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Male occupations in common pleas

Male occupations in common pleas

In fifteenth and sixteenth century England, there were two central courts: Common Pleas and the King's Bench. They sat during the four terms of each year (Michaelmas, Hilary, Easter and Trinity) with the Court of Common Pleas being located in Westminster Hall for most of the time. Common Pleas had exclusive jurisdiction over rights of ownership, debt, and eviction whilst it shared jurisdiction over trespass and other breaches of statute with the King's Bench.1 The proceedings of both courts were recorded by officials in medieval Latin and these documents are held in The National Archives at Kew.2

The Court of Common Pleas differed from local courts in several ways. For instance, Common Pleas were heard only in cases for which the damages sought exceeded 40 shillings. Pleas involving a smaller sum of money were stayed and referred to another court.3 In borough courts, custom or royal charter limited disputes to an upper limit, usually between £10 and £40, before the case was referred to Westminster. In manor courts, the upper limit was 40 shillings. In borough courts at least one litigant had to be registered in the place where the case was heard. In manor courts, both litigants were required to be tenants of the manor, whereas in Common Pleas the litigants frequently lived in different counties.4

Forty shillings was a considerable amount of money. To provide some perspective, a mason or carpenter earned around 5-6d per day at this time and would need to work for more than three months to earn 40 shillings. Consequently, Common Pleas might be expected to have an in-built bias with the poor heavily under-represented - either because they were not worth suing or because they could not afford to use the court to prosecute.5 However, the occupational spread of defendants, notably in cases of trespass, suggests that the poor were, in fact, well represented as defendants. Whilst there may have been no prospect of collecting damages of 40 shillings or more from labourers and other relatively poor people, the initiation of a legal action may have been a very effective way of putting pressure on defendants to reach a settlement outside court. The vast majority of cases never came to court, suggesting that this may have been the case.

It was usual in the Court of Common Pleas for the occupation and place of residence of the plaintiff to be unrecorded, but from 1413 onwards, as a consequence of the Statute of Additions, both pieces of information were provided for virtually all defendants. Therefore, as most cases involved multiple defendants, Common Pleas are an exceptionally rich, early and nationwide source of male occupational data by place.

A project led by Robert Palmer in the USA has photographed the Common Pleas records held at The National Archives and made them available online at the Anglo American Legal Tradition (AALT) website through the University of Houston O'Quinn Law Library.6 In addition, the project has translated into English, tabulated and placed online the records of sixty-five terms from 1377 to 1554. Many more pleas are available for tabulation, but Palmer's work alone has made available a dataset containing millions of occupations. To date, with the notable exceptions of Palmer's analysis of litigation, 1200-1526, and Nick Amor's study of the early English textile industry, the AALT data have been little used by economic historians.7 Consequently, they constitute a vast, largely untapped resource. Led by Leigh Shaw-Taylor, three Campop researchers - Keith Sugden, Anthony Cockerill and Gill Newton - are building upon this early work. Using the AALT dataset, a comprehensive database containing the occupation and location of Common Pleas defendants, 1418-1554 has been constructed.

Campop has taken the lead from Nick Amor's study to further explore the location and spatial concentration of the English textile industry, 1483-1524. We have analysed 57,855 pleas, of which 69 per cent were for debt and 20 per cent for trespass, the latter including several types of misdemeanour, such as assault, theft, infringement of the Statute of Labourers, and forgery.8 With some exceptions, all pleas involve adult men. Few females are recorded; those which are recorded often have an occupation such as Abbess or Prioress.

Table 1 shows the importance of distinguishing between the type of plea. Husbandmen, yeomen and labourers, most of the latter would have been agricultural, were more likely to be involved in cases of trespass than they were in debt. Conversely, merchant, mercers and chapman, that is occupations involving trade, were more frequency involved in debt.

