There’s one last group of courts for us to look at to conclude this series on law-keeping in the fourteenth century. These are the church, or ecclesiastical, courts. They were a cause of bad feeling between many monarchs and archbishops of Canterbury. The kings felt that the church courts encroached too much into non-church matters, while the church wanted to spread their influence over the lives of ordinary parishioners.
The church had the right to try clerics in their own courts. They were governed by canon law, not the law of the kingdom. Each diocese had two main kinds of court: the consistory, which covered the whole diocese and was presided over by the bishop, and the archdeaconry court, which only covered an archdeaconry and was presided over by the archdeacon.
As well as trying clerics, the courts also covered lay people where the issue between them was a moral one. You could be taken to these courts if you were a drunkard, swore, slandered someone, beat your wife, traded on a Sunday, expressed heretical views, perjured yourself, ate meat on a fasting day, attacked a cleric, didn’t pay your tithes to the church, gambled during mass, lent money at interest, wanted to dissolve your marriage because of consanguinity or non-consummation, or had a case against a cleric. The courts also dealt with some issues relating to wills. These were all considered to be moral issues, or issues affecting the church or bringing it into disrepute.
Moral disputes mostly related to sex. Fornication, bigamy, adultery, bastardy, homosexuality, prostitution and incest were all within the province of the ecclesiastical courts.
For many, being tried in a church court was preferable to being tried in any of the other courts, especially for murder, since the church courts could not order capital punishment. It is said that people who were not clergy claimed that they were in order to be tried in a church court and avoid the possibility of being hanged or beheaded. This has always seemed odd to me, since I thought it unlikely that those in charge of the court would not have the means of finding out whether or not the accused person really was a cleric. I have since learned that the number of men in the church was vast. As well as monks and parish priests there were also chaplains and chantry priests scattered about the country. It’s been estimated that two percent or more of the male population was a cleric.
A man could “prove” that he was a cleric by reading a text from the Bible, which was not such an easy test as you might think. The literacy rate was low, but it was higher than two percent.
Whilst the church courts did not have the death penalty, they did have some imaginative punishments. They issued fines or ordered the guilty party to be whipped. Most of the punishments were carried out in public. Sometimes it was to make an offering in church in front of the whole of the parish, or to stand in a white sheet by the door of the church, being passed by other parishioners as they went in and out of the church to mass. The ultimate punishment, of course, was excommunication.
The highest church court was the Convocation where the worst crimes committed by clerics were tried. For a cleric, the worst punishment was usually being defrocked.
The Time Traveler’s Guide to the Fourteenth Century by Ian Mortimer
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
A Social History of England 1200-1500 edited by Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod