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  • Print publication year: 2008
  • Online publication date: November 2008

11 - Law

from Readership, libraries, texts and contexts


Two distinct bodies of law were dominant in England in the twelfth to fourteenth centuries: the law of the Church, or canon law, and the law of the land – that is, the king’s law, or, as it came to be known in the thirteenth century, the common law. The two bodies developed in theoretical complexity and in detail of coverage, with an ever-growing number of explicit laws (canons, decretals, ordinances and statutes) being matched by a mass of customary variations. Separate legal professions came to specialize in the two types of law, and for their benefit books were written in which the different laws were more or less systematically set out and expounded. For both laws some juristic underpinning was provided by the civil law – the law of the later Roman empire, as set out in the sixth century by the emperor Justinian. Both on account of its influence on the canon law and the nascent common law and because of its own importance, the civil law’s texts and commentaries must also be considered here.

Canon law

General councils in the twelfth century

The Church’s law – as also its fundamental creeds and its theology – was anciently developed in the General or Ecumenical Councils, such as those of Nicaea I (325), Chalcedon (451) and Nicaea II (787). These councils’ canons were made known in England from the seventh century onwards. The councils of the Western Church (Constantinople IV, 869–70, and then Lateran I, 1123, and others) were attended by large numbers of archbishops and bishops and other senior ecclesiastics, who brought back home the texts of the conciliar canons.