Vagabonds, Thieves, and Gossips: Dealing with Disorder in Late-Medieval England

Tutor: Tom Johnson

Module type: Period Topic

Module code: HIS00064C

Late-medieval England was a society in flux. In the tumultuous decades after the Black Death, ordinary people had more leisure time, more money, and more ways to spend it. During this unstable and socially mobile time, local communities became deeply concerned with the problem of disorder. This was a wide category, encompassing everything from outright violence and open insults in the streets to gossiping in taverns and sexual immorality in private. Through local law-courts and legislation, through negotiations and informal associations like gilds, and through common rituals like feasts, ordinary people tried to settle disputes through peaceful means. Yet the spectre of the scrounging vagabond, the petty thief, and the loose-tongued gossip remained potent in the late Middle Ages, as communities persistently attempted – but often failed – to enforce good governance. Who was suspected of disorder? What were the limits of community tolerance? How were conflicts resolved? And were efforts to impose order ever successful?

We will explore these questions through an investigation of some fascinating evidence: we will look at court records which preserve medieval insults, popular literature such as the Robin Hood ballads, coroners’ reports on how people died, and even financial accounts which can tell us how people spent their money. Together, these very different sources can help to illuminate the vibrant and complex world of disorder and social control in late-medieval England.

Seminar topics may include:

  • The Black Death and its Aftermath
  • Local Courts and Communities
  • Piety and Heresy
  • Masculinity, Femininity, and Good Governance
  • Neighbours, Gilds and Charities
  • Violence and Disorder
  • Resolving Disputes
  • Mythologizing Crime


To find out more

You might like to look at the following:

  • McIntosh, Marjorie K. Controlling Misbehavior in England, 1370-1600. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 
  • Musson, Anthony and Edward Powell, Crime, Law and Society in the Later Middle Ages. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009.


For more detailed information, please visit the module catalogue.