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


Medieval government was concerned before all else with managing men. The question—what is being administered? was closely related to other equally important questions. Who is conducting the administration? Who is profiting from office? Who is enjoying the King’s favour, and with what justification?[1]

If ‘government’ is extended beyond royal forms to seigneurial, ecclesiastical, and collegial government then Sir James Holt’s comments on the northern barons and knights whose rebellion led to Magna Carta may be extended to the officers analysed here, mutatis mutandis. During the later twelfth and thirteenth centuries a way of thinking took hold that trusted to procedures of accountability as a means of regulating officers’ conduct. Some specific administrative, legal, and institutional expressions of these accountable approaches have been this study’s focus. The stance was not inherently new, but it became qualitatively more complex and quantitatively more widespread in this period, across European countries, and across different sorts of officer—including in England. The officers exposed to these methods were not only ‘state’ ones, but included seigneurial, ecclesiastical, and university-college officers, as well as urban-communal ones.

The relationship between formal accountability and the cultivation of responsible conduct varied. In given cases the amount of English attention given to both the cultivation of officials’ responsible character and the elaboration of needful bits and curbs for restraining them could differ markedly. Seigneurial bailiffs experienced both (unusually perhaps in England). Wardens experienced both. Bishops both likewise, but the cultivation of responsible character more than the others. Sheriffs experienced mostly the bits and curbs (again perhaps unusually). Stress on one therefore did not by definition preclude stress on the other. Elaboration of character did not displace elaboration of procedure. Bishops’ liability to canonical inquisitions did not negate the considerable thought given to the character of the bishop. It is not clear to me that it had a particular English complexion. Likewise with podesta, reflection on the character of office did not preclude the machinery of accountability. Nor should it be inferred that the more ‘hard’ accountability and the less ‘soft’ responsibility, the more robust the office. In the case of sheriffs, the relatively reduced amount of interest in the ‘softer’ side of shrieval responsibility did not seem to strengthen the office per se. Some contrasts are marked in this chapter with a range of contemporary Continental practices.

The generic problems that drove the holding of officers to account were of a deep-seated nature. Those with power in the Middle Ages often sought to bridge the distance between them and their subject communities through their officials. Delegated officials of some sort were any rectors way of making himself manifest on the ground.[2] Even ‘self-government at the king’s command’ required some local oversight.[3] How delegating authorities, delegated officials, and entangled communities regulated their relationships was therefore a permanent question for all three groups. Answers varied.

One response of communities to those problems was a fantasy of access. An exemplum about Philip Augustus’s justice on a corrupt royal prevot from Ralph of Coggeshall’s Chronicon (fl.1207—26) illustrates this while conveniently summarizing that insolence of office which accountability should be a solution to.[4] A prevot, long envious of a neighbour’s vineyard, formulates a cunning plan to steal it following the neighbour’s death. With two accomplices he goes to the tomb, puts 100l. in the dead man’s hands, and says, ‘This money I give to you for your vineyard’. Taking his money back the prevot tells his accomplices, ‘Now you can confidently say, swear, and offer your testimony that I, in your presence, exchanged that vineyard for so much money with that man’ (all technically true). He seizes the land and ejects the dead man’s widow. She gets nowhere with the local courts because of theprevots standing and witnesses. It is only when she goes directly to the King that she gets justice. Philip separates the three culprits. He tells one accomplice to quietly recite the Lord’s Prayer to one side. He tells the other that the first has confessed the truth, ‘as it is in the Lord’s Prayer’ (again, technically true). In a nice medieval instance of the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’, this second accomplice promptly confesses. The prevot is hanged, the widow restored. The exemplums lessons are these. That mediocres officials are corrupted by their power and lusts. That such men can play the rules of the game to endorse the frauds they commit, or at least to prevent detection. That rules and legal language can be twisted technically both for good (Philip’s narrowly truthful statement to the second accomplice), and ill (theprevots graveside chicanery). That routine legal procedures may be worse than useless. That status counts at law. That the powerless (the proverbial widows and orphans) have only the fount of justice, the king, to appeal to when intermediate sources of justice predictably fail. That the king is Solomonic: available, attentive, canny, just. That through him fraud is found out and punished, and the downtrodden—despite their status but only if they heroically persist—get their just deserts.

Pessimistic about intermediary justice, the exemplum is optimistic about the quality of the king’s, as well as of his accessibility.[5]

That fantasy of access is a longstanding one of communities faced with intermediary officers mediating between them and their lord. Another response—its opposite—is the despair of distance, perhaps a more likely response. At the end of the sixth century, John the Almsgiver, Patriarch of Alexandria, dreamt that his planned voyage to Constantinople to petition the Emperor for help from Arab raiders would be futile. ‘God is always close at hand; but the emperor is far, far away’, he was told.[6] He abandoned the attempt. In the nineteenth century, Russian peasants at the terminus of the state’s reach likewise recognized the limits of the thread tying emperor and village through local officials. ‘God is in his heaven, and the tsar is far away,’ they disconsolately reflected.[7]

Between fantasy and despair have stood other, more pragmatic expressions of optimism and pessimism. Innocent III remarked that since he could not fly across Christendom in the blink of an eye he would just have to make do with papal legates. Innocent saw his agents here as limbs (membra) of a wider corporate whole, a formulation not restricted to writers such as John of Salisbury.[8] Before Britton (c. 1291) made Edward I spool out England’s judicial hierarchy, he has the King begin by admitting that ‘since we cannot provide in our own person to hear and adjudge all the complaints of our people we have split our responsibility [charge] into many parts’.[9] Charlemagne said much the same in 802, though his solution was oath-taking.[10] The shapes of some other pragmatic solutions in England during the later twelfth and thirteenth centuries have been studied above. They should be understood within their wider political economy. This too had been done before, and the body politic metaphor is just one way of thinking about officials’ reliability within a self-contained system. The Arabic Kitab Sirr al-asrar, Aristotle’s supposed advice to Alexander, explained its self-reinforcing system like this:[11]

There can be no justice and government without the subject. There can be no subject without a king. There can be no king without an army. There can be no army without a state. There can be no state without men (soldiers). There can be no soldiers without money. There can be no money without population (and peace). There can be no population and peace without justice and government.12

Vernacular and Latin versions of this c.950—80 Arabic ‘circle of justice’ circulated widely from 1140. The idea, though, was not novel. An earlier ancestor, stressing the supervision of officials, was attributed to Khusro I Anushirwan, Shah of Persia (ad 531—79) and used seven not eight terms: ‘The monarchy depends on the army, the army on money, money comes from the land-tax, the land-tax comes from agriculture. Agriculture depends on justice; justice on the integrity of officials, and integrity and reliability on the ever-watchfulness of the king.’13

These analogues raise broader questions of parallels and influence. That the formula could be passed on did not mean that it would be. A useful illustration of the need for some further complementarity is the Buyid administrator/historian Abu All Ahmad ibn Muhammad Miskawayh (c.932—?1030), active when the Sirr al-Asrar was compiled.14 Miskawayh drew on sixth-century sources and recorded texts attributed to Khusro I. He was also the author of the al-Hikmah al-khalidah (Perennial

Pseudo-Aristotelian “Kitab Sirr al-asrar.” Facts and Problems’, Oriens 23-4 (1970—1), 147—257. On the Latin version: Manzalaoui, ‘The Secretum secretorum: The Mediaeval European Version of “Kitab Sirr-ul-Asrar” ’ , Bulletin of the Faculty of Art, Alexandria University 15 (1961), 83—107; Alexander Murray, Reason and Society in the Middle Ages (Oxford, 1978), 83^, 119—22, 445 nn. 37—8 and plate II; Pseudo-Aristotle, The Secret of Secrets: Sources and Influences, ed. W. F. Ryan and Charles B. Schmitt, Warburg Institute Surveys 9 (London, 1982); Steven J. Williams, The Secret of Secrets: The Scholarly Career of a Pseudo-Aristotelian Text in the Latin Middle Ages (Ann Arbor, Mich., 2003).

  • 12 Opera hactenus inedita Rogeri Baconi, v. 227. This is the translation from the Arabic text and this portion is not included in the Latin MSS of the Secretum secretorum. The Latin does include a version of related material that precedes this list: ‘The world is a garden or orchard, its timber or hedge is judgement. Judgement is the master dominator walled in by law. Law is the kingdom that the king rules. The king is the shepherd protected defenditur by his lords. The lords are mercenaries stipendarii sustained by money. Money is fortune fortuna gathered by subjects. Subjects are servants servi] subject to justice. Justice is that which stretches itself out and is itself the health salus of subjects.’ Cited from BL Royal MS 12 C. VI, fol. 34v where this is given the title ‘De lege regis et pecunia et quod uniusquisque fuerit’. For Bacon’s edition see Opera hactenus inedita Rogeri Baconi, v. 126. This idea, sometimes also called the circle of the sphere or the octagon of justice, as well as the circle of justice (Arabic but not Latin MSS include a diagram) bears comparison with the body politic metaphor used by John of Salisbury and others.
  • 13 Quoted, Brown, World of Late Antiquity, 166. See Mas‘ud!, Les prairies d'or, trans. Charles-Adrien-Casimir Barbier de Meynard and Abel Pavet de Courteille, rev. Charles Pellat, 3 vols. (Paris, 1962—71), i. 236 (§631 = II.210) and cf. 223 (§597 = II.172); Janine Sourdel-Thomine, ‘Les Conseils du Sayh al-Haraw! a un prince ayyubide’, Bulletin d'etudes orientales 17 (1961—2), 205—68 at 219. Cf. The History of al-Tabari, ed. E. Yar-Shater, 40 vols. (Albany, 1985—2007), v. (trans. C. E. Bosworth), 155. More generally on Khusro, Ze’ev Rubin, ‘The Reforms of Khusro Anushirwan’, in Averil Cameron (ed.), The Byzantine and Early Islamic Near East, iii. States, Resources and Armies, Studies in Late Antiquity and Early Islam 1 (Princeton, 1995), 227—97, and ‘The Sasanid Monarchy’, in Averil Cameron, Bryan Ward-Perkins, and Michael Whitby (eds.), The Cambridge Ancient History, xiv. Late Antiquity: Empire and Successors, A.D. 425—600 (Cambridge, 2000), 638—61 at 652—9. On all this now see Darling, A History of Social Justice, esp. 39^6, 60—5, 74—82.
  • 14 Tajarib al-umam (Experiences of the Nations) and Tahdhib al-akhlaq (Health of the Soul). Parts of the Tajarib al-umam are translated in The Eclipse of the Abbasid Caliphate: Original Chronicles of the Fourth Islamic Century, ed. H. F. Amedroz and D. S. Margoliouth, 7 vols. (Oxford, 1920—1). See also on the Tajarib al-umam, Michael Richard Jackson Bonner, Three Neglected Sources of Sasanian History in the Reign of Khusraw Anushirvan, Studia Iranica 46 (Paris, 2011). The Tahdhib al-akhlaq is translated as The Refinement of Character: A Translation from the Arabic of Ahmad ibn-Muhammad

Philosophy) a text suggested as bearing a ‘distinct family resemblance’ to the Kitab Sirr al-asrar, although he does not quote the latter.15 However, even if a strong textual thread could be strung from Khusro I to Miskawayh to the Pseudo-Aristotle it would be mistaken to take it as a sufficient explanation of such sentiments’ recurrence in these texts and societies. Intellectual antecedents and sources can help to explain such recurrences, but attention needs also to be given to the environment in which such ideas per se resonated. Such debates can otherwise risk missing the wood for the trees. So, for instance, historians have argued whether Roman legal ideas provided an essential conceptual vocabulary for justifying mid-/late thirteenth-century English royal taxation.16 English arguments for royal taxes may well have made appeal to Roman legal precedent in order to assert the ‘necessity’ required to legitimize the taxes, but this alone does not give a sufficient account of either royal demands or parliamentary retorts. One should also ask why there are trees here in the first place. What were the immediate phenomena that made it a useful thing at all to reach for political-legal concepts validated by their pedigree? Bartlett may be quoted a final time: ‘The important thing is not the putative descent of some practice or institution, but its function and significance in the living society in which it has a place.’17 This need not entail a reductionist functional explanation (it does not in Bartlett’s analysis). It is, however, to stress explanations that, though they may address practices’ ultimate origins, also focus on their redeployed meanings and functions within the societies in question. On this basis one can consider the patterns formed by the various official accountabilities discussed in earlier chapters. This chapter, then, first examines some parallels, differences, and similarities between the forms of accountability already described; secondly, tries to establish the causes and ‘elective affinities’ underlying them; and thirdly and finally, considers some of their effects and consequences. It also widens its perspective to note a number of further non-English examples, intended to contextualize this material.

  • [1] J. C. Holt, The Northerners: A Study in the Reign of King John, rev. edn. (Oxford, 1992), 217.
  • [2] Die Konstitutionen Friedrichs II. fur das Konigreich sizilien, ed. Wolfgang Stumer, MGH Leges,Const. Suppl. 2 (Hannover, 1996), cap. 1.17, et sic nos etiam, qui prohibente individuitate per-sone ubique personaliter esse non possumus, ubique potentialiter esse credamur’. See also 1.31 at186. See also the ideal legal hierarchy of the Sachsenspiegel, 3.53 (book and chapter numbers fromthe Wolftenbuttel MS), trans. Maria Dobozy as The Saxon Mirror: A Sachsenspiegel of the FourteenthCentury (Philadelphia, 1999).
  • [3] Albert Beebe White, Self-Government at the King’s Command: A Study in the Beginnings of EnglishDemocracy (Minneapolis, 1933), and invoked e.g. by Jean Dunbabin, Charles I of Anjou: Power,Kingship and State-Making in Thirteenth-Century Europe (London, 1998), 66; J. R. Maddicott, Originsof the English Parliament, 924—1327 (Oxford, 2010), 452.
  • [4] Radulphi de Coggeshall Chronicon Anglicanum, ed. Joseph Stevenson, RS (London 1875), 197—9.
  • [5] A longer version is in Richer of Senones, Gesta Senonensis Ecclesiae, ed. G. Waitz in MGH, SS 25(Hannover, 1880), 249—345 at 288—90 (§3.5). This slightly longer version offers the same Solomonicmodel but the prevot is the higher bailli, the widow goes straight to the King without seeking anyintermediary justice, the baillis corruption is explicitly contrasted by Philip with the benefits the baillihas gained from office, and he is banished and disinherited, not executed.
  • [6] Quoted in Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity: From Marcus Aurelius to Muhammad(London, 1971), 187.
  • [7] Quoted in Geoffrey Hosking, Rulers and Victims: The Russians in the Soviet Union (Cambridge,Mass., 2006), 12.
  • [8] ‘Licet commissa nobis’, August 1198, Reg. Inn. III, i. #345 at 515. For Castilian texts ofAlfonso Xwith interesting senses of the parts forming a unitary whole see Jular Perez-Alfaro, ‘King’s Face on theTerritory: Royal Officers, Discourse and Legitimating Practices in Thirteenth and Fourteenth CenturyCastile’, in Isabel Alfonso, Hugh Kennedy, and Julia Escalona (eds.), Building Legitimacy: PoliticalDiscourses and Forms of Legitimacy in Medieval Societies, The Medieval Mediterranean 53 (Leiden, 2004), 114-17.
  • [9] Britton, ed. Francis Morgan Nichols, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1865), i. 2.
  • [10] Oath of the General Capitulary. The oath to the Emperor enjoins a personal liability to God,‘quia ipse domnus imperator non omnibus singulariter necessariam potest exhibere curam et discipli-nam’, MGH Leges, Capitularia regum francorum, i. #33 cap. 3 p. 92.
  • [11] Linda T. Darling’s study A History of Social Justice and Political Power in the Middle East: TheCircle of Justice from Mesopotamia to Globalization (Abingdon, 2013) is now the key reference point,esp. 39-82 for the idea’s early history. See also Yassine Essid, A Critique of the Origins of IslamicEconomic Thought (Leiden, 1995), 56-61. On the Arabic version see Mahmoud Manzalaoui, ‘The
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