What follows is a list of my ongoing research, at various stages of completion. Please get in touch if you would like a copy or to know more.
Law in Common: Legal Cultures in Late-Medieval England (forthcoming, OUP, late 2019/early 2020).
This is the ‘book of the thesis’, on which I have been working for several years, undertaking more archival research, expanding from the original three chapters to eight, and developing the interpretative framework.
There were tens of thousands of different local law-courts in late-medieval England, providing the most common forums for the working out of disputes and the making of decisions about local governance. While historians have long studied these institutions, there have been very few attempts to understand this complex form of ‘legal pluralism’. Law in Common provides a way of apprehending this complexity by drawing out broader patterns of legal engagement. The first half of the book explores four ‘local legal cultures’ – in the countryside, towns and cities, the maritime world, and Forests – that grew up around legal institutions, landscapes, and forms of socio-economic practice in these places, and produced distinctive senses of law. The second half of the book examine ‘common legalities’, widespread forms of social practice that emerge across these different localities, through which people aimed to invoke the power of law. Through studies of the physical landscape, the production of legitimate knowledge, the emergence of English as a legal vernacular, and the proliferation of legal documents, it offers a new way to understand how common people engaged with law in the course of their everyday lives. Drawing on a large body of archival research from a variety of local institutions, Law in Common offers a new social history of law that aims to explain how common people negotiated the transformational changes of the long fifteenth century with, and through legality.
2. Article project
‘Productive uncertainty: soothsayers, magic, and legal authority in late-medieval England’ (draft)
This article project looks at soothsayers, individuals who used magical practices to solve problems in late-medieval society. I suggest that while they were sometimes regarded with scepticism by their neighbours, their role in dispute resolution gave them a potentially problematic kind of authority. The article first examines the social profile of these often shadowy figures, who are difficult to identify in records, and the ways in which they interacted with local networks of gossip and reputation. While soothsaying was illicit, its capacity to provoke believable rumours brought it within the operations of law. I argue that it provided a useful alternative to the public definitiveness of legal forums, precisely because of the uncertainty inherent in the pronouncements of soothsayers.
3. Article project
‘Treasure Trove in Medieval England’ (draft)
This article looks at the elusive legal incident known as ‘treasure trove’ – the right of the crown to have any precious metal found underground. Searching various printed and archival sources, I have found just over 60 cases of treasure trove between 1100 and 1500. Yet despite the infrequency with which treasure appears in the legal record, it presents an intriguing case study for the operation of royal power in and through the material world.
‘The materiality of medieval law’
The practice of law in medieval England depended on the assembly and organization of a huge variety of stuff. For the performative enactment of law, a special room was needed, with wooden bars to divide it up, carefully ordered tables and chairs, ornate robes which indicated professional status, and endless bundles of parchment documents. These objects enabled legal proceedings to take place, but they were not sufficient for the operation of law more generally. Legality outside the courtroom depended crucially on the classification of the material world and its qualities: in Roman law tradition, for instance, a wild animal was res nullius, belonging to anyone who could capture it; in common law, a nuisance was said to arise from infringement it caused to the rights of freemen.
But if legal thought carved up the world into categories, the workings of law involved an elaborate judicial infrastructure to put such categorizations into effect. Some objects – beached whales and murder weapons among the more mysterious – belonged to the crown by prerogative right, and royal agents invested significant resources in identifying, appraising, and collecting such things. Law in medieval England, then, required stuff for all of its operations. As a major new departure in the study of law in past societies, my project will show how legality is crucially entwined with its material settings; as a study of medieval history, it will show how physical objects formed a crucial component of power, mediating and shaping political relationships between litigants.