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This book provides an introduction to the English legal system and its development during the period c 1215-1485. It affords a valuable insight into the character of medieval governance as well as revealing the complex nexus of interests, attitudes and relationships prevailing in society during the later Middle Ages. The book considers the theoretical and ideological aspects of medieval law and justice, examining the concepts and discourses to be found in official and non-official circles. It concentrates on manifestations of crime and disorder and the royal response to this in the form of the development of judicial institutions. The book then looks at the dispensation of justice both inside and outside the courtroom. It examines in detail the machinery and functioning of criminal justice both in the royal courts and in those autonomous areas exercising delegated powers. The book also considers the use of extra-judicial methods, such as arbitration and 'self-help', to illustrate the interaction of formal and informal methods of dispute settlement. It focuses on the personnel of justice, the justices of the central courts and the local officials who carried out the day-to-day administrative tasks. The smooth and successful operation of the judicial system was challenged and sometimes hindered by the existence of corrupt practices and abuse of its procedures.
This chapter is comprised of annotated and translated source texts on the concepts of law and justice. In the later Middle Ages a broad intellectual background for concepts of law and justice existed based on a composite of the Bible and the tenets of Christianity, the corpus of Roman law and canon law, and the writings of Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas was especially influential on medieval political thought, reconciling the teachings of Christ with Aristotelian logic to achieve a distinctive philosophy of law and the state. The emergence of parliament as a political institution is a phenomenon that is inextricably linked with the development of concepts of law, justice and kingship. The relationship of the king to the law and the obligations of kingship were crucial themes addressed by jurists and political commentators. The revival of interest in Roman civil law at the beginning of the twelfth century infused jurisprudential writing with ideas of strong centralist government under a divine emperor.
This chapter concentrates on recorded instances of crime and disorder and so does much to confirm the reputation of the late medieval period for unparalleled violence and lawlessness. Descriptions of crime and disorder can afford a valuable perspective on reality and although the cases recorded are telescoped chronologically and provide only a brief snapshot, they do reveal something of the nature of criminal activity amongst different classes of society. The examples included in this chapter provide illustrations of all the serious crimes and also, in various contexts, the lesser offence of trespass. Inevitably many of the examples focus on high-profile crimes of violence amongst the upper strata of society.
A strong arterial network of regional justice developed over the course of the later medieval period, which nourished and complemented the work of the higher royal courts. The extracts in this chapter provide a wider picture of criminal justice in action, and the interaction of both central and local agencies, that concerns this chapter. The chapter concentrates especially on criminal procedure in the late Middle Ages. The appeal of felony was one of the principal methods of prosecuting an individual for a criminal wrong in the thirteenth century. The procedure was an involved and lengthy one since it necessitated the appeal being initiated in the county court before being heard by justices of gaol delivery. The extracts from gaol deliveries in Norfolk reveal something of the more mundane day-to-day workings of the courts and especially the procedural issues and practical problems that held up the smooth course of trials.
The extracts in this chapter cover the personnel of justice. The task of law enforcement and the staffing of the legal system required a large number of full-time and part-time officials, ranging from the royal judges of the central courts down to village constables. There was a general impression that judges and lawyers made considerable sums from their professional activities. This perception may have elements of truth, but masks some of the realities of royal judicial service: there was a profound shift during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries from clerical to lay justices, which altered the way in which their service could be rewarded. Royal justices had sworn oaths before taking office since at least the thirteenth century. Much of the day-to-day lesser work in the field of criminal justice was carried out by lower-ranking officials working in the hundreds and townships.
The extracts in this chapter provide an idea of the scope of the jurisdiction of the institutions as set out in their articles and commissions. This chapter investigates the nature of medieval criminal justice. A more permanent solution to the problems of local justice was found in the development of the county circuits of assize and gaol delivery. In the later fourteenth and fifteenth centuries general oyer and terminer commissions were employed less frequently as the assize justices and court of king's bench took over much of the investigation of the behaviour of officialdom. Equally important for local justice was the evolution of the office of justice of the peace, which largely took place during the fourteenth century. The precociousness of the system was responsible for the enormous variety of cases that came before the justices.
This chapter is comprised of annotated and translated source texts that provide alternative and more 'popular' perceptions of the law and justice. The pivotal position of the king concerning with 'popular' concepts and activities is noteworthy and suggests an acceptance of the quasi-divine royal characteristics that were displayed on coins, seals and other royal images and were part and parcel of official ideology and propaganda. The sources accordingly reveal an underlying grasp of natural law concepts of fairness and justice, right and ius, often underpinned by reference to custom, reason and a symbolic body of law or quasi-law. Proclamation of statutes, decrees and royal instructions in public places within the county was a common occurrence. Since they were delivered in English, the stock phrases would be well known and easily repeatable, thereby creating a sense of quasi-royal authority.
The extracts in this chapter concern corruption and abuse. Perceptions of corruption within the law derived to a large extent from the close relationship between lawyers and landowners. This emerged in part from the retaining of lawyers for advice and assistance as legal counsel and in part from their natural affinity of interest as property owners and members of county society. Ironically, the Ordinance of Trailbaston and the Ordinance of Conspirators of the same year were designed to tackle the very forms of corruption and abuse of the judicial system that the anonymous author is complaining about. The smooth and successful operation of the judicial system was challenged and sometimes hindered by the existence of corrupt practices and abuse of its procedures. Concerns about the inadequacies of the law and problems in the workings of justice are surprisingly well articulated in examples of the imaginative literature of the period and appear to offer an indictment of the whole system.
Initiating litigation could be regarded as a preliminary stage in the arbitration process; and could be threatened or continued if the parties were unable or unwilling to agree to terms. The extracts in this chapter examine the extra-judicial forms employed in the later Middle Ages, namely negotiation, mediation and arbitration. This chapter acts as a corrective to the traditional preoccupation with formal legal proceedings. Arbitration involved the surrender of negotiating and adjudicating powers to a panel of arbiters and/or an impartial umpire. Arbitration's procedures bear the imprint of legal practice, while legal thought frequently influenced deliberations. Litigants recognised the benefit of utilising both law courts and arbitrament. Undoubtedly a key resource employed by all levels of society, mediation and arbitration constituted a significant response to the breakdown in social relations in potentially providing for amicable and non-confrontational approaches.
This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book provides an introduction to the English legal system and its development during the period c 1215-1485. It considers the theoretical and ideological aspects of medieval law and justice, examining the concepts and discourses to be found in official and non-official circles. The book concentrates on manifestations of crime and disorder and the royal response to this in the form of the development of judicial institutions. It looks at the dispensation of justice both inside and outside the courtroom. The book examines in detail the machinery and functioning of criminal justice both in the royal courts and in those autonomous areas exercising delegated powers. It focuses on the personnel of justice, the justices of the central courts and the local officials who carried out the day-to-day administrative tasks.