Musson-SeeingJustice - Open Research Exeter (ORE)

Seeing Justice: The Visual Culture of the Law and Lawyers
The Law is usually thought of in academic and professional circles in terms of its
underlying texts – legislation, reports of cases, legal treatises and other legal literature.
The visual culture of the law, as an external expression of its substance, procedures,
institutions and personnel is frequently overlooked, treated indifferently or ignored. This
may be reasoned in part because the visual elements or ‘legal spectacle’ are regarded as
inessential, inconsequential, superfluous to its functioning and therefore overlooked or
merely regarded as the accoutrements of legal practice1.
This paper examines the use of legal images in the medieval period and maintains
that they had an impact on and significance for all members of society (not just in
England, but elsewhere in medieval Europe, though I will be talking predominantly about
the English tradition). Employed in a number of different contexts using a range of art
forms and other types of visual display, the complementary media played an important
part not only in forming and transmitting perceptions of justice, but in the operation of
P. Goodrich, Specters of Law: Why the History of the Legal Spectacle Has Not
Been Written, in: University of California Irvine Law Review 1 (2011), 779–812.
Goodrich acknowledges that “the law depends upon, is supported by, exists through an
array of background techniques, apparatuses of appearance, a theatrical machinery of
solemnization and approbation that is largely preconscious, an affection image. These
spectacles relay the site and space of legality.” But *he* finds that “Law is a theatre that
denies its theatricality, an order of images that claims invisibility, a series of
performances that desire to be taken as the dead letter of prose and so the dead hand of
the law” (811).
the law itself2. The motives and strategies were different for different media and they
were deployed (and gained their own significance and momentum) within a variety of
legal extra-legal contexts. Indeed, images were not only employed consciously and with
deliberate construction, but also unconsciously (even on the spur of the moment) as a
consequence of deeply-held recognition of how the law functioned. The pictures and
artefacts so used are not purely decorative or aesthetical, nor merely adjunct to legal
documents and texts, but have an equally functional role within legal, political and social
contexts that were fully recognised by contemporaries at all levels of the social hierarchy.
Indeed, elements that might be regarded in later ages as merely symbolic still possessed
real meaning and retained legal force; they were not inconsequential or purely
In this paper I want not only to examine the images that were employed to
underline the majesty of the law and enforce notions of kingship, equity and justice, but
also to expose and evaluate the visual elements that effectively undermined royal
authority, subverted the law and compromised judicial pre-eminence. By doing this I aim
to highlight the Janus-like or double-edged nature of the visual image and propose a
framework in which to understand the significance of image for contemporary
expectations of the law and legal authority.
Sources include illuminated legal and non-legal texts, paintings, tapestries sculpture, wood
carvings, stained glass, buildings and architectural characteristics, shields and heraldry, tombs and other
funerary monuments, as well as objects of material culture.
Goodrich’s thesis rests on the psychological effect of the religious and political changes that
occurred in England after the Protestant Reformation that shaped and consolidated attitudes towards the
common law during the early modern and modern periods.
While art historians have an important role in deciphering the techniques, artistic
conventions and immediate context of images of justice, it is legal historians of course
who can make sense of them in legal terms and place them in a legal framework, though
an interdisciplinary approach is a prerequisite for interpretation4. Historians of the law,
however, unlike their counterparts in art or social history have generally been slower to
acknowledge the significance or extent of legal iconography5. Part of the reason why the
visual side of the law has been neglected (even for the medieval period) lies in
assumptions about the transition of medieval society from an orally-based, pictorial and
memory-dominated culture to a more literate-based, documentary or written culture6.
While we should be careful not to imply that this was a move from an illiterate or less
educated society, there is nevertheless an assumption that the visual was relegated to a
subservient role: that it persisted only in the realms of high ceremonial and ‘popular’
culture or merely played upon folk lore and superstition. If ever such a transition to
rationality and domination by the book fully took place (which is debatable), it was in
any event never the case in the English legal system that the written word displaced or
reduced entirely the significance of the oral or visual side (whether it be in trial
proceedings, procedures or forms of proof)7.
