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English Nuns and the Law in the Middle Ages

English Nuns and the Law in the Middle Ages: Cloistered Nuns and Their Lawyers, 1293-1540

Volume: 39
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    English Nuns and the Law in the Middle Ages
    Book Description:

    In late medieval England, cloistered nuns, like all substantial property owners, engaged in nearly constant litigation to defend their holdings. They did so using attorneys (proctors), advocates and other ‘men of law’ who actually conducted that litigation in the courts of Church and Crown. However, although lawyers were as crucial to the economic vitality of the nunneries as the patrons who endowed them, their role in protecting, augmenting or depleting monastic assets has never been fully investigated. This book aims to address the gap. Using records from the courts of the common law, Chancery, and a variety of ecclesiastical venues, it examines the working relationships without which cloistered nuns could not have lived in fully enclosed but self-sustainingc communities. In the first part it looks at the six mendicant and Bridgettine houses established in England, and relates the effectiveness and resilience of their cloistered spirituality to the rise of legal professionalism in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It then presents cases from ecclesiastical and royal courts which illustrate the work of legal professionals on behalf of their clients. Elizabeth Makowski is Ingram Professor of History, Texas State University.

    eISBN: 978-1-78204-052-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    In 1293, the first two communities of Franciscan nuns, referred to as Sorores Minores or Minoresses, were established in England. One was the Abbey of Waterbeach in Cambridgeshire, the other the London Minories. The rule in both monasteries required strict enclosure, and, unlike those English nuns upon whom cloister regulations were externally imposed, the Minoresses appear to have observed it. In subsequent years, three other mendicant houses, two more Franciscan and one Dominican, as well as the Bridgettine community of Syon, also observing strict enclosure, were founded. With the exception of Waterbeach, which was subsumed into the newly established house...

  7. I Clients and Lawyers

    • 1 Cloistered Spirituality and English Nuns
      (pp. 11-28)

      Worn down by a long property dispute which had depleted the community’s resources, Abbess Joan Keteryche (1459–1479) of the Franciscan Abbey of Denney wrote a letter to her relative and patron, John Paston. It was an importunate letter that ended with this reminder: “Consydre how we be closyd withynne the ston wallys, and may no odyr wyse speke with you but only be wrytynge.”¹ Hoping to persuade Paston to assist her, the abbess had needed to strike just the right rhetorical note and did so by mentioning the fact of her strict enclosure. It hardly signified that, by virtue...

    • 2 Legal Professionalism and English Lawyers
      (pp. 29-54)

      By the end of the thirteenth century, professional lawyers were routinely litigating in English ecclesiastical and secular courts. The jurisdictional divisions between common law and church courts, and the distinctive procedural law under which each set of courts operated had also been established by this time. There were, in fact, two legal professions. Romano-canonical lawyers trained in universities and working in the continental tradition known as the ius commune had degrees (bachelor, licentiate, doctor) and practiced as proctors and advocates in the ecclesiastical courts in England, in Chancery, and at the Papal Curia. Common law lawyers were trained in Common...

    • 3 Letters of Appointment and Routine Business
      (pp. 55-68)

      The age of legal professionalization in England was an age of written records, the numbers of which are astounding. Rolls from the courts of the itinerant justices from one century alone, the thirteenth, fill 27,500 membranes.¹ From the testimony of witnesses to the debates of the serjeants at law, legal activities were documented as never before. Nevertheless, it remained possible throughout the period for a client to hire a professional lawyer without drawing up a contract to do so. Courts as well as individuals used parole or verbal agreements to engage the services of lawyers for clients. The central courts...

  8. II Select Cases

    • 4 Proceedings at Common Law
      (pp. 71-100)

      We generally picture monasteries as rural retreats, economically dependent on the proceeds from pasture, field, and grange. A glance at the listed real property held by the Aldgate Minoresses dispels that image immediately. Founded on a plot of land in the parish of St Botolph, just outside the walls of London, the economic health of this community rested soundly on the possession of urban real estate. Holdings included residential units, dozens of shops, and even a wharf.¹ As landlords of considerable rental property, the nuns of Aldgate were frequent litigants in the assize courts of London. Centuries of accumulated urban...

    • 5 Chancery Suits
      (pp. 101-118)

      As stated previously, the Court of Chancery, although a royal court, was not a common law court. It was the court of conscience, where a plaintiff was allowed to describe his case in detail and to request that it be considered according to standards inadmissible at common law. The following example shows that this aim was taken seriously.

      In 1468, a subpoena was sued in the Chancery for the breach of a parol [verbal] promise. The defendant argued that the plaintiff’s only remedy lay in the Church courts. The Chancellor [the Bishop of Bath and Wells, Robert Stillington] was short...

    • 6 Episcopal Arbitration
      (pp. 119-136)

      Bishops, archbishops, and their officials were often called upon to settle disputes outside of their courtrooms. By agreeing to abide by the decision of a respected and experienced arbitrator disputants saved both time and money. Justices and serjeants at law strove to effect out-of-court settlements in matters governed by the common law and bishops and their officials did the same in the ecclesiastical forum.¹ Like their secular counterparts, episcopal arbiters executed a final decree or concord in a case after considering the petitions and arguments of the disputants. Of course that decree did not always have the desired effect. Settlements...

    • 7 Papal Appeals
      (pp. 137-168)

      As the king authorized his judges to dispense royal justice, so the pope delegated the exercise of his juridical power to trusted agents. In England, judgments carrying the approval of the highest ecclesiastical power in Christendom could be secured remotely, in the courts of papal judges delegate. Before the thirteenth century, judges delegate to England were routinely Roman emissaries, but by the later Middle Ages these men were just as regularly drawn from the ranks of the English clergy.¹ English judges delegate could be ad hoc or permanent appointees. The nuns of Waterbeach and the London Minoresses had dealings with...

  9. Conclusion
    (pp. 169-174)

    This book has been concerned with legal activity engaged in by professional lawyers on behalf of English mendicant and Bridgettine nuns. It has focused exclusively on the late medieval period since, before the end of the thirteenth century, substantial numbers of professional lawyers of cloistered nuns did not exist in England. I have argued that the successful establishment of the latter was closely related to the emergence of the former; that the evolution of a class of legal professionals directly affected the ability of strictly cloistered communities to survive for more than two hundred years, a time during which the...

  10. Appendix Lawyers Employed by the Nuns
    (pp. 175-178)
  11. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 179-190)
  12. Index
    (pp. 191-198)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 199-203)