Tag Archives: labour law

Medieval employment law: workplace sexual harassment in fourteenth-century Yorkshire

Years ago, I wrote my Ph.D. on economic regulation in medieval England, eventually turning it into my first book, Royal Regulation.  In both thesis and book, I decided to concentrate on sales and loans, and left out an obvious area of royal intervention in ‘the market’: regulation of wages and employment, especially under the Ordinance of Labourers 1349 and the Statute of Labourers 1351. This omission was due, in part to the vast body of evidence which would have had to be examined, in order to do a proper job of assessing the legislation and jurisprudence. There was also the fact that the area seemed to be well covered by works such as Bertha Haven Putnam’s still-splendid Enforcement of the Statutes of Labourers, and some of the ideas to be found in Palmer’s English Law in the Age of the Black Death. Working through medieval plea rolls these days, I frequently come across ‘Labourers’ cases, but, all too often, the dispute boils down to ‘You were my employee and you left before the contracted term was up’ v. ‘I was never your employee’ ‘Let’s go to proof’ ‘OK then’. and the roll says little more about the matter. Occasionally, however, there is a case in which we actually see a bit more, and learn a bit more about understanding and interpretation of the law in this area. That is certainly so with a case I turned up yesterday in the Common Pleas plea roll for Michaelmas term 1363.

Thomas de Queldale v. William de Ramkill and Elena de Hustwayt (1363) CP 40/416 m. 128d is a case brought by the former employer of Elena de Hustwayt against Elena and a chaplain, William de Ramkill. Thomas claimed that Elena was his servant, employed under a contract for one year, but left his employ before that time was up, without permission and without reasonable cause, and was thus guilty of an offence under the Ordinance of Labourers. William de Ramkill was accused of having committed another offence against the same legislation, by hiring Elena while she was under contract to another employer. Rather than the usual denial of having been employed by Thomas on the terms which he had stated, however, Elena argued that she had had reasonable cause to leave.

It was certainly possible to argue ‘reasonable cause’ on the basis of excessive beating or failure to provide for a servant, and Putnam’s book has examples of both. Elena’s objection, however, was different: Thomas, who was, she stated ‘a married man’, had often pestered her for sex. (The Latin of the text is ‘frequenter solicitavit ipsam ad cognoscend’ ipsam carnaliter contra voluntatem suam’ – which is rather intriguing in terms of ideas about gender, will and sexual consent, and I plan to consider it at greater length elsewhere). Thomas denied that she had left for this reason. It appears as though he is more concerned to question causation of her departure, rather than denying that there was such lecherous behaviour on his part, but this could be a result of common law pleading rules. In any case, he managed to convince a jury that she had left without cause, and that the pestering had not happened. So Elena’s defence failed, and she and William were held both to have damaged Thomas and also to have acted in contempt of the King (because of the breach of royal legislation). It is not very surprising that this was the outcome – juries, made up of local men of some property, were not at all inclined to find in favour of employees in these Labourers cases. It may, however, be rather unexpected – bearing in mind the general difficulty in securing any kind of redress for or recognition of sexual offences – to see pestering which apparently fell short of rape or attempted rape being acknowledged to be a possible ‘reasonable cause’ for a female servant to leave her position, which could absolve her from liability under the Ordinance and Statute of Labourers.  Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a Year Book report of this case, so there is no evidence of the sort of conversations which lawyers might have had about the acceptability of the plea. Nevertheless, it is another piece in the very complex puzzles of (a) the attitudes of medieval men towards medieval women and (b) the ‘position of medieval women’ (e.g. should we choose to play up Elena’s ‘agency’ or her claimed victimisation?), and I will certainly be looking out to see if I come across any other comparable cases.

Here is a free translation of the case:

William de Ramkill, chaplain, and Elena de Hustwayt, recently servant of Thomas de Queldale of York, cutler, are attached to respond both to the King and also to Thomas, in a plea of why, whereas the same King and his council, for the common utility of the King’s realm, ordained that if any servant of whatever status or condition, retained in anyone’s service, should leave the same service before the end of the contracted term, without reasonable cause, or permission, s/he should be punished with imprisonment, and that, under the same penalty, nobody should receive into their service or hire such a person, William retained Elena, who was in the service of Thomas, at York, and who had left the same service before the end of the contracted term, and without reasonable cause or permission, to go into the service of William, despite William having been asked to restore her to Thomas, in contempt of the King and to the great damage of Thomas, and contrary to the form of the Ordinance. And of a plea why Elena left the service of Thomas before the end of the term contracted between them, without reasonable cause and his licence, to the contempt of the lord King and the great damage of Thomas, and contrary to the form of the Ordinance etc. And, in connection with this, Thomas complains that whereas Elena, was retained at York on the eighth October, [1362], to serve Thomas from [11th November 1362] for the whole year following that, taking for her salary 12 shillings, and, before the end of the term, i.e. on [2nd June, 1363], without cause etc, left for the service of William, who took her on and retained her, in contempt of the lord King, and to the great damage of Thomas, and contrary to the form of the Ordinance etc.

And William and Elena come in person, and deny all force and wrong etc. And William says that he did not take in and retain Elena contrary to the form of the Ordinance etc., as is supposed above, and puts himself on the country as to this. Thomas does the same. And  Elena says that she accepts that she was retained to serve Thomas for the aforesaid term, but she says that Thomas is a married man and often tried to persuade her to let him have sex with her against her will (frequenter solicitavit ipsam ad cognoscend’ ipsam carnaliter contra voluntatem suam) so, for this [good] reason, Elena left the service of Thomas. And she asks for judgment as to whether Thomas can maintain this action against her, in this case etc. And Thomas says that Elena left his service before the end of the contracted term, going into the service of William as counted above etc., and that she did not leave his service for the reason she alleges above. And he asks that it be enquired of by the country. And Elena does the same. So the sheriff is ordered to cause 12 [men] … [On we go through the process – pledges for Wiliiam and Elena’s appearance, the case goes off to York, to be heard at Easter time,  … we get to the jury] And the jury found that William had taken in and retained Elena contrary to the form of the Ordinance, as supposed above, and that Elena left her service before the end of the contracted term, entering William’s service, without reasonable cause, and without the cause alleged by her, as Thomas complained above. And they assess Thomas’s damages caused by William’s admission and retention of Elena at 60s. Elena is amerced a mark for her [illegal] departure. Therefore it is decided that Thomas shall recover the aforesaid 60s damages against William, and 1 mark from Elena. [More process – we learn that William and Elena are to be arrested, and that William does pay Thomas the 60 s – in autumn 1369, via Thomas’s attorney, Robert de Acaster – and is acquitted. No word on Elena though.]


GS 27/05/2017


If you liked this, why not try:

B.H. Putnam, Enforcement of the Statutes of Labourers during the first decade after the Black Death, 1349-1359 (Columbia, 1908). https://archive.org/details/enforcementstat01putngoog

L.R. Poos, “The Social Context of Statute of Labourers Enforcement.” Law and History Review 1 (1983), 27-52.

R.C. Palmer, English Law in the Age of the Black Death, 1348-1381: A Transformation of Governance and Law (Chapel Hill, 1993).

G.C. Seabourne, Royal Regulation of Loans and Sales in Medieval England: Monkish Superstition and Civil Tyranny (Woodbridge, 2003).

For concern about sexual misbehaviour from the other side, i.e. attempts to ensure that young employees behaved appropriately, see Rh. Sandy, ‘The us of indentures to control apprentices’ behaviour in medieval England’, Gotffennol  5 (2017), 23-26.



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