A. Musson, Visual Sources: Mirror of Justice or ‘Through a Glass Darkly’?, in: A. Musson/C.
Stebbings (eds.), Making Legal History: Approaches and Methodologies, Cambridge 2012, 264–283.
For example: S. L’Engle/R. Gibbs (eds.), Illuminating the Law: Medieval Legal Manuscripts in
Cambridge Collections, FitzWilliam Museum Exhibition Catalogue, London–Turnhout 2001; S.
Wittekind/K. Böse (eds.), AusBILDung des Rechts, Frankfurt 2009; J. M. Steane, The Archaeology of
Power: England and Northern Europe AD 800–1600, Stroud 2001; N. Saul, English Church Monuments in
the Middle Ages: History and Representation, Oxford 2009, 269–289 (monuments of lawyers). Some legal
interest was stimulated by P. Raffield, Images and Cultures in Law in Early Modern England: Justice and
Political Power, 1558–1660, Cambridge 2004 and C. Douzinas/L. Nead (eds.), Law and the Image: The
Authority of Art and the Aesthetics of Law, Chicago, ILL 1999.
See M. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307, 2nd edn, Oxford 1993.
A. Musson, Law and Text: The Impact on Legal Authority and Judicial Accessibility in the Late
Middle Ages, in: J. Crick/A. Walsham (eds.), The Uses of Script and Print, 1300–1700, Cambridge 2003,
The continued significance of visual representations of the law and lawyers is
underlined by the ubiquity and pervasiveness of iconography of a legal nature in
medieval legal and political culture8. The capacity of visual elements to instil awe and
respect for the authority and operation of the law, its procedures, its institutions and
personnel (for example through royal images on charters, coins, seals and artefacts
carrying out royal instructions as well as the physical staging of courts and tribunals in
imposing castles or halls) was fully recognised by contemporaries9. [Plate 1] So too was
the use of the visual to deter people from unlawful conduct (of a criminal or civil nature)
and warn all subjects/citizens that personal behaviour (if violent or offensive) was liable
to censure and punishment both by the state (in physical or financial form) and ultimately
judgment by God10. Indeed, these themes were articulated with some sophistication
through a distinct iconography that drew strongly upon theological notions and was
realized in both Christian art and architecture11.
P. Binski, Hierarchies and Orders in English Royal Images of Power, in: J. Denton (ed.), Orders
and Hierarchies in Late Medieval and Renaissance Europe, Manchester 1999, 74–93; P. Coss/M. Keen
(eds.), Heraldry, Pageantry and Social Display in Medieval England, Woodbridge 2002; A. Musson,
Constitutional Discourse in Illuminated English Law Books, in: D. Nicholas/B. S. Bachrach/J. M. Murray
(eds.), Comparative Perspectives on History and Historians: Essays in Memory of Bryce Lyon (1920–
2007), Kalamazoo 2012, 189–214.
J. Watts, Looking for the State in Later Medieval England, in: Coss/Keen, Pageantry (nt. 8), 243–
267; J. M. Steane, The Archaeology of the Medieval English Monarchy, rev edn, Stroud 1999; A. Musson,
Legal Landmarks: The Architecture of Justice in Late Medieval England, in: Australian and New Zealand
Law and History E-Journal, 2 (2006), paper no. 15.
T. Dean, Crime and Justice in Late Medieval Italy, Cambridge 2007; E. Cohen, The Crossroads of
Justice: Law and Culture in Late Medieval France, Leiden 1993; see also J. Burnside, God, Justice and
Society: Aspects of Law and Legality in the Bible, Oxford 2011.
