Medieval Labour Law: interesting defences


Not so long ago, I noted a fifteenth century case in which an employee alleged abusive behaviour on the part of a master (See 4th January, 2014). Here’s another little nugget, this time from the fourteenth century, and a period of particular employer-employee (or master/servant) tension during the reign of Richard II.

The King’s Bench roll for Trinity term 1389 (KB 27/5513 m. 25; AALT image 59) includes the case of John Clerc of London, saddler, brought to court under the labour laws of Edward III, accused of leaving his employment with John Somervylle, without reasonable cause or permission.  He was said to have left before the end of his one year contract.

Clerc alleged that he had had reason to leave – and the reason was an interesting variation on allegations of beating. He said that Somervylle had accused (or ‘defamed’) him of having slept with Somervylle’s wife, and this had resulted in Clerc being summoned before the ecclesiastical authorities in London, where he had purged himself (gone through the ecclesiastical form of proof of innocence). Somervylle had proceeded to stab Clerc in the chest, and, said Clerc, if the knife had not hit a bone, he would have been killed. He was, therefore, in his view, fully justified in leaving Somervylle’s employ.

Unsurprisingly, Somervylle denied everything, and so matters were sent to proof with a jury. Here, medieval legal records go silent. All we hear is that the jury found in favour of the master – perhaps because Clerc’s story was a pack of lies, perhaps because jurors chosen on the basis of their property were likely to side with a master rather than his servant. Still, Clerc must have thought that this story might work, which suggests that the scenario he came up with, if it wasn’t true, was at least a plausible course of events. And that says some interesting things about expectations of violence, intimate relations and reaction to adultery in fourteenth century England.

(Clerc was ordered to pay his former master the thumping sum of 100s 7 1/2 marks, and this offence also left him liable to imprisonment),

GS 10.3.2014