Were you listening carefully? Case Notes from Medieval Courts

Today’s blog takes a last look at the lawyers’ handbook, Worcester Cathedral Library manuscript Q. 36. This time we pass over all the laws and charters and look instead at notes on actual cases heard in thirteenth-century courts written down in Norman French, the everyday language of law practitioners. These notes were probably first made by apprentice lawyers listening to the judges’ decisions, and then copied out by others to help them remember what had been decided.


Front of Q.36. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

The notes would have been made on small scraps of parchment or paper. Nineteen different manuscripts have been found with collections of these cases, all of them copied out in different ways, suggesting they were done by different people at different times. And of course the Worcester collection makes the number twenty! It too has its own order, although it has some similarities to a manuscript in the British Library named Additional 5726.

The Worcester manuscript has been dated to the first half of the fourteenth century almost 100 years after the original cases, which are thought to have been heard in courts held in the reign of King Henry III between 1230 and 1260. Like the British Library manuscript it begins with official writs, which were judgments from the courts sent in the king’s name to the sheriffs of various localities, who were the officials charged with enforcing the law in those places. The Norman French word for writ is “bref” which is the origin of the English word still used today for a lawyer’s case document – his brief.


Page of case notes in Q.36. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

The writs are headed “estrange caas” which can be translated as unusual cases. One case decided what should happen to property given as dowry if the wife died before the new couple had any children. The husband sold the land to someone else and when he died the wife’s family tried to claim the land back. The judgment said that they could claim some of it back and the writ that enforced that judgment is quoted here:

Le rey salue le viscounte de ciel leu . Commaundez a . . . qi a dreit et saunz delay rende a . . .  une vergee de terre od les apurtenances

The king greets the sheriff of this place. Command . . . that he by right and without delay gives up to  . . . one virgate of land with its belongings

The word sheriff comes from Anglo-Saxon, and its Norman French equivalent is “viscounte”: the vice-count who takes the lord’s place in that part of the country – just as a vice-president can act with the powers of the president – and carries out the king’s commands there. One virgate is usually defined as about 30 acres or the amount of land that can be ploughed and maintained by two oxen in one season.

Ploughing scene; Munster

Woodcut of an agricultural scene from Munster’s Cosmographiae (1544). Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

Another case concerns a woman who gave a handsome man some of her property when he promised to marry her, but when he married someone else she asked for it back. She was awarded only twenty acres, less than a virgate. Another man divided his land between his two sons. “Un prudhome had . ii . filz un chapelein e un laiz” – a goodman had two sons, one a chaplain and the other a layman. The chaplain also had two sons but they forfeited some of their inheritance because they were bastards, as chaplains cannot marry. And so on . . .

What is the difference between a dowry and a dower? Dowry is land and property given to a husband by his wife’s family. Dower is given by the husband to his wife, and it remains hers after his death. From dower comes the word dowager, meaning a widow now living on her dower – and perhaps living in the dower house. Not surprisingly many legal cases arise from disputes over both of these.

A free woman may lose her dower in four ways: if her lord is found guilty of a felony (usually meaning robbery or murder); if her husband is a villein; if he loses land by battle or by grand assize (trial by jury of twelve knights); if her lord dies before she has passed 7 years of age.

A villein was a peasant of the highest order, possibly wealthy but not free. And a woman could be married at age 7! The issue of freedom was of great importance as rights disappeared without it. A woman could become free by marriage:

When can a man recover his inheritance and deprive his mother of her dower? If his father married a bondswoman (slave or concubine) then after his death she reverts to her former state; however if she marries another free man then she becomes free again and can claim back her dower.

Woman and her retinue; Munster

Woodcut of a medieval woman of class from Munster’s Cosmographiae (1544). Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

There were other pitfalls that could derail lawful inheritance. One of them was marrying a relative considered too close by the church, which applied particularly to cousins. At one time marriage between even sixth cousins was prohibited by the church, and could render the marriage invalid, even if done unwittingly.

In what case can a son recover his mother’s inheritance and his father not hold it during his lifetime by the law of England? In this case: if a man marries his close relative and has a son, and then they are separated by holy church. The son will recover his heritage because it is not fitting that the son suffer for the sin of his mother and father.

Cases like these and many others speak of a settled legal system, with judgements recorded in writing and shared between practitioners. From 1268 onwards records of common law cases were kept in Year Books, a system of legal reporting unique to England. Henry II, sometimes remembered only for the murder of Thomas Becket, was the king that established permanent professional courts at Westminster and in the counties. The relatively peaceful reign of his grandson Henry III saw these courts working routinely and effectively, and their judgements recorded in permanent written form for the enlightenment of posterity.


Much use has been made in this blog of a book called Casus Placitorum and the Reports of the Cases in the King’s Courts by W H Dunham (Selden Society 1950).


Tim O’Mara





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