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How to defraud your lord on the medieval manor

In the 1260s, Robert Carpenter, a freehold farmer and former bailiff living on the Isle of Wight, wrote up a formulary – a collection of form letters and legal texts that would be useful for local administration. In the middle of these texts, however, he added detailed instructions on six ways you could commit fraud.

Medieval fraud

This work has been translated and analyzed by Martha Carlin in her article ‘Cheating the Boss: Robert Carpenter’s Embezzlement Instructions (1261×1268) and Employee Fraud in Medieval England’. Carpenter does not provide any introduction to these texts, nor does he give a hint on why he decided to include it in this work. Some scholars suggest he was bragging about his past exploits, others that he wrote it to warn his readers of ways they could be defrauded. Carlin adds another possibility – that it was “simply as a form of wry recollection or humour with which to entertain himself and his intimates.”

Carpenter’s first fraud is a simple one – if you are a bailiff or reeve that managed a flock of sheep, you would know that not all breeding ewes would have lambs during a year. When reporting you the numbers you could misrepresent the totals, giving an example of how to get 12 lambs for yourself out of a flock of 150.

The second fraud occurs when you go to sell lambskins – if you have 160 lambskins you would take 25 of the best lambskins and sell them for a penny each, then use that money to buy 50 lambskins for a half-penny each. After that you could replace the lambskins you took and deliver them to your lord, while keeping the other 25 for your own use.

The third fraud is “to make a sheepskin appear to be that of a ewe that died of murrain. As soon as it it flayed, let the skin be placed in hot water and then immediately dried, and it will become as if the ewe were dead of murrain.” In this way, you would convince everyone that the animal was diseased and that’s it flesh could not be eaten – meanwhile the flesh, which is really fine could be yours to eat or sell,

The fourth fraud involves two shepherds working together – as long as they both manage flocks with the same brand. They steal three sheep from one flock, which they can sell, but when it comes time for the flock to be counted, you would borrow the three sheep from the other flock. Later on, when both flocks are together on a common pasture, these three sheep would then naturally return to their own flock.

The fifth fraud was one to be directed against a shepherd – when the sheep are to be sheered, one will find that some of the wool is damaged or of poor quality. You would keep this substandard wool separate from the rest, and when it came time to measure the wool, you would have this portion used. This could allow you to blame the shepherd for not taking good care of his flock, and perhaps fine or punish him.

The final fraud involved cheese-making, which was done during the spring and summer. Carpenter writes:

First, on the day when they begin to make cheeses, let the milk be divided equally into eight parts, and let the eighth part be kept until the following day, and from the other parts let one cheese be made immediately. And the next day, let the milk be divided in the same manner, and one that day let two parts be taken from the milk, and let the first part, which was taken first, be poured into the other milk, from which the cheese is made immediately. And thus every day let the milk be renewed. And on the seventh day you will have eight portions of new milk and six portions from the previous day, and thus one the seventh day you will make two cheese of the same size as the others.

This last fraud is particularly ingenious, as the amount of milk you take each day will only make the size of cheese 1/8 smaller, which won’t likely be noticed by your lord, and you do not risk your milk spoiling. At the end of each week you have enough milk to make an extra cheese, which you can eat or sell yourself.

Commercial Activity Markets and Entrepreneurs in the Middle AgesCarlin notes that even in the Middle Ages there was employee fraud – various records show that rulers and lords were trying to make sure that their servants were not trying to embezzle their money or goods. The fifteenth-century writer Christine de Pisan explains in her book The Treasure of the City of Ladies that “there are some dishonest chambermaids who are given great responsibility because they know how to insinuate themselves into the great houses of the middle classes and of rich people by cleverly acting the part of good household managers. They get their position of buying the food and going to the butcher’s, where they only too well “hit the fruit basket”, which is a common expression meaning to claim that thing cost more than it really does and then keep the change.”

Carlin concludes, “Robert Carpenter’s embezzlement instructions do not tell us anything new about moral compromise in medieval England, but they do offer an unusual window onto the practical logistics of employee fraud, and they make it clear that, like employee fraud today, systematic pilfering by corrupt manorial officers and other workers could well have siphoned off a significant fraction of medieval manorial production.”

Her article, ‘Cheating the Boss: Robert Carpenter’s Embezzlement Instructions (1261×1268) and Employee Fraud in Medieval England’ appears in Commercial Activity, Markets and Entrepreneurs in the Middle Ages: Essays in Honour of Richard Britnell, edited by Christian D. Liddy (Boydell, 2011). Martha Carlin is a Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she specializes in daily life in the Middle Ages. Her most recent book is Lost Letters of Everyday Life.

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