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The Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure

Department of Geography and Faculty of History


English Peasants and the Provision of Civil Justice 1275-1400

English Peasants and the Provision of Civil Justice 1275-1400

The project

Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, MS. Rawl. D 939, Part 3 recto (detail)

Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, MS. Rawl. D 939, Part 3 recto (detail)

In the popular mind, the middle ages are often seen as an era in which the legal system rarely worked to the advantage of ordinary people. It is often assumed that the peasantry's contact with the courts was confined to criminal justice, and that legal process favoured social elites. The idea that peasants, and especially unfree serfs, might use the civil courts successfully to defend private property rights has until recently received scant attention. This project contributes to a growing reassessment of the traditional view. It aims to find out which legal jurisdictions were used when one fourteenth-century villager sued another in a private dispute concerning a debt, trespass, or broken agreement. More specifically, how often and in what circumstances did the plaintiff choose to sue not in the local manor court situated in his or her home village, but to opt instead to go further afield to seek justice in an alternative jurisdiction, such as a hundred court, a county court, a church court, or one of the king's courts? More broadly, this project asks how far medieval England saw the emergence of the socially inclusive legal system often regarded as characteristic of modern democracies.

The principal researcher is Chris Briggs.

Research problem and method

Thousands of fourteenth-century villagers used the law every year to recover a debt, enforce a contract, or gain compensation for a wrong suffered. The usual step was to begin a lawsuit in the local court. Typically, this was a manor court run by the plaintiff's own landlord, and located in his or her home village. (There were thousands of manor courts across England.) Yet a villager could sue further afield instead, in a court other than this 'home' manor court. In fact, it was sometimes essential to sue outside the manor. For example, if the defendant did not live in the same place as the plaintiff, the plaintiff's 'home' manor court would struggle to bring the defendant to justice. Also, if the case involved debts or damages above 40 shillings, the 'home' manor court was not competent to hear it. Thus if one assumes that the availability of legal recourse was key for commercial confidence, then the question of whether villagers did in fact use civil courts other than those of the home manor becomes crucial. If they did not or could not, then this arguably acted to limit the geographical extent of the economic ties connecting medieval villagers, and undermines the argument that villagers were active participants in the wider legal system.

To investigate this, attention is focused on a single well-documented county, Cambridgeshire. The intention is to discover how often Cambridgeshire villagers brought debt, trespass, and broken contract cases in courts other than that of the plaintiff's home manor between c.1275 and c.1400. Here 'villagers' includes any agriculturalist holding land up to about 40 acres, as well as rural wage workers, artisans, and parish clergy.

Serfdom and its impact

The first issue to tackle was serfdom. Surely unfree serfs, or villeins, were under the close control of the lord of the manor, and could only use the law courts of their own lords? This problem was investigated in the first phase of Dr Briggs' British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship project (2003-6), undertaken at the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure. The finding was that manorial landlords did not always seek to prevent their villeins from suing or being sued outside the home manor court. Instead, landlords only imposed penalties on extra-manorial litigation in certain restricted circumstances (see Briggs in Historical Research, 2008). Having established that all villagers, serfs and free, were able in theory to sue outside the 'home' manor, it was then possible to move on to ask how far they did so in practice.

Looking for villagers suing beyond the manor

The second phase of the British Academy project involved looking for Cambridgeshire villagers suing cases of debt, trespass, and broken agreement using jurisdictions other than their 'home' manor courts. This involved tracking litigants in the records of a range of law courts, including a large number of manor courts (since, crucially, a villager could sue in his or her opponent's local manor court), the proceedings before royal itinerant justices (eyres), and an ecclesiastical court.

Searches were also began for Cambridgeshire peasants suing in the royal courts at Westminster using the voluminous rolls of the court of common pleas, located in the National Archives at Kew, and available online. More recently, it has also been possible to continue this work on common pleas thanks to the award in 2011 of a British Academy Small Research Grant. Details of all relevant Cambridgeshire lawsuits begun in common pleas have now been extracted from the records of a number of sample years, namely 1327-8, 1375, and 1425. (This archival work was undertaken by Dr Matthew Tompkins.)

The second phase of this project will be completed through the analysis of this Cambridgeshire litigation prosecuted in a range of types of jurisdiction. The published outputs of this phase will deliver an overall verdict concerning villagers' experience as civil litigants beyond their own villages. The most important question concerns the proportion of all civil litigation initiated by villagers in the period c.1275-c.1400 brought to courts other that of the plaintiff's home manor. Here one provisional argument is that when peasants did sue outside the 'home' manor in this period, they tended to use their opponent's local manor court, rather than a non-manorial court. Villagers were very mobile when seeking legal remedies using the network of manorial courts. The map below shows the journeys made for litigation purposes in one area of the county, and suggests that the boundaries of communities were more fluid than is sometimes thought.


The above map, based on research on Cambridgeshire manor court records, represents journeys made when villagers travelled to another community often several miles away in order to sue or be sued. The map uses incomplete data. All villages are shown on the map, but manorial court rolls of this period survive for just three of the villages: Oakington, Willingham, and Landbeach. Also shown are contacts recorded in court rolls from places off the map (Harston, Bottisham, Barton, Grantchester). Had more manorial court records survived, known contacts would multiply substantially. Also, the map does not show journeys made to sue in non-manorial law courts.

The research done so far suggests that non-manorial courts were less popular than manorial courts as fora to use when suing beyond the 'home' manor. One can certainly find plenty of examples of villagers initiating actions in the wider legal system, including the royal courts. For example, in 1327 Robert Litlebod of Bourn in Cambridgeshire sued William Sparewe and two others in common pleas at Westminster in a plea of debt, claiming £12 from them. Examination of local tax and landholding records shows that Litlebod was a freeholding peasant of medium wealth. Yet the numbers of such cases traced so far is small and probably represents only a small proportion of the total amount of villagers' civil litigation. Ongoing research may challenge or qualify this finding, of course. For example, full analysis of the common pleas records may reveal a greater number of peasants suing in common pleas in 1375 or 1425 than in 1327-8. It is possible that rising living standards after the Black Death of 1348-9 made it increasingly likely that villagers would both need to and be able to sue in the royal courts for larger sums.

Publications from this project

  • Chris Briggs, 'Seigniorial control of villagers' litigation beyond the manor in later medieval England', Historical Research, 81 (2008), 399-422.
  • Chris Briggs, Credit and village society in fourteenth-century England (Oxford University Press/British Academy, 2009), also uses data collected on the above project.