshire, Shropshire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire, and Gloucestershire), and 45 to manors in an 'eastern group' of five counties (Cambridgeshire, Essex, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, and Suffolk). Most of these individual series of records relate to just a single manor court. However, in the case of the 'western group' we also studied a number of 'composite' court rolls, which contain the records of proceedings from multiple manor courts across a single estate. A good example of a composite series is that containing proceedings in the courts of the 20-plus West Midlands manors of the cellarer of Worcester Cathedral priory, which survives from 1314 (Worcester Cathedral Library, E1-3, 6-16; Hereford Cathedral Library and Archives, R1162).
Map 1. 'Private Law' project: 'western group' and 'eastern group' of counties
The selection of these 103 series was based on a number of criteria. The first requirement was that the series should contain enough evidence of personal litigation to make closer study worthwhile. (Some courts seem to have handled very few cases of debt, trespass, and so on.) Second, we sought to work on manors belonging to a range of types of landlord. We were keen to avoid the charge that we had looked only at large manors belonging to church landlords, most notably the wealthiest monasteries and bishoprics. The records of such manors survive in the greatest quantities, but they are not necessarily the most typical. Our 103 court roll series are fairly evenly balanced between church and lay lords (Table 1). We have studied litigation in manor courts of varying institutional character. At one extreme are the voluminous rolls of the extensive manor of Redgrave (Suffolk), one of the several dozen manors owned by the Benedictine abbey of Bury St Edmunds (University of Chicago Library, Bacon MSS 1-20). At the other extreme are examples such as Pencombe in northeast Herefordshire, which in the early fourteenth century was one of just three manors possessed by local knight Sir Eustace de Whitney (Herefordshire Record Office, A63/I/1/2-11).
|Table 1. Nature of lordship for the 103 court roll series studied|
|Lay lord||Church lord||Total|
We also tried to prioritize court roll series which offer surviving records for a spread of years across our century-long study period. Court roll series with a thirteenth-century start date tend to be rarer than those beginning in the fourteenth century. As Table 2 shows, however, we managed to find a significant number of series that start relatively early. We did find that early-commencing and substantial series of court rolls were rarer overall in the 'western group' than in the 'eastern group'. As a result we decided to cast the net wider in the 'western group', by examining short runs of records to an extent that was unnecessary in the better documented eastern counties (see Table 3).
|Table 2. Start date of the 103 manor court roll series studied|
The 103 court roll series were worked through, in whole or (in a few cases) in part, and relevant entries were transcribed into database files. In some cases this work was done in the archive's searchroom, but wherever permitted we took digital images of the entire series of records. Some 6,200 digital images of manor court material were collected in this process. This material will continue to form a valuable research resource in the future, as the court rolls give scope for study of a wide range of topics besides litigation.
Many of the manor court roll series we worked on have not previously been subject to significant study. Examples are most numerous in the hitherto rather neglected western counties, such as the manors of the Hereford dean and chapter, especially Norton Canon, Preston-on-Wye, and Woolhope.
Table 3. 103 Manor court roll series studied, 'Private law' project
|County||Manor||Lord (church/lay)||Earliest surviving year||Latest surviving year (to 1350)||Archive (see below for key)||Photos taken? (P)/micro-film? (M)|
|13||Essex||Great Waltham/High Easter||L||1248||1349||TNA||P (part)|
|18||Lincs||Langtoft and Baston||C||1252||1342||LA||-|
|23||Norf||Bunwell (Hadeston)||L||1322||1350||CUL/NRO||P (part)|
|32||Norf||Horsham St Faith||C||1264||1346||NRO||M/P (part)|
|45||Suff||South Elmham (Flixton)||C||1271||1350||SRO(I)||M|
|49||Glos||Gloucester Abbey manors||C||1292||1293||GA||P|
|55||Glos||Winchcombe Abbey manors||C||1340||1341||GA||P|
|63||Heref||Hereford Cathedral minor manors1||C||1273||1350||HCLA/TNA/BODL||P/M|
|76||Shrops||Ellesmere St John||C||1349||1350||SA||P|
|78||Shrops||Ruyton XI Towns||L||1331||1350||SA||P (part)|
|79||Shrops||Wenlock Priory manors||C||1333||1345||SA||-|
|84||Staffs||Cannock & Rugeley||C||1309||1350||StRO||P|
|103||Worcs||Worcester Priory cellarers' manors||C||1314||1350||WCL||P|
Key to archives: Bacon: University of Chicago Library, Bacon Collection; BCA: Birmingham City Archives; BerkCas: Berkeley Castle Muniments; BL: London, British Library; BODL: Oxford, Bodleian Library; CCCA: Cambridge, Corpus Christi College Archives; CA: Cambridge, Cambridgeshire Archives; CUL: Cambridge University Library; ERO: Chelmsford, Essex Record Office; GA: Gloucester, Gloucestershire Archives; HCLA: Hereford Cathedral Library and Archives; HRO: Hereford, Herefordshire Record Office; KCA: Cambridge, King's College Archive Centre; LA: Lincoln, Lincolnshire Archives; LMA: London Metropolitan Archives; NRO: Norwich, Norfolk Record Office; SA: Shrewsbury, Shropshire Archives ; SRO(B): Suffolk Record Office, Bury St Edmunds Branch; SRO(I): Suffolk Record Office, Ipswich Branch; StRO: Stafford, Staffordshire Record Office; StRO (Lich): Staffordshire Record Office, Lichfield Branch; TCA: Cambridge, Trinity College Archives; TNA: London, The National Archives; WAM: London, Westminster Abbey Muniments; WCL: Worcester Cathedral Library; WRO: Worcester, Worcestershire Record Office. Between the earliest and latest dates given in the table, the surviving records rarely form an unbroken series, and not all surviving records are fit for production. M= project team has copy of microfilm.
