Seminar Seven: Language and Complaint

Guest: Professor Mark Ormrod, University of York, UK

There is a long tradition of ‘complaint literature’ in medieval culture, which certainly flourished in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. From the late thirteenth century, the subjects of the English crown were offered a number of new opportunities to make formal complaint and seek redress, both within the context of the common law (where the characteristic statement of complaint was theplaint or bill) and in the search for solutions that required the dispensation of the king’s ‘grace’ or royal prerogative (where the statement of complaint was the petition). Petitions, which were often (though not always) routed through parliament, might be made by individuals and corporate bodies (where they are known as ‘private’ petitions), or – from the second quarter of the fourteenth century – by the commons in parliament (where they became known as ‘common’ [commune] petitions). One lively issue in the scholarship on petitions and literature of complaint is whether there was, in an absolute sense, more to complain about in the later Middle Ages, or whether there were simply more opportunities to complain.


  1. The Outlaw’s Song of Trailbaston (c. 1305).
  2. An example of a private petition: Kew, The National Archives: Public Record Office SC 8/55/2713 (petition of Lettice Kiriell against the oppressions of John de Cornwaille, knight).
  3. An example of a common petition: Kew, The National Archives: Public Record Office C 65/31, m. 5 (parliament roll of 1376, the ‘Good Parliament’). The edition and translation of the petition provided here is from the forthcoming edition of The Parliament Rolls of Medieval England.


  1. J.R. Maddicott, ‘Poems of social protest in early fourteenth-century England’, in W.M. Ormrod, ed., England in the Fourteenth Century: Proceedings of the 1985 Harlaxton Symposium (Woodbridge, 1986), pp. 130-144.
  2. J.R. Maddicott, ‘Parliament and the constituencies, 1272-1377’, in R.G. Davies and J.H. Denton, eds., The English Parliament in the Middle Ages (Manchester, 1981), pp. 61-87.
  3. W.M. Ormrod, ‘The use of English: language, law and political culture in fourteenth-century England’, Speculum 78 (2003), 750-787.


  1. Paul Brand, ‘The languages of the law in later medieval England’, in D.A. Trotter, ed.,Multilingualism in Later Medieval Britain (Cambridge, 2000), pp. 63-76.
  2. Peter Coss, ‘Introduction’, in Peter Coss, ed., Thomas Wright’s Political Songs of England(Cambridge, 1996).
  3. Paul Brand ‘Petitions and parliament in the reign of Edward I’, in L. Clark, ed., Parchment and People: Parliament in the Middle Ages (Edinburgh, 2004).
  4. G. Dodd, ‘The hidden presence: parliament and the private petition in the fourteenth century’, in A.J. Musson, ed., Expectations of the Law in the Middle Ages (Woodbridge, 2001), pp. 135-49.
  5. R. Firth Green, ‘Medieval literature and law’, in David Wallace, ed., The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature (Cambridge, 1999).
  6. Emily Steiner and Candace Barrington, eds., The Letter of the Law: Legal Practice and Literary Production in Medieval England (Ithaca, 2002).


Please read and note the primary texts and come prepared to discuss them.

Please would everyone read the two items by Maddicott. We would like two five-minute reports on these, preparatory to general discussion of this material.