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A Game of Chess: The Sheriff’s conflictus at the Exchequer

The first of the Dialogue’s two books focuses on the officials who admit, run, and judge the sheriff’s account of himself at the Exchequer. Book 1127 of the Dialogue addresses the mechanics of Exchequer rules. It has very little to say directly about the sheriff himself, a topic purposely reserved for the second book. There the magister says he and the discipulus will discuss the Exchequer’s ‘greater and more indispensable practices’. This is where the ‘more excellent, more useful [utilior] and more elevated science of the Exchequer’ lies.128 Stressing always the intellectual integrity of Exchequer knowledge (scientia), Richard points his readers towards book 2’s main contribution to regal and regnal utility: managing sheriffs.

Famously, the emblematic image offered by Richard of the sheriff accounting for himself at the Exchequer is that of a player in a game of chess. The whole set-up of the Exchequer audit is that of a serious game.129 The overt reason why the Exchequer (scaccarium) is so called arises from the chequered abacus board used to mark the sheriffs’ workings at the account (different columns represented different denominations).130 But the ‘more hidden’ (occultior) reason, explains the magister, is that

As in a game of chess there are certain orders of fighters, who stop or start according

to given rules [legibus] or limits, some outranking, others in the vanguard, so in this

Heiser, ‘Richard I and his Appointments’, 10. Henry II was perfectly capable of drawing a public/pri- vate distinction when it was in his interests. See William of Newburgh’s obituary for Henry citing his defence of regalian rights from vacant bishoprics on the grounds that ‘Nonne melius est ut pecuniae istae impendantur necessariis regni negotiis, quam in episcoporum absumantur deliciis?’ Newburgh dismissed this ‘defence as a stupid sophism’ (defensionem inanem ratiunculam): William of Newburgh’s Historia rerum Anglicarum in Chronicles of the Reigns of Stephen, Henry II and Richard I, ed. Richard Howlett, RS, 4 vols. (London 1884—9), i. 280—1 (§3.26).

  • 126 e.g. the assay of the quality of coin paid in at the Exchequer is discussed in terms of ‘regie simul et publice prouideretur utilitati’, DS, I.vii at 43.
  • 127 Irrespective of successive, inconclusive editorial disagreement over whether the text is really divided into two books, there is a clear break/transition between ‘book 1’ and ‘book 2’.
  • 128 DS, I.xviii at 65.
  • 129 On serious games for managing conflict see also Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture (London, 1949). The Exchequer itself is, of course, also conceived in the Dialogus as both event and institution, DS, I.i at 6—7.
  • 130 DS, I.i at 7.

[the Exchequer account and audit], some preside and others assist ex officio, and there is no one who is free to infringe the constituted rules [leges] [. . .] And as also in the game, a battle is waged between kings, so in this, the conflict [conflictus] where battle is waged is principally between two people, namely the treasurer and the sheriff who sits to account, while others sit like judges so that they can watch and judge.[1]

In the same way there is a more hidden way of translating the magisters statement that ‘the summonses are sent out so that there can be an Exchequer’—‘The summonses are sent out that there may be a game of chess’.[2] The treatise could even be titled ‘How to play the game of chess’.[3] The ritual of the setting, the stage of the account, and the loving, hierarchical progression through officers’ tasks, are all emphasized in the magisters description of his spectator sport.[4] The drama of Exchequer theatre was still thought worth reasserting in the 1320s when the then treasurer Walter Stapeldon complained of the need for ‘grant diligence et bone quiete’ lest the sheriffs’ accounts be neither ‘suffisaument renduz, oyz, ne espleites [finished]’.[5] It does not seem excessive to think of the conflictus metaphorically as a chess game. During the earlier discussion of chess and fortune, the magister endorsed as ‘praiseworthy’ his discipuluss attempts ‘to dig for the flowers of symbolic understanding amidst worldly thorns’.[6] Applying Richard’s injunction yields interesting points about how the accountability of sheriffs at the Exchequer was understood.

