Thursday, October 30, 2014

Glossary of medieval words: First edition

Glossary of medieval words: First edition

Niall C.E.J. O’Brien

In the days before I had my own personal computer I would write history articles in long hand on sheets of paper and head into town to get them typed up at a secretariat office. The girl, who did the typing, did a good job yet all my messuages became a simple message, and my message of communication, on what a messuage was, fell in deaf ears. The glossary of medieval words, printed below, is but a small sample of the number of words used in medieval life. Yet they are words that you often come across in medieval documents and an understanding of the word helps to understand the documents. This glossary of medieval terms was gathered for a number of sources. More words and their sources could have been added but it would have extended the list half way to the Moon. This article is called a first edition and may be in some future date an extended glossary will be written.


Acolyte: A cleric of minor orders, ranking below a subdeacon.

Ad quod damnum: A writ issued to a sheriff (a) before the crown granted a right to hold a fair, market, etc, within the bailiwick of the sheriff: (b) before a licence was given by the crown to alienate lands in mortmain; the licence did not issue unless a return ad damnum nullis was made to show that no man was injured.

Advowson: The perpetual right of presentation to a church or ecclesiastical benefice, being a rectory or a vicarage. It is the right of patronage.

Amercement: A financial penalty imposed on a person found to have committed various minor offences against the king. Such offender was said to be ‘in mercy’ and the fine paid to the crown in settlement is called an ‘amercement’.

Annual: A year’s worth of masses, said daily for the soul of a dead person.

Antiphoner: A book containing antiphones – short texts sung before psalms in a church.

Assize: A legal proceeding usually referring to a periodical session of a court of justice.

Assize of darrein presentment: A real action which lay where a man, or his ancestor under whom he claimed, had presented a clerk to a benefice, who was instituted, and afterwards upon the next vacancy, a stranger presented a clerk and thereby disturbed the real patron. It was a writ to have an assize to decide a disputed question of possession of an advowson pending a suit for ownership.

Assizé of novel disseisin: A real action which lay to recover land which a person had recently disseised (i.e. dispossessed).

Aumbry: A cupboard in the thickness of a wall usually near the altar at the east end of a church for the church vessels

Avowry: To take under protection and acknowledge as one’s own.

Bale: A measure of quantity or capacity which varied by commodity. At Exeter one bale of wool yarn weighted 1.5 hundredth weight while one bale of madder and alum contained 2.5 hundredth weight.

Balinger: A small sailing vessel without a forecastle and used mainly for coastal trade.

Ballybetagh: An Irish landholding unit constituting an estate and chiefly found in Ulster. In general four quarters made up one ballybetagh. A ballybetagh was supposed to contain 960 Irish acres yet, like other similar land divisions, it was a unit of assessment and not of any actual area.

Barony: Administrative division of a county corresponding to the English hundred and to the Welsh cantred.

Barrel: A unit of measurement of capacity which varied from place to place and also varied with different commodities. One-eighth of a “tun” of white herring at Bristol in the late fifteenth century was one barrel. At Exeter a barrel of herring contained about 30 gallons – one barrel of oil contained 7 gallons – one barrel of woad was equivalent to one quarter.

A port scene from cianty's-tabletop. blogspot

Benefice: An ecclesiastical living of the church, e.g. rectory, vicarage, or perpetual curacy, whereby the incumbent has a freehold interest in the emoluments of that benefice until death or the vacation of that office. The freehold of the benefice is held by a patron e.g. bishop or overlord.

Benefit of clergy: Exemption of clergymen from criminal process. An accused cleric was handed over by the secular court to the bishop to be tried under canon law in the ecclesiastical courts. The privilege was extended during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries to all able to read. Laymen could claim the benefit only once, after which they were branded on the thumb to prevent them claiming again.

Betagh: A vassal or tenant who rendered in food his dues to the lord; taken from the Irish biatach which meant “food-provider”. It usually referred to the native Irish serfs on a manor.

Blackrent: Protection money paid by English communities to prevent raids by Irish lords without any legal right.

Borough: Originally an area established as a royal stronghold against invasion. Later a borough council became a district incorporated by royal charter with a common seal with the right of self-government.

