Felony and Exile in the High Middle Ages

From England to France
Felony and Exile in the High Middle Ages
William Chester Jordan
Princeton University Press   240pp   £27.95

Around 1300 a Northamptonshire man called Richard Mandeville killed his brother in the course of a stone-throwing competition. Whether this was accidental or premeditated we shall never know, for Richard claimed immunity from prosecution by seeking sanctuary in the local parish church. However, such was the social pressure on him that the troubled man decided to do a deal. Admitting to an act of theft in which he had recently been involved, he went to court, where he agreed that he would take his punishment by abjuring the realm: leaving the kingdom, never to return.

In a fascinating study, William Chester Jordan suggests that judicial exile, barely noted in previous histories of the law, was practised in a remarkably large number of cases – at least 75,000, he suggests – between 1180 and 1350. Abjuration takes its place alongside other means by which medieval society sought to soften the rigours of the law and allow those found guilty of felony to escape the hangman’s noose. This is not to say that exile somehow denoted innocence. Jordan is clear that the majority of those who abjured were guilty of their crimes and, indeed, were often hardened criminals. The exiling of so many vagrants, petty thieves, gangsters and murderers offers a chilling commentary on how English society thought best to deal with them: by letting their neighbours abroad take on the problem.

Where did abjurers go and what happened to them there? Jordan applies his extensive knowledge of continental sources to offer a persuasive account of the main trends. Many abjurers were instructed to proceed to Dover and cross the Channel to Wissant, whence most seemingly made their way into the Low Countries and particularly into France. Some scratched an honest living as labourers; others even made good and were sometimes even invited home again. For the vast majority, though, the odds were grim and abjurers seem to have lived on the margins, often ending up as members of a hardened criminal underclass. 

Cases of abjuration dry up around the middle of the 14th century. The reason seems to lie in the outbreak of the Hundred Years War. No longer keen to see undesirables making common cause with their enemies, the English state preferred to offer certain types of criminal a royal pardon, granted on condition of a period of service in the king’s armies. Ironically, then, the English Crown no longer treated France as a dumping ground for undesirables and, instead, directed the perpetrators of crimes at home to commit altogether greater atrocities abroad. 

This is not a book for the beginner: it assumes and demands a good deal of its reader. But the vivid detail conjured out of the records and the author’s general mastery of so many aspects of medieval law and culture make it a revealing and compelling model of history ‘from below’.      

Mark Ormrod is Professor of History, University of York and author of Edward III (Yale, 2011). 

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