Vi et Armis: Londoners and Violent Trespass Before the Common Pleas in the Fifteenth Century
By Lindsey McNellis
PhD Dissertation, West Virginia University, 2019
Abstract: Civil litigation in early fifteenth-century England encompassed a variety of actions, but only one writ covered acts of violence: trespass vi et armis. These writs, all before the central Court of Common Pleas, detail a variety of violent torts, or wrongs, such as housebreaking, theft, imprisonment, abduction, and assault. The Londoners who entered pleadings in this court between 1405 and 1415 have left a fascinating glimpse into both interpersonal violence and the world of savvy litigators.
Through a close examination of eighty-two cases, I demonstrate that Londoners were knowledgeable litigants who used the Court of Common Pleas and its procedures to pursue their agendas. However, two facts about the cases before the Court of Common Pleas indicate that plaintiffs had ulterior motives in going to law: cases rarely went to trial, and damages were hardly ever assessed.
The narratives crafted by plaintiffs and defendants suggest complex motives which might include establishing property ownership, enforcing arbitration, as well as negotiating concepts of licit and illicit violence. Defendants might argue that certain acts, like violence in self-defense, were considered licit as the violence re-created order from the initial attack. These negotiations occurred not only between people and the crown, through the courts, but also among the people themselves, for example, during arbitration or during jury deliberations. Various layers of negotiations are perhaps best evidenced in the differences between using self-defense in a criminal proceeding and in a civil proceeding. Of particular importance in deciding something like the amount of money to request in damages was the status, occupation, and gender of the defendants. Knowing this information helped litigants assess the economic feasibility of obtaining damages that might have been awarded to them. Violence committed by or against women was, on average, assigned a monetary value that was less than violence by men against men. Similarly, litigants with an occupation or status listed in the records, resulted in damage requests that were twenty percent more than when litigants did not include occupation or status.
In the last chapter, I place these eighty-two cases in the broader context of the fifteenth century. I examine a larger set of cases, including these eighty-two cases, statistically over a span of thirty-eight years in the fifteenth century and my findings reinforce the data from the smaller sample set; namely, that gender, occupation, and status influenced the amount of damages requested. This long-term data does hint at a change over time in what society and the courts felt was violence allowed by private parties against each other. As savvy litigants, Londoners would wield narratives of violence that might help their agenda, either as plaintiff or defendant, and they would also know when those narratives needed to match the changing societal concepts of violence.