Burgage: One of the standard plots in which a town was originally laid out. It was held at a rent fixed [burgage tenure]by the town charter and by special legal rules the most important of which was that it could be bought, sold, and bequeathed without any restrictions.

Burgess: Member of a borough community holding land or a house within the borough and sharing all its communal privileges.

Bushel: A measure of capacity used for grain. The capacity of the bushel varied from place to place. At Winchester one bushel was worth 8 gallons while at Exeter a bushel was 10 gallons.

Cade: A small barrel, often used for herring. One cade was equivalent to one mease while 20 cades made one last.

Canon: (a) Cleric in a group observing a definite rule for life e.g. an Augustinian canon.
(b) Cleric possessing a prebend for his support in a cathedral or collegiate church.

Canon law: A body of Roman ecclesiastical law compiled from the opinions of the ancient Latin fathers, the decrees of the general councils, and the decretal epistles and bulls of the Holy See.

Cantred: An administrative division amounting to about 100 townships or vills. It was equal to the Irish Trícha Cét while the cantred word came from the Norman settlement in Wales and in Welsh was called cantref.

Carucate: Plough land of approximately 120 medieval acres of arable land or 300 statute acres. It was a measure of land that could be ploughed in a year by one plough drawn by eight oxen. This varied from place to place depending on the soil type. Although often described as an area of land the term of carucate was more a measure of value of that land.

Plough team at work

Chancel: An area at the eastern end of a church in which the altar was located.

Chancellor: The third of the four chief dignitaries of a cathedral who acted as secretary to the chapter and provided lectures on theology or canon law.

Chantry: An endowment to maintain a priest to celebrate mass, usually daily, for the soul of a dead person and also say prayers for the living.

Charge: A variable measure of capacity for salt. In most ports one charge equalled 5 quarters but this could vary from 4.3 to 8.5 quarters. At Exeter the charge varied from 11.5 quarters to 8 quarters by the fifteenth century.

Charter: A written document used by the king or government granting privileges or recognising rights.

Chirograph: A deed of two parts which were written on the same paper or parchment, with the word chirographum in capital letters between the two parts: the paper or parchment was then cut through the middle of the letters and a part given to each party. If the cutting was indented, the deed was an indenture

Civil law: Roman law: the corpus juris civilis.

Close rolls: Mandates, letters and writs of a private nature, addressed in the sovereign’s name to individuals and folded or closed and sealed on the outside with the Great Seal.

Coarb: An abbot or lay person who had succeeded to the authority and revenue of the founder of an early Irish monastery or group of monasteries.

Cocket: A sealed document certifying payment of duty.

Coket: A measure of capacity which varied from place to place and even in the same place. In 1320 at Exeter 10 cokets of potash was assessed as one tun for custom purposes while in the same year 6 cokets was said to be one tun.

Collation: Nomination of a clerk to a benefice by the bishop either as a patron or because of the failure of the real patron to present within six months. Strictly speaking the benefice is collated to the man, not the man to the benefice.

Consistory court: The court presided over by the bishop, for the administration of ecclesiastical law in a diocese.

Cope: A varied measure of capacity used for fruit.

Copyhold: A tenure of land according to the custom of the manor as recorded in the manorial court.

Cord: A variable measure of quantity usually used for garlic. One cord was equal to about one tress. Five cords was about one seam.

Coram Rege: Before the king

Corrody: The right possessed by some benefactors of religious houses, or their nominees to board and lodge with them. The term can be applied to persons other allowances made by the monastery to those who served it’s needs or had secured a corrody by payment.

Coyne: The free quartering or billeting of a lord’s soldiers upon the countryside.

Crannock: A measurement of grain which varied between the different grain crops of oats, wheat and barley. Also used in the west of England for the measurement of salt.

Crenellation: notched stone battements usually on top of a castle or surrounding wall.

Curtilage: A courtyard or ground attached to a dwelling house.

Dean: The head of a chapter of canons and the administrator of a cathedral or collegiate church.

Deanery: A group of parishes presided over a dean.

Demesne: Lands and rights retained by lord or king rather than being granted out to others.

Dicker: A quantity of hides numbering ten and ten dickers equalled one last.

