The Evolution of English Justice: Law, Politics and Society in the Fourteenth Century.

AuthorDonahue, Jr., Charles

THE EVOLUTION OF ENGLISH JUSTICE: LAW, POLITICS AND SOCIETY IN THE FOURTEENTH CENTURY. By Anthony Musson & W.M. Ormrod. Houndmills (Basingstoke, Hants.) and New York: Macmillan Press and St. Martin's Press. 1999. Pp. x, 249. Cloth, $59.95; paper, $24.50.


The late Middle Ages are history's stepchild. Traditionally, medievalists are not interested in them. The earlier centuries, culminating in the twelfth and thirteenth, are much more typically "medieval." Traditionally too, early modern historians are interested in the late Middle Ages only for what they see as origins of the Reformation, or for decay of feudal structures out of which the national monarchies of the sixteenth century arose, or for Italian humanism, which they call "the Renaissance."(1) Legal historians, on the other hand, are stuck with the late Middle Ages. With a few exceptions (including, most notably, the great run of central royal court records from thirteenth-century England), the fourteenth is the first century in which we can first see what is really going on in the courts. Legal sources multiply, and much of the material was printed in the sixteenth century, so it is possible to make some progress without painstakingly going through manuscripts.

Recently, there has been an :increased interest among historians in the later Middle Ages, particularly in the fourteenth century.(2) The fourteenth century was not unlike the twentieth, a period of uncertainty and contradictions. In philosophy, it was the century of William of Ockham, as the thirteenth had been the century of Thomas Aquinas.(3) Ockham's thought may not be much like what is reported under his name in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose,(4) but it is close enough that an imaginative author can suggest a connection between Ockham and modern deconstructionists.

The fourteenth century was a century of heresy, or, at least, of radical confrontation with the practices of the organized church.(5) The doctrines of John Wyclif (c. 1330-84) were condemned in England in 1382 and again at the Council of Constance in 1415. That council also condemned and executed Jan HMs (c. 1373-1415), a Bohemian follower of Wyclif's. But the fourteenth century was also a century of great personal piety. Juliana of Norwich (c. 1342 - after 1413) wrote a remarkable treatise on her mystical experiences.(6) Devotional books, like the Luttrell Psalter,(7) were produced in quantity for wealthy laity. The organized clerical church no longer contained religiosity. The fourteenth was a century of lay men and women, if not of laicization.(8)

Legal thought in the fourteenth century was a mixed bag. For English law, it is not generally regarded as a great period on the intellectual level -- a century of pleaders, far from learned sweep of some of the passages of Bracton in the previous century.(9) For canon law it is a period of encyclopedists, summarizers of the great achievements of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, until the end of the century and the rise of the conciliar movement.(10) For Roman law, on the other hand, it is the century of Bartolus and Baldus and so must rank high.(11)

Two events profoundly affected the social and economic history of the fourteenth century: The Black Death of 1347-50 was a Europe-wide phenomenon, during which an estimated one-third of the population died in the span of less than three years.(12) Once the plague came, it stayed, reducing population levels for the rest of the century and well into the next. The Peasants' Revolt of 1381 in England was also not an isolated phenomenon. Indeed, the years 1378-1382 have been described as years of Europe-wide revolution.(13)

In England, the fourteenth was a century of war.(14) Intermittent war in Scotland and along the northern border of England characterized the first half of the century.(15) War with France occupied a considerable portion of the reign of Edward III (reigned 1327-1377).(16) It was also a century of kings who met disastrous ends. Edward II was deposed by his wife and her paramour and probably disemboweled.(17) Edward III, dominated by his mistress, died foolish -- a victim of Alzheimer's disease before anyone knew the term.(18) Richard II, perhaps the most complicated and most tragic of them all, was deposed and probably starved to death.(19)

But the fourteenth century in England is also the century of Chaucer, Langland, and Gower.(20) Most of York Minster was built in the fourteenth century, as was that jewel of decorated Gothic sculpture, the Percy tomb in Beverley Minster.(21)

Fourteenth-century English governance is an elaborate mosaic of interconnected persons, institutions, ideas and events.(22) We can talk of kings, administrators, barons, knights and burgesses, or crown (note how the person is becoming an institution through the use of that word), household departments and departments of state, council, parliament, and the picture that emerges will be at once static and fundamentally deficient because it will not show us how changes occurred in response to events and what ideas informed those changes. It is really the latter that makes the fourteenth century different from the thirteenth. The cast of characters was there before and so were most of the institutions, but the ideas had changed, perhaps because of the unsatisfactory results of the thirteenth century. Society too changed, becoming less like what we normally associate with the term "feudal."(23) New ideas worked on a changed society to produce a different set of institutional solutions to the problem of governance.

Crises are dramatic. They focus the picture for us. It is altogether too easy to get the impression that governance lurches from crisis to crisis and that changes happen only as the result of crises. The fourteenth century certainly had its share of crises. But life is not lived on such peaks. If ten years of the century were years of major crisis in England,(24) ninety were not. And it may well be that the real changes in institutions are hidden in those valleys that separate the nine peaks.


Musson and Ormrod,(25) with appropriate qualifications, explore the changes hidden in the valleys. They seek to summarize the developments that occurred in English justice over the course of the fourteenth century by emphasizing the incremental, the evolutionary, the endogenous forces that made English justice a very different phenomenon at the deposition of Richard II in 1399 from what it had been at the death of Edward I in 1307.

This is not an easy book to read. It is very tightly written. The publishers apparently allowed the authors only 250 pages, of which only 193 are text.(26) The result is compression that borders, in a few instances, on the incomprehensible.(27) The authors also assume that the reader is familiar with the history outlined above. Most of the events and movements described there are referred to in the book, as the authors seek to explain what happened to English justice over the course of the century, but they are referred to in a way that makes prior knowledge of them useful, if not essential.

The reader is, however, not assumed to know much, if anything, about law. Chapter Two, "Royal Justice at the Centre," contains an elementary account of the institutions of central royal justice in the fourteenth century. Although marred somewhat by compression,(28) it responds to the need that the authors perceived in the preface "to provide an accessible description of the structure of the royal courts in the later Middle Ages" (p. viii).

The next chapter (Chapter Three, "Royal Justice in the Provinces"), however, is not at all...

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