Medieval Lawyers


We’ve encountered medieval lawyers before. They drew up indentures between soldiers and their commanders when they went to war. The lawyer retained part of the contract so that there was a way for each of the parties to prove they had the correct document.

They could also draw up contracts between brothers-in-arms, setting out how they would share any booty they took and what would happen if one of them were captured while they were fighting.

Lawyers wrote contracts between men who were captured and their captors, setting out the terms for their release and the ransom to be paid.

Wills were also the province of lawyers, as they are today.

Mercenary companies often had their own lawyers with them to draw up contracts with their employers.

Sometimes there were written contracts between the father of a bride and her suitor showing what they had agreed with regard to her dowry and how the husband was going to provide for her in the case of his death.

Dukes and earls had lawyers in their households. One of their purposes was to draw up contracts with between the noble and members of his household. Just as the dukes and earls had contracts with the soldiers who served them in war, so they had contracts with the men who served them in peace.

Lawyers had become more important during the thirteenth century. Property laws became more complicated over the course of the following century and people needed more help with their wills and with challenging the claims of others to what they considered to be their property.

As is often the case today, lawyers were wealthy and were resented by those who had to pay vast sums for their services. A good lawyer could earn upwards of £10 a year and, by the fifteenth century, entering the legal profession was a good way for men of lowly origins to rise in society. With their contractual work relating to marriage contracts and property sales, many were in a good position to know which women locally had good dowries and which properties they could afford to buy. Using this information, they were sometimes able to marry well and to purchase a property which they might not otherwise have known they could afford.

Most people of wealth and property had a good working knowledge of the law. The fourteenth century was a very litigious period and people would take to the courts in order to resolve the smallest of issues.

Although recourse to the law wasn’t cheap, or necessarily quick,  even villeins and others on the lowest rung of the social ladder could take their disputes to a court for resolution. Whole villages could, and did, sue their landlord if they thought there was no legal justification for a change he made which disadvantaged them.

I have to confess that there were various kinds of lawyers and I can’t really differentiate between all of them yet. There were justices of the central courts, serjeants-at-law, apprentices at law, attorneys, solicitors and clerks in the various courts.

Amongst the many things I’ve learned which will be useful for the novel that started this particular piece of research, is that by the fifteenth century scriveners were acting, in some, cases like paralegals today. My scrivener is not an ambitious man, but I have a feeling that his legal knowledge will help him to rise in society.


England in the Reign of Edward III – Scott L. Waugh

A Social History of England 1200 – 1500 – ed. Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England – Ian Mortimer


Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Crime and Law

19 responses to “Medieval Lawyers

  1. rachaelstray

    Another fascinating insight. I’m really looking forward to reading this book!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Fascinating. I enjoyed this. I love historical facts and am a bit fixated on the Tudors Jill

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I always like your posts April; so informative. Do you have any evidence of lawyers becoming rich? And you mention whole villages taking their issues to a lawyer: but would a poor agricultural labourer be able to afford one, do you think?

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks, Denzil. The book which mentioned social climbing lawyers gave three men as examples, but if they were earning £10 a year and more, they weren’t going to be poor.

      I think the villeins could only afford to sue their landlord if they did it together, but some villeins were quite well off and could probably afford the expenses involved in taking a case to court with legal help.

      All villeins had access to their manorial court and could take a complaint there for a moderate fee. Nothing I’ve read indicates that they would use a lawyer in that instance, though.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. It’s interesting to find that they weren’t well liked even them.

    I wonder how many people could read those contracts.

    Great info, as always. Thanks.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks, Dan. I wrote that a bit with my tongue in my cheek, as I spent most of my career working closely with lawyers and liked most of them.

      The question about reading is interesting. More people could read than we woudl usually think, but the numbers were low.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. josypheen

    Wow Rachel! I had no idea that lawyers had such a long history, or that medieval people were so litigious!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Interesting to know that lawsuits an age-old tradition!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. lydiaschoch

    I had the same reaction, Dan. It sounds like people have disliked lawyers for about a long as lawyers have existed!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Fascinating, April – as always! If you need more information, you might try contacting one of the Inns of Court. I once did some work for Middle Temple (and keep meaning to re-hash an article I wrote about the place) – but they are justifiably proud of their history and might offer some interesting insights. They probably have an archivist too – certainly, they have an extensive library.

    Liked by 2 people

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