Diocese: A district subject to the jurisdiction of a bishop/archbishop. The name is derived from the administrative districts created by the Roman Emperor Diocletion.

Distrain: The temporary seizure of movable goods or lands by way of distress in order to enforce obedience to a decision or order.

Ell: A measure of length for cloth, usually 45 inches.

Equus coopertus: Barded or armoured horse which also referred to the man at arms riding the horse.

Erenagh: In the simplest term an erenagh was a hereditary tenant of church lands who enjoyed a quasi-clerical status. In late medieval times, in southern Ireland, the term also came to mean an archdeacon.

Escheat: The reversion of land to the lord of the fee or the crown on failure of heirs of the owner or on his outlawry. It is derived from the feudal rule that where an estate in fee simple comes to an end, the land reverts to the lord by whose ancestors or predecessors the estate was originally created.

Escheater: The officer appointed to enforce the right of escheat on behalf of the crown.

Essoin: Freeing from a burden. An excuse made for non-appearance in an action or suit. It was in the nature of an application for time or for an adjournment, made on the first day of term: essoin day.

Estovers: That which is necessary. A common of estovers is a right to take from woods or waste-lands of another a reasonable portion of timber or underwood for use as fuel, for building or for repairs on the land of the commoner.

Expedition: A military expedition.

Extent: A survey and valuation of property, made by its lord or by the royal government.

Eyre: A journey or circuit done by the circuit court headed by a justice in eyre (an itinerant judge)

Farm: Fixed payment for the letting of land, tithes, rents, fines etc., Lords may farm land to vassals receiving a fixed annual rent in place of the normal feudal obligation.

Fardel: A measure of capacity used for cloth and other merchandise. At Exeter one fardel of canvas was 4 hundred weight or about 300 yards while one fardel of cloth contained 64 cloths.

Fealty: The oath by which a vassal swore loyalty to his lord, generally swearing using a reliquary or bible.

Fee Inheritable: Anciently land granted to a man and his heirs in return for services to be rendered to the feudal lord.

Fee-farm: (a) A fixed annual rent payable to the king by chartered boroughs. (b) Reservation by the lord on creation of a tenancy, of a portion of the rent to himself.

Fee simple: Inheritable by any type of heir: A freehold right in land. An estate being the most extensive that a person can have under the monarch: inheritance is clear of any condition, limitation or restriction to particular heirs.

Felony: In feudal law, any grave violation of the feudal contract between lord and vassal. At common law all felonies (except petty larceny) resulted in the offender forfeiting goods and land to the crown and being sentenced to death.

Feoffment: Originally the grant of land in fee simple made by a feoffor to a feoffee was carried out by a ceremony known as livery of seisin. Once it became practice for the delivery to be recorded on writing the document was called a charter or deed of feoffment.

Feudal system: The economic basis of society at the time of the Norman Conquest and beyond. After the conquest all land was considered to be held of the king, who granted tenancies in chief by subinfeudation. The tenants in chief likewise granted land in return for services. All land holdings had a fixed quota of services and the tenant held the land a long as he performed them. In return he was entitled to protection from his lord. Services ranged from knight service owed by the chief tenants to the king, to villeinage where the agricultural services were not fixed and the villein was unfree. Prior to the Conquest the manor, comprising a vill or hamlet, had been the economic and social unit. In feudal legal theory, tenants holding of the same lord owed suit to the manor court, which controlled both agricultural activities and many other aspects of daily life.

Fief: Normally a land held by a vassal of a lord in return for services, mainly military. Heritable lands held under feudal tenure; the land of a tenant in chief.

Fine: A payment for an agreement or the ending of a lawsuit.

Firken: A unit of capacity equal to 8 gallons of ale or 9 gallons of beer.

Forestall: To buy goods before they came to a market.

Fother: A weight for lead equal to about 2,100 pounds.

Fotmal: A unit of weight of lead of about 70 pounds.

Frail: A variable measure of capacity. At Exeter one frail of onions was 20 seams while one frail of raisins was 100 pounds.

Frankalmoin: A feudal tenure, by which land granted to the church by laymen was not subject to the burdens of escheat, reliefs etc., and involved no services except praying for the soul of the donor.

Free Tenant: Freeman, often holding land by knight service, tenure protected by royal courts.

