The view from the streets: The records of hundred and leet courts as a source for sanitary policing in late medieval English towns

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Late medieval English leet court records have long been a staple for research by economic, social and legal historians. Yet, despite the wealth of evidence that they contain, they have rarely been used for the study of public health. This state of neglect is all the more surprising because they offer a rare, in many instances unique, insight into what might be termed ‘popular’ or ‘grassroots’ responses to insanitary nuisances and into the enforcement at a local level of regulations concerning the urban environment. Theoretically requiring the regular participation of all resident males over the age of 14 within a relatively small geographical area, these courts functioned at the very bottom of the judicial hierarchy. They served as a useful vehicle not only for the implementation of bye-laws and other directives but also for the dissemination of whatever basic information (such as the need to avoid contaminated air in plague time) that the ruling elite considered it necessary for ‘ordinary’ people to have. In turn, however, they gave local communities an opportunity to complain about perceived hazards that required official action and, indeed, to protest should the response prove tardy or inadequate.
Much of the material presented in this paper undermines the still widespread assumption that the imposition of public health measures must have been difficult, if not impossible, in a society that depended heavily upon consensual policing. Far from demonstrating indifference or hostility to schemes for urban improvement, many leet juries (whose task was to report or ‘present’ specific offences) actively campaigned against perceived threats to collective wellbeing and were vocal in their denunciation of inertia or incompetence on the part of magistrates. Their approach was, nonetheless, pragmatic: minor nuisances might well be tolerated, especially when commercial interests were at stake; and there was a general readiness to compromise over the collection of routine fines. On the other hand, antisocial behaviour that might prove dangerous (especially during epidemics) could he harshly punished or, as frequently happened, subject to the threat of a draconian penalty should the offender fail to take appropriate action.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPolicing the Environment in Premodern Europe
EditorsCarole Rawcliffe, Claire Weeda
Place of PublicationAmsterdam
PublisherAmsterdam University Press
Number of pages26
ISBN (Electronic)978 90 4853 622 1
ISBN (Print)978 94 6298 519 3
Publication statusPublished - 28 May 2019

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