POLITICS Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval Leicester assembly participation disobedience disrespect authority assault offences punishment social control
Subject: Offences against authority
Original source: Leicestershire Record Office, Leicester archives, Merchant gild plea roll
Transcription in: Mary Bateson, ed. Records of the Borough of Leicester, (London, 1901), vol.2, 82, 103-04.
Original language: Latin
Location: Leicester
Date: 1350s


On 2 March 1352 at the morningspeech held in the Leicester gildhall, Robert de Coventria, mercer of Leicester, was accused before William le Goldsmyth then mayor of Leicester, Thomas de le Grove bailiff, John Hayward receiver, [and 21 others named, probably all jurats], of having been summoned to the gildhall by order of the mayor and jurats, by William Aldyth the sergeant of the mayor, jurats and community, and having contemptuously refused to obey the summons. Therefore they ruled that he should be deprived of his gild [membership]. At this, Robert pledged a hundred shillings for his offence, which was respited contingent upon [future good] behaviour, except for 6s.8d, for the payment of which he has as guarantors John de Tirlyngton and Nicholas Hendeman.


[October 1355:] Richard Norman, one of the jurats, was accused of a trespass against the mayor, in the form of inappropriate comments. For which offence he pledged to the mayor a pipe of wine, [payment of ] which is respited.


[November 1355:] Robert de Wylughby was accused before John de Petlyng then mayor of Leicester, Geoffrey de Kent, William le Goldsmyth, William de Dunstable, Robert Porter, John Coc, Thomas de Beby, John de Louseby, William de Sitheston, and Roger de le Waynhous, jurats, and others that he uttered inappropriate comments against his gild. He could not deny this, and therefore pledged a hundred shillings, [payment of] which is respited contingent upon him never again offending against mayor and community.


On 18 March [1356], John Sabyn goldsmith was accused in the gildhall before John de Petlyng mayor and the jurats and others of the community that he and his son James unjustly assaulted the town crier because, under the orders of the mayor, he arrested their pigs which were causing a great nuisance by wandering in the street. John Sabyn appeared and denied it as regards himself, but could not deny it as regards James having committed the offence. For whom John Sabyn pledged 20s., [which is] respited contingent upon him never again offending against the mayor or jurats.


[May 1356:] John le Cu of Leicester was accused before John de Petlyng then mayor of Leicester, [named] jurats, and many other members of the community, that he sold wine contrary to an ordinance of the mayor and jurats, [publicly] proclaimed. In regard to which, John de Petlyng mayor came to John Coc's tavern with his colleagues and other members of the community and beseeched him to sell at 10d. a gallon, in the proper way according to the ordinance. But he [i.e. Coc] refused to be brought to heel by him, instead raising the hue many times on the mayor, without just cause, in the hearing of all who had come with him. And such was the finding a jury of reputable and law-abiding men. He could not deny it, but admitted it and offered a pledge in amends. In regard to which the jurats passed sentence that if he ever again was convicted by his peers of offending against any mayor of the town, he should pay a tun of win, lose his gild [membership], and be expelled from the office of jurat; which tun of wine is respited based on security given by John Coc.


These several instances, all from the same court roll, all reflect the stern disapproval of resistance to authority, whether it be through disobedience, assault, or insult. It was naturally important to clamp down hard on any opposition or resistance to local officers, in order to maintain public respect for authority; the executive officers were delegates of the king, or some other lord, and lesser officers similarly shared in the not-quite sacrosanctity that was due to the source of the delegated authority. As the Late Middle Ages wore on, there was a growing consciousness in urban society of the dignity of office and that any actions or words against officer-bearers were unacceptable. We therefore see more cases being recorded. Such offences were punishable by in fines or, in cases of unrepentant offenders, disfranchisement, imprisonment, or even exile from the town; e.g. see by-laws on this subject in the Ipswich custumal and Maldon custumal. Most offenders admitted their sin and, by submitting to authority, had their punishments remitted or deferred, contingent upon future good behaviour.

Efforts to restrict freedom of expression represent a broad trend of the Late Middle Ages, part of the response to fears among the rural and urban upper classes that traditional social, economic, and political relations were jeopardized by the demographic disruption brought about by the Black Death. Both ecclesiastical and secular authorities placed greater emphasis on people controlling their tongues: the Church condemned, as blasphemy, curses that referred to God or Christ, while urban authorities became more active in punishing persistent (or 'common') scolds, individuals who unwarrantedly raised the hue against others with whom they were quarrelling, or those who criticized communal officials through use of insults or abusive language. This was not simply a matter of protecting the dignity of office, but a very real concern that ungoverned speech could adversely impact the reputations of those who were verbally attacked – and one's public reputation, or 'fama', meant a great deal in an age when communal opinion could affect the viability of one's business, the outcome of a jury decision in court, or prospects of being chosen to public office. Poets made reference to the power of the tongue and themselves exemplified the power of the pen, while writers of treatises on good manners advocated self-regulated and respectful speech.



The name given to assemblies of the gildsmen, which by this period had become essentially business meetings of local government.

The town council.

"arrested their pigs"
Earlier in the mayoral year, an ordinance had been passed prohibiting any pigs from wandering on the high streets, and allowing them to be loose in the lanes only if they were ringed; upon penalty of paying 1d. per foot of the beast. It need hardly be said that this was by no means the earliest Leicester ordinance against loose pigs.

"John le Cu"
John Cook's error was not an obstacle to him becoming mayor himself in 1360.

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Created: May 27, 2003. Last update: August 2, 2016 © Stephen Alsford, 2003-2016