CRIME AND JUSTICE Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval Leicester legal procedure debt distraint trade disputes reprisal
Subject: Withernam
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, 114.
Original language: Latin
Location: Leicester
Date: 1273


Let it be known that if anyone of the community or liberty of Leicester goes to Chester or Shrewsbury, or any other market town, to undertake trading and he is distrained relating to a debt of any of his neighbours, as opposed to a debt of his own, he may return home and report the matter to the earl's bailiffs. The bailiffs shall give the debtor one warning, and a second; and, if he is unwilling to arrange for the release of his neighbour's goods distrained on his account, the bailiffs are allowed to secure his house with locks – no matter who he is – and prevent him from entering until he has delivered his neighbours [from losses incurred] and made satisfaction for his debt. This was granted on 29 November 1273, [conditional] upon judgement by Sir Ralph de Hengham and Walter de Hopeton, justices of King Edward, in the hall of the Earl of Leicester at the castle.


This case illustrates the common-sense rationale behind withernam: a visiting merchant could incur debts and, after he left town, it would be difficult to force him to repay. One resort was to seize the goods of another visiting merchant from the same town, as compensation for the debt; this obliged the innocent merchant to seek retribution from his guilty fellow townsmen, after returning home. The intent was presumably partly to put the onus on a community to bring its own members to justice, and partly to discourage deliberate defaulting on debts by ensuring that flight was no escape from liability. Although a community might show some favouritism towards its own members against the accusations of outsiders, it also recognized that the crimes of individual members might adversely reflect on the reputations of all its members.

The desire to have this decision reviewed by the king's justices was a wise one, for the procedure of withernam was out of favour with the king, and was about to be limited by the Statute of Westminster (1275).



"arrange for the release"
The way for the debtor to arrange the restoration of the distrained goods to his innocent neighbour would have been to submit to justice himself, or provide pledges for doing so.

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Created: August 18, 2001. Last update: April 17, 2004 © Stephen Alsford, 2001-2004