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Introduction: law courts, contracts and rural society in Europe, 1200–1600


Private contracts of many different kinds were at the heart of the rural economy in medieval and early modern Europe. This article considers some of the key issues involved in the study of those contracts, and of the institutions that facilitated their registration and enforcement. Drawing on examples from medieval England as well as the articles in this special issue of the journal, it is argued that complex and effective ‘public-order’ structures for contract registration and enforcement – principally various kinds of law court – were ubiquitous in European villages and small towns in this era.

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1 Among recent works, see for example Nicholas, David, ‘Economy’, in Power, Daniel ed., The Short Oxford history of Europe. The central middle ages: Europe 950–1320 (Oxford, 2006), 5790; Bourin, Monique, Carocci, Sandro, Menant, François and Figueras, Lluís To, ‘Les campagnes de la Méditerranée occidentale autour de 1300: tensions destructrices, tensions novatrices’, Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales 66, 3 (2011), 663704, esp. 677–84; Muñoz, J. Ángel Sesma and Corbera, Carlos Laliena eds., Crecimiento económico y formación de los mercados en Aragón en la edad media (1200–1350) (Zaragoza, 2009); van Bavel, Bas, Manors and markets: economy and society in the Low Countries 500–1600 (Oxford, 2010).

2 See the 2009 special issue of this journal on ‘Factor markets in global economic history’, Continuity and Change 24, 1 (2009); van Bavel, Bas J. P., ‘Markets for land, labour and capital in northern Italy and the Low Countries, twelfth to seventeenth centuries’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 41, 4 (2011), 503–31.

3 Greif, Avner, ‘The fundamental problem of exchange: a research agenda in Historical Institutional Analysis’, European Review of Economic History 4, 3 (2000), 251–84, here 254.

4 This influence is not necessarily straightforward, however: Trew, Alex, ‘Contracting institutions and development’, Review of Economics and Institutions 3, 3 (2012), 117.

5 There are further costs associated, for example, with measurement of the quality of the assets to be exchanged and with monitoring agreements and agents: North, Douglass C., Institutions, institutional change and economic performance (Cambridge, 1990), 2733.

6 This term is borrowed from Daron Acemoglu and Johnson, Simon, ‘Unbundling institutions’, Journal of Political Economy 113, 5 (2005), 949–95, who use it to mean those institutions that enable and support private contracts between citizens. They distinguish contracting institutions from property rights institutions, which constrain government appropriation of property.

7 For the novelty of this field of study in Catalonia, see the articles by Lluís Sales and Xavier Soldevila in this issue; Favà, Lluís Sales i, ‘Suing in a local jurisdictional court in late medieval Catalonia. The case of Caldes de Malavella (1328–1369)’, Continuity and Change 29, 1 (2014), 49–81; Temporal, Xavier Soldevila i, ‘Rural courts, notaries and credit in the county of Empúries, 1290–1348’, Continuity and Change 29, 1 (2014), 83–114. For the small number of French studies of rural courts and the shortages of relevant primary evidence, see Charbonnier, Pierre, ‘La paix au village. Les justices seigneuriales rurales au XVe siècle en France’, in Le règlement des conflits au Moyen Âge. Actes du XXXIe congrès de la S.H.M.E.S.P. (Angers, 2000) (Paris, 2001), 281303 and Charbonnier, Pierre, ‘Les justices seigneuriales de village en Auvergne et Bourbonnais du XVe au XVIIe siècle’, in Brizay, François, Follain, Antoine and Sarrazin, Véronique eds., Les justices de village: administration et justice locales de la fin du Moyen Âge à la Révolution (Rennes, 2002), 93108. See also the studies in Bonfield, Lloyd ed., Seigneurial jurisdiction (Berlin, 2000).

8 Ma, Debin and van Zanden, Jan Luiten eds., Law and long-term economic change. A Eurasian perspective (Stanford, CA, 2011); Kuran, Timur, The long divergence: how Islamic law held back the Middle East (Princeton, NJ, 2011); La Porta, Rafael, Lopez-de-Silanes, Florencia and Shleifer, Andrei, ‘The economic consequences of legal origins’, Journal of Economic Literature 46, 2 (2008), 285332.

