Crime, law and society in the later middle ages

Musson, Anthony
Powell, Edward
Date published: 
November 2008

This book provides an accessible collection of translated legal sources through which the exploits of criminals and developments in the English criminal justice system (c.1215-1485) can be studied.

Drawing on the wealth of archival material and an array of contemporary literary texts, it guides readers towards an understanding of prevailing notions of law and justice and expectations of the law and legal institutions. There are vignettes of both heinous and petty crimes, displaying the nature and extent of medieval criminality. Equally, examples show the judicial machinery at work, taking the reader through the various stages of prosecution, appearance in court for trial and punishment. The interaction of formal and informal dispute settlement is illustrated by extra-judicial methods, such as arbitration and 'self-help'. A consideration of the ethical requirements on the judges and local officials engaged in the exercise of criminal justice betrays the tensions emerging between the theoretical ideals of justice and the practical realities of administering the law during an era profoundly affected by periodic bouts of war, political in-fighting, social dislocation and economic disaster. The introductions to each chapter and headnotes to individual examples provide both the specific and wider legal, social and political contexts in addition to offering an overview of the existing secondary literature and historiographical trends.

This collection goes beyond the purely sensational aspect of medieval crime and justice, affording an insight into the character of medieval governance as well as revealing the complex nexus of interests, attitudes and relationships prevailing in society during the later Middle Ages.