Popular Medieval Saints


I’ve just finished reading Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies. Written in the first few years of the fifteenth century, its purpose was to refute various claims about the weaknesses and unreliability of women. De Pizan was the first woman known to make her living from writing and she made her case by telling the stories of remarkable women from the Bible, Greek and Roman myths, and antiquity, as well as from the first centuries of Christianity. The final section of the book concentrates on women martyred for their faith. The notes at the back of the book state that the examples chosen were popular saints in the Middle Ages and I wondered what might make one saint more popular than others.

The most popular saints were men – St Peter, St Paul, the Evangelists and St Stephen. These were men who were either with Jesus or who were important in the early years of Christianity. Since they don’t serve de Pizan’s purpose, she ignores them and chooses women. These women were martyrs, thus she ignores St Mary Magdalene, who was not only with Jesus but was also supposed to have died in France.

Like the majority of the early saints, these women have gruesome stories. De Pizan’s first three are St Catherine of Alexandria, St Margaret of Antioch and St Lucy of Rome,

St Catherine was a fourth-century martyr. According to de Pizan she was the daughter of the king of Alexandria and she inherited everything when her father died. Instead of marrying, she preferred to dedicate herself to God and remain a virgin. She was well-educated and, when Emperor Maxentius arrived to carry out an important sacrifice to pagan gods, she went to tell him the error of his ways. He sent for fifty Egyptian wise men, but they thought that convincing a mere woman that she was wrong was a waste of their time. She converted them, however, and the emperor had them killed. A sexual element enters the story now, but the emperor, despite his desire for her, had Catherine tortured and starved. This didn’t work and he had her ground between two wheels studded with sharp blades, which broke. Seeing this, emperor’s wife converted, so the emperor had her killed, which caused many more people to convert. Somewhat bizarrely, the emperor proposed marriage to Catherine. Since Catherine had dedicated her virginity to God, she refused and he had her beheaded. When she was killed milk flowed from her wounds instead of blood.

I’m not sure how the torture of St Catherine of Alexandria on a wheel led to the creation of the Catherine wheel, a popular firework for Guy Fawkes when I was a child, but it did. If you don’t know what a Catherine wheel looks like, here’s a video.

The cult of St Catherine sprang up suddenly in the 9th century and there was no mention of her in earlier stories of martyrs. This doesn’t necessarily mean that she didn’t exist, just that no early record of her has been found. She was a useful saint to have on your side since she was a bride of Christ, she was clever enough to beat the Egyptian wise men and she was considered to be the protector of the dying. She was the patron saint of young girls, students (including the clergy), nurses and craftsmen. She was popular in England and thirty-six wall paintings of her are still in existence.

St Margaret was another beautiful virgin from a well-off family, this time in Antioch. She caught the eye of Olybrius, the local prefect. She turned down his advances and he imprisoned her. When this didn’t work, he had her tortured and the instruments of torture were miraculously destroyed. This caused those who saw it to convert to Christianity. Olybrius had Margaret beheaded.

St Margaret probably did not exist and a declaration to that effect was made by the church towards the end of the fifth century. She was, however, very popular in England as well as in other parts of Europe. Her popularity arose from her promises that anyone reading her story would receive a crown in heaven; those who called on her name on their death-bed would have divine protection from devils; those who dedicated churches to her would receive anything they pray for that was useful; and pregnant women who asked for her help would be safe when they gave birth.

St Lucy of Rome was also a fourth-century virgin. She was kidnapped by a barbarian king, Aucejas. By preaching to him, she managed to convince him not to rape her. Due to her prayers, he was successful in everything he did for twenty years. God told her to go to Rome where she would be martyred. Aucejas went with her as Lucy’s servant. When she was about to be beheaded, Aucejas declared himself a Christian and died beside her.

St Lucy’s existence is so doubtful that she isn’t even mentioned in my dictionary of saints and all I can find online about her is the same story that de Pizan tells.

Like many of the women mentioned in de Pizan’s book, St Catherine, St Margaret and St Lucy provide examples of steadfastness. Despite torture and the threat of death they never waver from their paths.



The Book of the City of Ladies – Christine de Pizan

The Oxford Dictionary of Saints – David Hugh Farmer


April Munday is the author of several books set in the fourteenth century. Find out more here.