The scope of the evidence
By looking at an example of a personal action, it is possible to provide a sense of the character of the litigation entries in the court rolls, and the nature of the questions one can ask about them. The image below shows an entry in the court rolls of the manor of Hadeston in the parish of Bunwell (Norfolk), which appears among the proceedings of a court held 25 July 1326. A transcription of the text appears below:
Norwich, Norfolk Record Office WLS XXIV/1. Image reproduced by permission of Norfolk Record Office.
Walterus Syryk attachiatus fuit ad respondendum Johanni Chapelelyn de placito convencionis unde queritur quod die iovis proxima ante festum Sancti Andree apostoli Anno regni Regis nunc xix in villa de Bonewelle idem Walterus Siryk vendidit predicto Johanni unam vaccam sub tali convencione quod predicta vacca vitulata fuit die vendicionis predicte cum tamen non fuit unde dicit quod dampnum habet ad valenciam dimidie marce & inde producit sectam etc.
Et Walterus venit & defendit etc. & dicit quod non vendidit eidem Johanni vaccam predictam sub convencione predicta & hoc petit quod inquiratur & Johannes similiter. Ideo preceptum est facere venire bonam inquisitionem etc.
English translation :
Walter Syryk was attached to respond to John Chapeleyn concerning a plea of covenant, whereof he complains that on Thursday next before the feast of St Andrew apostle in the 19th year of the present king [28 November 1325] in the vill of Bunwell, the same Walter Siryk sold to the aforesaid John one cow subject to a certain covenant, namely that the cow was with calf on the day of the aforesaid sale, when in fact this was not the case. Whereof John complains that he has suffered damages to the value of half a mark [6 shillings and 8 pence], and thereof he produces suit.
And Walter comes and defends and says that he did not sell the aforesaid cow to the same John under the aforesaid agreement, and he asks that the matter be inquired, and John similarly. Therefore cause a good inquest to come, etc.
Although it may seem short and laconic, this entry is in fact a relatively full and informative manorial litigation entry. Many others are shorter than this and provide less detail. The sample entry indicates the type of disputed contract with which these courts were prepared to concern themselves, since it seems to refer to an oral agreement of which there was no written record. There may have been witnesses to the disputed transaction, however. The phrase 'he produces suit' for example, may refer to the plaintiff's production of supporting witnesses, and it is possible that the inquest jury would base its decision on the testimony of witnesses.
The case also suggests that manorial litigants, or the scribes who wrote up the court rolls, made clear distinctions between lawsuits depending on the nature of the complaint and the remedy sought. In this case, a claim of a broken contract in which damages are sought is termed a 'plea of covenant'. If the plaintiff had been seeking the payment of an outstanding debt, or the return of a loaned object, such cases would normally have been described in the roll as a 'plea of debt' and 'plea of detinue', respectively. An allegation of forcible wrong in which damages were sought was typically a 'plea of trespass'.
Finally, this summary entry gives us some hint of what was spoken in court by the parties, and the rules they may have had to follow when speaking. In particular, the inclusion of the place and date on which the disputed transaction supposedly took place suggests that these were important elements of the plaintiff's complaint, or 'count'. As far as we can tell the parties acted without legal representation. Positive evidence of the involvement of lawyers in this type of action is very rare in the cases we have looked at.
We do not know how the above case ended, as the jury verdict has not been traced in the surviving court rolls. Fortunately, in many other cases the verdict of the manorial trial jury does survive. Brief and enigmatic as they are, such verdicts can sometimes provide very useful hints of the legal thinking going on in these jurisdictions.
