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glossary for the Magna Carta, 1215

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Glossary to accompany a new translation of the Magna Carta of Great Britain, 1215 prepared by Xavier Hildegarde, November 2001.
[Magna Carta is the Latin for Great Charter.]

Permission to reproduce a copy of this glossary by electronic means granted to magnacartaplus.org on permanent licence from  abelard.org..

© 2001,  abelard.org.

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Glossary for the Magna Carta, 1215
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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.

With regard to fee, some related words and their meanings have also been given – feu, feud, feudal, fief.

[Article numbers refer to the 1215 version of the Magna Carta.]


Aid
1
under the feudal system: a pecuniary contribution by a feudal vassal to his lord (limited by Magna Carta to three special occasions as listed in Article 12).
[Articles 12, 14, 15]

2 Help or assistance help that is legally claimed from someone who has a joint-interest in a defence.
For example: a lord who holds a fee-farm of the king may legally claim aid from the king if someone else makes demands regarding that fee-farm.

to pray in aid: to claim such assistance.
aid-prayer: the appeal made for such assistance.


Amerce – To punish by an arbitrary fine. [Articles 20, 21, 22]

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 one’s own estimate.

Amercement – a fine imposed by a court of law. [Articles 20, 55]


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 John’s 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 d’ancestre, 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]

One of three types of tenancy holdings. The other two are socage and fee-farm.


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]



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Castle-guard – A kind of knight-service, whereby a feudal tenant was bound, when required, to defend the lord’s castle; also the tenure of such service. [Article 29]


Chattel – A movable possession; any possession or piece of property other than real estate or a freehold. (Property; goods; money; = cattle.) [Article 9, 26, 27]

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]

clerkThe 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]


Constable – The chief officer of the household, court, administration, or military forces of a ruler.

The governor or warden of a royal fortress or castle. (This is still the official title of the governors of some royal castles in England.) [Article 24, 28, 29, 45]

Derived from late Latin: comes stabuli, count or officer of the stable.


Contenement – rendering of contenementum in Magna Carta.
Many different explanations as to the word’s exact meaning have been offered. The meaning is perhaps simply ‘holding’, but some take it in the wider sense ‘property (of any kind) necessary to the freeman for the maintenance of his position’. His livelihood.[Article 20]


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.)


Demesne – In this context: the private property of the Crown, Crown-lands. [Article 25]
Possession (of real estate) as if one’s own.
This applied either to the absolute ownership of the king, or to the tenure of the person who held land to his own use, mediately or immediately from the king. In opposition was the notion of ‘to hold in service’ (tenere in servitio).

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]

Disseise, disseize – To put out of actual seisin or possession; to dispossess (a person) of his estates, etc., usually wrongfully or by force; to oust. [Article 39, 52, 56]

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]

Novel disseisin - 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.
An inquest into an alleged recent eviction of a tenant from his free tenement. [Article 18]
(Literally: disseisin of fresh or recent date.)


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]


 


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Fee

1 [Mainly from Teutonic and Aryan: feoh, fioh, féo; and Teutonic: fehu.]
Live stock, cattle, whether large or small, whence movable property in general; goods, possessions, money, wealth.

2 [Mainly from Ancient French: fee, fie; Old French: , fié, fiet, fief, fieu, fiu and medieval Latin: feodum, feudum.]

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’.)

(1) The heritable right to an office of profit, granted by a superior lord and held on condition of feudal homage.

(2) Homage rendered, or fealty promised, by a vassal to a superior. Also, employment, service.

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).

(3) A tribute or offering to a superior.

(4) The sum which a public officer (? originally, one who held his office 'in fee': see 2a-1) is authorized to demand as payment for the execution of his official functions.

(5) A perquisite allowed to an officer or servant (esp. a forester, a cook or scullion).

(6) A fixed salary or wage; the pay of a soldier. Also pl. Wages.

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.


Knight’s 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]


Feu

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

Feudal – Of or pertaining to a feud or fief; of the nature of a feud or fief. [Article 11]
Feudal system – the system of polity which prevailed in Europe during the Middle Ages, and which was based on the relation of superior and vassal arising out of the holding of lands in feud.