M. Kauffmann, Biblical Imagery in Medieval England, 700–1550, London 2003; M. Camille, The
Language of Images in Medieval England, 1200–1400, in: J. J. G. Alexander/P. Binski (eds.), The Age of
Chivalry: Art in Plantagenet England, 1200–1400, London 1987, 33–40.
I. The Last Judgement
Not surprisingly, the final reckoning, the Last Judgement, is the most significant
in terms of its legal and visual impact. The consequences of heavenly judgement and its
inescapability for all of humanity are powerfully and vividly portrayed through the
separation of good and bad souls at the end of time. [Plate 2] The visual impact and thus
the communication of the message differed slightly according to the artistic media and its
location, but the vital psychological effect could readily be experienced simply by
entering a church, opening up an illuminated Bible or psalter, or by watching dramatic
reconstructions in the seasonal Mystery Plays. While the eschatological imagery
concentrates on the setting for and the enactment of heavenly judgement (and its apparent
harshness), the equitable and merciful side of divine justice is also expressed through
representations of post-mortem judgement on the individual, the process of weighing
souls in the balance, and through notions of intercession by the Virgin Mary and the
Saints on behalf of individual souls12. Theories of a less retributive justice were given
tangible expression through their counterparts in the earthly sphere: notably the practice
of petitioning the king for redress of grievances not covered by the common law, the rise
of equitable jurisdiction, especially the growth of the chancellor’s ‘court of conscience’,
and the increasing importance of the intercessory role played by the queen (and
influential members of the nobility)13.
For a more detailed discussion with reference to surviving English evidence see A. Musson,
Controlling Human Behaviour? The Last Judgment in Late Medieval Art and Architecture, in: A. Boboc
(ed.), Theorizing Legal Personhood in Late Medieval England, Leiden (Leiden, 2015).
G. Dodd, Justice and Grace: Private Petitioning and the English Parliament in the Late Middle
Ages, Oxford 2007; A. Musson, Queenship, Lordship and Petitioning in Late Medieval England, in: W. M.
Ormrod /G. Dodd /A. Musson (eds.), Medieval Petitions: Grace and Grievance, York 2009, 156–172.
Although the painting and sculpting of images of the Last Judgement in churches
and cathedrals was intended for all churchgoers, the positioning in (or within sight of)
courtrooms of pictures of the Last Judgement, the judgement of Solomon (the iconic
figure of Wisdom in the Old Testament), and judicial exempla drawn from Classical
mythology and a vast reserve of allegories was intended specifically to remind judges and
lawyers (and all public officials possessing legislative and judicial powers) of the moral
and ethical standards required to carry out their public duties and professional
It could be argued that these images played upon contemporary credibility or
derived their currency and potency as a result of the prevailing system of belief and as
such should have no part in the rationality of the law. The strength of this imagery in the
medieval psyche and clear acceptance of the theological reasoning behind it is
demonstrated by its acknowledgement by supposedly rational lawyers in the imagery and
texts accompanying their funerary monuments. For example, various lawyers’ tombs
portray saintly intercessors and express personal concern for their treatment by the
Almighty, the ultimate judge. This is clearly intended in the design and composition of
the brass to John Mulsho and his wife at Newton Geddington (Nothants), which shows
the two figures kneeling at the base of a tall shaft cross with their prayers (in scrolls)
floating up towards a bracket in the centre containing the figure of St Faith (identified by
name)15. [Plate 3] The chantry tomb constructed in the church of Kingston on Soar in
Nottinghamshire in the late 1530s for lawyer Anthony Babington (and his wife) has
M. Schmoeckel, Procedure, Proof and Evidence, in: J. Witte Jr/F. S. Alexander (eds.),
Christianity and Law, Cambridge 2008, 143–162; G. Martyn, Painted Exempla Justitiae in the Southern
Netherlands, in: R. Schulze (ed.), Symbolische Kommunikation vor Gericht in der Frühen Neuzeit, Berlin
2006, 335–356.
