Reconstructing English Labor Laws: A Medieval Perspective

  • Anthony Musson
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


As a means toward understanding the genesis of the English labor laws, this paper assesses the attitudes behind and arising from their enforcement in the later Middle Ages. It emphasizes that in spite of national legislation and governmental enforcement, many individuals initiated suits and sought private law remedies. It also highlights how problems of labor were acknowledged and accomodated both formally within the legal system and through more informal methods of dispute resolution.


Labor Session Fifteenth Century Fourteenth Century Labor Legislation Local Court 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    W.M. Ormrod, “The Politics of Pestilence: Government in England after the Black Death,” in The Black Death in England, ed. W.M. Ormrod and P.G. Lindley (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), pp. 155–57; R.C. Palmer, English Law in the Age of the Black Death, 1348–1381. A Transformation of Governance and Law (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), pp. 14–17. The plague was a Europe-wide phenomenon and other states similarly issued ordinances regulating labor: R.S. Gottfried, The Black Death (London: Free Press, 1983), p. 95; J.N. Hillgarth, The Spanish Kingdoms 1250–1516, 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976–78), vol. 2, pp. 4–5.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    B.H. Putnam, “Maximum Wage-Laws for Priests after the Black Death,” American Historical Review 21 (1915–16): 12–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 4.
    For an interdisciplinary consideration of some of the issues see the collection of papers in The Problem of Labour in Fourteenth-Century England, ed. J. Bothwell, PJ.P. Goldberg and W.M. Ormrod (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2000).Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    For some recent views, see R.H. Britnell, The Commercialisation of English Society, 1000–1500 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993); B.M.S. Campbell, ed., Before the Black Death: Studies in the “Crisis” of the Early Fourteenth Century (Manchester, 1991); C. Dyer, Standards of Living in the Later Middle Ages, C. 1200–1520, rev. edn. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998).Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    B.H. Putnam, The Enforcement of the Statute of Labourers during the First Decade after the Black Death, 1349–59, Columbia University Studies in History, Economics, and Public Law 32 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1908); Palmer, English Law in the Age of the Black Death (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), pp. 23–24; A. Musson and W.M. Ormrod, The Evolution of English Justice: Law Politics and Society in the Fourteenth Century (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998), pp. 52–53, 90–96.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    S.A.C. Penn and C. Dyer, “Wages and Earnings in Late Medieval England: Evidence from the Enforcement of the Labour Laws,” Economic History Review, 2nd ser. 43 (1990): 356–76; J. Hatcher, “England in the Aftermath of the Black Death,” Past and Present 144 (1994): 3–35.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 8.
    L.R. Poos, “The Social Context of Statute of Labourers Enforcement,” Law and History Review 1 (1983): 27–52; M.K. Mcintosh, Controlling Misbehaviour in England, 1310–1600 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 9.
    W.M. Ormrod, “The English Government and the Black Death of 1348–49,” in England in the Fourteenth Century: Proceedings of the 1985 Harlaxton Symposium, ed. W.M. Ormrod (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1986), pp. 175–88; Ormrod, “Politics of Pestilence,” pp. 147–67; C. Dyer, “Work Ethics in the Fourteenth Century,” in Problem of Labour, ed. Bothwell, Goldberg, and Ormrod (York: University of York/York Medieval Press, 2000), pp. 21–41; S. Knight, “The Voice of Labour in Fourteenth-Century English Literature,” in Problem of Labour, pp. 101–22.Google Scholar
  9. 10.
    Modern historical scholarship is circumspect about the extent of the economic crisis in the 1350s, suggesting that in fact it was in the 1370s, two decades later (following harvest failures and further bouts of plague), that the economic and social problems began to bite. See A.R. Bridbury, “The Black Death,” Economic History Review, 2nd series 26 (1973): 577–92 and Hatcher, “Aftermath of the Black Death.”CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 11.
