Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 October 2013
The capacity to hold court can be a key to the distribution and exercise of political power; to the existence of public or of private power; and to the interplay both between local community and landlords and between local community and rulers' agents. Of course, the phrase ‘holding court’ in modern English offers a multiplicity of meanings, just as the notion of holding court in the early Middle Ages covers a multiplicity of occasions: there were kings' courts, bishops' courts, secular lords' courts, monastic lords' courts – where business was done, celebrations held, visitors received, dues paid, gifts exchanged, plans made. My concern in this paper is with the court as judicial court – the place where disputes were heard, in accordance with fixed procedures and in the knowledge of such law as pertained, and where disputes were sometimes settled, sometimes judged, and unsuccessful litigants were sometimes sentenced.
My particular concern is with the presidency of the court. Did someone always preside, and was the presidency always held by a single individual? Can we always identify a president? Could someone preside in absentia – in other words, be notionally but not physically present? Was presiding separable from judging? Determining who presided in court is much more difficult to fathom than one might initially think. There are issues concerning both the normal actions, powers and obligations of court holders and also the meaning of words: it might be supposed, for example, that use of the Latin word ante ‘before’ would clearly identify a president, but that certainly was not always the case.