Law and Society in Medieval and Early Modern Europe


The Special Collections at Norlin
Library is home to a unique collection of manuscripts, including an assortment
of medieval and early modern documents. One common theme that can be found in
many of the documents is that of law. The active presence of the church and
political authority in medieval and early modern Europe meant that people
living in this time were no strangers to legal entities in their lives. This
sample of the medieval and early modern manuscripts collection contains
documents pertaining to both Ecclesiastical and Secular Law in
England, France, and Spain. The post- antique and pre-modern world was one in
which the contention for power between church and state reached previously
unseen heights and the legislation of morality, property, and power meant that
the law, its interpretation, and its enforcement became well known and
documented forces throughout Europe. Among the documents in this collection
is a deed from 1547 for the sale of three parcels of land in England.
Identified as Bathpool Mead, Brooks Mead, and Martin Mead. The parchment was
stamped with the seal of the Court of Augmentations under Edward VI. The
Court of Augmentations was originally created during the reign of Henry VIII to deal with disputes over property the crown confiscated in
conjunction with the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s. In 1547, the Court of Augmentations was
revamped to include the future acquisition of lands as well as a number
of recently dissolved guilds and charitable establishments. Also found in
this collection are the Sir Henry Griffith letters. One of these letters
details the case of a requisite who openly professed his religious views.
recusancy was the crime of refusal to attend Anglican services in Elizabethan
and early Stuart England. The letter informs about a Master Creek who, quote,
“Was a notorious papist and irreligiously he had caused one of his own
children to baptize another. And, further, using many vile speeches, which other men
had heard.” The author claimed that Creek’s wife, “had seduced Sir Henry
Griffith from the religion which always before he had professed.” The author
suggested that if these other men were called before the recipient, whose name
is not visible on the document but who was likely a man standing in a position
to enact justice, they would “declare all the words they had heard.”
Other examples of documents pertaining to law and the medieval and early modern
manuscripts collection includes several pieces dealing with the sale of and
dispute over land and property. Private letters discussing the religious matters
of clerical misbehavior and recusancy and an ornate leaf from a text on the
law of marriage. Such an amalgamation of documentation
provides the modern viewer with a sense of how the law functioned, as well as how
people negotiated with and operated both within and outside it.

2 thoughts on “Law and Society in Medieval and Early Modern Europe

  1. I was actively looking to understand historic law, but this is tedious and therefor not engaging. I guess it's interesting from a professional historians perspective, but not for a layman like me.

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