Accurate measurement of money and its quality was, as book 1 describes, a fundamentally important part of Exchequer business. Counting a debtor’s money in at the Exchequer was a straightforward, empirical matter. Alongside counting went exaction. One of the first things book 2 describes is the question of what the sheriff’s rate of repayment would be. This was a matter of political judgement. Summonses were issued for each term. The barons, at the end of one term and before the next, then sat privately together, the clerks having compiled lists of everyone’s outstanding debts and, going through each county, ‘from its individual debtors they determine [decernent] how much ought to be demanded, taking into account the quality of the person, the nature of their business, and the basis on which it is owed to the King’.137

This due consideration of what to exact is the complement of the Kings consideration about what to spend that received such stress in Richard’s Dedication.[7] The overall process of holding sheriffs to account could be as much a question of political arithmetic as pure maths. The discretion of the barons was vital. As, Richard said, if ‘10’ was called in for the Easter term (the start of the Exchequer year) then a debtor might presume a total of ‘20’ would be required for the whole year at the Michaelmas account. But ‘to that said “10” might be added a further “10”—or more—as is the view of those presiding and evaluating (my stress). Debtors are liable ad arbitrium of those presiding at the Exchequer.[8] It is specifically in the handling of these summonses containing this decision that Richard identifies the more ‘elevated science of the Exchequer’.[9] This then was a potentially highly political accountability.[10] The judgement of how to vary exactions and to pin down evasive sheriffs was the more useful and elevated science of the Exchequer. Exacting and counting were the two sides of the coin, the former more loaded than the level latter.[11] Richard’s openness about this process is, again, striking. The stakes could be large. It was, after all, Thomas Becket’s alleged ?30,000 Exchequer debt that in 1164 was called in as a weapon against him during his dispute with Henry.[12] The Briouze family, with almost equal infamy, found itself pursued by King John ‘secundum consuetudinem regni nostri, et per legem scaccarii nostri’, for William Ill’s alleged financial delicts, for which William’s wife and eldest son would be starved to death in 1210.[13]

There was then a ‘discretionary’ side to this, and it is one that Richard describes as, again, occultior.[14] The Dialogue places a curious stress on the more arbitrary aspects of accountants’ fortune at the chessboard. In describing the mechanics of the abacus system—again at just the point when he might emphasize the rationalizing scientia of the procedure—Richard instead foregrounds the wilfulness of it. The magister describes how counters may be reassigned numerical significations on the counting board, either up or down, ‘so that if it pleases the person calculating, what signifies 1,000, descending by degrees, may instead signify 1’.[15] This would be an innocuous enough demonstration of the versatility of the counters, were it not that the discipulus replies,

Thus it may be that any ordinary person, should he be a man and no more, can have his temporalities added to at the will [uoluntate] of the president [of the Exchequer], and ascend from the depths to the heights and then, once fortune’s law’s been served, be flung down to the bottom, remaining as he was, although he seems changed by his dignity and state.[16]

This is a very striking allusion to the potentially arbitrary nature of Exchequer exactions (and subtler than anything Walter Map had to say). The maths at the Exchequer was one thing. But rates of exaction were quite another and could easily become a political judgement. Olivier Matteoni has made similar arguments about why the later French Chambre des comptes in Paris did not always apply the penalty sanctions its auditing process permitted.[17] Debts cannot be paid unless they are owed.[18] The value of the Exchequer’s scientia was that whatever was accounted there was objective by definition. But what was summonsed for payment was not. Exchequer judgements always looked fair and sometimes might even have been fair (much as in the manorial accounts discussed in Chapter 2). That was a good part of their usefulness. Snakes and ladders begins to seem a better image than chess.

