Legal Manuscripts at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge


  illum/clipartMEDIEVAL LAW – AN INTRODUCTIONillum/clipart

  Medieval Canon and Civil Law are fundamental to our modern understanding of the development of political and legal thought and practice. The textbooks composed for their analysis and interpretation were considered at least as precious as the devotional and liturgical books used in the practice and study of religion, and as equally worthy of being illuminated. And yet, the category “illuminated legal manuscripts” has up to now been one of the best-kept secrets in the field of manuscript studies. Law in the medieval period was a new and vital intellectual discipline, critical to the development of political and social organisation. There were many different systems of law co-existing and competing with one another in Europe by the end of the twelfth century: royal law, feudal law, manorial law, municipal law, mercantile law, maritime law, and the two laws which are represented in this exhibition, Canon, or ecclesiastical law, and Civil, or Roman law.  Among the many medieval legal systems, civil and canon law had special status. First of all, both were international systems of law recognised across Europe by the late twelfth century, whereas other laws only tended to operate within a particular country or region. Canon law was binding on all Christians, regardless of social standing, and even touched the lives of Muslims and Jews under Christian rule. Secondly, canon and civil law were usually the only law that was formally taught in universities. The earliest law school in Europe was established at Bologna by the early twelfth century, although claims have been made for an earlier school at Pavia in the late eleventh century. By the late twelfth century, Bologna was attracting law students from all over Europe and other centres of legal learning were being established at Paris and Oxford, and later at Cambridge and Montpellier. Graduates of these schools found employment as judges and advocates in the church courts, or as notaries, drawing up all kinds of official records. Some rose high in the service of the Church and secular rulers. The increasingly legalistic nature of ecclesiastical administration meant that many popes and bishops from the early thirteenth century onwards were trained lawyers. Later medieval kings of England found the services of law graduates useful in international diplomacy and other business, and a college, King’s Hall, was specifically established in Cambridge in 1317 under the patronage of the English Crown as a source of legal personnel. 

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Most historians agree that the origins of Cambridge University lie in the migration of scholars from Oxford in 1209. It has recently been argued that the fleeing scholars were attracted to Cambridge by the presence of church courts there that required the services of trained lawyers. A canon law faculty existed at Cambridge by c. 1250, when it is mentioned in the original University statutes, and it has been claimed that canon law was taught from the University’s very beginnings. The first known Chancellor of the University, Richard de Wetheringsett or de Leycestria (c. 1222—32), was a canonist, and the canon law faculty was perhaps founded under his chancellorship. A separate faculty of civil law emerged later, probably shortly after 1250, for the first known candidate for a doctorate in civil law (DCL) is recorded at Cambridge in 1256. But, since canonists needed to know the basics of civil law, it is probable that the subject was taught there much earlier.

The University did not maintain a salaried body of professors as at Bologna. Teachers at Cambridge were expected to survive on fees collected from their students. Qualified lawyers were lured away from teaching by practice in local church courts as judges and advocates, which was far more lucrative. Teaching was carried out mainly by students as part of their degree requirements in various rooms rented for the purpose till the late thirteenth century when jurists lectured in the domus scolarum (‘house of scholars’), a large building owned by a Cambridge burgess, Nicholas de Barber, that stood opposite Great St Mary’s near the market place. By 1420, the University began building a canon law school, completed with a library above by 1438, and it formed the west range of the quadrangle now known as the Old Schools, the present-day seat of the University’s administration. By 1458, the University acquired a site for a civil law school on the south side, and another library was completed above it by 1471.

illum/cliparttudents found law hard. Surviving documents speak of sleepless nights, nerves before taking part in disputations, and the difficulties with funding necessary to stay the long courses of study. It was the career opportunities that made the long hard years of legal study worthwhile. During the later middle ages, most Cambridge graduates entered ecclesiastical or royal service, and those with law degrees were generally more successful in reaching high office. Law was therefore a popular course of study. Since the law faculties at Cambridge did not require prior training in the arts, unlike theology, law was a serious rival to arts as an undergraduate degree. The growth of law studies at the expense of theology was a widespread phenomenon, and it was decried by some as making the Church more worldly and less spiritual. This way of thinking had influenced many founders of Cambridge colleges. As early as the mid-fourteenth century, some colleges’ statutes placed strict limitations on the number of jurists to be admitted as fellows, notably at Clare and Peterhouse. Only three colleges catered specifically for jurists. King’s Hall (1317) was the main centre of civil law studies in the University, encouraged by royal patrons who gave law books to its library. Henry VI told its scholars in 1440 that his gift of books, half of which were on civil law, was intended to assist their studies so that they could serve the king and state better. In 1350, Bishop Bateman of Norwich had also founded Trinity Hall exclusively to promote ‘the growth of canonistic and civilian learning’. Of the fifteenth century foundations, only King’s College (1441) was prominent in law, soon overtaking Trinity Hall as the college with the most law graduates after King’s Hall.

One major respect in which colleges contributed to law studies at Cambridge was in the provision of books. Law students had to develop close familiarity with the texts of the two laws through lectures and private study, but manuscript books were dear to buy and a library holding multiple copies of basic textbooks was an essential feature of any medieval academic institution. Founders made provisions for book supply, many books on law came as gifts from alumni or were solicited by the colleges.

In 1535, Henry VIII suspended the teaching of canon law at Oxford and Cambridge and, despite a brief revival under the Catholic Queen Mary (1553—1558), the subject disappeared from the curriculum. Some private study of medieval canon law continued as the new Anglican canon law was in large part formed out of it, but since degrees could no longer be taken in the subject, its textbooks were largely discarded as useless. No civil law books survive from the once great collection at King’s Hall and few remain from other medieval libraries in Cambridge, though this probably has as much to do with the replacement of manuscripts by printed books in most libraries during the early sixteenth century as the decline of the subject.


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