Branding and the Technologies of Labor Regulation

  • Kellie Robertson
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


This chapter looks at records of labor violations from both secular and ecclesiastical courts as well as images of laboring bodies to argue that new strategies of enforcement made bodies available to be read as symbols by authorities eager to “textualize” and thereby “fix” laboring identities.


Corporal Punishment Labor Regulation Fourteenth Century Body Politic Theological Discourse 
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.
    Calendar of the Patent Rolls Preserved in the PRO, 1232–1509 [CPR], 52 vols. (London: HMSO, 1891–1916), vol. 8, p. 594. It is clear that villein services in this area were under significant stress from plague mortality as villeins renegotiated labor services with Eynsham Abbey in 1349; see Eynsham Cartulary, ed. H.E. Salter, 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford Historical Society, 1907–1908), vol. 2, pp. 19–20.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Rotuli Parliamentorum, ed. J. Strachey, 6 vols. (London: 1783), vol. 2, pp. 225–27. Bertha Putnam, The Place in Legal History of Sir William Shareshull, Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, 1350–1361 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1950), speculates that the Oxford incident was “a factor in leading to the enactment of the more rigid statute of 1351” (p. 147).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Putnam, The Enforcement of the Statutes of Labourers during the First Decade after the Black Plague (New York: Columbia University Press, 1908), p. 10, 12. On the need for the 1351 parliament, see RP, vol. 2, p. 225.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Knighton’s Chronicle, 1337–1396, ed. and trans. G.H. Martin (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), pp. 102–103. All subsequent references refer to this edition.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Knighton, pp. 120–21. Contemporary historians have been kinder to the statute. W.M. Ormrod, “The English Government and the Black Death of 1348–49,” in England in the Fourteenth Century, ed. W.M. Ormrod (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boy dell & Brewer, 1986), asserts that “the labour laws were a good deal more effective in the decade after the first outbreak of the Black Death than they came to be thereafter” (pp. 178–79).Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    For the text of the statutes, see Statutes of the Realm [SR], 1101–1713, ed. A. Luders et al., 11 vols. (London: 1810–28), vol. 1, pp. 311–13. For a list of offenses against the oath-taking provision, see Putnam, Enforcement, p. 76.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    On the continunity of pre- and post-plague labor practices, see Anthony Musson, “New Labour Laws, New Remedies? Legal Reaction to the Black Death ‘Crisis’,” in Fourteenth Century England I ed. Nigel Saul (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boy dell & Brewer, 2000), esp. pp. 76–77. Musson’s argument seeks to redress views like those put forward by R. C. Palmer who believes that the post-plague labor market was radically different from the pre-plague one (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]). See also Musson’s article in this volume, chapter 5.Google Scholar
  8. 10.
    See John Bellamy, Crime and Public Order in England in the Later Middle Ages (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973), p. 182. For the pre-medieval history of branding, see CP. Jones, “Stigma: Tattooing and Branding in Graeco-Roman Antiquity,” Journal of Roman Studies 77 (1987): 139–55.Google Scholar
  9. 11.
    For example, eight heretics were branded at St. Paul’s Cross in London in 1499. See Chronicles of London, ed. Charles Lethbridge Kingsford (1905; repr. Dursley, Gloucestershire: Alan Sutton, 1977), p. 226; Shannon McSheffrey, Gender and Heresy: Women and Men in Lollard Communities, 1420–1530 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvannia Press, 1995), has documented sporadic instances of heretic branding in this time period (pp. 31, 73).Google Scholar
  10. 12.
    Raphael Holinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, 6 vols. (1586; repr. New York: Ames Press, 1965), vol. 1, pp. 310–13. Several sixteenth-century examples of penal branding can be found during the reign of Edward VI: for example, the 1547 statute of vagabonds authorized the branding of a ‘V on the breast of a runaway slave; church brawlers were liable to be branded on the cheek with the letter ‘F’ for ‘fraymaker’. Branding was only abolished as a form of punishment in Britian in 1829. See William Andrews, Bygone Punishments (London: William Andrews and Co., 1899), pp. 138–42.Google Scholar
  11. 13.
    Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Modern Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Random House, 1979), pp. 25–26.Google Scholar
  12. 16.
    Stephen Justice discusses the symbolic import of the rebels’ document burning in Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), esp. pp. 150–56. Such instances of peasant appropriation of documentary culture suggest that the field of knowledge constituted by the labor laws (and the power relations it represents) was not exclusively unidirectional.Google Scholar
  13. 17.