The main published output from the project is a volume entitled Select cases in manorial courts c.1250-c.1350: debt, detinue, and covenant. This volume will contain the texts of a selection of the most interesting and informative cases from the 103 court roll series, both in their original Latin and with English translation (parallel text). The texts are preceded by and analysed in a lengthy introduction, co-authored by Briggs and Schofield. The volume is scheduled to appear in the series of annual volumes issued by the Selden Society, the society for the study of English legal history.
The volume's basic aim is to examine the successive stages through which a manorial personal action could pass, from its initiation to the enforcement of a court judgement. Different courts handled these steps in different ways, and we illustrate this variety using the wealth of examples collected in our archival work. Alongside this focus on reconstructing procedure, the volume's other main concern is to ask how far there was a clearly understood and uniform 'law of contract' observed in the manor courts. The primary texts are arranged into four sections, according to the stage of process with which the entry is concerned. These sections are 'Preliminary Process', 'Pleadings', 'Enforcement process', and 'Non-Litigious Entries'. The volume's introduction comprises the following sections: 1. Personal actions in manor courts; 2. Procedure and Substantive Law; 3. Limits to Manorial Jurisdiction over Debt and Covenant; 4. Forms of Action; 5. Plaint Initiation; 6. Summons, Attachment, and Distraint; 7. Jury Trial; 8. Compurgation; 9. Pleading and Proof; 10. Essoins and Lovedays; 11. Other Modes of Termination; 12. Recognizances and Recoveries; 13. Enforcement; 14. Damages; 15. Security for Debts;16. Post-mortem Debts; 17. Presentment Procedure and Debt; 18. Coverture; 19. Stewards and Attornies; and 20. The Law of Obligations.
The cases discussed in this volume reveal ordinary medieval people, female as well as male, engaging directly with the law, normally (as far as one can tell) without the aid of professional lawyers. Many litigants display a high level of legal knowledge and skill. Scholars were already aware of this, but we have produced telling new evidence. Confident lay engagement with the law is seen, for instance, in an argument between Henry Hugging and Agnes Atwood at Longdon (Staffs) in 1328 on the question of whether more than one essoin (excuse for non-attendance) was allowed in a plea of 'taking and detaining animals' (or 'replevin', a special type of personal action); and in a January 1348 plea of debt at Halesowen (Worcestershire) against John Henrys, who was accused of making an illegal default of court at a hearing the previous December, but responded that the truth was he had not been summonsed correctly.
In addition to the Select Cases volume, the project team is working on two other main outputs in article form. The first provides an overview of chronological and regional patterns in the litigation processes of individual manor courts, and possible explanations for these patterns. We restrict the analysis to key features of curial process and their incidence over time. For example, we focus on the tendency among courts to differentiate civil suits by plea type (plea of debt, plea of trespass etc.), and on the extent to which different courts adopted trial by jury, as opposed to trial by wager of law (involving compurgation, or oath-swearing), or a combination of the two. We look at the possibility that locality or type of lordship systematically affected the rate of legal development of individual courts. In a second article we seek to reconstruct procedure and law in manorial actions of trespass. A preliminary sketch of the issues involved here has already been published by Schofield (see bibliography, below).
As explained above, the project's main aim is to use a wide selection of manor court lawsuits to reconstruct comprehensively the laws and procedures observed by these courts with respect to the personal actions. Yet it is not surprising that this work has raised related questions, which we have begun to examine and will look at further via future projects. For instance, as part of our investigation into the communication of legal principles among individual manor courts, and of the role of legal professionals in these tribunals, we have begun to study a group of contemporary treatises that functioned as 'handbooks' on pleading in manorial and other local courts. These texts in law French have received some attention in the past, but there is much more to be done in determining the relationship between the various versions, their intended audience, the context of their composition. The treatises on pleading seem to have been intended mainly to guide those actually conducting pleading (i.e. lawyers), rather than the stewards who presided over the manor courts. Where the extent of participation by trained legal counsel in manor courts is concerned, therefore, the evidence of actual lawsuits drawn from the court rolls and that from the treatises on pleading seems to be rather contradictory. More work is required to resolve this.
Understanding the legal mechanisms through which contracts were enforced at a local level in medieval England naturally invites comparisons with comparable mechanisms used in other regions of contemporary Europe. To this, we have begun to collaborate with scholars working on medieval rural contracts, law courts, and registration systems in France, the Netherlands, Catalonia, and Poland. As part of this we organized three interlinked sessions at the 'Rural History 2010' international conference held in Brighton, UK in September 2010 under the title 'Law courts and contracts in the European countryside c.1300-c.1860'. A resulting collection of essays on the period 1200-1600 is currently in preparation, one aim of which is to set the findings from our AHRC project into their wider European context.
