15.08.69, Sabapathy, Officers and Accountability in Medieval England 1170-1300

Main Article Content

Joel Rosenthal

The Medieval Review 15.08.69

Sabapathy, John. Officers and Accountability in Medieval England, 1170-1300. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. pp. xvi, 312. ISBN: 780199645909 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Joel Rosenthal
Stony Brook University (emeritus)

It is not enough to speculate on "who watches the watchers" and "who guards the guardians." To turn these clichés of government and public life into some sort of working reality there must be a structure, an institutionalization of process. In addition there must be a legal-cum-moral commitment to holding people of authority and power to an accounting for their stewardship, whether it had been in a secular office (as with bailiffs and sheriffs), an ecclesiastical position (as with bishops), or an academic one (as with college wardens). Furthermore, as well as being accountable to those above, there was a sense of justice--albeit often dormant--regarding the way these officials should be answerable to those below as the various grids of power and authority were established. The process of accounting and the concept of accountability, in an age of growing sophistication for secular government and of the expanding reach of canon law, are explored by John Sabapathy as he takes us across the lines between administrative history, legal thinking, and philosophical speculations about duty, justice, and equity, as well as over the boundaries between England and the Continent (and the Mediterranean) for a dip into comparative historical developments.

Sabapathy's method for looking at the emergence of the idea of and the mechanisms for accountability as applied to the four groups or types of officials mentioned above is to move from the general to the specific, from reflections on this core problem of public life and government to a case study (or two) wherein the quest for or the pursuit of accountability was put to the test (with varying results). The first official to be scrutinized is the bailiff, he who was entrusted with the manorial accounts and finances. Did he give his lord an honest account, following the lead of the good steward in the Gospels (and held up in our day as a powerful role model)? What check was there against the possibility that he had skimmed the revenues, doctored the accounts, skipped off with a full purse, and then resisted efforts--aided by family and friendly legal advisors--to bring him to account? And though there were many treatises on estate management, from medieval England and reaching back to the Romans, there was little by way of an "action of account" to instruct the bailiff's superiors (let alone those who might suffer from his depredations) regarding his "liability to account." It was not easy to bring him to task. In the early twelfth century Robert of Chilton was never really brought by Battle Abbey to own up for his term of service, though in the late thirteenth century the de Valence family did eventually catch up with John de Valle; much legal maneuvering there was on both sides and in both cases. Slowly and not always surely, the idea of accountability was emerging--and usually with a "pro-landlord" tilt--and corrective measures of some sort were incorporated into the agenda of the reform-and-protest movement of the 1250s and then into the legal treatises of the following generations.

Sheriffs were a trickier case, being the king's "senior local official" in the county. Because a king has an insatiable appetite for revenue and because England's administrative apparatus was well developed by the twelfth century, in terms of historical evolution the sheriff's main obeisance was to the Exchequer's call for revenue, rather than to the need to represent the sovereign in the county as the local center-point of justice and accessibility. While Walter Map could offer scathing comments about the probity of these men, the Dialogue of the Exchequer reminds us that the call from headquarters was much louder and more forceful than complaints coming in at ground level. In the ongoing struggle between money and equity, we are in little doubt about the winner. However, as with those bailiffs and their free-wheeling ways, a call for the reform of and restraints upon the sheriff was a part of the baronial demands in the rebellions of the 1250s, though it was tough sledding given "the fundamentally extractive nature of the shrieval office." Some light down the tunnel, as (in the long run) "the right to insolence was increasingly open to question."

When Sabapathy turns to bishops he takes us into a different world--one in which an inquisitorial process, needing only infama against a man, sufficed to set the process in motion. But, as the two case studies show (Archbishop Geoffrey of York, 1194-1202 and found wanting; Walter Langton of Coventry and Lichfield, and off the hook in the eyes of the Church), the need to keep a bishop up to standards, whatever they were, had to be balanced against the risk of tarnishing the larger ecclesiastical structure and its hierarchy. An "allegation inflation" was easily launched, but it was often countered by the perceived need for scandal control. Infama could be neutralized or even trumped by fama. The last look at accountability concerns a college warden (this time of Merton College, Oxford); did he answer to the college's statutes, and/or to an ad hoc visitor (Archbishop Pecham in the 1280s, in this case), or--facing in a different direction--to the fellows of the college? As the world of an Oxford college was an arcane and remote one, compared to that of secular officials or episcopal sway, this final example does not seem to pose the more sweeping questions and tensions of the preceding ones. Nevertheless, it is another example of lines of interest and vectors of historical development at a crossroads in time when institutions were growing in both size and number. Was it to be the monastic model for an academic college, or an assessment of administrative competence, or the role of the authority-figure framed in relation to the members of community over which he had charge?

A great strength of this book lies in the way Sabapathy is able to explicate the varying forces, factors, and personnel in his effort to trace the growth and role of mechanisms of accountability. He not only draws in the aid and counsel that comes from looking beyond disciplinary boundaries but he offers parallels from beyond the realm: the baillis and prévôts of Louis IX compared to the sheriffs of Henry III, along with information about the handling of comparable problems by the Angevins in Sicily and some of their Muslim counterparts in the eastern Mediterranean. There is a price to pay for the wide-sweeping erudition; the prose is dense as Sabapathy weaves political philosophy, economic development, and legal treaties into his tapestry; some repetitive passages might have been pared down. Sabapathy's running dialogue with Tom Bisson, Michael Clanchy, Susan Reynolds, James Holt, Robert Bartlett, and David Carpenter, among others, sets the book into a discourse of state building and moral economy that takes it far beyond the parochial boundaries of administrative history.

As this review goes to press, the book's importance beyond the medieval field has been recognized by the Royal Historical Society's award of the 2015 Whitfield Prize in British or Irish history, for which it was the only medieval title on the Society's shortlist.

Article Details