Frieze: A course woollen cloth.

Fruits: The profits of a parish, consisting chiefly of tithes.

Gallon: The medieval gallon was not standardised but usually contained about 4 quarts or 8 pints.

Garcio: Groom, attendant or servant.

Garnestura: Stores, equipment, provisioning for a garrison.

Glebe: Land attached to a benefice as part of its endowment.

Gavelkind: (a) a system by which the lands of a deceased person are added to the common stock and the whole is then re-divided among all group members (b) a system of dividing land equally among the sons of the deceased. 

Gneeve: A unit of landholding which varied from region to region. In Munster one gneeve was ten acres or one-twelfth of a ploughland.

Hanaper: The department of the Chancery where fees were paid for the sealing and enrolment of charters.

Heriot: Death duty payable to the lord of the deceased usually with the best animal owned by the deceased tenant.

Hobelar: A lightly armed mounted soldier.

Hogshead: A measure of liquids such as wine where it was equal to about 63 gallons or a quarter of a “tun”

Homage: The formal public acknowledgement of allegiance by which a tenant or vassal declares himself the man of the king or lord from whom he held the land and bind himself to his service.

Honour: A seignory in capite on which several inferior lordships or manors depend: and the land or district included therein.

Indiction: A fiscal period of fifteen years used as a means of dating events and transactions in the Roman Empire and in the papal and some royal courts.

Indulgence: A letter from a pope or bishop granting remission of punishment for sin in return for some action or devotion, such as saying prayers, going on pilgrimage or contributing to public works.

Inquisition: A searching examination or investigation such as into the property held by a deceased tenant of the king called inquisition post mortem.

Interdict: A decree of the Roman Catholic Church to withhold services and comforts from individual or community. Its main function was to put pressure on offenders against canon law or on secular powers with whom the papacy was in dispute.

Justiciar: The chief political and legal officer of the Norman and Plantagenet kings. He was ex officio regent when the king went overseas and presided over the Curia Regis. The office ceased to exist during the reign of Henry III. In Ireland the term continued in use for the chief government official until about 1370.

Kiln: Usually a kiln for malt and consisting of a tall wooden frame with a hair cloth covering the top on which the malt was laid to dry. The fire beneath was usually made of burning straw which produced less smoke than other fuels and therefore did not taint the malt.

Kiln-house: Building used for baking and drying grain for brewing and containing a malt—kiln.

Knight’s fee: In theory, a fief which provides sufficient revenue to equip and support one knight, approximately twelve hides or fifteen acres.

Knight service: Where a man held land of another or of the crown by military tenure by service, of which the principal varieties were scutage, grand serjeanty, castleward and cornage. It had five incidents, namely, aids, relief, wardship, marriage and eseheat; the king’s tenants in capite ut & corona were further liable to primer seisin and fines for alienation.

Last: A measure of capacity which varied between different commodities. It amounted to 20 dickers or 200 hides while one last of herring was 10 seams or 10 thousand weight.

Lastage: A toll payable by traders attending fairs and markets.

Lay fee: Lands held in fee of a lay lord, as distinguished from lands held in frankalmoign.

Lectern: A desk to hold a book used in church for singing or reading from.

Letters patent: Document under the seal of the State, granting some property privilege or authority, or conferring the exclusive right to use an invention or design. The original letters were issued ‘open’ with the Great Seal pendant at the bottom.

Liberty: A region controlled by a subject rather than by the crown.

Mainprise: The receiving of a person into friendly custody upon the security that he shall be forthcoming at a time or place previously agreed.

Manor: Unit of land in feudal times over which the lord had jurisdiction and varying greatly in size of whom two or more persons, called freeholders of the manor, hold land in respect of which they owed him certain free services rents or other duties. Hence every manor must have been as old as the statute of quia emptores and consisted of demesne lands and the right to hold a court-baron and the right to services of free tenants in fee that were liable to eseheat and owed attendance at the court-baron.

March land: The border or frontier land at the edge of the medieval kingdom.

Mark: A monetary unit equal to 13s (shillings) 4d (pence)

Mass: The sacrament of the Eucharist or Holy Communion. Today, the mass is usually referred to as the whole religious ceremony today.

