Hanging Matters: Petty Theft, Sentence of Death, and a Lost Statute of Edward I

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Abstract

The late thirteenth-century legal treatise The Mirror of Justices, although acclaimed and valued by seventeenth-century antiquaries and politicians, acquired a decidedly equivocal reputation in the late nineteenth century, largely due to a withering assessment by Frederic William Maitland.1 An attempt at rehabilitation has been made in modern times, however, and its standing may perhaps be further enhanced by recognition that it cites, succinctly and with apparent accuracy, an enactment of Edward I whose text is lost and which has therefore gone unremarked.2 In the words of the treatise: King Edward set a limit to the amount of robbery or larceny [that would serve to hang a man] in this manner, to wit, that no one should be adjudged to death if his larceny, hamsoken, or robbery did not exceed twelve pence sterling. 3 The Mirrors rsum is supported by references in eyre and gaol delivery reports and records from Edward Is reign, permitting the conclusion that although the statute in question was soon lost to sight, it had some significant consequences. As well as proclaiming the authority of the king, it made a clear distinction for the first time between petty and capital larceny in terms of monetary value, enhanced the role in court proceedings of the trial jury, which supplied the necessary valuations, and prompted the development of forms of punishment appropriate for minor offenders, notably penal imprisonment.

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Summerson, H. (2022). Hanging Matters: Petty Theft, Sentence of Death, and a Lost Statute of Edward I. Law and History Review, 40(1), 149–164. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0738248021000572

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