Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Frankpledge

The oath of frankpledge (mentioned here) was a promise of mutual aid between members of a community, used throughout several centuries of the English Middle Ages. When I say "members of a community" I really mean male members over a certain age, exempting clergy and knights, who owed allegiance to different authorities.

Pursuing a sheep stealer
Early Anglo-Saxon society had a practice known as frith-borh ["peace pledge"]. The borh was a way for certain individuals to take responsibility for those under their care, assuring that they would be turned in for crimes or appear before the court if accused. A master was responsible for his slaves, or a person for his family members, or a lord for those living on his land. This was a very informal system of appointing responsibility.

A little later came the Anglo-Saxon custom of tithing, which meant a "thing of 10." Ten men would agree to be a tithing, which existed primarily to agree that they would promise to surrender to the authorities one of their group who broke the law. It was a voluntary grouping, and only local men were eligible. To be eligible, you had to possess property that could be forfeit if you were deemed guilty of something. Women, children, slaves, people passing through—none of these needed to join a tithing since they had no property that could be confiscated if they neglected their duty.

It was not until the reign of King Henry I (c.1068 – 1 December 1135) that the frankpledge gets mentioned in his codified laws. It was originally an informal method of creating civic obligation. Unlike the London Wardmote of a later date, the frankpledge was administered by a sheriff on his bi-annual tourney around the country. At this time he was to be paid a token penny, but also he took the opportunity to fine infractions of the law. The potential for corruption was great enough that the Magna Carta included limitations on the sheriff's exploitation of frankpledge.

The Black Death (1348-50) disrupted the use of frankpledge by reducing the numbers of the oath-taking groups through death and re-location in the pursuit of jobs. Although it survived in the 1400s, a growing national structure of constables and justices of the peace took on more and more responsibility for maintaining order. There is still a holdover of the tithing and frankpledge in the Riot Act of 1886 in England, which indirectly levies damage costs on the local population after damages from rioting.

The Oath of Frankpledge shown here comes from the Liber Albus, the White Book of the laws of London, which was discussed here.

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