From England to France: Felony and Exile in the High Middle Ages

By Church, Stephen | The Catholic Historical Review, April 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

From England to France: Felony and Exile in the High Middle Ages


Church, Stephen, The Catholic Historical Review


From England to France: Felony and Exile in the High Middle Ages. By William Chester Jordan. (Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2015. Pp. xii, 223. $39.50. ISBN 978-0-691-16495-3.)

Using more than 2000 recorded cases of abjuration from England and adding comparative examples from the Continent, William Chester Jordan brings to life the 700-year-old ghosts of those who were subject to the practice of forcible deportation by the judicial authorities. Medieval justice was physically and emotionally harsh. Public execution and deliberately stomach-churning acts of mutilation (often in concert with one another) were the stock responses of the law to felony. Allowing a person to live because he or she had made it to sanctuary, confessed to his or her crime, and made an oath to abjure the realm was, therefore, an act of mercy, albeit a "fearsome" form of mercy. Exile was no easy option. Barefoot, bareheaded, and carrying the penitent's cross, the abjurer had to make her or his way to a port of embarkation at rapid pace; then she or he was forced to stand in the sea and appeal for passage to the Continent. Once in the port of Wissant (the first destination of most of Jordan's abjurers), the exile had to find a way of creating a new life for herself or himself. Most, it seems, probably failed to do so and found their end in the large cemetery that abutted the town. A few succeeded, and even fewer managed to make a return to their homeland. The consequence of returning to one's homeland without permission could be catastrophic. A woman who returned to Paris after exile was buried alive beneath the gallows of the bailiwick of St-Maur-des-Fosses, an act that was done in full view of the public pour encourager les autres.

This book makes for painful reading, and the passage of time has not lessened the impact of the tragic stories used by Jordan to explore his topic. …

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