glossary for the Magna Carta, 1215
Glossary to accompany a new
translation of the Magna Carta of Great Britain, 1215
prepared by Xavier Hildegarde, November 2001.
Permission to reproduce a copy of this glossary by electronic means granted to magnacartaplus.org on permanent licence from abelard.org..
© 2001, abelard.org.
This glossary gives meanings for words at the time of the Magna Carta. With some words, a closer definition is given. In addition, where appropriate, a historical commentary and even an illustration of the evolution of the sense of the word is laid out. Definitions not relevant to the context of the Magna Carta, or useful to understanding appropriate senses of a word, have been omitted to reduce confusion.
The Latin in which the Magna Carta was written is often ambiguous, since the language of the day had failed to keep pace with the growing richness and complexity of English life after the Conquest. Not infrequently, a word has a general sense and one or more particular ones, only the context showing which is being employed.
Some words have a confused and confusing etymology, which has led to the interpretations in various translations of the Magna Carta being at variance with each other.
In the case of fee, in one translation this has resulted in a less than clear interpretation, with the same word being used where two different words would better distinguish between the feudal agreement and the property to which it applies.
[Article numbers refer to the 1215 version of the Magna Carta.]
2 Help or assistance help that is legally claimed from someone
who has a joint-interest in a defence.
At first always passive (as in Magna Carta), to be amerced was originally to be at the mercy of any one as to amount of fine, be fined at his pleasure. Later, the active form, to amerce was developed, with the meaning, to fine arbitrarily or according to ones own estimate.
Assize a court sitting at intervals in each county of England and Wales to administer the civil and criminal law. Also, a trial in which sworn assessors or jurymen (usually but not always, consisting of twelve men) decide questions of fact; a judicial inquest. [Articles 18, 19]
It is not clear whether the intransitive idea of a sitting, or the transitive one of a thing settled, was the original sense; perhaps both were equally early.
Originally, the word assize applied to all legal proceedings of the nature of inquests or recognitions, fiscal, civil, or criminal. In particular, it applied to the Grand or Great Assize created by Henry II (King Johns father) to replace trial by battle.
Hence, an action to be decided by such a trial; this also applied to the writ by which the action is instituted.
Hence (usually in the plural), the sessions held periodically in each county of England, for the purpose of administering civil and criminal justice, by judges acting under certain special commissions.
It was provided by Magna Carta that the judges should visit each county once every year to take assizes (that is, to try writs of assize) of Mort dancestre, Novel disseisin, and Darrein presentment. Thus, the jury who constituted the Grand Assize might not be obliged to travel from remote corners of England to appear in court at Westminster.
From this came the names assizes, and justices or judges of assize, still retained by these circuit courts and itinerant judges, after their judicial functions had been greatly extended in various directions, especially in that of the trial of felonies and offences.
Assizes were abolished by the Courts Act, 1971; their criminal jurisdiction was transferred to the Crown Courts.
Bailiff (ballivus or bellivus) A bailiff was a minor local official responsible to the sheriff of the county, but the word was often used in a more general sense. Royal officials. [Articles 18, 19, 61]
Bailiwick A district or place under the jurisdiction of a bailie or bailiff. Used as a general term that included sheriffdom; and applied to foreign towns or districts under a vogt or bailli. [Article 50]
Burgage A tenure whereby lands or tenements in cities and towns were held from the king or other lord, for a certain yearly rent, the properties being formerly the site of houses in an ancient borough. [Articles 37]
Castles before the reign of Henry II even major castles were mostly built of wood, as were the less important buildings and auxiliary defences long after his time. [Article 31]
Originally , chattel was derived from the Latin capital meaning principal, property or goods, and was spelt catel.
In mediæval times, the word catel was used in the sense principal sum of money, capital, wealth, property. Under the feudal system the use of catel was confined to movable property or wealth, as being the only form of personal property. (?) Freehold ownership came later, from appproximately 1525.
