What is it about?

In the Middle Ages, people were legally required to go to church on holy days, including Sundays, and banned from working. People were prosecuted by courts for failing to follow the law. This article looks at the excuses people made in court.

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Why is it important?

This article shows that the medieval ecclesiastical courts in England had high standards when evaluating excuses offered by defendants accused of failing to observe holy days. Most defense arguments failed. Whereas other studies have indicated there was a decline in caseload of ecclesiastical courts in the late fifteenth century, this article suggests that the decline did not include a decline in the standards demanded by judges.


This is a timely piece. Today, millions of workers question the ability of authorities to regulate when they can work. The economic consequences caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has reignited the issue. This article reminds us that authorities have claimed that right for centuries. Some workers then, as now, disputed such as assertion. They argued they had to work because it was necessary, akin to the arguments made by some today.

Justin Kirkland
The University of Iowa

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Failing to observe holy days, Tijdschrift voor Rechtsgeschiedenis / Revue d Histoire du Droit / The Legal History Review, June 2020, Brill,
DOI: 10.1163/15718190-00880a02.
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