Mease: A measure of quantity of herrings. In Bristol it amounted to 500 herrings. At Exeter 20 mease equalled one last or 10 thousand weight.

Messuage: The site of a dwelling house and its appurtenances whether actually built on or will exist in the future.

Metropolitan: Archbishop having jurisdiction over a province containing several dioceses.

Missal: A book containing the material needed for celebrating mass.

Moiety: A half division of anything usually used when referring to land.

Mortmain: Land could not be conveyed to corporations, ie. a religious house, except by statutory authority or by licence of the crown. The gift could not be used as a means of avoiding death duties.

Municio: Defence fortification for a garrison.

Murage: A toll on goods entering the town or passing through it levied under royal charter for the purpose of building or repairing the walls of the town.

Nave: The main body of a church, assigned for the laity and at the western end of the church.

Notary public: Commissioner for Oaths.

Oblation: A pious donation offered to God.

Ordinary: The bishop of a diocese when exercising the ecclesiastical jurisdiction annexed to his office.

Pack: A bundle used as a measure for cloth and other items which like most units of measure in medieval times varied widely depending on commodity and location. One pack contained 10 cloths in most places but at Exeter one pack contained 43 cloths.

Palatine: A region belonging to a feudal lord with special exemptions from royal control.

Parentela: Socially marginal relatives who were often united with the rest of the lineage by possessing a common surname.

Parliamenrum: To parley (talk) or parliament.

Perquisite: Casual profits in addition to regular income.

Piece: A measure used for cloth that varied from place to place and by commodity. At Exeter one piece of canvas was about 30 yards while one piece of linen cloth was 60 ells or 75 yards. Breton linen cloth varied from 36 to 100 ells.

Pipe: A unit of measure which varied between different commodities. In wine it was half a “tun” or 126 gallons which for salmon it amounted to 60 gallons.

Pluralism: Simultaneous holding of more than one ecclesiastical office or benefice.

Pollard: A base coin of foreign origin.

Pontage A toll similar to murage but levied for the purpose of building or repairing a bridge.

Pot: A measure of capacity used for butter and grease and amounted to about 14 gallons.

Pound: A unit of weight measure that varied according to the measuring system in use.

Prebend: Stipend of a canon or for the support of a member of the chapter.

Precentor: The second of the four chief dignitaries of a cathedral in charge of the music of the choir.

Prescription: The acquisition of a right by reason of lapse of time. Negative prescription is the loss of a right by the same process.

Procuration: A payment, originally in victuals by the inferior clergy to the bishop or archdeacon at visitations.

Prise: A right of feudal lordship to take goods required for the lord’s use with or without the consent of the owner at a price often below the market value.

Quare impedit: A writ brought by a person in possession of an advowson of a church and who was disturbed in his presentation of it.

Quarter: (a) A measure of weight (0.25 hundred weight) or capacity – equivalent to one seam. It was used for coal, grain, salt and woad. At Exeter one quarter of grain was 8 bushels. (b) A measure of land usually equated to three ploughlands or a quarter of a ballybetagh.

Quit-claim: The formal renunciation of a claim to land, etc.

Rector: The chief cleric in the parish who received all the revenues of the parish.

Reeve: Official in charge of a manor.

Replevin: The re-delivery to the first possessor of distrained goods on condition that he try the right of possession with the distrainer.

Roll: (a) Membranes, rotuli of parchment stitched together to form a record (b) a cylindrical bundle of varying size usually used for cloth. At Exeter one roll contained 26½ cloths.

Sack: A measure of capacity that varied by commodity. In wool, one sack was about 26 to 28 stone.

Satellites: Armed followers, often foot soldiers.

Seam: A measure of capacity or weight that was equal to one quarter in dry commodities. At Exeter, one seam of fish was one quarter (0.25 hundred weight) while 25 sums (the plural of seam) of garlic was one thousand weight.

Seisin: Feudal possession; the relation in which a person stands to land or other hereditaments, when he has in them an estate of freehold in possession. It is formal legal ownership as opposed to mere possession or beneficial interest.

Seneschal: Steward or chief officer of a lord.