In legal Anglo-French, the Norman catel was superseded at an early period by the Parisian chatel, but the form as adopted in Norman English was cattel, cattle. In English, cattle was more and more identified with beast held in possession, live stock (almost the only use after 1500) whereas chattel passed from legal French into general use for the wider sense of article of property. Thus, since the 16th century, the phrase goods and cattel is better known as goods and chattels.
in chief [med.L. in capite, F. en chief]. In feudal law, this applied to a tenant holding, or tenure held, immediately from the Lord Paramount, as when a tenant held directly from the king, rendering to him personally the service belonging to the tenure. Hence, by extension, applied to tenancy by a perpetual feu-duty or ground-rent, as opposed to a lease for a limited period. [Article 2, 14]
clerk in holy orders The Church recognised four major or holy orders (subdeacon, deacon, priest, bishop), and four minor orders (porter, lector, exorcist, acolyte). The minor orders were church offices rendered by persons not ordained. Hence the distintion: clerk in holy orders, clerk in minor orders. [Article 22]
clerk The original sense was man in a religious order, cleric, clergyman. As the scholarship of the Middle Ages was practically limited to the clergy, and these performed all the writing, notarial, and secretarial work of the time, the name clerk came to be equivalent to scholar, and specially applicable to a notary, secretary, recorder, accountant, or penman. The last has now come to be the ordinary sense, all the others being either archaic, historical, formal, or contextual.
Common Pleas suits or legal actions between subject and subject regarding real property. At this time, common pleas concerned principally land, buildings and titles. Ordinary lawsuits. [Article 17]
Derived from late Latin: comes stabuli, count or officer of the stable.
rendering of contenementum in Magna Carta.
Darrein Presentiment An action at law (writ of assize) drawn up to demonstrate that a patron, or his ancestors, had a right of precedence regarding putting (presenting) a clergyman (or clerk) in an ecclesiastical benefice (or church). This was necessary if the clergyman had died, leaving the church empty, and a stranger then attempted to put their own clergyman there instead, to the disturbance of the original patron. [Article 18]
An inquest to establish who presented the incumbent to a benefice whose patronage was in dispute, on the last occasion that it was vacant.
(Darrein means last, ultimate, final.)
In this context: the private property of the Crown, Crown-lands. [Article
Demesne is a differentiated spelling of the word domain (in Latin, dominicus of or belonging to a lord or master). The Anglo-French legal spelling demesne was partially the result of the insertion of a non-etymological s to indicate a long vowel). Other influences suggest association or connection to one or several of the following words: mesne, mesne, mensa.
Disparagement Marriage to one of inferior (lower) rank; the disgrace or dishonour involved in such a misalliance. [Article 6]
Distrain To constrain or force (a person) by the seizure and detention of a chattel or thing, to perform some obligation. The obligation might be to pay money owed, to make satisfaction for some wrong done by him or by his beasts, or to ensure a court appearance. Distrain also means to punish by such seizure and detention for the non-performance of such obligation. [Article 9, 16, 61]
Disseisin, disseizin The act or fact of disseising; privation of seisin; usually, the wrongful dispossession (by forcible entry or otherwise) of the lands, etc. of another. [Article 18]
- an ordinance of Henry II, establishing an action at law, by one who had
been recently dispossessed, for the recovery of the seisin of land;
also the action thus established.
Ell A measure of length varying in different countries. The English ell = 45 inches; the Scotch = 37in; the Flemish = 27 in. [Article 35]
The word ell seems to have been variously taken to represent the distance from the elbow or from the shoulder to the wrist or to the finger-tips, said to have been based on the length of the right arm of King Henry 1.
Escheat An incident of feudal law, whereby a fief reverted to the lord when the tenant died without leaving a successor qualified to inherit under the original grant. Hence, the lapsing of land to the Crown, or to the lord of the manor, on the death of the owner intestate without heirs. [Article 43]
Faithful subjects (fideles) those bound by an oath of loyalty, in this context probably the freemen of the country. [Preamble]
2a An estate in land (in England always a heritable estate), held on condition of homage and service to a superior lord, by whom it is granted and in whom the ownership remains; a fief, feudal benefice. [Article 4]
This meaning is also given by the word feu. (Feu can also mean a tract of land held in fee.)
2b Denoting a payment or gift.
The meanings for fee in this (2b) sense are commonly linked to fee meaning 1, but the Ancient French is fee, and the medieval Latin is feodum, both in England and on the continent.
The two nouns, however, being coincident in form (looking the same), were certainly confused, and in many instances it makes no difference to the sense whether the word is taken as meaning 1 or as meaning 2b. It is possible that this confusion still exists in some translations of the Magna Carta.
Of the various senses known for 2b, given below, senses 3 5 seem to have been influenced by 2a; sense 6 agrees with a continental use of feodum (2b).
Fee is sometimes confused with fief , because of the difficulty in distinguishing the similar-looking words of Teutonic and of Romanic and medieval Latin origins.
