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Law and text: the impact on legal authority and judicial accessibility in the late Middle Ages
Cambridge University Press
The Uses of Script and Print 1300-1700
This paper explores the impact that the embodiment of law in text had on its authority and accessibility both within the legal profession and on the general populace. Authority in this context has a number of dimensions, namely jurisdictional, jurisprudential, educational and popular and is intimately linked with the issue of accessibility, both in terms of the courts and the substantive law. The main questions to be addressed are whether the written text enhanced the law’s authority and, moving on from this, how far such authority was enhanced by accessibility (not only in terms of the law’s wider dissemination and general intelligibility, but also with regard to the encouragement this gave to would-be litigants). The prevalence of the spoken word in court and a reliance on oral traditions in many areas of the legal process (especially in relation to evidence and the work of juries) necessitates some consideration of the overlap between oral and textual traditions and the extent to which there were tensions between the two. The advent of printing towards the end of the Middle Ages offered future generations new opportunities for dissemination of the written word and a new dimension in which to perceive it. Although the effects of this technological advance are largely outside the ambit of this paper, I shall briefly examine some of the advantages and consider whether legal text appearing in print rather than in manuscript brought any significant alteration in the law’s authority and accessibility.
Author's draft; final version appears in The Uses of Script and Print 1300-1700, ed. by Julia Crick and Alexandra Walsham Cambridge University Press 2003, pp. 95-115. ISBN 9780521810630 © Cambridge University Press