Comparison between different types of common pleas

Table 1. Shares of selected occupations by type of plea, 1483-1524.
Source: University of Houston

Figure 1 shows the location of defendants who worked in the textile manufacture.9 The data are expressed as a percentage of those in the textile industry in each county, and show differences in location between the two types of plea. These data take no account, however, of the different populations of each county and as such, do not necessarily show the comparative importance of textiles in each. To determine that, we estimate by county the actual number of men in the industry. This is done using E. A. Wrigley's county population data for 1600, and Wrigley and R. S. Schofield's determination that 23 per cent of the population were males aged 20 years and over.10 Although the resultant estimation is imperfect, it does indicate that the leading counties identified in pleas for debt are the same as those identified by trespass. Collectively, the same leading ten counties account for 75 per cent of textile workers pleading debt and 70 per cent pleading trespass. Clearly, by 1500, three leading textile regions had been established, in East Anglia, in Yorkshire, and in the West Country including Hampshire. Work is ongoing to extend this analysis to the full range of dates spanned by the translated AALT data.

Location of male defendants working in textile manufactures from common pleas data

Figure 1. The location of male defendants working in textile manufacture, pleas for debt and trespass, 1483-1524
(expressed as the percentage of those employed in textile manufacture in each county)

Source: University of Houston

Tony Cockerill has compared and combined the Common Pleas data for 1418 and 1422 and then profiled the occupational structure of England in those years based on both pleas of debt and pleas of trespass. These results are being compared with those of Richard Smith based on the Poll Tax returns of 1381, which systematically recorded the occupation of adult male taxpayers. It seems likely that this analysis will provide the most accurate picture yet of the male occupational structure around the turn of the fourteenth century. In 2018, Tony will use Campop's Common Pleas database to make two further comparative studies. Common Pleas occupational structure profiles for 1521 & 1523 and then 1546 & 1554 will be compared with profiles derived from the 1522 Muster Rolls and from mid-sixteenth century Coroners' Inquest data respectively. Through these analyses, we hope to improve our understanding of the male, English workforce at the end of the medieval period and the start of the Early Modern period as well as track more accurately the changing relative importance of the English economy's primary, secondary and tertiary sectors over time.

1 Hastings, Margaret, The Court of Common Pleas in fifteenth century England. A study of legal administration and procedure (Ithaca, 1947).

2 Records of the Court of Common Pleas and other courts, 1194-1875,, (accessed in February 2017).

3 William Tidd, The practice of the Courts of King's Bench and Common Pleas, vol. I (Seventh edition, London, 1821), 537. Henry Blackstone, Reports of cases argued and determined in the Courts of Common Pleas and Exchequer Chamber, 1788-1796 (Fifth edition, London, 1837), 29.

4 C. W. Brooks, Pettyfoggers and vipers of the Commonwealth: The lower branch of the legal profession in early modern England (paperback edition, Cambridge, 2004), 73-4.

5 Brooks, Pettyfoggers, 74.

6 Transcriptions of the Court of Common Pleas, 1381-1554, University of Houston Law Centre, O'Quin Law Library, available at, (accessed in February 2017).

7 Robert C. Palmer, 'England, Law, Society and the State in S. H. Rigby ed. A Companion to Britain in the later Middle Ages (Chichester, 2009), 242-60, 257; Nicholas R. Amor, From wool to cloth. The triumph of the Suffolk clothier (Bungay, 2016).

8 We estimate that these 57,855 pleas are an 8 per cent sample of the total number of available. Others have estimated that between 70 and 80 per cent of pleas involved debt. Besides debt and trespass, there were other pleas for detinue. Brooks, Pettyfoggers, 68-9. Amor, Wool, 9.

9 Textile occupations included clothiers, weavers, cloth makers, fullers, dyers wool men, shearmen

10 E. A. Wrigley, The early English censuses (Oxford, 2011), Table 4.1. E. A. Wrigley, R. S, Davies, J. E. Oeppen and R. S. Schofield, English population history from family reconstitution 1580-1837 (Cambridge, 2005), 42-50.