The Teutonic derivation, fehu, means something granted to a subject by the kindness of his lord. However, this is far from the early sense of the medieval Latin word feodum.
A more tenable theory is that the Old French fiu is an adoption of the Teutonic fehu in the contextual sense of wages, payment for service. The Romanic word certainly had this meaning, and it is conceivable that the feudal sense is a specific application of it.
Fee-farm That kind of tenure by which land is held in fee-simple subject to a perpetual fixed rent, without any other services; the estate of the tenant in land so held; rarely, the land itself. [Article 37]
It is a debated question whether a fee-farm merely implies a perpetual rent of any kind, or whether it should be confined to a perpetual rent-service, or to a perpetual rent-charge equivalent to at least a fourth of the value of the land.
Also see feu, below.
Knights fee Under the feudal system: the amount of land held by an armed knight in exchange for his services owed to the sovereign. It is now agreed that the different knight's fees were not equal in extent, whether they were approximately equal in value is still doubtful. [Article 2, 16]
1 as for fee 2 ; also, a tract of land held in fee. (Used by modern Scottish jurists indiscriminately with fee as a rendering of medieval Latin feudum.)
2 A feudal tenure of land in which the vassal, in place of military service, makes a return of grain or money (as opposed to military holding or to holding at a nominal rent); a grant of lands on these conditions; in modern use, a perpetual lease for a fixed rent (= feu-farm).
Feud, feod as for fee 2
Of or pertaining to a feud or fief; of the nature of a feud or fief.
Free here particularly liberty to obey the canon law of the Western Church which, amongst other things, insisted on ecclesiastical elections being free from lay pressure. [Article 1]
Freeman those of free status in the eyes of the law (that is, not villeins) and as such having certain rights denied to villeins, such as access to the Kings courts in certain actions, freedom to move about and marry and exemption from certain onerous duties. [Article 1]
Hauberget, halberget, halberject, haberjet A kind of cloth named in Magna Carta, and in some ancient documents, possibly hemp. [Article 35]
Hauberk A piece of defensive armour: originally intended for the defence of the neck and shoulders. By the 12th and 13th centuries, the hauberk had developed into a long coat of mail, or military tunic, usually of ring or chain mail, which adapted itself readily to the motions of the body.
Inquests formal inquiries made by the sheriff acting on a royal writ, whereby a local jury was summoned to testify as to the facts in a particular matter. In the problems of Novel Disseisin, Mort d'Ancestor and Darrein Presentiment, the jury had to establish which party was previously in possession, not which had the rightful title in the dispute. In all cases, the plaintiff was given possession if the verdict was in his favour. [Article 18, 48]
Intestate - To die not having made a will. [Article 27]
[Article 18, 41, 48] The chief (capitalis) justiciar, an official who acted as regent during the frequent absences from England of the early Angevin kings. The office of justiciar came to an end in the 13th century, his judicial functions passing to the Lord Chief Justice.
In the Middle Ages: originally, a military servant of the king or other
person of rank; a feudal tenant holding land from a superior on condition
of serving in the field as a mounted and well-armed man. A mounted soldier,
here a well-to-do landowner, ranking below baron and earl.
service Under the feudal system, the military service
which a knight was bound to render as a condition of holding his lands (his
knights fee); hence, the tenure of land under
the condition of performing military service.
Kiddle Fishweir. Used in a general sense to cover all large, static contrivances for catching fish; inevitably these might cause serious inconvenience to boats navigation in inland waters. [Article 33]
Of people: having a standing in the law-courts; being possessed
of full legal rights; able to bring a suit in a law-court. [Article 26]
As far as I understand at present, a villein would
not be law-worthy.
Lay holding property held by performing secular and not ecclesiastical duties. [Article 22]
Letter(s) patent An open letter or document , usually from a sovereign or person in authority, issued for various purposes, e.g. to put on record some agreement or contract, to authorize or command something to be done, to confer some right, privilege, title, property, or office; now, especially, to grant for a statutory term to a person or persons the sole right to make, use, or sell some invention. [Article 26]
Mort d'ancestor The term applied to a court case (assize) brought by the rightful heir against one who wrongfully took possession of his inheritance (lands) on the death of the rightful heirs ancestor. [Article 18]
An inquest as to whether an heir had been prevented from taking possession of some property he should have inherited.
Praecipe - A writ requiring something to be done, or demanding a reason for its non-performance. [Article 34]
Also, formal acknowledgement of feudal tenure made by a vassal to his lord.
