The Mediaeval Employment Lawyer

The year is 1353 and your legal practice has been through a turbulent time in the wake of the Black Death. Many of your most valued clients are dead, the economy is struggling and inflation is eroding the value of your £20 annual income.

Out of adversity, however, has come an opportunity: you are developing a reputation as an expert in the new field of labour law. Bubonic plague had depopulated the country to such an extent that there was now a chronic shortage of labour. As a result, healthy labourers were in such demand that the dynamic between master and servant had changed. No longer were peasant serfs tied forever to one master in return for a nominal wage and/or subsistence; now, they could move from manor to manor and offer their services to the highest bidder.

Wages were rising and landowners’ profits were falling. They complained bitterly that post-plague labourers “were sluggish, scarce and grasping. For the very little they do they demand the highest pay.” The wealthy elite appealed to King Edward III who issued England’s very first labour legislation in response: the Ordinance of Labourers 1349 and the Statute of Labourers 1351.

The new laws imposed a number of restrictions on the labour market designed to keep wage inflation in check. The key provisions were:

– all able-bodied men and women under 60 were required to work

– the imposition of a maximum wage

– a prohibition on poaching a servant from another master

The new laws were, however, a mere sop to the employer class and took no account of the changed economic circumstances. Workers continued to be in high demand and litigation in this area was rife.

You study the papers on your desk. They are mostly written in French and Latin (English would not be used in court for another decade) and typify the caseload that will be your bread and butter for years to come:

– One client is suing a former servant for departure in breach of contract. The defendant pleads that the client “has kept meat and drink from me and subjects me to battery” causing her to leave for fear of death (“pur doute de mort”). You suspect that your client is just the sort of man to ill treat his servant in this way but keep your thoughts to yourself.

– In a particularly gruesome case, your client alleges that a neighbouring landowner poached three servants from him by violent force (“vi et armis”, “by force and arms”) and he has the scars to prove it.

– Your third case of the day is a harrowing affair in which your client’s five-year old servant has been taken by a rival. The defendant, with breathtaking chutzpah, asserts that a minor under 12 cannot lawfully be employed and that your client therefore has no rights over him.

On such cases you have developed a practice that will flourish in those early boom years for labour law. You suspect, however, that it will not last forever. As time goes by, the wealthy elites find ever more cruel ways to enforce statutory labour restrictions and the punishments for infringements by workers get ever more severe, including branding and imprisonment.

Matters come to a head in the year of your retirement, 1381, with the Peasants’ Revolt led by Wat Tyler which was ruthlessly crushed by Richard II’s forces.

You are relieved to have got out of the profession at just the right time but proud of your role as a pioneer in this field.

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