Cornage and Culliage I
Bill Long 3/1/06
Sorting out the "Rights" and "Duties"
Jeffrey Kacirk's entertaining The Word Museum (2000) purports to be a collection of what he calls "The Most Remarkable English Words Ever Forgotten." In this book he introduces about 2000 words, most of which have been long-abandoned in popular usage but many of which have colorful histories. Yet, as with most books, his treatment is suggestive at best and incomplete or even wrong at worst. The two words I discuss here are presented in his book. He defines cornage as:
"horn-service. A kind of tenure in grand serjeantry. The service required was to blow a horn [cornu] when any invasion of the Scots was perceived. Cornagium was money paid instead of the old service."
He lists culliage as "An ancient custom in Scotland which gave the lord the liberty of lying the first night with his vassal's bride." While the former is well-atttested but misdescribed in Kacirk's definition, the latter probably never existed in Europe. Alain Boureau's 1995 Le drot de cuissage, translated into English (1998) as The Lord's First Night, not only puts to rest the suspicion that that this practice was part of Scottish society, but gives reason to suggest why such a custom would have been invented. The purpose of this and the next essay is to describe each of these supposed "rights" or "duties" with greater specificity.
The only law review article written in the past 25 years mentioning the duty of cornage repeats the concept described above. An article in the prestigious Stanford Law Review from 1992 says: "In feudal times, one of the duties of the local lord was to blow a horn to warn his serfs and tenants of an enemy's approach. See BLACK'S LAW DICTIONARY at 337. Since the lord had to accept this duty in order to hold the land, his estate was called "tenure by cornage" 44 StLR 879 at n. 50. But all it takes is a little reading in Maitland (d. 1906), the leading historian of the common law, to realize that such a story was first passed along by Littleton in his 1481 Tenures. As Maitland says,
"Every one knows Littleton's tale about the tenants by cornage in the marches of Scotland, who are bound to wind their horns when they hear that the Scots will enter the realm (Tenures, sec. 156). Obviously it is an idle tale; one glance at the Boldon Book* will teach us that," "Northumbrian Tenures," 20 English Historical Review 625, 626 (1890).
[*I dare say that the Boldon Book is not a household word anyplace in the English-speaking world. It is defined as a "customal account" (i.e., a list of the labor, money and produce owed by custom to the Bishop of Durham)
by the Bishop of Durham in A.D. 1183.]
Let's get our quotations straight. Though the word "cornage" first appears in the Boldon Book of 1183 (see OED, s.v.), a definition appears in Bracton (ca. 1238-39). "Et praeterea quia dedit cornagium quod anglice dicitur horn-gelde." Translated this becomes, "And moreover he gives 'cornagium' which is called in English 'horn-geld'"--payment by the numbering of the herd.
This, then, provides the basis for a better explanation of the origin of the duty of cornage. Maitland says, "We cannot suppose that vast masses of men held by this horn-blowing tenure; but they paid cornage." Maitland posits its origin two or more centuries previous to Littleton where cornage was listed with other duties such as "horngeld, neutgeld, beasts' gafol," which "must in all probability have originally been a payment of so much per horn, or per head for the beasts which the tenant kept and turned out on the common pasture" (Id. at 627). Sometimes whole towns were to pay cornage and other times individuals were liable for the assessment. It is indeed much more "sexy" to suggest the romantic picture of a lord scanning the northern horizon only to see a motley collection of tartan-garbed Scots scurrying down from Aberdeen and St. Andrews, from Edinburgh and Berwick, ready to pounce on England before he then blows his horn to awaken the countryside to avert the Scottish threat.**
[**Oh, by the way, the quotation as it appears in Littleton's Tenures (1481) is as follows: "It is said that in ye Marches of Scotlands some hold of the kinge by cornage, y ys to say to blowe an horne for to warne the men of the countrey etc. when there here ye Scots or other enemies will come."]
Indeed, the duty of cornage might have assumed that flavor in later times, when Scottish invasions were imminent or suspected, but the duty to pay cornage is no doubt rooted in the much more prosaic picture of paying duties on cattle or sheep.
Maitland gives the interesting note ("in passing," he says) of a Lancashire entry from the 13th century referring to someone's blowing a horn before the king when he enters or leaves the country. Maitland asks, "Are men already beginning to dabble in etymology and to seek an origin for cornage?" (Id. at 630). So, we really don't know when the notion of cornage as a duty to blow the horn emerged, nor do we know if and when this became a feudal tenure. But, Littleton sure gives us a great story.
The next essay continues a little more with the horn before moving to culliage.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long