Rolls from the manorial courts tell historians a great deal about the lives of medieval peasants and how they interacted with their lord. The court governed their lives, 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 other villagers to be judged.
|Battage á Fléau *|
The manor was made up of the lord’s demesne and 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 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. It was the rôle of the court to assess land, levy taxes and settle disputes. A manor court 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. Sometimes the lord would simply be away, at court or fighting in the king’s wars. The manorial court was one of the ways in which properties could be managed whether he was there or not. The lord had his steward, who looked after the lord’s 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 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, covering 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, and 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 attend 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 custom of the manor and the manor 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.
Villagers had to pay a fee to get their case heard. This fee went to the lord. 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. All of these meant that part of the lord’s land was being transferred from one person to another and the fee was to obtain the lord’s permission for the transfer. The court could generate a lot of income for the lord, and fines and fees tended to increase after the Black Death (1348 – 1351) 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.
|Burying victims of Black Death - image Public Domain|
Some freeholders had the right to attend the court, but they could also look to other courts for justice, which the serfs could not. Other courts included the church courts and the royal courts, but the villeins were unlikely to have dealings with either, since they did not have the right to be tried by a royal court, unless they were accused of killing someone. Twice a year the male villeins had to report to the hundred court, however, to demonstrate that they were members of a tithing.
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.
In the Great Revolt of 1381 legal records, including manor court rolls, were targeted and destroyed by the rebels. After the Black Death some lords increased their villeins’ rents in order to maintain their incomes after losing half, or more, of their serfs. At the same legislation was passed to keep wages low. One of the demands of the rebels was a cap on rents. They also wanted manorial courts to be abolished and villeins to be allowed to appear before the king’s courts. Everything in the manorial court was weighted in the lord’s favour. The decrease in the population caused by the Black Death and subsequent plagues between 1351 and 1381, and the reaction of those in authority to it made the yoke of serfdom much harder to bear for those who could not leave the land.
|Corpus Christi College's Old Court, attacked by the rebels on 15 June|
via Commons Licence
It is, of course, thanks to the surviving manor court rolls that so much is known about everyday life in the middle ages in rural England, although it is like looking through a distorted lens, since they show only the things that were brought before the courts.
*Image - Battage á Fléau – BnF, département des Manuscrits, Latin 12834, fol 64v – Calendrier-martyrologue de l’abbaye de St-Geramin-des-Prés, France (Paris). Image in the Public Domain via Wikimedia.
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
England, Arise – Juliet Barker
April Munday lives in Hampshire and has published a number of novels set in the fourteenth and early nineteenth centuries. They include The Traitor’s Daughter, His Ransom, The Winter Love and the Regency Spies Trilogy. They can be purchased from Amazon. Amazon. A novel set around the sack of Limoges in 1370 will be available early in 2017. Her blog ‘A Writer’s Perspective’ (www.aprilmunday.wordpress.com) arose from her research for her novels and is a repository of things that she has found to be of interest. She can also be found on Twitter (@aprilmunday)