Law and the Illicit in Medieval Europe

Law and the Illicit in Medieval Europe

Law and the Illicit in Medieval Europe

Law and the Illicit in Medieval Europe


In the popular imagination, the Middle Ages are often associated with lawlessness. As historians have long recognized, however, medieval culture was characterized by an enormous respect for law, legal procedure, and the ideals of justice and equity. Many of our most important modern institutions and legal conceptions grew out of medieval law in its myriad forms (Roman, canon, common, customary, and feudal).

Institutional structures represent only a small portion of the wider cultural field affected by--and affecting--law. In Law and the Illicit in Medieval Europe such distinguished scholars as Patrick Geary, William Chester Jordan, R. I. Moore, Edward M. Peters, and Susan Mosher Stuard make the case that the development of law is deeply implicated in the growth of medieval theology and Christian doctrine; the construction of discourses on sin, human nature, honor, and virtue; the multiplying forms governing chivalry, demeanor, and social interaction, including gender relations; and the evolution of scholasticism, from its institutional context within the university to its forms of presentation, argumentation, and proof.


Although the general public may well associate the medieval period with lawlessness, it is rather the case that law, both as practice and as intellectual discipline, occupied a central and privileged place in medieval culture. Secular and religious authorities alike proclaimed justice and equity as their highest social ideals, and popes and kings vied to claim the exalted title of lawgiver. This deep respect for law and legal procedure cut across geographical and chronological boundaries, but a number of developments occurring over the late eleventh and twelfth centuries greatly accelerated the pace of legal development. the chapters that follow provide various perspectives on the dynamic process of legalization that both characterized medieval society and was instrumental in transforming it.

If the goal of law was to delineate the realm of acceptable behavior and belief, guided by the ideal of justice, it often advanced to this goal through a process of negation. Defining what was legal regularly involved the simultaneous definition of its contrary, that which was, or had become, illegal. the definitional boundaries that gave ever more explicit shape to the sphere of the licit effectively shaped the sphere of the illicit as well. Acts or attitudes identified with the category of the illicit, even when they were not specifically outlawed, were marked by the law, and the actual implications of finding one’s actions or beliefs identified with the illicit, whether in the secular or the religious sphere, could be profound and painful indeed. While the story of the growth of medieval law is in large part a triumphant one— the imposing of order on an unruly warrior aristocracy, the diminishment of crippling fear and uncertainty, the creation of a ground for institutional, economic, and intellectual development—historians of the last half century have become increasingly conscious as well of the negative and punishing side of law’s powers of definition. the dynamic interchange between the positive and negative valences of law, between the linked construction of the lawful and the illicit, is the subject of this volume.

The growth of social history as a field in the late twentieth century brought with it new perspectives on the forms and uses of law. As legal . . .

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