- From England to France: Felony and Exile in the High Middle Ages by William Chester Jordan
In this volume William Chester Jordan takes a look at one of the more intriguing and under-studied topics in English medieval criminal law: abjuration. Having usually claimed sanctuary in one of England’s churches, the accused felon confessed his or her crime and then swore to leave the country forever. The abjurer took a route directly to the coast, begged passage on a ship to France, and most likely never returned. Because of their confession, any abjurer subsequently found in the country without a pardon could be summarily executed without any further trial. Jordan notes that while some elements of this process are well-documented, others remain obscure, but he argues that much of the experience can be configured using ‘‘the ‘disciplined imagination’’’ (5).
The book opens with a consideration of the role of abjuration in the legal system and spends a good deal of time on abjuration as a form of mercy, rather than punishment. This is a point Jordan returns to several times, but one which never entirely gets the development it deserves. Abjuration was a choice made by the accused felon within a context defined by both secular and religious laws and assumptions, and its operation as mercy, right, penance, or punishment requires more careful consideration than to conclude that it is a form of ‘‘rough mercy’’ or ‘‘rough justice’’ (30).
Chapter two looks more closely at the abjurers and their crimes. Jordan gives numerous examples of abjurers of various status, suggesting that more were poor than otherwise, though he does not provide any clear conclusions. He gives examples of abjurers accused of theft, homicide, political opposition, and sometimes simply bad reputation, as well as instances of unjust abjurations. He also discusses what happened to the abjurers’ property.
Chapter three looks at the actual journeys made by the abjurers, and here Jordan advances one of the more controversial arguments of the book: that the movement of abjurers through the country was carefully co-ordinated and managed by the authorities. He suggests that abjurers would be kept in their sanctuaries until the summer shipping season began and until a sufficient number were gathered to make for an efficient use of the ‘‘transit guards,’’ which he contends escorted them from their place of abjuration to Dover (65). Once at Dover, he argues, they would have been held centrally, most likely at Dover Castle, until they were conducted to a ship provided to the crown under Dover’s obligation of ship services. Jordan recognizes that there is little evidence for any of this, but asserts that this is a more plausible interpretation of the evidence that does exist than the current assumption that abjurers were left largely to their own [End Page 354] devices. His argument is not entirely consistent, however: he suggests that Dover Castle was a likely mustering spot because it had room to gather armies, but elsewhere suggests that two, three, or four exiles might have left Dover each day for a total of about 500 per year. He argues that Dover Castle was a more appropriate spot for hardened criminals than Dover churches, but suggests elsewhere that the churches within the castle would provide the ‘‘continued penumbra of sanctuary,’’ and that not all abjurers were hardened criminals (74).
Chapter four looks at the abjurers’ lives once they reached France, an intriguing question that English historians have not pursued. It is disappointing, however, that Jordan provides only ‘‘plausible scenarios,’’ suggesting that they might have worked in taverns, joined work gangs in the countryside, become prostitutes or turned (or returned) to crime (91). The chapter ends with a lengthy discussion of Richard the Englishman and his gang, one of whom was an abjurer. Chapter five looks at those abjurers who returned home, either legally or illegally, while chapter six, the epilogue, concludes that the process of abjuration largely atrophied in the years after the opening of the Hundred Years...