Our thanks to Dr Nicholas Karn for providing these insights into how he approached the subject of his new book, the origins of the lordship courts that came to dominate the lives of the peasantry of medieval England.
Writing a book about courts and their relationships sounds like a rather conservative thing to do, drawing on the old scholarly traditions of constitutional history, administrative history and legal history going back to the later nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries. In some ways, it is; many themes and many sources for this book would have been familiar to Stubbs, Round or Maitland.
Yet so much has changed since then. The achievements of historians and archaeologists over recent decades have meant that we are more aware of and more curious about the lives and interests of the peasants, that we are more critical in reading sources, and that we are more sceptical about the claims and agency of kings, to name but a few. Visions of the medieval world have expanded and diversified. This book responds to these concerns, and looks at how peasants might experience courts, how courts changed in this period, and how change could be devised and carried out at a local level.
The academic world today is far bigger and more diverse than it was a century ago, and that is a good thing; yet it imposes some challenges to understanding. People write in relation to major topics and questions, but sometimes the links between those questions can be lost. For instance, the historiography on English law before 1066 does not much connect with the large literature on manors and manorial courts in the thirteenth century and beyond. This is odd, for they are not that distant. Many of the manuscripts and adaptations of pre-1066 English law were written in the first few decades of the twelfth century, and so was no more distant in time from early manorial courts than the First World War is from us. A few scholars, such as Rosamond Faith, have looked at connections between earlier and later material, but we need more work like hers, which overcomes some of the disconnections between these historical conversations. This idea, of linking historiographies, was an important concern behind this book.
The book was also shaped by choices about the sources used. A lot of history on these themes is based around large and wide-ranging sources which have long attracted historians’ attention; Domesday Book, most obviously, but also collections of royal laws and charters. These appear in the book a lot because they are important and, for some themes, almost the only sources, but they have limitations. They are based around ideas of royal authority and make fairly consistent choices in words and ideas which emphasise particular visions of hierarchy and authority. To counteract this, the book emphasises local sources of all kinds, especially charters, because these are much less consistent and help to expose some of the variety of experience. Often, those who composed charters for lords were not constrained by the conventions of the king’s scribes, and so explain more fully what actually happened and how it was done. Locating these adds to the labour of research, but enriches the kinds of history that can be written.
This guest post was written by Dr Nicholas Karn, an Associate Professor of History in the University of Southampton.