    For example: Calendar of Early Mayors’ Court Rolls, 1298–1307, ed. A.H. Thomas (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1924), pp. 59–64; M. Kowaleski, Local Markets and Regional Trade in Medieval Exeter (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 183–90; S. Rees-Jones, “York’s Civic Administration, 1354–1464,” in The Government of Medieval York: Essays in Commemoration of the 1396 Royal Charter, ed. S. Rees-Jones, Borthwick Studies in History, 3 (York: Borthwick Institute of Historical Research, 1997), pp. 126–27; Putnam, Enforcement, p. 156.Google Scholar
  11. 12.
    W.O. Ault, “Some Early Village By-laws,” English Historical Review 45 (1930): 209, 211–12; W.O. Ault, “Open Field Husbandry,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, n.s. 55 (1965).Google Scholar
  12. 13.
    For more detailed discussion see A. Musson, “New Labor Laws, New Remedies? Legal Reaction to the Black Death ‘Crisis’,” in Fourteenth Century England I, ed. N. Saul (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2000), pp. 75–79.Google Scholar
  13. 14.
    B.H. Putnam, “Chief Justice Shareshull and the Economic and Legal Codes of 1351–52,” University of Toronto Law Journal 5 (1943–4): 251–81.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 16.
    B.H. Putnam, The Place in Legal History of Sir William Shareshull (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1950), p. 54; Musson and Ormrod, Evolution, pp. 153–54. For Shareshull’s speech to parliament see RP, vol. 2, p. 225.Google Scholar
  15. 20.
    J.A. Doig, “Political Propaganda and Royal Proclamations in Late Medieval England,” Historical Research 71 (1998): 259–60; A. Musson, Medieval Law in Context: The Growth of Legal Consciousness from Magna Carta to the Peasants’ Revolt (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), pp. 225–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 24.
    E. Powell, “The Administration of Criminal Justice in Late-Medieval England: Peace Sessions and Assizes,” in The Political Context of Law, ed. R. Eales and D. Sullivan (London: Hambledon Press, 1987), pp. 52, 56.Google Scholar
  17. 30.
    Some Sessions of the Peace in Lincolnshire, 1360–75, ed. R. Sillem, Lincoln Record Society, 30 (Hereford: Lincoln Record Society, 1936), pp. xlv–xlvii; Yorkshire Sessions of the Peace, 1361–64, ed. B.H. Putnam, Yorkshire Archaeological Society Record Series, 100 (Leeds: Yorkshire Record Society, 1939), p. xiv; Powell, “Criminal Justice,” pp. 52–53. The peace commissions of 1361–62 did not formally include the assize justices.Google Scholar
  18. 34.
    See the comment to this effect made during a judgment by Robert Thorpe in 1367 (Sir Anthony Fitzherbert, La graunde abridgement…dernierment conferre avesque la copy escript, et per ceo correct [London: Richard Tottell, 1565], vol. l, fol.89pl.30).Google Scholar
  19. 35.
    Select Cases of Trespass from the King’s Courts, 1307–1399, ed. M.S. Arnold, Selden Society 100 (London: Selden Society, 1985), vol. 1, pp. xl, xliv (see footnotes for references); C. Dyer, Everyday Life in Medieval England (London: Hambledon Press, 1994), pp. 230–31. For the king’s bench in the 1350s, see Putnam, “Shareshull and Economic Legal Codes,” pp. 262–64.Google Scholar
  20. 37.
    E. Clark, “Medieval Labor Law and English Local Courts,” American Journal of Legal History 27 (1983): 332–37 (quotation at p. 335).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. 38.
    B.H. Putnam, “Transformation of the Keepers of the Peace into the Justices of the Peace, 1327–1380,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 4th ser. 12 (1329): 19–48; R.W Kaeuper, War, Justice and Public Order: England and France in the Later Middle Ages (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), pp. 174–83, 386–87; Palmer, English Law, pp. 9–27, 54–56; Ormrod, “Politics of Pestilence,” p. 157.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 48.
    See for example in 1352: JUST 1/1018 (printed in E.M. Thompson, “Offenders against the Statute of Laborers in Wiltshire, A.D. 1349,” Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine 33 [1903–1904]: 384–409) and 1355: PRO, Court of King’s Bench, Ancient Indictments, KB 9/131.Google Scholar
  23. 53.
