Following on from last week’s post about outlaws, I thought I ought to find out about the legal system and the courts in the fourteenth century. If the outlaws in my novel are to be brought to justice, I should understand how that might happen. Somewhat predictably, this is rather complicated, so I’m going to tackle it in a piecemeal fashion over a few posts.
The tithing was the smallest and lowest unit of law enforcement in England. Every boy or man over 12 was supposed to be in a tithing. This was a group of 10 men, sometimes more, sometimes less. Together they were responsible for producing one of their number in court if required. If they could not produce him, they were fined and the person they were supposed to bring to court would be outlawed.
Although this was supposed to apply to all men whether free or not, many groups were exempted: magnates, knights (and their kinsmen) and clerics. People who were in a household were also excluded. This would cover servants in a smaller household and soldiers as well as servants in a larger one. The head of the household was responsible for making sure anyone in it appeared in court if they were accused of a crime. The head of the household was not considered to be responsible for the crime, only for getting the accused to court.
Women were exempt because they were the responsibility of the head of the household of which they were a part: father, husband, brother, son or another male relative.
The system of tithings was known as frankpledge and had come down from the Anglo-Saxons.
The number of men in a tithing was usually related to location. If there were only 8 eligible men in a village, there would be 8. If there were 15, there would be 15. In towns all the men in one street might be in a single tithing.
The tithing was meant to be a self-policing group. Another of their responsibilities was to report crimes. If they did not, they were all fined. When a boy joined the tithing at 12 he had to take an oath to observe and uphold the law.
The leet court, the lowest of England’s courts, ensured that everyone who should be in a tithing was in one by checking once or twice a year. The members of the tithing had to pay for this inspection.
As with many other things, the tithing became less important in the time of social change after the Black Death and continued to decline thereafter.
You can probably see that the system was open to abuse. The tithing was responsible both for reporting the crime and for handing over the accused for justice. It would be a very easy matter to punish one of their number who was unpopular.
The tithing had a number of duties:
- to ensure their members attended court as required;
- to offer testimonies;
- to hand over the belongings of fugitives to the crown;
- to pursue and capture the suspects when a crime was committed in the area covered by the tithing;
- to send representatives to the hundred court;
- to present all crimes (including murder, assault, poaching, theft, breaches of the peace, trading offences, counterfeiting and obstructing the king’s highway) in their area to the hundred court. Minor offences were dealt with elsewhere.
Each tithing had its chief tithing-man, sometimes known as the capital pledge. He was supposed to make sure that all the men eligible to be in his tithing were in it and that they observed the law.
In my novel it would be the duty of the tithing to report the crimes of the outlaws. As we saw last week, outlaws were good at terrorising those who would bring them to justice. They also tended to be led by minor aristocrats, whilst the members of tithings were more likely to be villeins or at the lower end of society. It would take a very brave villein to accuse an aristocrat of a crime, especially when he had many heavily-armed friends.