Writing Fornication: Medieval Leyrwite and its Historians
By Judith M. Bennett
Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th series, No.13 (2003)
Abstract: Leyrwrite was a fine for fornication levied on the bondwomen of many English manors. This essay traces distinctive chronological history leyrwrite (it flourished especially c.1250-1350), its regional distribution (leyrwrite was levied only in England and only in some regions of England), its social economic implications (leyrwrite was directed especially at the poor and more at bastardy than fornication) and, most of all, the significance of its focus on women (leyrwrite served as one means of regulating poor women and their families).
Introduction: In 1086, when idle clerks of William the Conqueror wrote the customs of Broughton (Hunts.) into the Domesday Rook, they used a word that appears only once in the many folios of that survey. The sokemen of Broughton had told the Domesday officers that their privileges included freedom from any obligation to pay a forfeit to Ramsey Abbey, which held the manor, whenever one among them committed a petty assault, minor theft or an offence they called leyrwrite. This single reference to leyrwrite in Domesday Book is also its first extant reference; whatever its pre-Conquest uses, leyrwrite first appears to us as an Anglo-Saxon loan word in a post-Conquest, Latin text.
This essay will examine leyrwite as it exists in medieval documents, as it has been understood by historians and as it can be usefully reinterpreted as a gendered fine. The term itself has been usually understood as a manorial fine levied for fornication, and its history has been usually placed within two contemporary frames: the moral teachings of the medieval Church and the dynamics of lordship and serfdom on medieval manors. I will suggest today that the medieval meanings of leyrwrite must also be seen within a third frame: the lives of peasant women in the half-century before the Great Plague of 1348-9.