Tag Archives: medieval contract law

Burn Books and Year Books: Mean Girls in the medieval convent?

A Selden Society volume from several decades ago noted the Year Book treatment of an interesting case, Wakefield v. Prioress of Hampole (1318) and a matching plea roll entry, and commented on its importance in relation to the medieval ‘law of contract’. I have just come across another entry on a plea roll relating to this case, which was not mentioned in the Selden Society volume, which I thought I would note, for those who like such things (massive global audience, I am sure), and have a little recap and reconsideration of this case, which is interesting both in relation to the ‘law of contract’ and also to investigations with a focus on social and gender history. And religious women being, well, mean.[i]


The nerdy bit, a.k.a. ‘You can’t join Mathletes, it’s social suicide! [but still a rung above being a medieval legal historian]’[ii]

The Year Book references can be found here, (Seipp 1318.099ss) and the case is included in SS 65, J.P. Collas and T.F.T. Plucknett (eds), Year Books of 12 Edward II (Michaelmas A.D. 1318) (London, 1950), p. 58,  and discussed by Plucknett at p. xlvii. The plea roll reference given is quite correct: (translated into modern format) TNA CP 40/225 m 250, which you can see here, but the case did not finish at that point, and to have a proper match, covering the ground seen in the YB, you would also need this entry, from CP 40/231 m. 221.


The basics, a.k.a. ‘Get in loser, we’re going [legal history]ing’

The case was, at its root, a dispute about money. It was said that money (20 marks)  had been paid over by a man called Robert le Botiller to Christine, prioress of Hampole,[iii] in 1294, in relation to Robert’s daughter, Eleanor, who was intended for the cloister. The nuns at the convent in question did not, however, accept her. Not surprisingly, given the way things didn’t work out, There was an attempt to get the money back, but the new prioress resisted this. The prioress won. This may well seem questionable, but the explanation lies in the rules about proof and evidence which prevailed in the medieval ‘old personal actions’, i.e. the available modes of proceeding in the area occupied by modern contract law.


The law bit: ‘Stop trying to make debt happen. It’s not going to happen.’

There was some quibbling over whether a debt action of this sort could be brought by a person other than the person who had paid the original sum (Robert had died, and the current claimant was William de Wakefield, the executor of Robert’s executor) , but in the end that was not the thing which killed it: the real problem was that it was brought against somebody other than the original recipient (a new prioress had succeeded). William’s side clearly saw that this might be a difficulty, as they tried to make a connection via benefit to the convent as a whole, as a result of the money handed over. This didn’t work, though – in this case, a ‘debt on a contract’ case without a specialty (deed), a defendant was allowed to proceed by ‘wager of law’ or compurgation (swearing that the money was not owed and bringing along 11 oath-helpers to support credibility). This could not work (according to its own logic) for somebody other than the original contracting party – only the former prioress herself would have been able to wage her law and make statements about whether or not the money was owed. A successor could not do so.

One might think that the appropriate response to that would have been ‘well, let’s find another mode of proof then …’, but no – that’s not how these thngs worked. Forms of action came with a particular set of procedures attached, and in this sort of action, the defendant had to be capable of waging his or her law. This meant that William could not get as far as an inquiry about the terms of the deal, whether the money was in fact paid over, or what was supposed to happen if the other side of the agreement was not fulfilled. In the world of of medieval common law litigation, he was indeed … a loser.


The human bit: ‘On Wednesdays, we wear habits’

Well, what is better than a story about medieval nuns? Obviously one about medieval nuns being less than obvious embodiments of Christian charity. Here, we appear to see them rejecting a candidate for nun-hood, and then finding a reason not to pay back the money intended to help that happen. This may be a false picture of course – Eleanor may have been ‘evil [taking] a human form’, or she may have been unwilling to join the convent – there was no chance for the facts alleged by the claimant to be interrogated. Whatever the truth behind this allegation of rejection, however, it is certainly not implausible that a prioress, with the aid of her legal advisers, would stand by her strict legal rights. The plea rolls are full of actions in which heads of religious houses seek to use the law to secure their house’s economic position (and, as much work on nunneries has shown, this position was not infrequently rather precarious). One thing which occurs to me is that the changing of heads of house might be rather useful, as a way of making actions like that of William incapable of success. Surely medieval religious would never be so sneaky as to do this deliberately?

Shut Up!




(Image – as you can gather, the convent isn’t visible above ground – there are remains, but it’s a private site and I couldn’t find a free image …thus this unevocative view ,,,]



[i] I am sure I don’t have to say this, but, you know, classic teen film, 2004. Regina George, Plastics, L. Lohan before it all went wrong …

[ii] Latter clause inexplicably cut from the line.

[iii] Hampole was a Cistercian priory, in Yorkshire, see this outline.