CRIME AND JUSTICE Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval Leicester lawsuits legal procedure compurgation
Subject: Examples of defence through wager of law
Original source: Leicestershire Record Office, Leicester archives, Merchant gild roll
Transcription in: Mary Bateson, ed. Records of the Borough of Leicester, (London, 1899), vol.1, 66-67.
Original language: Latin
Location: Leicester
Date: 1253


Memorandum that on 10 December 1253 Henry Houhil brings a complaint against John Dodeman, that he unjustly, and despite [being of] the fellowship of the gild, withholds from him a black russet of 7 ells, with the result that he has unwillingly suffered embarrassment and damages to the value of 6s.8d. Pledges for Henry to prosecute: Peter Blund and Nicholas Burgess. John emphatically denies the accusation and wages his law; John's pledges: William Morker, William Baudewine. He has been assigned February 10 as the date on which to do his law.

That [doing of] law is delayed until the following Thursday; if in the meanwhile they come to terms, gild justice will be unnecessary.

John made his law with his own hand and with William Morker and William de Benewik; [consequently] Henry is in mercy.

[ .... ]

[1258] William Sturdy brings a complaint against John Folebarbe, that to his damage and his embarrassment, and despite the gild [law], he refused him a lot [in a sale] of fish, whereby the community suffered damage. Regarding the contempt [of gild law], [he seeks] a cask of ale; and, because he unwillingly suffered damage and embarrassment, 5s.

John denied the whole thing, word for word, and waged his law; concerning which John left and, returning, sat between Nicholas fitz Humfrey and Geoffrey de Nottingham who might help him in doing his law. And John, not wishing to do his law, pledged a cask of ale; pledges: [2 named]. He pledged to William his craft; pledges [2 named].


These records of legal disputes tried before the gild authorities, who had some jurisdiction over the behaviour of their members, are each a series of entries recording the progress of the cases. That the defendants resorted to only a three-handed oath (i.e. the defendant swore to his innocence and his pledges then swore that he was telling the truth) reflects that the crimes were not serious. It may seem unfair that, Dodeman having successfully made his defence, the plaintiff was automatically condemned. However, the case of Sturdy vs. Folebarbe suggests that even a three-handed oath was not necessarily easy to achieve if, as may have been the situation here, either the defendant or his proposed compurgators (between whom he sat) was reluctant to take a false oath. For further background on this process, see the London custom.



The gild referred to is the merchant gild; detention of goods was in itself an offence, but that the offence was against one gildsman by another compounded the matter.

A type of cloth.

In England an ell was a measure usually a little over a yard in length; the Latin ulna is often translated as "yard". The ell originated as the length of a human forearm (cubitum in Latin), from fingertip to elbow (also known as ulna, a term also used for the elbow) but like many measures could range widely from country to country during the Middle Ages, so that it might correspond to the distance from wrist to elbow or of the entire outstretched arm. Dealers in cloth were usually equipped with rods or wands used as measuring-sticks.

"pledged to William his craft"
Folebarbe's pledging of his craft to the plaintiff is plausibly explained by Mary Bateson as a guarantee to give up his craft for a year and a day if he failed to make good on compensation.

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Created: August 18, 2001. Last update: March 16, 2016 © Stephen Alsford, 2001-2016