Wages of sin: The financial operations of a medieval church court
By Patti A. Mills
The Accounting Historians Notebook, Vol. 7:1 (1984)
Introduction: The medieval Church employed law courts to administer the Roman-based canon law. Indeed, in many areas of late medieval Christendom there existed highly developed systems of canon law courts based on the diocese and its divisions. England was no exception. Within the diocese of Canterbury, for example, there were two courts, the Consistory Court, headed by the CommissaryGeneral who exercised diocesan jurisdiction on behalf of the archbishop; and the Court of the Archdeacon, who represented the administrative subdivision below that of the diocese.
This study focuses on the Canterbury Consistory and the financial aspects of its operations, particularly as they relate to ex officio cases. Normally, two broad categories of business occupied the Consistory Court: instance causes, which were litigated by private plaintiffs, and ex officio prosecutions brought at the instigation of the Court itself, a division roughly corresponding to the civil and criminal proceedings of our present day judicial system. These records or acta of instance litigation reveal a wide range of interesting cases: ecclesiastical suits were brought to restore damaged reputations, to enforce contracts of marriage, testamentary obligations, payments of debts and other agreements. It is the ex officio or criminal cases, however, that most concern us here.
An overwhelming number of the criminal charges made in the Consistory from the second half of the fourteenth century until the last quarter of the fifteenth, the period for which records are most complete, were sexual in nature. Of these charges, fornication and adultery appear with the greatest frequency, followed by prostitution, pandering, matrimonial offenses and incest. Certain kinds of nonsexual offenses, particularly the laity’s failure to observe Sundays and feastdays, were also prosecuted but with considerably less regularity.
Top Image: Detail of an historiated initial ‘A'(dulterium) of a man and a woman in bed. British Library MS Royal 6 E.IV f.61