    On the problematic of iterability in language, see Jacques Derrida, “Signature Event Context,” in Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), pp. 307–30.Google Scholar
  14. 18.
    For the text of the 1349 ordinance, see SR, vol. 1, pp. 307–308: For a discussion of the penalties under this ordinance and particularly the system of excess fines, see Putnam, Enforcement, pp. 82–85. On difficulties in enforcing the ordinance, see L.R. Poos, “The Social Context of Statute of Labourers Enforcement,” Law and History Review 1 (1983): 29–30 [27–52].CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 19.
    Legal historian S.F.C. Milsom, Historical Foundations of the Common Law, 2nd ed. (London: Butterworths, 1981), describes how the labor statutes created confusion over the difference between agricultural services as obligation/status and as contract: “The narrow concept of covenant was the product of a society in which most obligations were seen as flowing from tenure or status. This was obviously the case with agricultural services. The ploughman who did not plough would be summoned to his lord’s court as a wrongdoer long before anyone would think of suing him as an equal in contract…Grants had been precisely to create obligations for service, to plough or to fight; and the only common arrangement concerning land which has sounded in covenant was the term of years” (p. 325).Google Scholar
  16. 20.
    On the difference between the older customs and by-laws (which had treated the master—servant relation as a status) and the labor laws (which showed an ambivalent interest in the contractual nature of the relation), see William Holdsworth, A History of English Law, 16 vols. (1903; repr. London: Methuen, 1966), vol. 2, pp. 459–63.Google Scholar
  17. 22.
    For the Essex case, see Elizabeth Furber, ed., Essex Sessions of the Peace, 1351, 1311–1319, Essex Archaeological Society, Occasional Publications 3 (Colchester: Essex Archaeological Society, 1953), p. 106. On the frequency of such liberation tactics, see Putnam, Enforcement, p. 181.Google Scholar
  18. 24.
    The Anonimalle Chronicle, ed. V.H. Galbraith (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1927), pp. 144–45.Google Scholar
  19. 25.
    RP, vol. 2, p. 296. On the effects of the 1368 legislation, see Bertha Putnam, Proceedings before the Justices of the Peace, Edward III to Richard III (London: Spottiswoode, Ballantyne and Co., 1938), p. xxv. That the third estate recognized this ambivalence about the difference between status and contractual labor (and that they saw corporal punishment as a symptom of the former) is witnessed by the 1381 rebels’ demand that “there should be no law but the law of Winchester” (Anonimalle, p. 147). This judicial reform would have effectively repealed the 1361 statute that introduced the new provision of branding and the penalty of outlawery. On this rebel demand, see Alan Harding, “The Revolt Against the Justices,” in The English Rising of 1381, ed. R.H. Hilton and TH. Aston (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 165–93.Google Scholar
  20. 27.
    This is the explanation offered by Joseph Dahmus, William Courtenay, Archbishop of Canterbury 1381–1396 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1966), p. 223. On the controversy with the Bishop of Salisbury over rights of visitation, see Dahmus, p. 149. On Courtenay’s involvement (along with Arundel) in the dispute over the collection of a papal subsidy blocked by Richard II and Parliament, see Dahmus, p. 180.Google Scholar
  21. 29.
    R.A.L. Smith, Canterbury Cathedral Priory: A Study in Monastic Administration (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1943), notes, “while many labor services (like ploughing or mowing) on Kentish manors in the fourteenth century could be commuted for money rents, the exception to this general rule was carrying services, however. This was seen to be an essential service since it brought food to the monks household and carried waste hence” (pp. 122–23).Google Scholar
  22. 30.
    See W.E. Flaherty, “The Great Rebellion in Kent of 1381,” Archaeologia Cantiana III (1860): 90–96 [65–96].Google Scholar
  23. 31.
    “Sacratum capud archiepiscopi in medio et eminenciori loco fixerunt, et ut specialius a ceteris capitibus agnosceretur capellam rubeam super capud cum clavo fixerunt”; see The Westminster Chronicle, ed. and trans. L.C. Hector and Barbara F. Harvey (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), pp. 6–7.Google Scholar
  24. 33.
    On labor obligations in Wingham, see F.R.H. Du Boulay, The Lordship of Canterbury: An Essay on Medieval Society (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1966), p. 159.Google Scholar
  25. 34.
    Ernst Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theory (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957), p. 87.Google Scholar
  26. 36.