Filed under Fourteenth Century, The Medieval Church

Medieval Mystery Plays

Melford Hys Companie

Melford Hys Companie

After last week’s post about medieval dancing, there were some comments about miracle/mystery plays, so I thought we’d have a look at them.  They were medieval plays based on events from the Bible. They were usually performed at Corpus Christi or at Whitsun, both movable church feasts i.e. feasts which did not take place on the same date every year.

Corpus Christi is the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, which in turn is the first Sunday after Pentecost. Pentecost (Whitsun in England) is the seventh Sunday after Easter. For example, this year Easter is on 1st April, Pentecost is 20th May and Corpus Christi is 31st May. Easter is early this year. This will be important later.

Many towns had their cycles of mystery plays, but only those from Chester, York and Wakefield remain. There’s also a cycle from an unknown town.  A cycle of plays covered everything from Adam and Eve to the Last Judgement, with stops along the way.

The plays were performed in English by members of guilds (mysteries) as a way of showcasing their particular talents. Each guild performed a play relating to their guild. In York the Guild of Goldsmiths was responsible for the Coming of the Three Kings. In Chester it was the vintners who performed their version of the play. In York the Guild of Shipwrights put on the Building of the Ark. In Chester the Guild of Bakers presented the Betrayal of Christ. In York they were responsible for the Last Supplier

The plays were different in each town, although they were all based on Biblical stories. A few were based on the lives of saints.  In my paperback collection each play is about twelve pages long, which would take around half an hour to perform, depending on the complexity of the props and the accompanying music.

The plays were performed from the back of a wagon with two storeys. The bottom storey housed the props and the changing rooms. Curtains hid it from the audience. The top storey was the stage. This meant that the players were visible to their audience only when they performed. The wagon was pulled to various places within the town where the audience gathered to watch.

Although the plays were doubtless entertaining, that was not their main purpose. The audience saw great and meaningful events of the Bible acted out for them and became very involved in what was going on. We have moving and changing visual images thrust on us all the time on television, films and YouTube, but that was not the case in the Middle Ages. Interior walls were painted with pictures, but they remained the same until the building was redecorated. Statues were colourful and meaningful images, but they neither moved nor spoke. There were no theatres. The mystery plays literally brought the story of sin and salvation to life for them.

Some of the plays have very funny moments. The only one that I’m familiar with is Noah’s Flood, one of the Chester plays. It was used by Benjamin Britten to create a work in which schoolchildren can perform music with professionals. In the play Noah’s wife prefers to gossip and drink with her friends rather than help build the ark. They’re still gossiping when the flood arrives and she has to be forced into the ark by her sons.

The York plays are making a bit of a comeback and have been performed in York fairly regularly over the last twenty years.

Mystery plays were not the only form of acting that people could see. Morality plays were performed in Latin by clerks (men in minor orders). They had characters such as Ignorance, Humility and Covetousness. Performed in churches, they were obviously less accessible to ordinary people, but could still be entertaining. These were the precursors of the miracle plays, although they continued alongside them.

For sheer entertainment you would have to look at mummers’ plays, where the actors were disguised by masks. These were usually put on at Christmas or Easter. The plays were about a hero who had to fight evil.

Mummers still perform, usually in pubs at Christmas. I’ve seen a performance of St George and the Dragon. The most popular and the best-known of the plays, these days it’s an odd mix of the medieval, the Victorian and the modern. Father Christmas and a doctor in a top hat usually make an appearance, as well as St George, the dragon, a bishop, the king of Egypt, the king of Egypt’s daughter and a Turkish knight. There are examples on YouTube, but the quality of the audio is usually poor, as they’re either performed in front of a rowdy pub audience or outside in a howling gale.

There were secular plays as well, but only fragments of these have been found, whereas there are many examples of the miracle plays. The secular plays were probably performed by travelling musicians.

The plays used rhyme for the speeches. Since they also included music, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine some of the lines being sung.

At the beginning of the post I mentioned Corpus Christi. It was recognised as a feast day in 1311. The miracle plays became associated with this feast and with Whitsun. The Latin plays performed in churches could be put on all year round in accordance with the seasons, but the mystery plays were performed outdoors. If the performers were to have an audience they needed to perform when the weather was good, as it often is at the end of May and the beginning of June. Even when Easter is early, as it is this year, the plays were performed on the cusp of summer.



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

Everyman and Medieval Miracle Plays edited by A.C. Cawley


April Munday is the author of several books set in the fourteenth century. Find out more here.


Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Entertainment, Medieval Life

Medieval Dance

Medieval Dancers

As I was getting ready for my tap class this week (yes, I know), I was thinking about dancing in the Middle Ages.

Most villages didn’t have a space large enough for everyone to get together, except the churchyard, so that’s where they danced. There’s not a huge amount of information about these dances, since they were danced by people who, for the most part, couldn’t write. Besides, why would they describe something that everyone knew how to do?

One of the things that is known is that there was a carolling dance where everyone held hands in a circle around one person in the middle. You can see people holding hands to dance in the picture at the top of the post. The person in the middle sang the verses of the song and everyone in the circle sang the choruses while they stepped to the right or the left. Dances weren’t probably much more complicated than that, although there was probably stamping as well. Speed probably made it more exciting and amusing, when dancers bumped into one another.

The carols did not have the kind of lyrics that we’re familiar with these days. They tended to be very bawdy, which was one of the reasons why priests complained about the dances taking place in the churchyard.

Another reason why priests weren’t keen on dancing was because St Jerome said that women dancing were the swords of the devil.  They were thought to tempt men to fornication.

For the upper classes, dancing was something that they watched as well as did themselves. Dancers were professionals who could be retained by a lord for his household’s entertainment. Usually they had their own musicians and sometimes they were also jugglers and singers.

Some entertainers were not attached to a household, preferring to travel and take up casual employment, but this could be rather dangerous. There was always the chance that they could be arrested. Men without a lord were viewed with suspicion. For all the constables of the towns they passed through knew these men could be outlaws.

The upper classes danced a bit and it was one of their favourite occupations during tournaments. Sometimes they would dance in fancy dress, just as they would fight in the tournament dressed as cardinals or aldermen.

A few dance tunes have survived from the fourteenth century. Here are two Italian tunes which were paired together – a slow dance followed by a fast dance. They’re the Lamento di Tristano and La Rotta.


The Medieval World Complete – edited by Robert Bartlett

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

The Senses in Late Medieval England – C.M. Woolgar

Tournaments: Jousts, Chivalry and Pageants in the Middle Ages – Richard Barber and Juliet Barker


Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Life

The Templars: History and Myth – A Book Review


It’s been a while since I reviewed a book I’ve read about the Middle Ages, so I thought I’d have a look at a book I’ve just finished.  The Templars: History and Myth by Michael Haag was published in 2010. The Templars were dissolved at the beginning of the fourteenth century, so I didn’t really read the book with a view to learning anything that I could use in a story. Like almost everyone else, I’m fascinated by the story of the Templars and intrigued by the idea that a group of men held in such esteem across Europe for two centuries could fall so decisively and so suddenly.

The book begins with the building of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem from which the Templars took their name. It covers the early crusades and the creation of the Templars in 1119. After Jerusalem fell to the Crusaders in 1099, Christian pilgrims started travelling to worship there.  There were many thefts, rapes and murders before the Templars were formed to protect the pilgrims. They were created as an order of monks who were permitted to bear arms against the enemies of the church, and they also supported the Christian states in Outremer (as the region was known) in battles with the Muslims.

After the fall of the last Christian stronghold in Outremer in 1291, there seemed to be little reason for the Templars to continue. By then, however, they had become lenders to many of the kings across Europe. Their wealth brought about their downfall when Philippe IV of France thought it should be moved across Paris from their headquarters to his. The ensuing capture, torture and execution of most of the Templars in France mark the low point of his reign.

Haag sets out the history of the Templars very clearly, although it’s a fairly superficial history. This takes up only two-thirds of the book. The rest covers the mythology that rose up after the Templars were disbanded. Many of them seem to originate in the, surprisingly credulous, nineteenth century. There’s also a bit of a travelogue taking the reader to places where the Templars had bases. The final chapters look at books and films about the Templars, including one of my favourites, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The Holy Grail and the Turin Shroud also receive mentions.

The book is easy to read and there are no footnotes to interrupt the flow of the text. Although I prefer my reference books to have footnotes, I wasn’t particularly bothered that they were missing here.

It’s a very sensible book and not as sensational as I was expecting. I’ve read things about the Templars that have more to do with the authors’ imaginations than with any researched facts. As an introduction to the Templars I think it does rather well.

One of the interesting facts in the book is that some of the French Templars who survived got married so I might write a romance about a Templar after all.



