Friday, March 13, 2015

Rolls of the King's Bench Online

I spent much of the winter of 1990-1991 reading documents just like this, which is one item from a rolll of the English Court of King's Bench from 1308. They're easier to read than they seem at first, because they follow conventional formulae and after a while the phrasing just rolls off your tongue. If you're curious, click on the image for a closer look. In the left margin is the abbreviation for Gloucester, the county where the parties to the case live. Then there is a new item sign that looks something like a proofreader's paragraph mark. Then it says

Margareta que fuit uxor Robert le Spicer de Gloucestre op se viii die vs. Johannes le King de Gloucestre de placito transgressionis.

That is, Margaret who was the wife of Robert Spicer of Gloucester came against John King of Gloucester on the eighth day concerning a plea of trespass.

The middle part is a formula meaning that Margaret or her lawyer came to court and demanded the appearance of Robert King for a week and a day, which didn't necessarily means a week and a day, but anyway they summoned him to court in the proper fashion. The rest of the entry goes on to to say that Robert King did not appear, so the sheriff was ordered to distrain him -- which means put financial pressure on him to appear -- and the sheriff reported that Robert had been bailed by certain other men who promised to produce him in court, but they failed so they are to be fined. It is an absolutely typical entry in that nothing happens. If you follow cases like this over the months, most of them appear one to ten times like this and then disappear. Only maybe one out of twenty or thirty cases actually leads to an argument between the two parties, and even then the judges often find some reason not to rule.

Anyway, what got me writing about this was my discovery today that many of these documents are now online. So I just spent an hour pouring over these tedious entries, trying to regain my skill at deciphering the obscure bits, and remembering that time in my life.

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