    On the symbolic significance of the plowman in the fourteenth-century manorial economy, see Michael Camille, Mirror in Parchment: The Luttrell Psalter and the Making of Medieval England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 186. Late fourteenth-century preachers like Thomas Wimbledon frequently cited the parable of the vineyard (Matthew 20: 1–10), which equated positive labor with the good society. See Wimbledon’s Sermon: Redde Rationem Villicationis Tue, ed. Ione Kemp Knight, Duquesne Studies, Philological Series 9 (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1967). For a discussion of the social benefits of manual labor in late medieval florilegia and summa predicantium, see G.R. Owst, Literature and Pulpit in Medieval England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1933), esp. 568–76.Google Scholar
  27. 37.
    For Jacques Le Goff’s views, see Time, Work, and Culture in the Middle Ages, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), pp. 83–86. Aaron Gurevich discusses peasant labor in “Oral and Written Culture of the Middle Ages: Two ‘Peasant Visions’ of the Late Twelfth Centuries,” in Historical Anthropology of the Middle Ages, ed. Jana Howlett (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 50–64; and in Categories of Medieval Culture, trans. G.L. Campbell (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985), pp. 264–65. Paul Freedman compares Le Goff and Gurevich on this subject in Images of the Medieval Peasant (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), pp. 24–25.Google Scholar
  28. 38.
    The so-called Three Orders model of society was most commonly articulated as “those who pray, those who fight, and those who work.” Freedman argues that the Three Orders scheme relied on a model of mutuality and that “implicit within the idea of mutuality is the notion that labor has a merit at least comparable to that of spiritual and physical protection” though “labor never lost its lowly representation as ‘servile’” (Images, pp. 24–25). The foundational discusion of trifunctionality is found in Georges Duby, The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined, trans. Arthur Gold-hammer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980). On the Three Orders as the result of the failure of the Cistercian ideal of monastic labor, see William Ovitt, The Restoration of Perfection: Labor and Technology in Medieval Culture (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987), pp. 137–63.Google Scholar
  29. 40.
    For the descriptions of the parson and the plowman, see The Riverside Chaucer, gen. ed. Larry Benson, 3rd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), I. 475–541. The plowman does not get a portrait until Caxton’s second edition but there it only repeats the woodcut of the parson, his brother (see STC 5083). On this mix-up, see Betsy Bowden, “Visual Portraits of the Canterbury Pilgrims, 1484 (?)–1809,” in The Ellesmere Chaucer: Essays in Interpretation, ed. Martin Stevens and Daniel Woodward (San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1995), pp. 171–204.Google Scholar
  30. 41.
    On the pardoner’s speaking body, see Caroline Dinshaw, “Eunuch Hermeneutics,” in Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), pp. 156–84; and Glenn Burger, “Kissing the Pardoner,” PMLA 107 (1992): 1143–56.Google Scholar
  31. 42.
    On the relation between the manuscript illumination and the material conditions of the Luttrell estate, see Carnille, Mirror, pp. 198–99. For a helpful summary of arguments about dating the Luttrell Psalter, see Richard K. Emmerson and PJ.P. Goldberg, “‘The Lord Geoffrey had me made’: Lordship and Labour in the Luttrell Psalter” in The Problem of Labour in Fourteenth-Century England, eds. James Bothwell, PJ.P. Goldberg and W.M. Ormrod (New York: York Medieval Press, 2000), pp. 346–48. Emmerson and Goldberg date the manuscript to the 1340s. For earlier discussions of the manuscript’s genesis, see Eric G. Millar, The Luttrell Psalter (London: British Museum, 1932) and Janet Backhouse, The Luttrell Psalter (London: British Library, 1989).Google Scholar
  32. 44.
    For a discussion of the sumptuary laws of 1363, see Frances Elizabeth Baldwin, Sumptuary Legislation and Personal Regulation in England (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1926), pp. 50–51. On the iconography of European peasant clothing, see Gerhard Jaritz, “The Material Culture of the Peasantry in the Late Middle Ages: ‘Image’ and ‘Reality’,” in Agriculture in the Middle Ages: Technology, Practice and Representation, ed. Del Sweeney (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), pp. 163–91.Google Scholar
  33. 45.
    The materiality of the laboring peasant’s body is also an issue in much post-1381 writing: see, for instance, Gower’s Vox Clamatis where the poet describes rebel peasants no longer willing to till the fields—formerly men of reason—now transformed into asses (The Major Latin Works of John Gower, trans. Eric Stockton [Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1962], pp. 54–55). In Gower, as in juridical discourse, the unruly laboring body becomes material and visible in a way that it seldom is in ecclesiastical discourse about the honest laborer.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kellie Robertson and Michael Uebel 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kellie Robertson

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations