03.05.21, Poos, Lower Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction in Late-Medieval England

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Katherine L. French

The Medieval Review baj9928.0305.021


Poos, L. R., ed.. Lower Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction in Late-Medieval England: The Courts of the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln, 1336-1349 and the Deanery of Wisbech, 1458-1484. Series: Records of Social and Economic History, N.S. 32. Oxford: Oxford University Press / British Academy, 2001. Pp. lxvi, 687. ISBN: 0-19-726245-7.

Reviewed by:
Katherine L. French
SUNY-New Paltz

Larry Poos has done many people a great service by publishing the Lower Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction in Late-Medieval England. This volume not only makes available to scholars important original sources, but the strong introduction helps those unfamiliar with these records to make sense of them. The sources in question are the records of two lower ecclesiastical courts: the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln, 1336-1349 and the Deanery of Wisbech, 1458-1484.

Because of the jurisdiction of these courts, this volume will be of interest to a variety of social, economic, religious, and legal scholars. Although specific jurisdictional competence varied, broadly speaking, the two court books that Poos has edited deal extensively with regulating the laity's lives. It is in these courts that the bulk of the population met up with and responded to the imposition of canon law on their lives. As such, these particular courts, but lower ecclesiastical courts in general, dealt with probate issues, marital litigation, defamation, and breach of trust. As his introduction makes clear, however, these categories hide other issues of interest such as debt, land transactions, condition of the parish church, and even magic as they could all be heard under breach of trust or defamation. The Wisbech court heard more breach of faith cases, the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln heard more marital cases. Finally, the jurisdiction over sexual issues and defamation provides a great deal of insight into marital, familial, gender, and communal concerns well down the social hierarchy. Poos himself writes that these cases may reveal "a clash between normative rules of sexuality and marriage about which historians have not yet reached much consensus" (xlix). Among the other records in the court books are wills. Those in the Wisbech court book include many more married women's wills than scholars typically find in other jurisdictions. In the court book from the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln there are also three probate inventories that are among the earliest for those below the level of the gentry. Probate and some breach of trust cases provide insight not only into material culture, but also landholding and social status.

Medieval England's episcopal courts are well known, but the lower courts are less studied because the material from these jurisdictions is thinner and fewer records have been edited and published. Medieval English dioceses were divided into smaller jurisdictions of archdeaconries, which were in turn further divided into deaneries. Dioceses also had areas within them that were outside the control of the bishop called peculiars. All had courts with some sort of jurisdictional competence, many of whom ultimately reported to the bishop, but some, such as the peculiars, did not. The Dean and Chapter of Lincoln was a peculiar, while the Deanery of Wisbech fell under the authority of the bishop of Ely. If all this sounds organized, don't be deceived, the organization and legal competence of these courts varied not only from diocese to diocese but over time as bishops sought to extend their control at the expense of peculiars or lower court officials, and as lower officials or peculiars tried to maintain or enhance their legal integrity. As Poos also explains, these lower courts often developed in the absence of record keeping, or those records that were created do not survive. The sparse survival means that it is difficult for scholars to reconstruct the specific geographical and legal jurisdictions of these lower ecclesiastical courts. It is also difficult to generalize about their function in society and in canon law because local tradition and variation are so prominent in the material that does survive.

Cases typically arrived in these courts in two ways. A plaintiff could bring a suit against a defendant, or the court itself could bring action against an accused. These later cases came to the court's attention through a process of visitation. Episcopal officials routinely visited parishes in their jurisdiction and inquired after the moral behavior of the laity and the clergy. They also investigated the condition of ecclesiastical property, such as the parish church itself, and there are cases that evolve out of the laity's lack of care for their parish church. At a visitation, churchwardens were expected to answer to the behavior of the parishioners and the condition of the church. The role of the parish in bringing suits to the court, but also as a beneficiary in wills also means that these records provide information about parish organization and its role in local society. It is this process that makes the sources of interest to scholars of parish life. The Church's role as landlord also means that the laity might, in fact, meet up with ecclesiastical officials in both secular and ecclesiastical courts. Although survival of court records involving the same area of land from different legal venues are scarce, these records, as Poos explains, may allow scholars to trace cases, land, and even individuals across various records.

This edition is all the more useful for its thorough index of places, people, and topics. Poos has also provided a separate index of the wills proven in the Deanery of Wisbech's court. Thus the researcher using this volume can read the court cases as they appear, or search out particular issues of interest. As is now general editorial practice, Poos has extended the Latin abbreviations, but has preserved the idiosyncratic spelling. This is a very well-produced volume that will help make interesting but often unknown sources available to scholars. The quality of the edition means that it is suitable for scholarly work.

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Katherine L. French

SUNY-New Paltz