Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Court of Piepowders
In England, a Court of Piepowders was a special tribunal organised by a borough on the occasion of a fair or market. These courts had unlimited jurisdiction over personal actions for events taking place in the market, including disputes between merchants, theft, and acts of violence. In the Middle Ages, there were many hundreds of such courts, and a small number continued to exist even into modern times. Sir William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England in 1768 described them as "the lowest, and at the same time the most expeditious, court of justice known to the law of England" . They existed because of the necessity for speedy justice over people who were not permanent residents of the place where the market was held. By the seventeenth century, most of their powers had effectively been transferred to the regular court system – for practical reasons rather than as a result of legislation, the standard district courts being well-established. The most recent sitting of a Piepowder Court was in 1898, in Hemel Hempstead.
The last "active" Court of Piepowders, in Bristol, was abolished by the Courts Act 1971. (It had not actually sat since 1870, but a proclamation was still read in the marketplace each year.) All other courts had their jurisdiction removed by the Administration of Justice Act 1977 , though they technically continue to exist even in the absence of officers, cases, or premises.
There is no one standard spelling of "piepowder": the most common variant is perhaps "pie poudre" (as in Bristol). In the past, variations included "pipoulder" in the sixteenth century, "pepowder" in the fifteenth, and "pipoudre" in the fourteenth. "Piepowder" is a modern respelling of the term based on more familiar English words. Originally, it referred to the dusty feet (in French, pieds poudrés) of travellers and vagabonds, and was only later applied to the courts who might have dealings with such people. In modern French, the word pied-poudreux is still occasionally used for travelling beggars; it occurs, for example, in the works of Victor Hugo. Another literary reference is Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair, in which Justice Adam Overdo patrols the fair in disguise, saying (Act 2, Scene 1):
- Many are the yeerly enormities [crimes] of this Fayre, in whose Courts of Pye-pouldres I have had the honour during the three dayes sometimes to sit as Judge.
- Halsbury's Laws of England: volume 12(1), paragraph 662, note 10; and volume 10, section titled "Inferior courts and tribunals and ancient courts", paragraph 851 and following.
- Oxford English Dictionary, second edition.
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