Justice and mercy

Moral theology and the exercise of law in twelfth-century England

Author: Philippa Byrne

This book addresses one of the most acute moral and political dilemmas of the twelfth century: how did a judge determine how to punish an offender, and what was the purpose of such punishment? It examines how English judges weighed a choice which, if made wrongly, could endanger both the political community and their own souls. That choice was between two ideas which twelfth-century intellectual and legal thought understood as irreconcilable opposites: justice and mercy. By examining the moral pressures on English judges, Justice and Mercy provides a new way into medieval legal culture: rather than looking at the laws that judges applied, it reconstructs the moral world of the judges themselves. The book offers a fresh synthesis of the disciplines of intellectual history and legal history, examining theological commentaries, moral treatises, letters, sermons and chronicles in order to put the creation of the English common law into its moral context. This broad vision brings to light the shared language of justice and mercy, an idea which dominated twelfth-century discourse and had the potential to polarise political opinion. Justice and Mercy challenges many of the prevailing narratives surrounding the common law, suggesting that judges in church courts and royal courts looked strikingly similar, and that English judges had more in common with their continental counterparts than is often assumed.

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‘Justice and Mercy is a remarkable book…the book resounds with the historiographic traditions and conflicts among the different schools of legal history and of intellectual history, both in Britain and on the continent. While the author is obviously well aware of them, she manages to avoid the pitfalls of adding to these ongoing conflicts.
Esther Cohen, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
The Medieval Review

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