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Home arrow History arrow Officers and accountability in medieval England : 1170-1300


This study develops the following arguments. Firstly, that the relationship between norms of office and rules of accountability is central to an understanding of how, and how far, institutions of all sorts encouraged officers towards a narrower conception of accountability or more broadly characterized ideas of responsibility. The period examined here is interestingly schizophrenic since it tended to say that the characters of officers could be cultivated so as to guarantee their conduct.[1] This seems especially so with higher ‘officers’, where status made accountability to inferiors especially problematic (hence again the value of looking at mediocres). ‘Ruler, rule yourself’ was often the expressed solution.[2] What people in the period tended to do implied that there was a real anxiety that strict statutes and biting curbs were necessary to enforce right conduct for want of responsibility.[3] Avowed belief in responsible conduct was belied by repeated reliance on a thinner accountability in practice. We have Guibert of Tournai’s treatise for Louis IX, the Eruditio regum et principum (c.1259) offering to the problem of official insolence its solution of appointing those who love God and hate sin.[4] We have also the massive documentation of Louis’ enquetes into officials’ misconduct (ongoing 1247-69).[5] Secondly, ironically, that this hope wagered on more formal regulation of officials’ accountability did not always produce more responsible officers. Often its consequence seems to have been greater complexity of law and administration. Still, in all the areas discussed here, that this tendency did minimally mean that reasonably clear, reasonably rational ground rules were established. Thirdly, that in this legal-administrative sphere one should recognize the role of a ‘vernacular’ pragmatism in responding to officers’ (un)accountability. By ‘vernacular’ I mean that local practice and solutions mattered. Accountability did not invariably boil down only to learned precepts, but was often the product of local experimentation.[6] The more learned logic that may frame these responses need not always be quite the engine driving them. Fourthly, that different types of office were sometimes permeable to ideas from other types of office. Finally, fifthly, and above all: that although a number of ways of holding officers accountable developed in relation to regnal (‘state’) institutions, by no means all of them did. To see accounts, inquests, inquisitions, and accountability more generally as principally and necessarily expressions of The State’s emergence is to mistake a part for a broader whole. An increased attention to officers’ responsibility and accountability is part of a far more generally widespread way of thinking in this period. This study explores it.

  • [1] Dunbabin, Aristotle in the Schools’, 68-9 (on kings). Relevant remarks in Philippe Buc,L'Ambiguite du livre: Prince, pouvoir et peuple dans les commentaries de la Bible au Moyen Age (Paris,1994), 400-1; Reynolds, Kingdoms and Communities, 189.
  • [2] in See e.g. Gerald of Wales, Liber deprincipis instruction in Giraldi Cambrensis Opera, RS, 8 vols.(London, 1861-91), viii. ed. George F. Warner, esp. Dist. 1, Dist. 3, cap. 31.
  • [3] In H. L. A. Hart’s terms, internal rule-following did not produce evident external rule-application, though a shared sense of the internal rule existed: The Concept of Law, 2nd edn. (Oxford,1994), esp. 56-7, 84-91, 102-13 where ‘internal’ pertains to self-regulation through following a rule/norm; ‘external’ pertains to our ability to see a rule in fact exists out in the world by its being visiblyfollowed. Of the internal aspect Hart said, ‘What is necessary is that there should be a critical reflectiveattitude [within a community] to certain patterns of behaviour as a common standard, and that thisshould display itself in criticism (including self-criticism), demands for conformity, and in acknowledgements that such criticism and demands are justified, all of which find their characteristic expression in the normative terminology of ‘ought’, ‘must’, and ‘should’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’’ (57). See furtherNicola Lacey, A Life of H. L. A. Hart: The Nightmare and the Noble Dream (Oxford, 2004), 225-9.
  • [4] Le Traite Eruditio regum et principum de Guibert de Tournai, O.F.M, ed. A. de Poorter, LesPhilosophes belges 9 (Louvain, 1914), 78-9, section beginning, ‘Ergo tales in. . .’
  • [5] RHF, xxiv.
  • [6] Cf. Jason Peacey’s study of ‘common politics’ in seventeenth-century Britain, Print and PublicPolitics in the English Revolution (Cambridge, 2013), esp. the introduction and conclusion.
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