The Dialogue's images of chess and dice are not innocent images to conjure with here either.[19] The magister and the discipulus themselves refer to their dialogue as a game of dice in which they take turns to speak.[20] Lightheartedness about dicing was not so uncontroversial, however. Nor is it clear that Richard assumed such allusions were uncomplicated. Around 1060—1, having watched the Bishop of Florence play chess all evening, the hardline church reformer Peter Damian wrote to the pope-elect Alexander II. Identifying chess with gambling he lamented ‘how shameful, how senseless, how disgusting this sport is in a priest’. Chess was banned in the Knights Templars’ rule of 1129 at the Council of Troyes. Alexander Nequam condemned it in his De naturis rerum (c.1200—4).[21] Louis VII (1120—80) was berated by Count William II of Nevers for playing chess, the Count contrasting its frivolity unfavourably with the ‘heavy stewardship’ (strenuumprouisorem) needed from kings to attend to God’s people.[22] For Frederick II at Melfi in 1232, dicing was infamous enough to bar one from public office for life, or invalidate the testimony of knights who should know better.[23] Henry II himself had legislated against dice.[24] One interpretation of the chess game represented in S. Savino, Piacenza’s mosaic, is that it is an extension of the central roundel’s depiction of the wheel of fortune on which figures rise and fall.[25] The offensiveness of chess to churchmen was that they associated it with luck, chance, and gambling. Thirteenth-century Bibles moralisees often used scaccarium images as shorthand for lustful, worldly, or intemperate behaviour.[26] Choosing chess as the key motif of the ostensibly rational, equitable struggle between sheriff and Treasurer is wilfully dicey. As the central image characterizing the quality of the trial by battle between Treasurer and sheriff, it indicates a far from innocuous presumption about the ‘justice of accountability’.[27]

Richard sails closest to the wind though when he discusses the president of the Exchequer, the Chief Justiciar, ‘who is entrusted with the king’s heart’. It is only right, the Treasurer says, that he should be so entrusted, since, as Christ said, ‘where your treasure is, there will your heart be also’.[28] This is, of course, the precise opposite of Christ’s actual meaning to put aside worldly wealth. It was completely consonant, however, with a vision of accountability dedicated to the utility of king and kingdom and which both Dialogue and Exchequer promoted. The magisters endorsement of his discipulus’ ‘praiseworthy’ digging for symbolic understanding amidst worldly thorns during the discussion of chess and fortune has already been noted.[29] Digging in the Dialogus reveals much more than Europe’s first audit manual.

In making these points I am not at all suggesting that Exchequer accounting is ‘merely’ symbolic or irrelevant to the eventual exactions imposed on debtors. The counting is real yet the rate of repayment could be highly political. Richard is well aware of the political nature of Exchequer accountability and the gamesmanship of the process is admitted, even welcomed. The rules are there to be played and the barons are there to outplay sheriffs and other debtors.[30] But the formal process validates the political outcome, and the ritual lends the proceedings an objectivity that is fundamental in ensuring the institution generates belief in itself.[31] This explains Richard’s loving care in iterating the members, responsibilities, peculiarities, rules, layout, procedure, and history of his institution. The Exchequer clears an ostensibly rational, but not necessarily level, space for rule-based conflict between sheriff and Treasurer.

