John Parsons

title.none: Stacey, The Road to Judgement (Parsons)

identifier.other: baj9928.9706.003 97.06.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: John Parsons, University of Toronto,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1997

identifier.citation: Stacey, Robin Chapman. The Road To Judgement: From Custom to Court in Medieval Ireland and Wales. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994. Pp. xvi, 342. $46.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-8122-3216-X.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 97.06.03

Stacey, Robin Chapman. The Road To Judgement: From Custom to Court in Medieval Ireland and Wales. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994. Pp. xvi, 342. $46.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-8122-3216-X.

Reviewed by:

John Parsons
University of Toronto

Few topics so consistently preoccupy historians of early medieval Europe as the preservation of order in the society of that age. To establish and maintain the obligations of the individual, society made use of its own internal social structures. The necessity of dealing with the relationships between these mostly unwritten patterns and the texts of early medieval law codes is a realization that has crept upon us thanks to the works of anthropologists Bronislaw Malinowski and Max Gluckman: does order in such communities derive from the law itself, or from the wider social framework within which the law operates?

Such is the background to Robin Chapman Stacey's magisterial study of the law codes of early medieval Ireland and Wales, sources that have been generally ignored by Continental and English historians alike. To penetrate beyond the texts and into the wider realm of the social relationships within which the codes operated, Stacey focuses on the institution of personal suretyship, whereby an individual undertook to guarantee -- through personal merit, property, or even his freedom -- that another individual would fulfil a legal obligation toward someone else.

Following her widely-ranging, but tightly controlled, introductory discussion of the contexts in which she approaches the codes, Stacey proceeds in her second chapter to consider the nature of contractual suretyship in Irish Law. A thicket of attendant issues is raised: which agreements between individuals does a society choose to enforce, and how will its resources be marshaled to enforce what is really a private agreement? In what ways are casual accords differentiated from more formal bargains? Stacey argues that formal obligations are not necessarily seen as desirable in societies that engage primarily in sharing and gift giving as ways of managing private relations. Early medieval Ireland therefore resisted attempts by a Romanizing clergy to introduce written contractual forms; the latter, she maintains, required for their enforcement authority structures that were alien to the acephalous political structures of Ireland. Thus Irish contracts remained oral, and the parties might have rights beyond the promises actually exchanged.

Such agreements were socially enforced through the suretyship that is the focus of Stacey's study. Chapter 3 examines the social contexts of suretyship, arguing that contracts in early Ireland were not isolated entities unto themselves. Stacey finds that the majority of Irish legal arrangements were between people who were already connected or associated with themselves in some way, often as blood kin. All such contractual relationships were, moreover, grounded in common economic or social interests; what affected one party to such an agreement affected the other as well, so both needed some way to control the obligation. Consequently Stacey requires us to regard such contractual obligations as part of a larger network that bound people together.

Subsequent chapters deal with specifically Irish variations on the idea of personal surety, and offer a meticulous consideration of the construction of Irish legal tradition. Welsh material is then presented as both a contrast and a complement to the thorough discussion of the Irish sources. The book concludes with an intriguing examination of what Stacey titles "The Suretyship of the Gods," which brings under scrutiny the supernatural elements in the law codes, which she locates in such institutions as the oath and the ordeal. She is careful, however, not to invest such supernatural elements with mere functionalism; as she argues, "to do so is to say as much about ourselves as about the people we study" (p. 200). Rather, she keeps it firmly before her that the supernatural was incorporated into all aspects of medieval life, including the legal process.

This last point is indicative of perhaps the finest thing about this splendid work: Stacey never loses sight of the complex (and complicating) social relations that lie beyond her sources. The author is, moreover, keenly aware of the importance of these ideas for an understanding of early legal development elsewhere in medieval Europe. Rush to Judgment thus invites fresh examinations of legal history throughout early medieval Europe.

For all its countless merits, Rush to Judgment is not a book for novices. The book is cleanly -- not to say immaculately -- written throughout, but the theoretical framework is likely to be beyond the grasp of all but the most gifted, or determined, undergraduate. Students may also find themselves disoriented as densely detailed passages on the law codes' manuscript tradition alternate with abstract discussions of the ideas Stacey finds beyond the texts. Even professionals who do not specialize in early Irish or Welsh history may find some passages rough going. Experts may immediately grasp the import of passing references to, e.g., the decline of kindred solidarity in eighth-century Ireland (p. 55), but readers less seasoned in early medieval Irish history will be left wondering.