The Norman Leviathan and Good Old Law

A month ago (I’m falling behind on seminar blogging), the IHR Earlier Middle Ages Seminar relocated to King’s College London, for a special event to mark the launch of ‘Early Medieval Studies in Memory of Patrick Wormald’ (Ashgate, 2008). Alongside the launch we also got a paper by George Garnett on ‘The Norman Conquest in the Seventeenth Century’, which he saw as a way of continuing to argue with Patrick even after his death.

What was immediately striking was that studying medieval history in the seventeenth century was a rather more high-risk occupation than today. The first Society of Antiquaries was founded in 1586, but had to discontinue its meetings under James I because he disapproved of it. In 1630 Sir Robert Cotton was prohibited by Charles I from consulting his own manuscripts except under official surveillance, and the papers of another important scholar of medieval law, Edward Coke, were confiscated on his death. Such royal behaviour may have been arbitrary, but it wasn’t pointless. What a number of seventeenth century medievalists were doing in their research were exploring the roots of the English constitution. And the Norman Conquest played a key role in such debates, because of the question of where royal authority sprang from. If the king’s authority derived from “William the Bastard’s” conquest and his creation of a new law, then his successors, like him, enjoyed theoretically absolute authority. Coke and historians such as John Selden and Henry Spelman, however, argued for the continuity of England’s laws from time immemorial, and, as a necessary consequence, denied that there had been really been a conquest at all. Instead, William was the legitimate successor to the throne, whose accession had not affected the permanence of existing and unchanging law. In this view, King John’s issuing of Magna Carta was not a royal grant of privileges, but simply a confirmation and restitution of common law rights.

George Garnett contrasted the views of these scholars with Thomas Hobbes, who as a royalist, stressed William as a conqueror. Although Hobbes wasn’t a historian, he did make use of the Norman Conquest as a historical example in one of his later works: A Dialogue between a Philosopher and a Student of the Common Laws of England. Here, among other things, he made a cunning appeal to the material interests of seventeenth century landowners: if the lands that William gave to others were not really his own, then their inherited or acquired titles to it were also invalid.

Discussions of ‘modern’ historiography, although they can be interesting, often don’t seem to me to be very substantial historical fare in a wider sense. It’s all too easy to fall in the trap of implicitly seeing historians of earlier centuries as inadequate or as simply in thrall to their own social context. I thought George did well avoiding this, admitting at one point that in some ways there hadn’t actually been that much advance in 350 years study of the topic: some of the detailed analysis of texts still seemed impressive to him. And there is more justification than usual for stressing how historical views divided upon political lines: he also admitted that Thomas Hobbes was nearer the mark than the learned historians on 1066. But the talk also raised a couple of other issues that got me thinking.

One is the recurring question about the effectiveness of medieval propaganda. Coke and other Parliamentarians didn’t just invent their ideas of immemorial law: they found evidence for them in early twelfth century legal texts, in particular the Leges Edwardi Confessoris which was a much earlier attempt to show legal continuity between the Saxon and Norman periods. Such pointed rewriting of history could clearly have substantial long-term impact.

The other thing I started wondering about was ‘good old law’. The origins of the English constitution and legal system were clearly still live issues in the period (and George said that such discussions weren’t purely for the elite: they filtered down into wider circles via pamphlets). And as in the medieval period, if you knew the original state of the law, you knew its correct state. When, I wondered, did constitutional and legal history lose this political role and become a largely academic matter in England? (It isn’t yet in the US, thanks to the existence of a written constitution). My husband, from a legal background, reckoned the late nineteenth century, with Charles Dickens’ Bleak House and the reform of the English court system in the 1870s. I don’t myself have enough knowledge of legal history to be sure. What this cultural change means, though, is that English medievalists are never likely again to be castigated as a threat to the state (unlike in some countries), there is also one more public discourse to which a knowledge of the Middle Ages now has less to contribute.

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2 thoughts on “The Norman Leviathan and Good Old Law

  1. I don’t mean to diss George Garnett, but I have to say, as you report it, I think I already read this in Ralph Turner’s book of a few years ago. That also has the benefit of a comparison between US and UK. Doesn’t pay very much attention to Hobbes, though, perhaps that’s the Garnett USP. But I suppose this was a state of the question paper aimed at Patrick, specifically. Could you say more about what his argument with Patrick was here?

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    • I suspect the emphasis on Hobbes was one of the key points (Garnett said Patrick would disagree with Hobbes and prefer John Selden), but to be honest I don’t know enough of the recent historiography of the Norman Conquest to be sure. (And I haven’t read all of the ‘Making of English Law’ either). You’d probably get a better appreciation of the finer points of the argument from Stephen Baxter or Bruce O’Brien or one of the other Anglo-Saxonists there. I was just being a tourist…

      But it wasn’t really a state of the question paper: Garnett is writing a book on the historiography of the Norman Conquest, and this was a part of one chapter. There are parallels to Ralph Turner’s book, but Garnett’s treating a slightly different event, even if Magna Carta does get entangled with ideas about eternal Saxon liberties.

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