9 Sales, ‘Suing in a local jurisdictional court’; Soldevila, ‘Rural courts’.

10 The literature on notaries is vast; particularly relevant is Menant, François and Redon, Odile eds., Notaires et crédit dans l'occident méditerranéen médiéval (Rome, 2004). For the tabellions, or scriveners – the northern French equivalents of the notaries – and their role in contentious justice as well as the recording of agreements, see the studies in Arnoux, Mathieu and Guyotjeannin, Olivier eds., Tabellions et tabellionages de la France médiévale et moderne (Paris, 2011).

11 See Claustre, Julie ed., La dette et le juge. Juridiction gracieuse et juridiction contentieuse du XIIIe au XVe siècle (France, Italie, Espagne, Angleterre, Empire) (Paris, 2006).

12 Guzowski, Piotr, ‘Village court records and peasant credit in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Poland’, Continuity and Change 29, 1 (2014), 115–42.

13 Zuijderduijn, Jaco, ‘On the home court advantage. Participation of locals and non-residents in a village law court in sixteenth-century Holland’, Continuity and Change 29, 1 (2014), 19–48.

14 For debt registration in the Low Countries compared with England, see Jessica Dijkman, ‘Debt litigation in medieval Holland, 1200–1350’, in Ma and van Zanden, Law and long-term economic change, 231–7.

15 Bolton, J. L., Money in the medieval English economy: 973–1489 (Manchester, 2012), 202–5.

16 What follows is necessarily a simplistic and static account of a very complex situation.

17 Briggs, Chris, ‘Credit and the freehold land market in England, c.1200–c.1350: possibilities and problems for research’, in Schofield, Phillipp and Lambrecht, Thijs eds., Credit and the rural economy in north-western Europe, c.1200–c.1850 (Turnhout, 2009), 109–27.

18 Clanchy, M. T. ed., Civil pleas of the Wiltshire eyre, 1249 (Wiltshire Record Society, 26, 1971), 23; Briggs, Chris, Credit and village society in fourteenth-century England (Oxford, 2009), 71–2, 80–2; Britnell, R. H., Growth and decline in Colchester, 1300–1525 (Cambridge, 1986), 105.

19 The Statutes of Acton Burnell (1283) and Merchants (1285) also established a system of debt registration and recovery, but it is doubtful that many of the rural contracts that concern us here made use of it.

20 For more detail on these issues, see forthcoming work by Chris Briggs and Phillipp Schofield from the project ‘Private law and medieval village society: personal actions in manor courts, c.1250–1350’, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, 2006–09, ref. AH/D502713/1.

21 Briggs, Credit and village society, 12, 67, 216 and references therein.

22 North, Institutions, 54–6; Avner Greif, ‘Institutions and impersonal exchange: the European experience’ (CCDRL working paper no. 14, Stanford, 2004); Dam, Kenneth W., The law–growth nexus: the rule of law and economic development (Washington, DC, 2006), 70–7, 123–8.

23 Ogilvie, Sheilagh, Institutions and European trade: merchant guilds, 1000–1800 (Cambridge, 2011), 250314; Edwards, Jeremy and Ogilvie, Sheilagh, ‘Contract enforcement, institutions, and social capital: the Maghribi traders reappraised’, Economic History Review 65, 2 (2012), 421–44; Greif, Avner, ‘The Maghribi traders: a reappraisal?’, Economic History Review 65, 2 (2012), 445–69; Edwards, Jeremy and Ogilvie, Sheilagh, ‘What lessons for economic development can we draw from the Champagne fairs?’, Explorations in Economic History 49, 2 (2012), 131–48; Goldberg, Jessica, ‘Choosing and enforcing business relationships in the eleventh-century Mediterranean: reassessing the “Maghribī Traders” ’, Past and Present 216 (2012), 340.