Filed under Book Review

Writing the Middle Ages


I didn’t start this blog to write about writing, but I thought it might be interesting to discuss some of the difficulties of writing historical romances set in the Middle Ages when you want to get the details as accurate as possible.

One of the main problems is the ages of the protagonists. I have usually taken the easy way out and made them older than they would have been in the fourteenth century, although I’ve been vague about the heroine’s age in a couple of cases.

Most women of the class and status I write about would have been betrothed at a young age. Recently I read about a noblewoman who was betrothed at the age of three. Her husband was of a similar age. The marriage would not have been consummated until she was fourteen or fifteen, but that seems to be unacceptably young for the heroine of a romantic novel.

In order not to offend sensibilities my female protagonists tend to be in their late teens or early 20s and the males in their early to late 20s.

This is old for the Middle Ages. Many women had had two or more children by then. Edward III’s wife, Queen Philippa, was a few days short of 16 when she had her first child. I’ve just started reading a book by Christine de Pizan who was married at the age of 15 in 1379. By the time she was widowed ten years later she’d had three children.

When the heroines are older than they should be I have the problem of explaining why they’re not already married.

In a couple of the novels the heroine’s father has used her dowry for something else and she grows older without a husband. Two were betrothed before the start of the novels, but the betrothed husbands went off to fight for a couple of years. One of them was betrothed as a young teenager and more or less abandoned by her much older husband before the marriage could be consummated. The other was betrothed to a man she loved who died in France, allowing her to fall (gradually) in love with another man.

One of my heroines is a nun, removed from her convent just before she can take her vows, and one of them lives as a man. I’m not quite running out of ways to explain away the heroines’ single status when they’re past marriageable age, but it’s something to be considered with each novel.

With the men there is less of a problem. Unless they were the oldest son and going to inherit everything from their father, fourteenth-century men had to find some way of securing enough money to buy property so that they could marry. This would take time.



Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Life, Medieval Marriage, Writing

Church Courts


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


Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Crime and Law

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

Medieval Officers of the Law


Over the last few weeks we’ve looked at the various courts of fourteenth-century England. Today it’s the turn of the officials who ran the courts.

I’ve already written about the person who managed the manorial court. This was the manor’s reeve.

At the county, or shire, level the sheriff was responsible for the court, which was held once a month or so. He was the chief officer in a shire, or the shire reeve. The sheriff represented the crown and investigated crimes in his jurisdiction. He could also try minor offences. When someone was accused of a serious crime, he had to detain them until a judge visited the county. Sheriffs collected revenue, fines, and rents. They also executed writs, put together juries, guarded prisoners and presided over the county court. It was also the sheriff’s job to investigate things other than crimes and report back to the king.  They had military as well as legal responsibilities. They gathered men to fight in the king’s wars and kept them fed.

It won’t surprise you to learn that sheriffs could be bribed. They had great power and any threat they made to extort money could probably be carried out with impunity. Despite it being illegal, it wasn’t unknown for them to torture prisoners, and they could make money by threatening well-off prisoners with torture. Should someone escape from one of his prisons or if he caught someone committing a crime, the sheriff could behead them then and there, provided the coroner was present. He was a man greatly to be feared.

The bailiff was the chief officer of a hundred. He was subsidiary to the sheriff and he also represented the crown. Of the 628 hundreds in England, 358 were in the hands of lords of the manor. Usually they allowed sheriffs access to their courts, but they didn’t have to, and some of them did not. Many of these lords had the right to appoint coroners and hang criminals without reference to the sheriff.

Judges travelled out to local courts. This was supposed to be a way of decreasing corruption. As we saw in the post about outlaws, local courts could be swayed by fear and bribery. Since the judges, their wealth and their families were not located in the areas where they were administering justice, they were supposed to be ‘untouchable’. As we saw in the case of Sir Richard Willoughby, this was not necessarily the case.

The coroner was another court official. One of his duties was to make sure that goods and chattels belonging to an executed man or any fines taken in the hundred and county courts went to the king, and not to anyone else. Coroners held inquests on dead bodies. Much as today, it was their job to find out whether the person had been murdered, committed suicide, died naturally or by accident. They heard appeals and the confessions of outlaws. They recorded and reported burglaries, arson and homicides to the royal justices.