As a text concerned with both fiscality and a particular idea of utile equity, and one that describes how these ends are secured by the professionalism of its central court and counting house’s officers, and which specifies the management of sheriffs at the Exchequer as its highest science, it is nevertheless surprising what aspects of sheriffs’ conduct are absent from the Dialogue of the Exchequer. The greatest European ‘manual’ of the twelfth century on office-holding and a governmental institution has barely anything to say about the character of the sheriff, the key officer who faces the Treasurer at the audit. It may be argued this is to be expected. Richard is principally describing his side of the conflictus, thus the professional, managerial competence that is so dominant a feature of what Richard says relates strictly to the Exchequer officials, not at all to the sheriffs. Yet book 2 gives a great deal of time and discussion to the sheriff. Richard’s handling of the sheriff is interesting. It is not clear that Richard deigns to consider sheriffs as officers.163 Book 1 lovingly rotates through the lower Exchequer offices of treasurer’s clerk, deputy chamberlains, pesour, melter, usher, watchman, and then the upper Exchequer’s justiciar, chancellor, constable, chamberlains, marshal, and the many others.164 Even the lowly watchmen and ushers’ jobs are described as officia.165 Richard, however, generally avoids describing the sheriff’s activities as an elevated officium.166 His preference is for the plainer agenda or sometimes negotium}61 One would not want to exaggerate the significance of this, but given the liberal allocation of formal offices to everyone else in the Dialogue, the sheriff’s virtual exclusion from this category is notable.168 The sheriff’s oath as discussed in the Dialogue is relatively ‘thin’ too. It seems only to have concerned his thorough investigation of debts due to the king and his own claim that he had accounted correctly. (It will contrast with the 1258 oath.) There is no mention at all of how the sheriff was expected to discharge this responsibility.169 in Philippe Contamine and Olivier Matteoni (eds.), La France des principautes: Les Chambres des comptes XIVе etXVe siecles. Colloque tenu aux Archives departementales de lAllier, a Moulins-Yzeure, 6, 7, 8 avril 1995 (Paris, 1996), 267—79 at 271—2. Less dramatic but still subtle are Matteoni’s comments on the Chambres des comptes, ‘Verifier, juger’, esp. 61—7. A useful theorization of the norms and limits of institutional self-objectification is Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of officialisation in Le Sens pratique (Paris, 1980), 183—8 (referenced by Bisson, Crisis of the Twelfth Century, 350, and cf. his discussion of the Exchequer, 462—9). Even Jeremy Bentham understood that his panopticon’s accountability was significant as a ‘new mode of obtaining power, power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example: and that, to a degree equally without example, secured by whoever chooses to have it so, against abuse. Such is the engine: such the work that may be done with it’ [my emphasis], Panopticon; or The Inspection House, 2 vols. (Dublin and London, 1791) i. i—ii.

  • 163 See also e.g. DS, Il.iv at 81, where he implies he is a servant (seruiens). This is a quite distinct register from Richard’s in speaking about ‘his’ men.
  • 164 See the listing in DS, at lv—lvii. 165 DS, I.iii, I.vii at 8, 12—13, 44—5.
  • 166 An exception is DS, II.xii at 105.
  • 167 DS, I.v, II.i, II.ii, II.iii, II.iv at 25, 29, 30, 69, 78, 79, 82, 84, 85.
  • 168 por an example of Richard’s use of officium for his men see e.g. DS, I.v at 26.
  • 169 DS, I.v, II.xii—xiii, II.xiii, II.xvii, xxviii at 21, 106—7, 109, 113—14, 124, 126. Also II.iv (81) on the oaths of his representatives. For officers’ oaths more widely, see now Lachaud, Ethique du pouvoir,
  • 473-507.

There is also little discussion of shrieval misconduct in the Dialogue of the Exchequer, but it is instructive about the sheer possibility of independent shrieval action. The question of fraud surfaces when the discipulus asks whether a sheriff could tamper with his summons. The discipulus reflects that the summons remains

in his and his mens’ hands for a long time, the summons’ integrity reliant on his faith alone. So [a sheriff] could, if he wished, delete, distort or diminish it with impunity, since there is no copy in the barons’ hands.[32]

The magister replies:

He could perhaps if he wished, but this would be proof of total insanity, to open himself willingly to so great a risk, particularly when he could not thereby strike off his debts to the king, scarcely indeed put them off. For every single debt which summons are made out for, has already been carefully noted down, so that it is not possible for anyone to free themselves by such devices, even were the sheriff to help them.[33]

Shrieval conduct is determined by Exchequer controls, rather than by any internal professionalism. (One could contrast podesta treatises such as Latini’s Tresor and to some extent the manorial ones of Chapter 2.) Utility—mostly royal, sometimes specifically regnal—is its operative watchword. On Richard’s account, the simple sheriff is the revolving object at the centre of the Exchequer’s panopticon. At the epicentre of the institution for managing sheriffs there is little attention to their professional character. There could have been. Sheriffs’ broader conduct in office had been the focus of a major and controversial inquest in 1170. In John of Salisbury’s Policraticus we can find extensive discussions of the sheriff’s character and office.[34] Interestingly this seems to have been little read in thirteenth-century England—by contrast with France.[35] Certainly from Richard’s perspective there were limits to the Exchequer’s interest in sheriffs’ accountable, functional, professional competence.

This, to repeat, is not to say that the Dialogue is indifferent to right or justice.[36] It is rather that those are defined principally from the king’s perspective (‘Who, whom?’). Sometimes this is differentiated from the interests of the kingdom; sometimes the two are deemed identical. But such attention as Richard gives to issues of right and justice beyond the king’s interest is strictly limited. In turn the sheriff as a professional official receives a quite different and unflattering treatment compared to his chessboard opponents. The Treasurer’s description of how his institution works is little concerned with how the sheriff conducts himself in office so long as the king is not at a loss. Of course the Exchequer as a court remained an important venue for disputes about debts exacted by sheriffs, but the overwhelming stress of Europe’s first audit manual was on the accountability of debtors understood in a very particular, political, fiscal way. It is not surprising that this was the case. It is more surprising that the Treasurer of the Exchequer makes this the bare ground on which to demonstrate his institution’s governmental mastery.

The Exchequer audit was not the only way in which sheriffs were accountable at the Exchequer, since the Exchequer was also a court. Issues of shrieval conduct were also raised at eyres and at ‘bespoke’ inquiries into sheriffs. Nor, as conceded, was Richard’s the only relevant perspective on shrieval accountability. Did these approaches ameliorate or exacerbate the tensions between utile fiscality and honestum conduct within the sheriff’s office?