Presentations on the project given to date
|2007||'Trespass litigation in manorial courts' (Phillipp Schofield'||British Agricultural History Society spring conference, Hereford|
|2007||'Medieval English peasants and the law' (Phillipp Schofield)||École Normale Superieure, Paris|
|2007||'Women, debt and the law of manor courts to 1350' (Chris Briggs)||Economic History Society Annual Conference, University of Exeter, UK|
|2008||'Private law and medieval village society' (Chris Briggs)||Historical Economics Forum, Queen's University Belfast, UK|
|2008||'Medieval English peasants and the law' (Phillipp Schofield)||Huntington Library, Pasadena, USA|
|2009||'Peasants and the use of law in medieval England' (Phillipp Schofield)||Seminar paper, Sorbonne, Paris|
|2009||'Necessary fictions: trespass litigation in manorial courts' (Phillipp Schofield)||Conference on 'Texte and contexte', Paris|
|2010||'Villagers, violence, and the transformation of the English manor court at the end of the thirteenth century' (Chris Briggs)||Leeds International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, UK|
|2010||'Courts, contracts, and rural society in medieval Europe: an overview' (Chris Briggs)||'Rural History 2010' conference, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK|
|2010||'Peasants and litigation in the manor court' (Phillipp Schofield)||'Rural History 2010' conference, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK|
Contact the project team
For further information about the project, please contact Dr Chris Briggs (email@example.com). We are willing to share many of the materials generated by the project with those interested in using them for private research. For most of the 103 court roll series worked on we have compiled files giving details on the manor, its lord, the extent of the records, and some indication of their overall content.
- Bailey, M., ed., The English manor c.1250-c.1500 (Manchester, 2002).
- Beckerman, J.S., 'The forty-shilling jurisdictional limit in medieval English personal actions', in D. Jenkins (ed.), Legal History Studies 1972 (Cardiff, 1975)
- Beckerman, J.S., 'Procedural innovation and institutional change in medieval English manorial courts', Law and History Review, 10 (1992)
- Beckerman, J.S., 'Law-Writing and Law Teaching: Treatise Evidence of the Formal Teaching of English Law in the Late Thirteenth Century', in Learning the Law. Teaching and the Transmission of Law in England 1150-1900, ed. Jonathan A. Bush and Alain Wijffels (London, 1999)
- Briggs, C., 'Manor court procedures, debt litigation levels, and rural credit provision in England, c.1290-c.1380', Law and History Review, 24 (2006)
- Harvey, P.D.A., Manorial Records (British Records Association, rev. ed. 1999)
- Harvey, P.D.A., ed., The Peasant Land Market in Medieval England (Oxford, 1984)
- Helmholz, R.H., 'Independence and uniformity in England's manorial courts', in L. Bonfield (ed.), Seigneurial Jurisdiction (Comparative Studies in Continental and Anglo-American Legal History 21, Berlin, 2000)
- Ibbetson, D., A Historical Introduction to the Law of Obligations (Oxford, 1999)
- Poos, L.R., and Bonfield, L., eds., Select cases in manorial courts 1250-1550. Property and family law (Selden Society, vol. 114, London, 1998)
- Razi, Z., and Smith, R. (eds.), Medieval Society and the Manor Court (Oxford, 1996)
- Schofield, P.R., 'Trespass litigation in the manor court in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries', in R. Goddard, J. Langdon, and M. Müller, eds., Survival and Discord in Medieval Society. Essays in Honour of Christopher Dyer (Turnhout, 2010)
- Schofield, P.R., 'Peasant debt in English manorial courts: form and nature', in J. Claustre (ed.), La dette et le juge. Juridiction gracieuse et juridiction contentieuse du xiiie au xve siècle (France, Italie, Espagne, Angleterre, Empire) (Publications de la Sorbonne, Paris, 2006)
- Schofield, P.R., 'Die Kreditvergabe im englischen manor court 1250-1350. Formen und Funktionen', in G. Clemens (ed.), Schuldenlast und Schuldenwert: Kreditnetzwerke in der europäischen Geschichte 1300-1900 (Trierer Historische Forschungen, 2009)
- Smith, R.M., 'Some thoughts on "hereditary" and "proprietary" rights in land under customary law in thirteenth and early fourteenth century England', Law and History Review, 1 (1983)
- Smith, R.M., 'The English peasantry, 1250-1650', in T. Scott (ed.), The peasantries of Europe from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries (London and New York, 1998)