A town was a division of a hundred. It was usually part of a manor. The town constable was responsible for making the bailiff aware of crimes and bringing cases to the hundred court. The constable watched suspicious people and organised the pursuit of wrong-doers when the hue and cry was raised. This was a loud noise telling the people of a town or village that a burglary or murder had been committed. Everyone who heard it was supposed to leave what they were doing to view the scene of the crime and to pursue the criminal.

The chief tithing-man had to report to the manorial court or the constable, depending on where the tithing was.

In 1361 the position of justice of the peace was created. This was a local lord of the manor who held quarter sessions. The trials were before juries and the justices had the ability to give the death penalty. They gradually replaced sheriffs and hundred courts. Justices of the peace could punish rioters and people who broke the peace. They could arrest and imprison them or hold their goods and money against their continued good behaviour in the future. They could try people for certain crimes. The powers of the justices of the peace increased over the rest of the century. One of their later powers included supervising laws preventing workers from overcharging for their labour, which was a common occurrence after the Black Death.



A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases – Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams

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

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



Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Crime and Law

Medieval Courts of Law


The fourteenth century was a time of great change in legal proceedings in England and many things which had been important at the beginning of the century had ceased to apply by the end.

England was divided into various administrative units, of which the county was the most important. There were 39 counties (or shires) and 4 county boroughs (towns administered like counties). Below the county was the hundred, which originated as an Anglo-Saxon administrative district. There were 628 hundreds across the country and the number per county varied. Each county and hundred had their own court.

We looked at the manorial court last week. In summary, it dealt with local customs and disputes between tenants on the same manor, but there were obviously occasions when there would be a dispute with someone from another manor, or a different part of the country altogether. These disputes had to be taken to a different court.

Every manor and town had their own bylaws, but the king’s law was the common law which applied to everyone, in theory. Parliament often updated old laws and created new ones. Some of the laws created in the fourteenth century are still in force today.

A county was divided into hundreds, each of which had its own court.  The hundred court was held every three weeks. 12 freemen from across the hundred were called to make up a jury. The cases they were asked to attend included fights, fraud, disputes over small debts, and theft of household goods and animals. Most cases were dealt with by means of a fine. If you started a fight you could be fined between 6d and a shilling (12d).To put this in context, the daily wage for a skilled labourer was about 4d. If blood had been drawn in the fight the fine was over 2 shillings (24d).

The hundred court was the place to take complaints about freemen, as they were not covered by the manorial courts. Private hundred courts (i.e. those run by a lord of the manor) were court leets. These could cover a hundred or just a manor. The leet court could only issue fines. It dealt with breaches of the peace and administering the tithings within its area of jurisdiction.

Cases of murder, grievous assault, and rape were heard at the sheriff’s tourn, which was a special hundred court. The sheriff’s tourn usually took place around Easter and Michaelmas (29th September). This was the time when the sheriff appeared in the hundred court, hearing about cases that needed to go to the royal courts. He had to makes sure that all the accused were in custody. During the tourn the sheriff checked on the tithings and adjudicated minor issues. This was the place where the tithings could be fined for not reporting a crime by one of their number. The fines were huge. A tithing could be fined £10 and more. £10 was 2,400d. Even if there were 15 men in the tithing, £10 was almost an impossible sum to find between them. The villeins in a tithing were not skilled labourers and usually only made money by selling surplus crops that they had grown. Avoiding such a large fine was a great inducement to the tithing to hand over the man they thought was responsible for the crime, whether or not they wanted to protect him.

The next court was the county court. It was for small claims where the amount in dispute was less than £2. Preliminary hearings of cases going to the royal courts were held in the county court. This was the court which could declare men outlaws, if they were called and failed to appear four times. Once a man had been made an outlaw, he could be beheaded on sight. The county court also heard appeals and read out statutes, ordinances and proclamations from the king and parliament.

There were three royal courts: the Court of the Exchequer, the Court of the King’s Bench, and the Court of the Common Pleas. The first heard cases about financial arrangements with the Crown. The King’s Bench heard cases from lower courts and appeals. The Common Pleas was a court of appeal where people could sue one another for debt, theft and fraud.

Parliament was the highest court and it usually tried cases of high treason. The penalty for this was to be hanged, drawn and quartered. This meant that a man was stripped and hanged until he was near death. Then he was taken down, disembowelled and emasculated. Finally he was beheaded and hacked into four pieces. It was not a punishment which was used very often in the fourteenth century. Punishment of crimes was either hanging, if it was a capital crime, or a fine.