Fief – as for fee 2, that is, a (Knights) fee; a Manor, or inheritance held by homage. [Article 2, 4, 32, 37, 52 ]


Lay fief – a property, held through homage to a higher lord, but not resulting from clerical or other positions held by appointment. [Article 26] See also lay holding below.


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]

This word is of obscure origin, but appears to be related to hauberk and haubergeon.

HauberkA 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.

Haubergeon – A sleeveless coat or jacket of mail or scale armour, originally smaller and lighter than a hauberk.


Inquestsformal 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]


Issue – Offspring, progeny; a child or children; a descendant or descendants. Now chiefly in legal use or with reference to legal succession. [Article 4, 5]


Justiciar – A judge presiding over, or belonging to, one of the king’s superior courts, or exercising special judicial functions. [Article 18, 41, 44, 48, 61]

[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.


Knight – 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.
In the fully-developed feudal system: one raised to honourable military rank by the king or other qualified person, the distinction being usually conferred only upon one of noble birth who had served a regular apprenticeship (as page and squire) to the profession of arms, and thus being a regular step in this even for those of the highest rank.

In early use, as the type of the military profession, the knight was frequently contrasted with clerk, merchant, etc. and, in point of rank, with king. [Article 2, 12, 15, 18, 19, 29, 48, 51]


Knight’s service – Under the feudal system, the military service which a knight was bound to render as a condition of holding his lands (his knight’s fee); hence, the tenure of land under the condition of performing military service.
A duty (whether a payment in money or kind, a definite amount of forced labour, or some act useful or complimentary) which a tenant is bound to render periodically to his lord. [Article 37, 53]


KiddleFishweir. 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]


Law-worthy 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.
Of things: within the purview of the law; able to be dealt with by a court of law.


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]


Magna Carta – Latin for “the Great Charter”.


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 heir’s ancestor. [Article 18]

An inquest as to whether an heir had been prevented from taking possession of some property he should have inherited.


PeerEqual.in rank. [Article 21, 39, 56, 59]


Pleas of our Crown grave criminal offences such as ambush, forcible entry, neglect of summons to local military service [Article 24]


Praecipe - A writ requiring something to be done, or demanding a reason for its non-performance. [Article 34]


Relief – A payment, varying in value and kind according to rank and tenure, made to the overlord by the heir of a feudal tenant on taking up possession of the vacant estate. [Article 2, 3, 43]

Also, formal acknowledgement of feudal tenure made by a vassal to his lord.


Riding – One of the three administrative districts into which Yorkshire was formerly divided (the East, West, and North Ridings).
[This ceased to be an official designation after Local Government reorganization outside Greater London on 1 April 1974.]

Division into three parts, tripartition. (rare)
See trithing.


Russet – a coarse, home-spun cloth much used by the peasantry, possible hemp. [Article 35]


Scutage – A tax levied on someone holding lands by knight’s service (holding knight’s fees); in a restricted sense, such a tax paid in lieu of military service. [Article 12, 14]


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]


Sheriff – 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.
After the Conquest, the office of sheriff was continued, that title being retained in English documents, while in Latin and French the usual term was vicecomes, viscounte, which had been applied to similar functionaries in Normandy. [Preamble, Article 14, 24, 26, 30, 45, 48]

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.


StankA pond or pool. Also a ditch or dyke of slowly-moving water, a moat. [Article 5]


SuretyIn 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]


Trithing Riding [Article 25]

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 villein’s 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.


Wapentake – A subdivision of certain English shires, corresponding to the ‘hundred’ of other counties. [Article 25]

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 chattels on which the villein depended for his livelihood: such as his farm implements, seed-corn and stock. [Article 5, 20]

Gainage – [Ancient French gaignage (Anglo-Latin wainagium)]

The profit or produce derived from the tillage of land.

In the Law Dictionaries of the 17–18th 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.


Associated documents

[Underlined documents are available. Other documents are in preparation.]

MagnaCarta, 1215 – an English translation
The 1215 Magna Carta – original Latin text
The 1225 Magna Carta – an English translation
The 1225 MagnaCartaoriginal Latin text
Historical backgroundreturn to the index on the  'Glossary for the Magna Carta, 1215 ' page
Attacks on the substance of the Magna Carta

Compiled by Xavier Hildegarde, 2001



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