Tag Archives: History of Money and Possessions

Law and Order in the Middle Ages

If a person committed a crime, they were punished at the Manor Court by their lord or at the Shire Moot by the Sheriff. The Chief Forester could also punish them at a Forest Court such as Edwinstowe or a Forest Eyre such as Nottingham.

Many of those lacking the money and influence to ensure a fair trial hearing in the courts failed to appear before the judges, and became outlaws like Robin Hood.

There were still some Saxon customs in use after the Norman Conquest. If someone was accused of a crime, they might suffer Ordeal by Combat, Ordeal by Fire or Ordeal by Water.

Ordeal by Combat meant that a noble had to fight the person that accused them. Both were given special axes and shields and would fight until one of them shouted “Craven“. The one who lost was put to death.
Ordeal by Fire involved carrying a piece of red-hot iron for three paces. the person’s hand was then bound up and if when this was undone three days later there were no blisters, they were innocent. If they had blisters they were punished or killed.

Ordeal by Water meant that they were tied up and thrown in the river. If they stayed under the water for several minutes, they were innocent. If they floated, they were guilty of the crime.

When Henry II came to power, he made new laws and stopped these cruel ways of trial. He ordered Trial by Jury. This meant that twelve good people could swear that they knew about the person who was accused of a crime. People sometimes bribed others to say things that were not true.

Law in the Town

The Mayor and the Alderman kept Law and order in the towns. They paid 1/4d. a day to the Common Sergeant and the Watchman to do the work for them.

When the Normans conquered England they introduced ‘curfew’ (cover fire) to make the Saxon locals go to bed early. During curfew, no one was allowed out on to the streets, or the watchman would arrest them. Curfew was at eight o’clock in the winter and nine o’clock in the summer.

Forest Law

Hunting Venison.

Hunting Venison.

The Chief Forester enforced all of the Forest Laws and was responsible for each of the royal forests, including Sherwood Forest. He was represented by Foresters , who looked after the forest and Verderers (wardens) who made sure that Forest Law was not broken.

The Forest Laws were designed to protect both hunting animals and woodland from all but the king and his followers. Offences against ‘vert’ included cutting down saplings, branches and especially, of course, full-grown trees. Offences against “venison” included the hunting of red, fallow and roe deer, but also of wild boar. It was forbidden for anyone to carry bows and arrows in the royal forests and if a forest beast were found dead, an inquest was held.


There were many strange punishments at this time. If someone stole they would be put in the pillory (by standing on the platform with their head and hands through the holes) or in the stocks (with their feet locked through the holes).

A woman who nagged her husband was called a ‘scold’. She was tied to a chair and dipped in the pond. This chair was called the “ducking stool”. She might also have to wear a scold’s bridle, which had a piece of iron to go in the mouth to keep her tongue down. In Nottingham these punishments took place in the Market Square, where many people could laugh at those in the pillory and stocks. The dunking stool was kept in Cook Stool Row, which is now called Pillory.

A baker who made poor bread would be dragged on a sledge, with a loaf tied to his neck. If a fishmonger sold bad fish, he would be taken around the town with stinking fish hanging from his neck. A bad priest would have to ride through the streets sitting facing his horse’s tail and wearing a paper crown.

The courts also imposed some savage punishments meaning that the threat of prosecution acted as a powerful deterrent. People who cut firewood from the royal forests would be whipped or fined. Those who murdered or killed a royal deer may have their ears or hands cut off, or worse still, hanged in public for everyone to see. Nobles could choose to be beheaded instead of being hung.

Landholding in the Middle Ages

The king was the ruler of the kingdom. He owned the land and the forests. With manors and rights in every county, the king was very powerful.

When the Domesday Book was made, King William’s land was worth about £73,000. The taxes he got from his lands that were administered by law enforcers like the Sheriff of Nottingham came to about £12,000 a year. He also had the profits of punishments such as fines.

The king gave land to the tenants-in-chief in return for knights and money when needed. The tenants-in chiefs were the barons, bishops and abbots. They had to kneel down and, place their hands in his and promised to obey his laws.

The barons, bishops and the abbots were the lords of the manor. Below the lord were four main groups; the lesser-tenants and knights, free peasants, unfree-peasants and slaves. The free peasants were freemen and sokemen who live in the town. They had no formal obligation to the lord.

Unfree Peasants working on the Lord's land

Unfree Peasants working on the Lord’s land

The unfree-peasants (villeins, bordars, cottars) had to do homage to their lord. This means they promised to be his man and to follow him to war. He also promised, in return for some land, to work on the lordís land and to give him various things. The villeins were the wealthiest of the unfree peasants and often had substantial farms of around 300 square-metres.

The bordars and cottars had a greater burden of service an only smallholding of 30 square-metres.

Leprosy in the Middle Ages

In Anglo-Norman England there were people known as lepers who had a terrible disease called leprosy. Leprosy is caused by a microbe called Mycobacterium Leprae, which was brought back from the Crusades.

