An Upbeat View of English Justice in the Fourteenth Century

The late Middle Ages are history’s stepchild. Traditionally, medievalists are not interested in them. The earlier centuries, culminating in the twelfth and thirteenth, are much more typically “medieval.” Traditionally too, early modern historians are interested in the late Middle Ages only for what they see as origins of the Reformation, or for decay of feudal structures out of which the national monarchies of the sixteenth century arose, or for Italian humanism, which they call “the Renaissance.” Legal historians, on the other hand, are stuck with the late Middle Ages. With a few exceptions (including, most notably, the great run of central royal court records from thirteenth-century England), the fourteenth is the first century in which we can first see what is really going on in the courts. Legal sources multiply, and much of the material was printed in the sixteenth century, so it is possible to make some progress without painstakingly going through manuscripts. Recently, there has been an increased interest among historians in the later Middle Ages, particularly in the fourteenth century. The fourteenth century was not unlike the twentieth, a period of uncertainty and contradictions. In philosophy, it was the century of William of Ockham, as the thirteenth had been the century of Thomas Aquinas. Ockham’s thought may not be much like what is reported under his name in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, but it is close enough that an imaginative author can suggest a connection between Ockham and modern deconstructionists.