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The language of the law. Part Latin, part Anglo-Saxon, all confusing.

The Legal Genealogist is sprinting to the finish line of the Genealogical Research Institute of Pittsburgh at LaRoche College.

Rick Sayre and I co-coordinate this class, Law School for Genealogists, at GRIP, and we’ve sure had a ball this year.

Classes end at mid-day tomorrow, then we all sprint to Georgia for the week-long classes at the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research. It’s in its first year in its new digs at the University of Georgia in Athens this year after 50 years at Samford University in Birmingham, so we’re all expecting lots of little adjustments and glitches… though there have been a lot fewer of those so far than I might have thought with such a big change.

These are wonderful experiences all the way around, with bright, motivated, challenging students in a wonderful environment… there’s a reason we call these institutes “summer camp for genealogists.”

But it does mean that time to write blog posts is in short supply. Since nobody wants the blog to go totally silent while I’m so jammed, however, let’s continue having fun as time allows with legal alphabet soup.

So, for today, F is for “FALSE CLAIM”.

And no, I am not going to make a single solitary political reference to alternative facts.

No matter how tempted I get.

We think about false claims from a genealogical perspective in terms of things like our — um — how to put this — uh — greedy ancestors. You know the ones. Like my ancestors filing a claim with the Southern Claims Commission to get money for property they said the Yankees took as they marched through, even though the law said they had to be loyal Unionists and my folks had sent six sons into the Confederate Army.

Or my rascally second great grandfather who repeatedly tried to get a pension for Mexican War service when there isn’t a single solitary shred of evidence that he ever served in the Mexican War.

And making false statements to get government benefits is certainly what modern law means by the term. But it’s not at all what historical law means when you see it. In historical legal parlance this is a very particular term with a very particular meaning — and it’s not what you think.

It was, instead, a term in a very specific area of the law: “in the forest law, … where a man claimed more than his due, and was amerced and punished for the same.”1

R-i-i-i-i-i-g-h-t. That’s helpful. Not.

So… forest law was the “system or body of old law relating to the royal forests.”2 Under some circumstances, people could take deer or rabbits or firewood from the forests, usually on payment of a license to the King.

If they took more than they were allowed to, they could end up in the forest courts: “Courts instituted for the government of the king’s forest in different parts of the kingdom, and for the punishment of all injuries done to the king’s deer or venison, to the vert or greensward, and to the covert in which such deer were lodged. They consisted of the courts of attachments, of regard, of sweinmote, and of justice-seat.”3

But what’s this “amerced” bit for false claims?

To amerce is to “impose an amercement or fine; to punish by a fine or penalty.”4

Why not just say fine?

Because it’s not exactly the same thing. “The difference between amercements and fines is …: The latter are certain, and are created by some statute; they can only be imposed and assessed by courts of record; the former are arbitrarily imposed by courts not of record, as courts-leet.”5

Got that?

Now you know what that early English record of your ancestor is all about, right?



  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 474, “false claim.”
  2. Ibid., 507, “forest law.”
  3. Ibid., “forest courts.”
  4. Ibid., 67, “amerce.”
  5. Ibid., “amercement.”
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