    CPR 1354–58, pp. 59–62, 125; The Order of Serjeants at Law, ed. J. H. Baker, Selden Society Supplementary Series 5 (London: Selden Society, 1984), pp. 156–57, 159. Moriz and Cavendish were called in 1362.Google Scholar
  24. 58.
    13 Richard II, st. 1, c.8; B.H. Putnam, Proceedings before the Justices of the Peace in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries (London: Spottiswoode, Ballantyne & Co. Ltd., 1938), pp. cviii–cix; Poos, “Social Context,” p. 30.Google Scholar
  25. 59.
    D.J. Ibbetson, A Historical Introduction to the Law of Obligations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 38; Putnam, Enforcement, pp. 187–89.Google Scholar
  26. 61.
    R.B. Pugh, Imprisonment in Medieval England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968), pp. 38–39, 169, 208–209, 366–67.Google Scholar
  27. 63.
    Sessions of the Peace for Bedfordshire, 1355–1359, 1363–1364, ed. E.G. Kimball, Bedfordshire Historical Record Society, 48 (London: H.M.S.O., 1969), pp. 34, 47–48, 73–75; Poos, “Social Context,” pp. 31–33.Google Scholar
  28. 64.
    For a more general discussion, see A. Musson, “Sub-keepers and Constables: the Role of Local Officials in Keeping the Peace in Fourteenth-Century England,” English Historical Review 117 (2002): 1–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. 65.
    C. Dyer, “The Social and Economic Background to the Rural Revolt of 1381,” in The English Rising of 1381, ed. R.H. Hilton and T. Aston (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 17–19; M.J. Hettinger, “The Role of the Statute of Laborers in the Social and Economic Background to the Great Revolt in East Anglia,” unpublished Ph.D thesis, University of Indiana, 1987, pp. 154–58, 192.Google Scholar
  30. 69.
    G.H. Jones, “Per Quod Servitium Amisit,” Law Quarterly Review 44 (1958): 39–45; Ibbetson, Law of Obligations, p. 66; Arnold, Select Cases of Trespass, vol. 1, p. xliv.Google Scholar
  31. 72.
    Palmer, English Law, p. 228. See generally A. Kirafly, The Action on the Case (London: Sweet & Maxwell, 1951).Google Scholar
  32. 74.
    S.EC. Milsom, Historical Foundations of the Common Law, 2nd. edn. (London: Butterworths, 1981), pp. 289–95, 305, 318–20; Palmer, English Law, pp. 164–227, 296–300.Google Scholar
  33. 80.
    CM. Barron, “Lay Solidarities: the Wards of Medieval London,” in Law, Laity and Solidarities: Essays in Honour of Susan Reynolds, ed. P. Safford, J.L. Nelson and J. Martindale (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), pp. 218–25; S. Rees Jones, “The Regulation of Labor in Medieval English Towns,” in Problem of Labor, ed. Bothwell, Goldberg, and Ormrod, pp. 132–42.Google Scholar
  34. 81.
    Rees Jones, “Regulation of Labour,” pp. 138–39; Barron, “Wards of Medieval London,” pp. 223–24; see for example: Liber Albus, ed. H.T. Riley, Rolls Series (London: R. Griffin, 1861), pp. 334, 338.Google Scholar
  35. 82.
    P. Nightingale, A Medieval Merchant Community. The Grocers’ Company and the Politics and Trade of London, 1000–1485 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995), p. 179. See also B.R. McRee, “Religious Gilds and Regulation of Behaviour in Medieval Towns,” in People, Politics and Community in the Later Middle Ages, ed. J. Rosenthal and C. Richmond (Gloucester: A. Suttton, 1987), pp. 108–22.Google Scholar
  36. 87.
    A. Harding, “Early Trailbaston Proceedings from the Lincoln Roll of 1305,” in Medieval Legal Records Edited in Memory of C.A.F. Meekings, ed. R.F. Hunnisett and J.B. Post (London: HMSO, 1978), pp. 143–68; Given-Wilson, “Labour in the Context of English Government,” pp. 88–94, 97.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kellie Robertson and Michael Uebel 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  • Anthony Musson

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations