Desktop version

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

Local Political Structures, Values, and Officers’ Accountability

An officer’s accountability was very significantly a function of the ‘local’ political structures around an office. This itself is unsurprising; more interesting is how different institutional-jurisdictional contexts gave rise to different practices of accountability.[1]

Bailiffs and podesta are a case in point. The offices differ in many ways—but Andrew Horn’s interest in both again serves as an encouragement to comparison. Both were executive officers with financial and legal responsibilities. Podesta were certainly greater men, with greater legal powers and with military responsibilities. Still, it is interesting to compare the method of accountability in either case. Both bailiff and podesta underwent an end-of-term audit of their actions. Around both officers grew a similar-shaped worry about their accountability. Monstravit de compoto addressed the possibility of a landless bailiff absconding after finishing a term of office and having embezzled (fraud) or mismanaged (incompetence) his land-lord’s assets. Sindacatio sought to prevent a professional podesta leaving the commune before he had given an adequate account of his and his officers’ actions. Beyond this though the socio-political structure entailed by the action of account differs from that of sindacatio. The action of account presumed that a nationwide county network would provide a sticky net in which to catch a bailiff who had run out of the jurisdiction in which he—allegedly—committed the offences.[2] It was predicated on royal government of a particular degree and depth. One cannot imagine a pan-Italian institution whereby allegedly criminal podesta would be sent by one helpful city-state back to their previous employer (take Siena and Florence’s thirteenth-century antagonism). But, in contrast perhaps to podesta, we can wonder whether bailiffs were enough of a ‘profession’ for previous poor performance to pose an obstacle to future work. The role of professionalism may here have varied in relation to these jurisdictional nets, as well as in relation to the relative power of the positions. One can more easily imagine how a podesta would seek to avoid a truly disastrous sindacatio for reputational as well as financial reasons. Reputation was thought to matter more explicitly for podesta, and indeed as bigger figures they were the more visible. Much of the literature addressed to podesta discusses how they should seek to smooth the path of sindacatio for this reason. English bailiffs also had experience and skills and hawked around for work—as Adam Marsh’s correspondence showed. They could also be quite ‘senior’ in the sense of having heavy responsibilities—as John de Valle’s case showed. Aside from relevant differences between the two offices, issues of professionalism, reputation, and the political structure of either England or Italy show why sindacatio and actions of account could develop as they did where they did.

In the same way, the argument about the specific emphases of shrieval accountability stemmed from an argument about the mainly fiscal interests of the major institution responsible for routinely holding them to account—the Exchequer—and can be counterpointed with the different emphases of French enquetes into baillis, where the chronological development of its relevant fiscal institution—the Chambre des comptes—did indeed differ. College wardens are a further contrasting case, where accountability was a consequence of local institutional (organizational) structure, but where institutional (social) forms had more, not less in common across Europe; perhaps again unsurprising given the monastic humus on which they were based, as across Merton and the Sorbonne. Episcopal accountability fits in midway here, as both generic (the procedure of canonical inquisitio is applicable throughout Christendom) and local (subjective local groups/elites may play a determinative role in assessing what constitutes a scandalum in the first place).

This is to offer a portrait of English official accountability in which any ‘Englishness’ in these features is a recognizable variant of a wider European continuum. Although the values underpinning these different European experiments in official accountability were very similar, their different political and administrative backgrounds led to them being instrumentalized and institutionalized in quite distinct ways. Holt’s brilliant analysis of the English crisis of ‘1215’ rightly set it in its wider European context.[3] His near contemporary Jacques Le Goff, however, never had ‘such a profound feeling of exoticism as in England’—‘l’Angleterre est un pays bien etrange’.[4] But, in the area of officers’ accountability at least, Le Goff’s comment seems more not less outre. When one asks Susan Reynolds’s question, ‘How different was England?’ in terms of the complexity of the accountability exacted from its officials, the answer must be, ‘Distinctive, but of a piece with the rest of Europe.’[5] Reynolds—Holt and Le Goff’s younger contemporary—has stressed in her major works the common ground of European social institutions and legal practices, at least to the thirteenth century.[6] The English forms may be variable, the underlying impulses are not, and no more exotic than those of France or the Regno. With respect to officials’ accountability, there was commonality of values and variety of institutional expressions as a function of underlying economic and political structures—but also as a consequence of the encouragement given by authoritative individuals, be they Walter of Merton, Louis IX, Innocent III, Richard of Ilchester, Henry III, or Frederick II.

This bears in turn on David d’Avray’s Weberian thesis about the relationship between values and their instrumental expression. Here that would mean the value placed on being accountable in relation to a given instrumental practice of securing that accountability (say a bailiff’s duty to give account and the action of account).

Since values mould instrumental rationality, the degree to which instrumental rationality in different cultures coincides depends on the degree of overlap between their value rationalities [. . .] The key is the causal dependence of instrumental technique on values. Similar values generate similar instrumental techniques [. . .] differences in underlying values can cause the whole character of the instrumental rationalities they generate to look entirely different, as vodka changes its taste with different mixers.[7]

The forms of instrumental techniques are a function of their underlying values. So the norms asserting that officials be accountable would determine the institutional form that instrumentalizes this claim. The material evaluated here certainly illustrates a more complex dialectic between values and institutional expression. The value of accountability as expressed in the parable of the unjust steward and invoked in relation to both podesta and bishops is insufficient to explain the differing shapes of sindacatio and canonical inquisition. One gets closer by adding the value of episcopal status (and the consequent caveat about ensuring an investigation produces ‘no serious loss for the sake of a small gain’), since this goes some way to explaining the prominence of infamia procedurally. But the structure of inquisitions seems as much a practical consequence of the limits of papal oversight. This itself may have little to do with values. The Exchequer’s definition of what constituted shrieval accountability defined what sheriffs were accountable for. But that focus also imposed real limits on (e.g.) Henry Ills faltering attempts to assert the importance of non-fiscal aspects of sheriffs’ conduct.[8] [9] Institutional form (that is, instrumental rationality) could constrain or enable ideals (that is, value rationality) in practice. The explanation for the difference between Henry III and Louis IX’s handling of their ‘shrieval’ officers is not only that Louis’s values were arguably more coherent than Henry’s; it is that the instrumental rationalities institutionalized in their administrative traditions conditioned either king’s freedom of manoeuvre differently.

This draws attention to the difficulty of isolating the specific roles that values play in determining given institutional practices. (It is not at all to deny that role.) If it is right that ideals or values of official accountability were relatively common throughout Christendom, then would one expect to see them given the same institutional form? Institutional forms may be more regionalized (e.g. southern European sindacationes)46 or less (non-canonical inquisitiones generally). If, as it seems, ideals of accountability were relatively common then political/institutional context and purpose may play determinative roles. Values may shape instrumental practices, but they are not the only thing that matters.

This is to suggest something about the importance of institutional need and rectores’ own thinking, raising the question of causation.

  • [1] See more widely Michael Borgolte, Europa entdeckt seine Vielfalt, 1050—1250, Handbuch derGeschichte Europas 3 (Stuttgart, 2002), esp. pt. 4.
  • [2] 39 English government was well used to jurisdictional boundaries being manipulated. See the rusewhereby debtors to the king would hide their goods outside their county of residence to prevent thatcounty’s sheriff from extracting the debt. DS, II.i at 71—2. For problems produced in Germany ofdiscrete judicial districts (Gericht) and their imperial judicial hierarchies in relation to the pursuit ofcrime see Saxon Mirror, §§2.71 (breaking the peace), 3.24 (outlawry), 2.35 (stolen goods found inanother district).
  • [3] J. C. Holt, Magna Carta, 2nd edn. (Cambridge, 1992), 23—49, puts the charter in this widercontext.
  • [4] The first quote is Le Goff’s, the second Boureau’s, both in Alain Boureau, La Loi du royaume: LesMoines, le droit et la construction de la nation anglaise (XIe—XIHe siecles) (Paris, 2001), 11.
  • [5] 42 Susan Reynolds, ‘How Different was England?’, TCE 7 (1999).
  • [6] Susan Reynolds, Kingdoms and Communities in Western Europe, 900—1300, 2nd edn. (Oxford,1997), and Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted (Oxford, 1994).
  • [7] d’Avray, Rationalities in History, 112—13.
  • [8] On Henry III’s motivations and speeches, Maddicott, Origins of the English Parliament, 170, 174-5.
  • [9] 46 See further Moritz Isenmann, Legalitat und Herrschaftskontrolle (1200—1600): Eine vergleichendeStudie zum Syndikatsprozess: Florenz, Kastilien und Valencia (Frankfurt, 2010).
< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >

Related topics