Labour law and extremely small medieval Londoners

I have noted a few cases on labour/employment law over the years, but this is a new one for me, and a fairly secure Year Book-Plea Roll match[i] – names almost line up, though there are some changes of story …

Let’s go to the London area, in the 1350s, and observe what is clearly a fairly extreme shortage of workers …

The entry, labelled ‘Middlesex’, sets out the case against Robert Brewer de Holborn and Elena his wife, and Matilda daughter of Philip de Cornwaile, recently servant of Thomas Cheris, cutler. These three were sued on behalf of the king, and himself, by Thomas Cheris, on a writ founded on the recent labour legislation (Statute of Labourers (1349), 23 Edw. 3, ch. 2). Robert and Elena had allegedly admitted Matilda into their service before her term of service with Thomas was up, and Matilda had left Thomas’s service before the end of her term, without licence or reasonable cause. Both offences were ‘in contempt of the king’, to the damage of Thomas, and contrary to the legislation.

Thomas’s contention was that Matilda had been in his service, in St Stephen’s parish, Coleman Street ward, London, under a contract which ran from 21st June, 1349 for the next seven years, but left before the end of that term. without licence, on 5th October, 1354, and was taken on by Robert and Elena in the St Andrew’s parish, Holborn, Farringdon ward, and retained, (in contempt of the king,  to the damage of Thomas – to the tune of 20 l., according to Thomas – and against the form of the ordinance.

Robert and Elena’s answer to this, as far as the plea roll was concerned, was that they had done nothing wrong, since Matilda was too young to have made a binding contract to the effect alleged by Thomas. Having examined Matilda in court and inspected her body, the court decided that she was within age, and could only have been about three years old when Thomas said she was initially retained, so that she could not then have contracted with anyone, or entered into a covenant. As far as the case against Matilda was concerned, Thomas lost – he would take nothing and was in mercy for a false claim. We might think that the case against Robert and Elena would have to fall too, given the problem with Matilda’s ‘covenant’ with Thomas, but not so: that case went on, and Robert and Elena, in the end, put themselves on a jury on the issue of whether or not Matilda was retained by Thomas as he stated in his writ. [Here, the entry ends].

The Year Book tells a broadly similar tale. One character is called William Brewer of Holborn, rather than Robert, and he is bringing, rather than defending the suit, and Matilda is said to be the defendants’ daughter rather than the daughter of somebody else entirely (though possibly that relationship is forgotten later on in the report – it certainly seems odd that it is not used in argument) but still, I think this is the one.

The YB story is that a  writ on the Statute of Labourers is brought against ‘a man and his wife’ (Ds) and their daughter, ‘M’. M had allegedly covenanted to serve P for seven years, but left without reasonable cause, before the end of her term. The Ds had then retained her, contrary to the statute. As with the plea roll version, there was an inspection of the girl, and it was decided that she was too young to have made a binding contract as alleged, so that part of the case failed, but the case against the Ds continued. Year Books being Year Books, we get more of an account of the sparring before the eventual issue was reached, and it is pretty interesting.

There was, apparently, some argument about the interpretation of the Statute of Labourers: the Ds’ counsel  argued that the statute concerned covenants for usual terms, i.e. one year, not seven. Essentially, the point was that it was incorrect to build a case on the statute here. Expanding upon this, it was argued that, if this was allowed, a writ on the statute could be used for a covenant for a lifetime of service, or for a thousand years – which was clearly regarded as ridiculous.

Counsel for the Ds also, we are told, had a go at making  something of a coverture point – the writ was against both H and W, but a feme covert could not employ anyone, as ‘all would be said to be the act of the husband’, and, clearly, it would be wrong for the wife to end up in prison for her husband’s act – so using the statute, which did prescribe imprisonment for this offence, would certainly be inappropriate. Willoughby JCP was not entirely in agreement with the coverture argument, and made quite an interesting intervention, to the effect that ‘common understanding’ was that, if somebody was retained in the service of one spouse, s/he was regarded as being in the service of the other too. (So, coverture fans, I suppose that indicates more of a unity approach to coverture than a domination approach – or, indeed, just something a bit more practical and a bit less in thrall to any particular theory; something which showed an understanding of employment in small scale ‘family business’ situations).

The YB has a little more on the question of M[atilda]’s age. It was a serjeant, Finchden, who showed her to the court, asking them to observe that she was nine, and so could not bind herself contractually. The court, we are told, both ‘saw’ and ‘examined’ her (luy vist & examina – let’s hope that this was nothing traumatic, eh?), and agreed that she was nine, so not bound by a covenant. They also made the faultlessly logical comment that she would have been younger when the covenant was actually made (‘a long time past’).

That sorted out the case against Matilda, but, agreeing with the plea roll, it didn’t mean that the Ds were off the hook. Argument clustered around (i) whether M could be regarded as having been in P’s service, despite not having been working there on the basis of a binding covenant, and (ii) whether or not there was a difference between removing M from P’s service and retaining her after she had left P’s service. Both pleading and statutory interpretation aspects of those questions came into play. Sensing that the court was not on their side, the Ds were scared off these legal issues, and just went to more general pleading,[ii] though there is a slight difference here from the ending of the plea roll entry. That had made the issue for the jury one of denying that Ds had retained M. Here, it is whether or not Matilda was retained by Thomas as he stated in his writ. This does seem to me quite an important difference, but I suppose that it indicates that the YB report writer had lost interest once the thing seemed to take this more factual turn, and so was not really bothered about what it was exactly that the jury was to decide. What he cared about was the cut and thrust of discussion in court, rather than the lives of little people outside the ‘Westminster (Hall) bubble.’

So what?

Well, there is all sorts here – pleading and statutory interpretation for those of a technical persuasion, employment practices and the treatment of children for those with more soc. and ec. hist. interests, and some chat about coverture for gender hist. types. I am struck, as ever, by the differences between PR and YB – it really does seem, sometimes, as if there is immediate and deliberate distancing of the material put into reports from the actual case involved. Perhaps needs a warning at the start like TV shows loosely based on true historical events.  (And no, let’s definitely not get into ‘what is truth?’ … )





[i] YB Pasch. 29 Edw. III f. 27 p. 29;  Seipp 1355.085  = CP 40/381 m. 59d or a hat will be consumed … The YB account here is, of course, founded upon David Seipp’s work.

[ii] The YB report is interested, too, in the technical pleading point that this had moved from a purely legal argument to an issue of fact.

Image – site of St Stephen’s, Coleman Street … not very atmospheric, or suggestive of medieval labour law, I admit.