by Stephanie Brown (University of Cambridge)
New Researcher’s paper presented at the Economic History Society’s Annual Conference, 2022, session: NR1G
The lord of the manor had the right to hold a twice-yearly court to which the peasants who lived on the manor were required to attend. This court had the power to fine tenants who had committed minor crimes, such as shedding blood, brewing poor quality ale, or falsely raising alarm. There is a long-standing narrative of exploitative lords using these courts to take money from toiling peasants in order to enrich themselves. However, the fines for bloodshed tell a story of flexible punishment which could be tailored to the individual.
At the manor court, jurors were asked to report whether blood had been shed since the last court, and by whom. The result of this requirement is that the court rolls contain numerous examples of a tenant shedding the blood of another tenant. However, these cases merely consist of a single sentence containing three pieces of information: the name of the attacker, the name of the victim, and the financial penalty assigned to the attacker. Here are two examples taken from the manor of Wakefield: In 1347, Henry del Greene was fined 12 pence for drawing blood from John Skinner, and in 1364, Beatrice, wife of John, was fined six pence for the same offence against Agnes de Wodus.
It cannot be known how serious these attacks were, how they were done, or why they happened. We do not even really have much information on the people involved, beyond their names. Historians have focused on the names in these sentences to describe the sex ratios of those reported for bloodshed, as well as looking at the share of cases where the perpetrator and the victim were the same sex, and the number of cases of mixed-gender violence.
Despite the fact that these cases only give us three pieces of information, the third piece, the financial penalty, has largely been overlooked by historians. The fact that Henry and Beatrice were fined 12, and 6 pence, respectively, might appear to be insignificant. In isolation, it may seem that we cannot glean much from these amounts; however, that changes after hundreds of fines are analysed.
Using evidence from four manor courts in Yorkshire between 1340 and 1381, the graph below shows that the fines for bloodshed were diverse, ranging from 1 penny to 80 pence. This finding disrupts the idea that fines were fixed, standardised penalties, imposed on peasants in order to fill the lord’s coffers (Figure 1).
As Figure 1 indicates, it seems that 6 and 12 pence were standard fines for bloodshed, because these values appear most often. However, the court could exercise discretion and it is likely that the court considered the severity of the attack, and the offender’s capacity to pay. Indeed, there is clear evidence that the court considered the offender’s capacity to pay when setting the level of the fine. For example, on the manor of Wakefield in 1348, John Haust was reported for drawing blood from Alice Walker, but John was not fined because he was a pauper.
Figure 1. Bloodshed fines in four Yorkshire Manors, 1340-1381
A striking discovery is that women typically received fines that were half that imposed on men. In fact, the pattern of female fines mirrors the gender pay gap – some women were amerced more than some men, but overall women received the lowest amercements and men the highest.
A system where fines were tailored to fit the offender does not reflect the notion that money-grabbing lords were exploiting their labouring peasants. In fact, it appears to be fairer than modern Fixed Penalty Notices, such as fines for speeding, truancy, or littering. As the fines are fixed, each person pays the same amount – whether they are a billionaire or living precariously. Some fines, such as parking tickets, are reduced if paid early, thereby rewarding those who possess the capacity to pay quickly. While the punishment must fit the crime, it should also fit the person and their financial situation. Contemporary policy could learn from the flexible, and means-tested approach of the medieval manor court.
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