One of the three administrative districts into which Yorkshire was
formerly divided (the East, West, and North Ridings).
Division into three parts, tripartition. (rare)
Russet a coarse, home-spun cloth much used by the peasantry, possible hemp. [Article 35]
Serjeanty A form of feudal tenure on condition of rendering some specified personal service to the king. Sergeanty was distinguished as grand and petit (or petty) serjeanty. Grand serjeanty obliges the tenant to a service touching the defence of the country, such as acting as marshal, putting an army in the field, or finding a horseman and his equipment for the army; while petit (small) serjeanty binds the tenant to a service amounting to half a mark or less, such a carrying to the king a bag, a brooch, an arrow, or a bow without string, etc. [Article 37]
In England before the Norman Conquest, the scíreréfa (also called
scírman) was a high officer, the representative of the royal authority
in a shire, who presided in the shire-moot, and was responsible for the administration
of the royal demesne and the execution of the law.
The etymological form shire-reeve has occasionally been used by legal antiquaries.
Socage The tenure of land by specific subordinate services other than knight-service. [Article 37]
The view now generally accepted is that the original distinctive feature of socage was attendance at the court held by the superior, by virtue of his right of soc (plough), that is farming rights.
Stank A pond or pool. Also a ditch or dyke of slowly-moving water, a moat. [Article 5]
Surety In this context, a person who undertakes some specific responsibility on behalf of another who remains primarily liable; one who makes himself liable for the default or miscarriage of another, or for the performance of some act on his part. Formerly also applied collectively to a number of persons. [Article 9]
Derived from Old Norse Þriðjung, meaning thirding, third part.
The character Þ is called thorn and now represents the sound th. As is the way, when saying (for instance) north trithing, the initial Þ or th sound in trithing was absorbed by being elided with the preceding th of north, or t of east and west. This elision then passed into the written version of the word, becoming riding. (Try for yourself to quickly say north thrithing or north trithing, while keeping the words separate. It will probably require an almost complete break in speech to achieve your objective.) Similarly, the central th hardened to a d sound.
Vill A territorial unit or division under the feudal system, consisting of a number of houses or buildings with their adjacent lands, more or less contiguous and having a common organization; corresponding to the Anglo-Saxon tithing and to the modern township or civil parish. [Article 23]
Villein One of the class of serfs in the feudal system; specifically, a peasant occupier or cultivator entirely subject to a lord, or attached to a manor; a tenant in villeinage; also applied to a person regarded as holding a similar position in other communities, a bondsman. Hence formerly in general use, a peasant, country labourer, or low-born rustic. [Article 20]
This definition is over-simplistic. A deeper discussion is in preparation.
Objectively, a villeins position was not greatly different from that of a modern wage slave (perhaps one in a relatively poor country), other than the fact that they could not change master.
The shires which had divisions so termed were Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Notts, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, and Leicestershire; in all of which the Danish element in the population was large. In Derbyshire there was latterly only one wapentake (that of Wirksworth), the other divisions of the shire being termed hundreds. In Lincolnshire most of the county divisions were wapentakes, but a few were called hundreds and sokes.
Traces of the existence of the term remained in popular use in other counties, as Cheshire and Cumberland into the 20th century.
Hundred In England (and subsequently. in Ireland): A subdivision of a county or shire, having its own court; also formerly applied to the court itself. [Article 25]
Most of the English counties were divided into hundreds; but in some counties wapentakes, and in others wards, appear as divisions of a similar kind. The origin of the division into hundreds, which appears already in Old English times, is exceedingly obscure, and very diverse opinions have been given as to its origin. It has been regarded as denoting simply a division of a hundred hides of land; as the district which furnished a hundred warriors to the host; as representing the original settlement of the hundred warriors; or as composed of a hundred hides, each of which furnished a single warrior [Stubbs Constitutional History I. v. §45]. It is certain that in some instances the hundred was deemed to contain exactly 100 hides of land [F. W. Maitland]. The hundred, in Old High German (Alemannisch) huntari, huntre, was a subdivision of the gau in Ancient Germany; but connexion between this and the English hundred is not clearly made out.
Wainage, waynage see gainage.
The profit or produce derived from the tillage of land.
In the Law Dictionaries of the 1718th century, the word is given with various conjectural explanations which relate to the use of wainnagium (wainage) in Magna Carta. The interpretation implements of husbandry is probably correct, though it led to an erroneous derivation from wain.
Compiled by Xavier Hildegarde, 2001
© magnacartaplus.org 21 november 2001
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