Leprosy damages the nerves under the skin and can lead to loss of feeling in hands, feet and eyes. People who have leprosy often cannot feel pain and so injuries can happen which go untreated, which then leads to disability.

Lepers were not allowed to live in the towns. Food was left for them outside the town walls and kind people gave money to build special houses for them to live in. Lepers carried a bell to warn passers-by and cried out “Unclean, Unclean“.

Today there are about one million cases of active leprosy but up to four million people who are suffering physical or social problems due to the disease and there are still one new case of leprosy every minute.

Organisations like the Leprosy Mission bring healing and restoration to some 200,000 people affected by leprosy in over thirty countries. The Mission works both directly, through its own hospitals and in partnership with churches, voluntary agencies, patient organisations, governments and international organisations to meet the total needs of people affected by leprosy.

Yeomen in the Middle Ages

The Scotsman Walter Bower wrote of Robin Hood and Little John in the Scotichronicon, a history of Scotland and England written in the 1440s.

The foolish common folk eagerly celebrate the deeds of these men with gawping enthusiasm in comedies and tragedies, and take pleasure in hearing jesters and bards singing (of them) more than in other romances.

This suggests that in the fifteenth century, tales of Robin Hood were entertainment for the common man. Bower was probably referring to the labourers and craftsmen in the towns and villages of Scotland and northern England. There were other forms of entertainment such as cockfights and bull baiting, and archery was a skill shared by all social classes that would practice or compete at the butts.

Village Life in the Middle Ages

Village life would not have been easy in the Middle Ages; rubbish and human waste were simply thrown out of windows onto the streets, and there were frequent outbreaks of typhoid and yellow fever.

The workers earned little, and they had to pay rent to their landlords and taxes to the crown. It is easy to understand how tales of Robin Hood became popular with the common man. This is how he would like to have lived, a carefree life in the forest with a feast every day and money to boot.

The ballads are not concerned with the politics or problems of medieval England, they are adventure stories meant to entertain and amuse. Although there were plays and songs of Robin Hood, it is unlikely that the ballads were ever actually sung, and they may be the expansion of an earlier written tradition, this could have been the ‘rhymes’ of Robin Hood mentioned in Langland’s Piers Plowman of 1377.

The Bow in the Middle Ages

The bow in its many forms, has been used both in hunting and in battle long before recorded history, and has been part of English warfare since Roman occupation.

Its full potential as the longbow may not have been realized in England until the thirteenth century when it was to become a devastating weapon in battle. The longbow stood as tall as a man and could shoot an arrow more than two hundred yards. The arrows were carried in the archer’s belt, not in a quiver slung over the shoulder. This could have been the weapon used by Robin Hood.

Robyn and Gandelyn survived in a manuscript collection of the mid-fifteenth century. It begins with Robyn and Gandelyn going to the woods to hunt deer. They find a herd and Robyn shoots the fattest deer, and then is himself shot and killed. The assassin turns out to be Wrennok of Donne.

After verbal interaction Wrennok shoots at Gandelyn and misses. Gandelyn in reply shoots Wrennok through the heart. There is nothing to connect Robyn and Gandelyn with the Tale of Gamelyn that was composed in about 1350.

In this anonymous poem, Gamelyn is cheated out of his inheritance by his brother John, Gamelyn then flees to the forest to become an outlaw. John becomes sheriff and tries to capture his brother.

The Tale of Gamelyn is similar to the later Robin Hood story. Gamelyn is a disinherited nobleman who is cheated by his family, he becomes an outlaw, his main adversary is the sheriff, and the king pardons him.

Trade in the Middle Ages

Before there were shops, people depended on the markets for their day-to-day supplies. In Nottingham, these were held in the Old Market Square on Mondays and Thursdays, the important markets were held on Saturdays. This place was probably chosen as a market because of its location between the Saxon settlement around St. Mary’s Church and the Norman borough around the castle.


Women producing garments

Women producing garments

There were shops in Nottingham in the Middle Ages however, but they were not large buildings with glass windows. When a person had things to sell (such as butter, eggs, apples, bundles of herbs or whatever happened to be in season), they would put them on a stall in the front of his downstairs room and went on working their trade.

Shopkeepers nearly always sold the goods that they made themselves, and the person who made one kind of thing lived in the same street. In Nottingham there are streets called Swine (Pig) Grene, Fisher Gate, Pilcher (makers of garments) Gate and Bridlesmith Gate. They hung their trade outside their shop (a pig, a fish or a horseshoe for example). Names were not written over the shops as few people could read.


Nottingham also had a number of great fairs, the most famous being the Goose Fair, which dates from 1284 and is still being held today. Traders from across the country and overseas came to bring goods not made or grown locally, such as livestock, cheeses, spices and cloth. Such a fair would last for sixteen days with an element of merrymaking in the form of plays and games.