24 See, for example, Masschaele, James, Peasants, merchants and markets. Inland trade in England, 1150–1350 (Basingstoke and London, 1997); Galloway, James A., ‘Urban hinterlands in later medieval England’, in Giles, Kate and Dyer, Christopher eds., Town and country in the middle ages. Contrasts, contacts and interconnections 1100–1500 (Leeds, 2005), 111–30; Milton, Gregory B., Market power: lordship, society and economy in medieval Catalonia (1276–1313) (New York, 2012), chapter 5, esp. Table 5.4.

25 For example, Campbell, Bruce M. S., ‘England: land and people’, in Rigby, S. H. ed., A companion to Britain in the late middle ages (Oxford, 2003), 325; Wrigley, E. A., ‘The transition to an advanced organic economy: half a millennium of English agriculture’, Economic History Review 59, 3 (2006), 435–80.

26 However, see Ogilvie, Institutions and European trade, 285–310, for a wider consideration of contracting institutions beyond just those affecting international merchants.

27 See n. 23 above, for examples from a much larger literature; for recent illuminating examinations of these issues, see also de Lara, Yadira González, ‘The secret of Venetian success: a public-order, reputation-based institution’, European Review of Economic History 12, 3 (2008), 247–85, and Dennison, Tracy, ‘Contract enforcement in Russian serf society, 1750–1860’, Economic History Review 66, 3 (2013), 715–32.

28 See for example Dixit, Avinash K., Lawlessness and economics: alternative modes of governance (Princeton, NJ, 2004), 123.

29 Epstein, S. R., Freedom and growth: the rise of states and markets in Europe, 1300–1750 (London, 2000), esp. chapter 3; van Zanden, Jan Luiten, The long road to the industrial revolution: the European economy in a global perspective, 1000–1800 (Leiden, 2009), 168. These works draw contrasting conclusions about the effects of political fragmentation on medieval economic growth.

30 Epstein, Freedom and growth; Epstein, S. R., ‘Introduction: town and country in Europe, 1300–1800’, in Epstein, S. R. ed., Town and country in Europe, 1300–1800 (Cambridge, 2001), 129; Epstein, S. R., ‘Rodney Hilton, Marxism, and the transition from feudalism to capitalism’, in Dyer, Christopher, Coss, Peter and Wickham, Chris eds., Rodney Hilton's middle ages: an exploration of historical themes (Oxford, 2007), 248–69, esp. 262–7.

31 Epstein, Freedom and growth, 51.

32 Epstein, ‘Rodney Hilton’, 267.

33 The question of which courts had the right to adjudicate which contracts is a complex matter on which more research is needed. For the competence of borough courts, see Kowaleski, Maryanne, Local markets and regional trade in medieval Exeter (Cambridge, 1995), 219–21.

34 The National Archives, London, JUST 1/96, m. 33 (roll of the Cambridgeshire eyre of 1299). For Bourn's medieval manor courts, see Diane K. Bolton, ‘Bourn’, in Elrington, C. R. ed., A history of the county of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: volume 5 (London, 1973), 1213.

35 Gottfried, Robert S., ‘Bury St Edmunds and the populations of late medieval English towns, 1270–1530’, Journal of British Studies 20, 1 (1980), 131, here 12–13.

36 This observation is based on analysis of the rolls of all Fornham manor court sessions of the reign of King Edward I (1272–1307) for which records survive (96 in total).

37 Suffolk Record Office, Bury St Edmunds Branch, E3/15.9/1.2.

38 Briggs, Credit and village society, 123–9; Muldrew, Craig, ‘Rural credit, market areas and legal institutions in the countryside in England, 1550–1700’, in Brooks, Christopher and Lobban, Michael eds., Communities and courts in Britain 1150–1900 (London, 1997), 155–77, which demonstrates the marked persistence of fragmented and overlapping jurisdiction over contract disputes in post-medieval England.

39 Briggs, Chris, ‘Manor court procedures, debt litigation levels and rural credit provision in England, c.1290–c.1380’, Law and History Review 24, 3 (2006), 519–58.

40 Stringham, Edward Peter and Zywicki, Todd J., ‘Rivalry and superior dispatch: an analysis of competing courts in medieval and early modern England’, Public Choice 147 (2011), 497524; Ogilvie, Institutions and European trade, 314.

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