In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Medieval Law

  • Introduction

British and Irish Literature Medieval Law
Andrew Rabin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0098


Although the term “medieval” has become a byword in modern popular culture for savagery and lawlessness, the perception of the Middle Ages as primitive or barbaric is neither accurate nor just. The millennium between c. 500 and 1500 CE witnessed the rise of thriving legal cultures throughout Europe that paralleled the evolution of the modern nation-state. This connection between law and cultural definition was particularly strong in the British Isles, where legal texts had long served as sites for the exploration of particular notions of English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh identity. Among the aristocracy of pre-1066 England, the importance placed on Old English literacy led to the composition of the largest surviving corpus of vernacular legal texts from anywhere in early medieval Europe. Following the Conquest, the emergence of the common law became an allegory for the development of English culture itself. Elsewhere in Britain, the growth of independent legal traditions not only functioned as mechanisms for preserving social order, they also offered ways to assert political autonomy or protect cultural identity against the homogenizing influences of continental Christianity and English colonialism. For the literary scholar, the study of law enriches our understanding of the textual, social, political, and historical contexts in which medieval literature was written and read. Perhaps more importantly, recognizing the complex relationship between law and literature highlights the ways in which both genres served as strategies for establishing, enforcing, and questioning cultural norms. Although the methodologies employed in studying the connections between medieval law and literature are remarkably diverse—encompassing practices drawn from history, anthropology, archaeology, philosophy, political science, linguistics, and literature—they all might be said to aim at three principal questions: How did contemporary legal practices shape the historical circumstances in which literature was composed and circulated? How did authors in genres other than law draw upon legal texts to compose their works and address issues of social or political importance? How did the law itself serve as a type of “literature,” deploying narrative, rhetorical, and prosodic elements in ways which helped legal texts fulfil their intended function yet which also revealed the norms, assumptions, and biases upon which political authority rested? These questions emphasize the extent to which law and literature should be understood not as separate entities but rather as related strategies for creating and questioning the social and behavioral norms of which culture is made.


Perhaps the greatest challenge involved in the study of medieval law is mastering the primary sources. Neither England nor the Celtic kingdoms of the Middle Ages possessed anything that resembled a modern constitution. Law changed rapidly and differed significantly by region and time period. Royal legislation competed with local legal practices, the dictates of the crown competed with the rulings of judges, secular law competed with canon law, and the prerogatives of the aristocracy competed with the agenda of the king. As such, the study of medieval law necessitates familiarity with a diversity of texts in a wide variety of genres. The editions listed below are among the most authoritative, yet they represent only a selection of the available material.

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