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Changing Times: Local Courts Adapt to Early Modern England

The leet and manorial courts were important to everyday people in keeping their lives in order. These courts allowed these folks to make petitions about violent behavior, economic abuse, and control over shared spaces. As the 17th century approached, these local courts also began to focus on local infrastructure issues- maintaining roads and fences, and controlling local immigration.

Records from the 17th century, which can be spotty depending on resources of the manor holding the court, show that many people in rural England were using these courts for market and population regulation. Local men would serve as marketlookers - officials who made sure that no one who was selling goods was taking advantage of their customers. Common crimes that they would look out for included forestalling, when a merchant would buy up all the goods before they could make it to market, and regrating, where a merchant bought all of the goods from a producer and sold them again for a profit. This was important to preventing inflation and price gouging, which in turn kept the town’s economics healthy.

Having a stable population was also seen as important to the economic health of the towns and villages. As we have seen, the population was increasing throughout this time period. To control the settlement patterns, manorial and leet courts regulated where people could live. People for often forbidden to subletting rooms or providing rooming to the unsettled poor. Also, houses had to be built on lots with at least four acres of land. This law still has echoes in many housing covenants in neighborhoods today.

Finally, the courts took an active role in cases involving infrastructure. This might not be as exciting as cases involving brawls and gossip, but we can all understand how roads affect our lives, and things were not different for people in early modern England. Well maintain and roads were needed to move goods, which was vital in an increasingly interconnected country. Good drainage systems were needed to prevent flooding and keep fields from becoming waterlogged. Enclosed lands needed to be maintained for the community’s benefit.

And houses and structures needed to be maintained to prevent fire or damage to other people’s property.

Can you think of ways that the cases heard in the manor courts in the early 17th century and beyond mirror issues that we are concerned about today?

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia. Market Scene by Jacob Matham


Governing England Through the Manor Courts, 1550-1850. Brodie Waddell, The Historical Journal.





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