  • [1] DS, I.i at 7. It fits Richards purposes, of course, that it is the Treasurer who is the sheriff’s keyantagonist in this presentation.
  • [2] ‘Fiunt autem summonitiones ut scaccarium fiat’, DS, II.i at 69.
  • [3] ‘De scaccarii tui necessariis obseruanciis’, DS, Dedication, 2.
  • [4] The subject of much of book 1. See esp. DS, I.i at 6—7 for the setting, I.v at 15—17 for theprogression according to status, II.iv at 84—5 for attention to the isolation of the sheriff immediatelybefore giving his account. Diagrams of the described layout of the Exchequer room are given in DS,xlii. Given his symbolic-functional analyses of Kabyle domestic space, Pierre Bourdieu would haveenjoyed reading the Dialogue of the Exchequer. For an analysis of the later medieval French Chambredes comptes stressing ritual aspects see Olivier Matteoni, ‘Verifier, corriger, juger: Les Chambres descomptes et le controle des officiers en France a la fin du Moyen Age’, Revue historique 641 (2007),esp. 41-7, 51-2.
  • [5] Red Book of the Exchequer, iii. 850. Stapeldon seems as self-conscious as Richard of Ely of theExchequer’s momentous need for ‘grant occupation de temps et diligence graunde, et conoissance a lefaire’ (Red Book of the Exchequer, iii. 856, and generally 848-909).
  • [6] DS, I.v at 26. 137 DS, II.i at 70.
  • [7] DS, Dedication, 2 and text cited at n. 123. For discussion of the situation under John seeHolt, Northerners, 232—3, 237. David Carpenter’s forthcoming study and edition of Magna Carta willaddress ‘standards of judgement’ under John.
  • [8] DS, I.ii at 73. This presumes that the ‘10’ originally summonsed was less than half of the actualamount owed. It is not that more than was due was illegitimately summonsed.
  • [9] 140 DS, II.ii at 78.
  • [10] It seems useful to characterize the barons’ decisions on amounts due, then specifying, verifying,and auditing them, as comprising accountability at the Exchequer.
  • [11] 142 See David Carpenter’s sharp remark that the Exchequer ‘was central to the exaction of revenue,the control of local officials, and the web of political control which the king could spin over the country, for nearly everyone of importance owed money to the crown and could be punished or rewardedby varying the rates of repayment’, Struggle for Mastery, 154. See e.g. Philip Marmyns repayment planfor debts from his time as sheriff of Warwick and Leicester, CPR 1247—1258, 268 (12 February 1254).
  • [12] Frank Barlow, Thomas Becket (London, 1986), 111.
  • [13] Foedera, i.1. 107—8 at 107, John’s sworn and witnessed justification.
  • [14] The arbitrariness of regal court culture is not an original theme. See e.g. Map’s De nugis curia-lium, 2—10 (§1.1—9), 498—512 (§5.7). Much earlier Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy discusses thesame issue—and is, of course, also a dialogue.
  • [15] DS, I.v at 25-6.
  • [16] DS, I.v at 25—6. Cf. Walter of Henley, cap. 3, in Walter of Henley, 308; Charles M. Radding,‘Fortune and her Wheel: The Meaning of a Medieval Symbol’, Mediaevistik. Internationale Zeitschriftfur interdisziplindre Mittelalterforschung 5 (1992), 127—38.
  • [17] Matteoni, ‘Verifier, corriger, juger’, 61—5 on the extra-accountancy considerations that couldaffect the Chambre’s failure to impose the fines it might.
  • [18] For John’s advantage in using the Exchequer court to establish, exact, and vary debts see Holt’saccount of the debts of Peter de Brus, Thomas of Moulton, Nicholas de Stuteville, Robert de Vaux,John de Lacy, in Northerners, 171—4 and 164, 183.
  • [19] 15° See generally Michel, Pastoureau, L’Echiquier de Charlemagne: Un jeu pour ne pas jouer (Paris,1990), and Une histoire symbolique du Moyen Age occidental (Paris, 2004), 303—29.
  • [20] DS, I.v at 25.
  • [21] 152 James Robinson, The Lewis Chessmen (London, 2004), 46—55. For emphasis of the rationalaspects, Alexander Murray, Reason and Society in the Middle Ages (Oxford, 1978), 204—5.
  • [22] Adam of Eynsham, Magna Vita Sancti Hugonis, ed. Decima L. Douie and Hugh Farmer, OMT,2 vols. corr. ed. (London, 1985), ii. 56 (§4.12).
  • [23] Konstitutionen Friedrichs II. fur das Konigreich sizilien, cap. 3.90.
  • [24] Chronica magistri Rogeri de Houedene, ed. William Stubbs, RS, 4 vols. (London, 1868—71), ii. 336-7.
  • [25] William L. Tronzo, ‘Moral Hieroglyphs: Chess and Dice at San Savino in Piacenza’, Gesta 16/2(1977), 15-26, but preferring a positive association of chess with virtue (esp. 19-21). The debateexemplifies the imagery’s ambiguousness.
  • [26] e.g. BL Add. MS 18719 (London, late 1280s-early 1290s) at fos.7v, 22r, 24r, 44r, 53r, 118v,150v, 203v, 208v, 211r, 270r. On this MS, see further pp. 253-5.
  • [27] 158 The subtitle of Bisson, Crisis of the Twelfth Century, 316—49. See here pp. 253-60.
  • [28] DS, I.v at 16, quoting Matt. 6: 21. The point is repeated at I.xiv at 61-2.
  • [29] 160 DS, I.v at 26.
  • [30] Cf. the magisters account of how debtors tried to move taxable capital out of their county during the sheriff’s predictable visits so that a sheriff with a county mandate would not be able to evaluatenor collect it, DS, II.i at 71-2. This is not catching sheriffs out but stopping sheriffs from being bamboozled by over-subtle legalistic approaches by other debtors.
  • [31] 162 Genet has provocatively asked whether the men of the Chambre des comptes even counted.He wished to make a similar point, that political arithmetic influenced the question of what wassummed (Jean-Philippe Genet, ‘Chambres des comptes des principautes et genese de l’etat moderne’,
  • [32] DS, II.ii at 74. 2 DS, II.ii at 74.
  • [33] 172 See now Lachaud, Ethique du pouvoir, 177—216.
  • [34] 173 Frederique Lachaud, ‘La Notion d’office dans la litterature politique en France et en Angleterre,XIIe—XIIIe siecles’, Comptes rendus de lAcademie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres (November—December
  • [35] 2009), 1543—70. I am grateful to Professeur Lachaud for a copy.
  • [36] Cf. Amt, ‘Reputation of the Sheriff7, for another perspective.
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