“Policing” the Medieval Village

liquor and gunsAfter sharing a New Year’s Eve kiss, my husband and I opened our front door and listened to the sounds of drunken revelers shooting their guns into the air…only in America. Every year I wonder what happens to all those bullets. Is some poor sap walking down the street getting pelted in the head with falling ammo? Can a falling bullet kill a man? Who decided that the logical conclusion to a night of heavy drinking was to shoot off a deadly weapon?

But this year my thoughts drifted to more substantial musings (clearly I hadn’t drank enough). My mind wandered from thoughts on gun control to police brutality to terrorist attacks, and finally, as my thoughts so often do, to the Middle Ages. How did they police their cities back then?

As it turns out, without police.

I’m referring to England specifically here. Most of the info I’m about to give you comes from The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England  by Ian Mortimer. It’s a great book, and I totally recommend you check it out.


Comic_Book_-_The_Joker_(1940)Like I said, there wasn’t a police force. But there were (super) villains. Okay, fine. It’s actually villeins, and they weren’t actually masked nemeses of superheroes so much as tenant farmers. These villeins banded together into neighborhood groups called tithings. In theory a tithing consisted of ten villeins, but in reality it ended up being however many men lived on a particular street or hamlet. And by men I mean anyone over the age of 12 and under 60.

Basically, once you joined the tithing you swore a solemn oath to God called “frankpledge” that you would snitch on anyone in your tithing that broke the law and drag his criminal ass down to the constable. It is, after all, the neighborly thing to do.

snitchesI wondered if this system also existed in Scotland. After a grueling Googling session, I found that the frankpledge seemed to have been restricted to southern England. Perhaps that Scots just didn’t feel the need for a formalized oath, or perhaps they worked under the assumption that “snitches get stitches.” Hard to say.

So lets say little John Smith turns twelve, takes the frankpledge, paints his face like the Joker, and discovers a crime is being committed. What is he to do?

He raises the “hue and cry.” This is basically the villein version of the bat signal. The actual form it takes varies by location, but it is a distinctive call that alerts the rest of the community that a crime has been committed. According to this article, in England they shouted harrow and in Scotland liar-rock. 


Someone, please tell me what liar-rock means. I searched forever and found nothing. NOTHING! I even checked an etymology dictionary to see if the meanings of these two words have changed over time. Nope. There has to be some sort of explanation for this. I cannot accept that they just decided to throw these two arbitrary words together and thought eh good enough. 

As a side note, a search for “Scotland” and “hue and cry” will lead you to this amazing 80s band:

Weirdest video ever… but I think I’ve fallen in love with the lead singer. Sorry, kids…mommy has to go on tour with Hue and Cry for awhile.

Okay, back to the Middle Ages.

So once the hue and cry had been raised, everyone, not just members of the tithing, had to stop what they were doing and immediately join the caller and check out the crime scene. If they caught the criminal, they handed him over to the constable. If he escaped, they had to let all the people in neighboring tithings know to be on alert for a criminal hiding amongst them.

Ned_Christie's_War_1892If the crime was really serious, say murder, they might call out the posse comitatus–a group of armed badasses who would chase down the bad guy and enact justice. Feel free to picture them in cowboy hats. It’s not historically accurate, but I feel a posse just isn’t a posse without them.

If you were the fleeing criminal and the posse comitatus was after you, you had better run fast, preferably to a church that offered sanctuary. Because if they caught you, it wasn’t going to end well. If you were a man, the posse would decapitate you. If you were a woman, they’d take you to the river and drown you. I’m not sure why they chose different methods of execution for the different sexes or which way would be worse. I suppose that depends on the skill of the decapitator. Either way, it wasn’t a pretty end.

So in conclusion—crime doesn’t pay, kids…

If have you have any questions or things to add, please comment below, or ask me in person. You’ll find me  on the Hue and Cry tour bus, probably drunk and shooting guns in the air.


photo credits:
This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 80 years or less.
This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/85853333@N00/2344469960″>Rancho Liquor</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>(license)</a>

Batman #1 (April 25, 1940)qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.

http://www.whitsett-wall.com/Fort_Smith/Lawmen.HTM–his media file is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1923. See this page for further explanation.


6 thoughts on ““Policing” the Medieval Village

  1. Another great post.

    Have you read “Life in a Medieval Village,” by Frances and Joseph Gies? It talks a lot about the social structure of the 12-13th century English village, including the role of “villeins” and how justice was meted out. An excellent read if you’re interested!

  2. Very interesting as usual. In Greece, Crete is a place where the men are very macho, and guns get fired at weddings and other celebrations. And I can tell you for a fact, people often get shot by mistake!

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