The Discourse of Law and Justice in Medieval Europe
24th Annual Medieval Studies Conference
Saturday, March 27, 2004
Trespass Against Whom? Transgressio and Its Meanings in the English Village
Sherri Olson, University of Connecticut

Court roll evidence for the medieval English village suggests that trespass, a central village activity, took many forms at any given time and over time. While the scribes who took the minutes during the court session often applied the label of ‘transgressio’ to different types of cases, including physical assault, slander, and defaulting on debt, the term generally applied to cases of landed trespass, the movement of people, animals, or both on the landed interests of others, in fields, woods, houses, and yards. A study of the traditions of village trespass may shed light on some of the current scholarly interests in mobility, personal identity, and notions of space, as well as working -- and shifting -- ideas about law, order, and local justice. Because these notices appear in the earliest records, and are prominent throughout the long duration of the court roll series, the evidence for trespass in these records is abundant.

Such a study allows us to problematize trespass, which historians have tended to analyze in terms of conflict, notably class conflict between peasant and lord. Such an approach, however, cannot explain why trespass continued unabated in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, when demesne leasing was becoming the typical mode of estate management, and thus trespass in the fields of grain would have meant trespass against other villagers. Indeed, court roll evidence suggests that the long-standing village tradition of landed trespass showed signs of renewed vitality, in terms of a relative increase in volume and even an evolution of new forms of trespass, from the mid-14th century on. Most notable here is trespass by fairly large groups of people, apparently in the same place and roughly in the same period of time, and trespass by people with animals in large numbers, a form of trespass almost unknown in these records before 1350. These features, and the chronology of their changes, have not been adequately accounted for by historians.

Class conflict analysis cannot account for much of the data surrounding this venerable village institution: why were the lord’s officials among the most efficient purloiners of the lord’s resources? Why were outsiders, transients, and new arrivals among the worst – and the most innovative – offenders, stealing timber off houses, grain in the fields, or selling turves, whether in large amounts, or stealthily by night, or, as Simon Schepherd of Upwood did in 1378, taking turves outside the marsh 'with the wagons of outsiders, against the usage of the vill' (cum carectis extraneis contra usagium ville). This final point suggests that trespass can also be considered in terms of individual perpetrators, for whom this type of activity is embedded in their total village “profile.” Even as part of an 'economy of expedients', as has been assigned to urban and early modern populations, much of the practice of trespass has yet to be explained. Analysis of the court roll evidence for two villages belonging to the estates of Ramsey Abbey, over the period 1280-1460, allows us to open up this question around the recoverable facts of concrete practice over time.

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