Saul, Monuments (nt. 5), 152, 257–258.
various iconographic schemes on the pillars and arches (including visual plays upon his
own name), but the principal focus is a detailed Last Judgement scene sculpted in
alabaster, demonstrating his personal adherence to the beliefs inherent in this doctrine16.
[Plate 4] Verses that accompany the fifteenth-century royal justice, John Martyn’s
memorial brass at Graveney in Kent (which depicts him in judicial robes) speak of his
contrition and acknowledge that although he was a judge in the royal courts while on
earth, he knows he will have to face the sentence passed on him by the heavenly judge in
the celestial supreme court17. [Plate 5] His judicial contemporary, William Hankford’s
attitude can be found in the equitable ideal set out in the Latin verse (Psalm 105:3) that
ran over his head (in a now lost funerary brass on his tomb at Monkleigh in Devon, which
portrayed him kneeling in his judicial robes): Beati qui custodiunt judicium et faciunt
justiciam in omni tempore (Blessed are they who keep (or guard) judgement and exercise
justice (or deal justly) in all things)18. The sentence represents in general terms the
collective professional ethos required of the judiciary, but may well have been intended
to highlight Hankford’s personal reputation and integrity as a judge in advance of his
heavenly adjudication. Whether it was the royal justices themselves or their families that
commissioned the wording (or inclusion on the memorial) of such text, an understanding
of the process and need for earthly and heavenly justification is manifest. Such a concern
comes across too in the way that legal executors were exhorted to exercise due diligence
in their duties to testators, remembering (as Chief Justice William Gascoigne himself
M. Whinney, Sculpture in Britain, 1530–1830, 2nd edn, New Haven CT 1992, 430.
Ibid., 325–326.
R. Gough, Sepulchral Monuments of Great Britain, vol. 2, London 1796, 72.
charged) that “they will have to account before the supreme judge on the day of
II. Legitimising Property Rights
While the potency of the imagery associated with the Last Judgement (and
judicial exempla) underpinned the ‘virtual’ influence of the visual culture of the law,
there were several other arenas in which it clearly complemented, even provided
legitimacy for legal text. Visual symbols and ceremonial or ritualistic gestures lay at the
heart of various legal contexts, notably the trial and punishment of criminals20, [Plate 6]
but also in the rituals associated with out of court settlement by arbitration and in
circumstances where issues of proof were involved (such as trial by battle). The visual
ceremony and attendant symbolism that underpinned and legitimated tenurial service and
the holding of property, however, has been largely underplayed and deserves closer
The significance of the act of homage lay in its publicly rendered, visible,
dramatic qualities. The ceremony involved ritual gestures such as the prospective vassal
kneeling before his future lord and placing his hands between those of the lord. The
vassal took an oath to be faithful and the lord in turn uttered words of acceptance.
Underlying this spectacle was a range of mutual and reciprocal obligations creating a
binding contract that was intended to be seen and remain in the memory of assembled
witnesses. The widespread use of written documentation arguably reduced the need for
J. Raines (ed.), Testamenta Eboracensia I, Surtees Society, 4 (1836), 394–395.
See, for example, M. B. Merback, The Thief, the Cross and the Wheel: Pain and the Spectacle of
Punishment in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, London 1999; J. Enders, The Medieval Theater of
Cruelty: Rhetoric, Memory and Violence, Ithaca, NY 1999.
the full ceremonial, yet the ritual of homage nevertheless continued to be observed during
the later Middle Ages (and even into the early modern period)21, as an account of John de
Nowell’s act of homage in 1429 to Thomas de Hesketh demonstrates. Nowell knelt
bareheaded before Hesketh, who was seated on a great stone wearing a hat. Nowell,
turning and facing Hesketh squarely, placed his hands between the latter’s and pledged
himself with the following words: “I become your man from this day forward and will
bear you faith for the tenements I hold from you in Harwood […].” Hesketh kissed
Nowell, who then repeated his oath with his right hand on a gospel book. “Hear this,
Thomas de Hesketh, that I John Nowell will be faithful to you and bear you faith for the
free tenement that I hold from you in Harwood and will perform loyally all the customs
and services which I owe you to do at the times assigned, so help me God.”22 The
memorable features of the ceremony are encapsulated in an illustration executed a
hundred years earlier accompanying the text of the statute de homage et fauté from a
collection of statutes given to Edward III by Philippa of Hainault as a wedding gift (now
in the possession of Harvard Law School), which appropriately shows a prince kneeling
in homage to his ‘lord’ in the manner outlined23.
During the Middle Ages inter vivos transfer of property was communicated
visually through the public ceremony of livery of seisin. It was a fundamental principle of
the common law that in order to legitimately possess (have seisin of) the land, it had to be
duly conveyed and witnessed with the necessary ritual and physical symbols. As the
M. Bennett, Community, Class and Careerism: Cheshire and Lancashire Society in the Age of Sir
Gawain and the Green Knight, Cambridge 1983, 44; J. Russell Major, Bastard Feudalism and the Kiss:
Changing Mores in Late Medieval and Early Modern France, in: Journal of Interdisciplinary History 17
(1987), 509–535.
A. R. Myers (ed.), English Historical Documents, 1327-1485, London 1969, 1117–1118; M.
Keen, Introduction in: Coss / Keen, Heraldry (nt. 8), 2–4.
Harvard Law School MS 12 fol. 33v; M. Michael, A Manuscript Wedding Gift from Philippa of
Hainault to Edward III, in: The Burlington Magazine 127 (1985), 582–598.
thirteenth century legal treatise on English legal practice known as Bracton makes clear:
“If livery is to be made of a house by itself or of a messuage for an estate, it ought to be
made by the door and its hasp or ring, by which is understood the donee possess the
whole to its boundaries”24. In other words a ceremony had to take place using recognised
symbols (such as the hasp or ring on the door to the property). Although a charter or deed
testifying to the conveyance was written evidence of the event, it did not validate
possession on its own. As Bracton also states: “A gift is not valid unless livery follows;
for the thing given is transferred neither by homage, nor by the drawing up of charters
and instruments, even though they be recited in public”25. Oral proclamation or written
text were thus regarded as insufficient on their own. The transfer of property was also
sometimes evidenced by the gift of a knife (or even a clod of earth), which might be
symbolically laid upon an altar or wrapped in or affixed to the written charter. It is
significant, therefore, that such physical objects were essential as proof in court
proceedings (trumping documents) and produced also at inquest to demonstrate rights of
tenure and office-holding26. The Conyers falchion, for example, (now in the Durham
Cathedral museum) symbolising title to the manor of Sockburn (held from the bishop of
Durham) was produced in 1396 at the Inquisition Post Mortem of Sir John Conyers27.
Indeed, the strength of this mode of proof was such that the head of the Conyers family
was obliged to produce the falchion as evidence of his manorial title up to the mid
nineteenth century. If the sword represented the transfer of title, its ritual production
Henry de Bracton, De legibus et*** consuetudinibus Angliae, ed. G. E. Woodbine, trans. and rev.
S. E. Thorne, 4 vols., Cambridge MA 1968–1977, vol. 2, 50.
Ibid., 124–125.
Clanchy, Memory (nt.6), 251–260.
The head of the Conyers family was obliged to produce this falchion as evidence of manorial title
until 1860.
before the bishop, its surrender and subsequent restoration, re-enacted the original legal
event. Symbols, such as daggers and hunting horns were also safeguarded by families
holding hereditary office and annually produced as visual proof of the serjeanties held.
Indeed, destruction of documents by fire, rodents or other accident was redeemed by the
survival qualities of material items28.