Scutage: A variety of tenure by knight’s service. It imposed on the tenant the duty of accompanying the king to war for forty days, or of sending a substitute or of paying money in lieu of military service.

Socage: A feudal tenure of land involving the payment of rent, or other non-military service, to a superior lord.

Solar: An upper room.

Stang: A measure of land equal to 3,240 square yards.

Succentor: The deputy of the precentor, usually a vicar-choral, and in charge of music of the choir.

Suit of court: A service theoretically due from every tenant of land forming part of, or held of, a manor, and consisting in the duty of attending the courts held by the lord.

Sub-infeudate: To allocate land in accordance with feudal practice from a large feudal estate or district. It created more local feudal lords to better manage local areas.

Synod: An ecclesiastical council.

Synodals: Payment by the clergy to the bishop or archdeacon at a visitation

Tallage: Originally a tax levied arbitrarily without any question of consent from unfree tenants.

Tally: A wooden stick marked with notches to record a debt, then split in half across the notches so that both parties have a record.

Tenant in chief: A lord or institution (the church being the most common) holding land directly from the king.

Terrier: Church inventory of possessions, particularly landed property.

Tithe: The payment due from all parishioners to give a tenth part of their agricultural produce for the support of their parish church and which was generally payable to the parson of the parish. Ecclesiastical tithe was attached to a benefice or monastic house. When land came into the hands of the monasteries the tithe was appropriated and the cure of souls was deputed to a vicar.

Tolsel: The old name in some Irish and English towns for the guildhall, toll=booth, borough court-house or local court of justice.

Ton: A measure of weight equal to 20 hundred weights. It is difficult sometimes to distinguish one ton from one tun as the same Latin word is used for both.

Tractarus: A meeting for discussion also used to refer to a great council.

Treasurer: The fourth chief dignitary of a cathedral with responsibility for movable goods and the care of the cemetery surrounding the cathedral.

Tress: A variable measure of quantity used for garlic and onions while one tress amounted to 15 to 25 heads.

Tun: A measure of capacity usually used for wine amounting to 252 gallons in the fourteenth century; equivalent to two pipes or four hogheads.

Valettus: Servant or yeoman particularly referring to those who work for the king.

Vassal: A person holding lands from a superior on condition of homage and allegiance.

Vicar: A clergyman of a parish appropriated to a monastery and who receives only part of the revenues of the parish.

Vicar-choral: A body of vicars who deputized for the canons in saying daily service in a cathedral. The size of the vicar-choral varied from place to place depending on the size and wealth of a cathedral.

Hall of the vicar-choral at Cashel from sacred-destinations. com

View: An opportunity for a jury to see the land or thing claimed in a court case.

Vill: Township, local district, small unit of lordship or fiscal assessment.

Virgate: A measure of land that varied in extent but usually taken as thirty acres.

Visne: A neighbouring place.

Wey: A unit of weight or volume which varied etween commodities. In Bristol one wey equalled six quarters or 48 grain bushels and 384 gallons of liquid.

Yard: A measure of length which was usually 36 to 37 inches in the cloth trade.



Colin Breen, The Gaelic Lordship of the O’Sullivan Beare: A Landscape Cultural History (Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2005)
Billy Colfer, Arrogant Trespass: Anglo-Norman Wexford 1169-1400 (Duffry Press, Enniscorthy, 2002)
Philomena Connolly (ed.), Irish Exchequer Payments 1270-1446 (Irish Manuscripts Commission, Dublin, 1998)
Paul Dryburgh & Brendan Smith (eds.), Handbook and Select Calendar of Sources for Medieval Ireland in the National Archives of the United Kingdom (Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2005)
Arlene Hogan, The Priory of Llanthony Prima and Secunda in Ireland, 1172-1541: Lands, patronage and politics (Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2008)
Maryanne Kowaleski (ed.), Local custom accounts of the Port of Exeter 1266-1321 (Devon and Cornwall Record Society, New Series, Vol. 36, 1993)
David Lephine & Nicholas Orme (ed.), Death and Memory in medieval Exeter (Devon and Cornwall Record Society, New Series, Vol. 47, 2003)
K.W. Nicholls, Gaelic and Gaelicized Ireland in the Middle Ages (Lilliput Press, Dublin, 2003)


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