Medieval Crime Reports Are A Treasure Trove Of Details On Daily Life

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If future generations want to know how we whiled away our daily hours, they'll need to look no further than our constant streams of tweets, pictures, and status updates. But what of the poor medieval villager who had no Instagram with which to document the badass tapestry he just wove?


It turns out, though, we've got a pretty good source for their daily details too, albeit a slightly less image-heavy one.

In response to this post on the biggest misconceptions about life in the middle ages, some commenters lamented the fact that, because of the low literacy levels of the day, the details of most people's lives were lost to the ages.

But, that loss isn't quite as complete as we might think, noted others. Because, in fact, there's a source of records that provides a cross-section that cuts through every demographic: court reports. And, despite being concerned mostly with law-breaking, they also manage to give us a slice of medieval life.


Medieval history MA here. There aren't very many that I know of, actually! It's hard because you have to remember that all of our written sources come from a very limited slice of the population, and most of them had no interest in writing about the everyday life of your average peasant.

The best sources to get at that information are actually court records, and although I can't think of a single book that collects these bits and pieces of everyday life from court records, if you pick up some books about medieval crime or property law you'll get a taste of what life actually looked like for people. Medieval people actually engaged with their courts much more than your average joe does today.

edited to add - Here are some historians who've written about crime and everyday life: Guido Ruggiero, Daniel Lord Smail, and J.A. Sharpe. There are many more, these are just three I remember from my old reading list :)


A lot of our laws relating to real estate, wills, estates and even family law make much more sense when one understands the context in which they were first created.

The first case in our Tort Law case book was from England in the 1300s. A drunk came back to an inn after it had closed, banging on the door, asking to buy more wine. The woman who ran the inn opened a peep-hole door in the main door and told the drunk to go sleep it off. He then whacked a hatchet into the door. The court was asked to decide if there had been an assault on the innkeeper or not.


Inquisition records can be very interesting, two very famous books using them would be " Montaillou" about a small village in 13th century France by Emanuel Le Roy Ladurie as well as Carlo Ginzburgs "the cheese and the worms", though this was about a case from 16th century, so later than middle ages.


Montaillou One of my favorite books. In the 14th Century, the Bishop of Foix, a small town in southern France was given the right to an Inquisition against the last of the Cathar heretics. Despite what you may have heard about the Spanish Inquisition, there was no torture, but there was a lot of questioning of villagers from the tiny village of Montaillou. Lots of great description of the everyday life of peasants.

The only thing south of Montaillou is Spain and you have to finish crossing the Pyrenees to get there.

Top image: Painting of a municipal court session in Herford, Germany, 1375



I couldn't resist