Login *:
Password *:


9-08-2015, 14:46

Village bylaws in England

Several times a year in most English villages, the villagers, or at least some of them, gathered for court proceedings during which the legal and fi nancial affairs of both the lord and the village were handled. The courts often went beyond what we would recognize as judicial activities and issued new ordinances – which historians now term bylaws – in the name of the lord and the village to regulate activities in the village or its fi elds or forests. The following are a few of the many bylaws issued by the village of Great Horwood in central England. 1433 It is ordered by all the tenants that no one shall have his beasts on the green of the town by night until the end of autumn next to come under pain each one of 4d. [d. = denarius, or penny]. And there were chosen as wardens John Hayes and Robert Baynard. And that every tenant be at Nether ford next Monday about Vespers with tools to clean the watercourse under pain of 1d. for default. 1465 It is ordered by the consent of all the tenants there that no one henceforth shall willfully allow his foals openly to go into the fi elds of grain after they are three weeks old unless tethered to their mothers under pain of each one doing the contrary paying 12d. namely for each foal every time. 1480 The township of Great Horwood is ordered to make anew part of the butts [mounds of earth on which targets for practicing archery are set] before the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist [June 24] under pain for each one in default of 8d., 4d. of which is to go to the parish church. And if any one shoots his arrows at the metes [boundaries] and does not close the bars [of the gate] after him he shall forfeit to the lord as often as he does it 4d. 1503 It is ordered by common consent and assent that all tenants having hedges on the eastern part of the town aforesaid shall cause them well and suffi ciently to be repaired, under pain for each of them falling into default of 12d. 1534 It is ordered that no one shall harbour or entertain any woman or women of ill fame more than one night under pain for each delinquent of 6s. 8d. [s. = shilling, worth 12d.] (From Warren O. Ault, Open-fi eld Farming in Medieval England: A Study of Village By-Laws [London: George Allen and Unwin, 1972], pp. 125, 132, 134, 141.) On the eastern and southern shores of the Baltic, powerful nobles were also the most important group politically and economically. Rulers in this area, such as the dukes of Prussia, the grand dukes of Lithuania, the kings of Poland, and the princes of Muscovy, relied on nobles for support during disputes over borders and royal successions. Local lords were the ultimate legal authority in their own territories with little interference from royal offi cials, and they used this power to restrict the rights of peasants and townspeople. By contrast, the Ottoman sultans in the 1400s were developing centralized imperial institutions to rule their ever-expanding territory. They created a trained army and corps of administrative and tax offi cials, often co-opting existing local and religious authorities rather than displacing them. Thus within the Ottoman Empire regional territories such as Bulgaria, Serbia, Kosovo, and Albania still existed, though they were increasingly dependent on the sultan’s government. Throughout all of Europe, then, the mid-fi fteenth century was a period in which political boundaries were shifting, as was the importance of different types of boundaries. Many lines on the map might more accurately be depicted as broad or blurry stripes, for frontier areas often had cultures and traditions distinct from those of the territories on either side. There is another problem with viewing map 3 as a representation of political units in mid-fi fteenth-century Europe: its scale. Other than in times of warfare, the political units that had the most impact on people’s lives, and in which they were most likely to have some voice, were local. During the Middle Ages, in many parts of Europe villages developed political structures of their own that regulated what went on in the village and conducted relations with authorities beyond the village. Villages became what are often called “communes,” with institutions of self-governance. These institutions were generally composed of the adult male heads of household, or a subset of these, who decided which crops the village would plant, supervised the harvest, watched over the village mill, and carried out similar functions. In some places village councils and courts had the authority to issue ordinances and make legal decisions, either in conjunction with the local lord or on their own. Institutions of governance were even stronger in towns and cities, which won their independence from local lords in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Towns drew up charters that established administrative and supervisory offi ces, such as mayors, quartermasters, gate-keepers, tax collectors, and market overseers; they set procedures for tax collection and the maintenance of city walls and streets; they established citizens’ militias, orphanages, various types of courts, municipal brothels and bathhouses, and funds to provide relief for the poor. On a day-to-day basis these village and city authorities had more control over many aspects of life than any territorial ruler.