In addition to these courts, there were also ecclesiastical courts for clerics, which we’ll look at later. The king’s forests were also outside the common law. They were under forest law, which had its own set of officials and courts. The forests were not forests full of trees, but were the king’s hunting preserves, such as the New Forest in Hampshire. William the Conqueror had towns and villages removed across the country so that there were large areas across which he could hunt. These were maintained by later kings.



A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases – Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams

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

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


Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Crime and Law

Manorial Courts


This is an updated version of a post I wrote for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog. It appeared there on 8th December 2016.

The manorial courts were one step up in law enforcement from the tithings that we looked at last week. Each manor had a court and the court governed the lives of everyone who lived on the manor, even determining when they could plant and when they could harvest. It fined them if they allowed their animals to stray onto the lord’s demesne, and it was where they took their claims against one another to be judged.

The manor was made up of the lord’s demesne as well as the land that he leased to tenants. The demesne was the farm that the lord kept for his own benefit.  The people who worked the manor’s land were both freemen and serfs (cottagers, smallholders or villeins). The manorial court dealt with the serfs’ issues, while the freemen were able to go to other courts, which we’ll come to later.  It was also able to create new bylaws for the manor.

Some lords had more than one manor and could not look after all of them closely, or they were away at war or absent for some other reason. The manorial court was one of the ways in which the manor could be managed whether the lord was there or not. He had a steward, who looked after his interests in his absence, but it was the village officials (reeve, hayward and beadle amongst others) who made sure that things happened as they should.

The manorial court decided the land boundaries and the days on which animals could graze in the fields. The steward presided over the court, but the village elected the officials from among themselves. The steward could not tell the court what to do and the court could appeal to the lord if necessary. Usually the business transacted by the court had no direct reference to the lord’s own affairs since it dealt with village problems such as loans not being repaid; men not turning out to work on the lord’s demesne; theft; the erection of a fence in the wrong place; or one villager injuring another.

The court was run by the rich villeins who provided the jurors and officials. The court was supposed to meet every three weeks, but some met less often. All the serfs in the village had to attend. Those who did not were fined. The court was often held in the nave of the church, the part that ‘belonged’ to the village. There were not many places in the village large enough to hold the court and many were simply held in the open air, often in the churchyard. Some manorial courts met in the hall of the manor house itself.

The jurors pronounced judgement on their fellow villagers (and occasionally on the lord) and this was sometimes put to the rest of the village as well for their assent. When making a judgement they had to take into account what they knew of the law, the customs of the manor and the manor’s bylaws. All the jurors and everyone else in the court knew both parties in every case that was brought before them, which was supposed to make it easier to come to a correct judgement. The system of justice was mostly based on the way in which society worked. People lived in small communities where everyone knew everyone else’s business and character. If you, as a villein, were asked whether your neighbour, Peter, had stolen from another neighbour, John, you would know the characters of both men and could assess whether John was making a false claim against Peter or whether Peter was a known thief. You did not have to have seen the (alleged) crime take place in order to be able to work out what had happened, nor did you need any evidence.

Villagers had to pay a fee to the lord get their case heard. The lord of the manor benefited from any fines issued by the court and the court was often the source of a large part of the lord’s income. The manorial court also required payments to the lord on all kinds of occasions – death, inheritance and marriage all had their appropriate fee. When these things happened part of the lord’s land was transferred from one person to another and the fee was to obtain the lord’s permission for that transfer. The court could generate a lot of income for the lord, and fines and fees tended to increase after the Black Death when there were fewer tenants to pay rents. The steward’s clerk recorded the cases and any fines or fees. As well as fines which went into the lord’s coffers, the court could also award damages to be paid by the guilty party in a case to the injured party.

One of the commonest cases to come before a manorial court was the accusation that someone was selling ale before it had been tasted by the ale taster. Ale was brewed at home and sold to the neighbours, who came to the brewer’s house to drink it. The ale taster’s rôle was to ensure that a consistent quality and price were maintained.

It is thanks to the surviving manor court rolls that so much is known about everyday life in the Middle Ages in England. What they show, however, is the things that went wrong and not the things that happened exactly as everybody thought they should.



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

Medieval Lives – Terry Jones

Life in a Medieval Village – Frances and Joseph Gies

Making a Living in the Middle Ages – Christopher Dyer

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



Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Crime and Law