Similarly during the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries disputes about the
legitimacy of seisin were communicated through the elaborate ritual that played a key
part in founding actions of novel disseisin. Disseising or dispossessing an opponent was
conducted (preferably in front of suitable witnesses) through a solemn demonstration of
entering the property and claiming possession which was then followed up with legal
action in court (on the basis that the opponent had unlawfully dispossessed him of it or
alternatively trespassed by refusing to move out or make way for him). A claim to
possession could take various forms. In 1300, for example, a baby boy of one or two
years old (whose grandmother believed that he was the rightful claimant of her late
husband’s house and land) was carried to the house during his grandfather’s funeral and
placed by the doorway anticipating the arrival of his uncle who disputed his right. In
1287 a woman who was prevented from entering the hall of the property she believed she
had inherited found a way in through a storeroom and remained there for twelve hours or
so, even getting a meal for herself, before she was discovered and ejected. Once this
ritual had been performed then in the eyes of the law the claimant was in possession
(seised) of the property and entitled to enjoy full and peaceable control unless it were
M. Cherry, Symbolism and Survival: Medieval Horns of Tenure, in: The Antiquaries Journal 69
(1989), 111–118; E. G. Kimball, Serjeanty Tenure in Medieval England, New Haven CT 1936.
proved otherwise.29 Knowledge of this ritual was clearly widespread as a form of it was
duly enacted by the St Albans rebels in 1381, when they according to the chronicler
“ceremonially through the branches of trees accorded themselves seisin of the warren, of
the common woods, of the open spaces in the woods and of the field of free alms of
Sopwell Bury. [And] they took a certain live rabbit, taken by force among them in the
open field by the crowd of people and declared that it should be carried before them on a
spear and fixed it upon the pillory in the town of St Albans as a symbol of the freedom
and of the warren thus gained.”30
As this and many other examples in the legal records demonstrate, rights could be
disputed or challenged by symbolic usurpation, appropriation or destruction. The erection
or despoiling of gallows, the taking of wood, crops growing on the land, even the
removal of hedge-clippings constituted not just evidence, but the visual marker, a broader
legal phenomenon, upon which a court action could be founded.
Image operated to encapsulate rights and legitimacy that were set out in written
documents too. The charter that provided evidence of a property transfer was frequently
illuminated at the behest of the grantee. The pictorial representation operated in the
abstract and in the context of the charter itself. It could encapsulate the subject matter of
the charter or the powers accorded by the grant. For instance, the royal charter from
Edward III to the city of Bristol in 1347 is prefaced by a large decorative initial ‘E’ that
contains illustrations of the powers of incarceration and punishment granted in the
charter. More specifically it depicts a baker weighing short-weight loaves and being
drawn on a hurdle, while a man is being physically coerced into a wooden cage for
D. W. Sutherland, The Assize of Novel Disseisin, Oxford 1973, 144-153.
H. T. Riley (ed.), Gesta Abbatum Monasterii Sancti Albani, vol. 3, London 1869, 303.
prisoners31. [Plate 7] In another example, the exceptionally elaborate Pilkington charter
depicts realistic birds, animals and trees which surround the text of the charter on all four
sides. As Michael Clanchy has pointed out, framing the hunting rights conveyed by
charter with specimens of the flora and fauna likely to be encountered on his property
served to enhance the authority of the document by giving it visual specificity32. [Plate 8]
The illustration contained within the initial letter in a charter or surrounding its
text not only functioned as a visual reminder of the nature of the grant and the grantee33,
but it could also commemorate effectively an historical event, such as the founding of an
institution34. The event in question may in fact be more mythical than historical, but
nevertheless achieves some form of historical veracity through the representation. St
John’s Beverley was reputedly founded by Athelstan35, though there is no firm historical
basis for this other than the fact that the Beverley Cartulary has a drawing of King
Athelstan (so there is no doubt as to his identity he has a scroll across his chest bearing
his name), crowned and holding a sceptre, handing a charter to Archbishop Wulfstan
(outside a large church)36. [Plate 9
III. Legal Texts
Volumes of statutes, precedents of pleading and treatises on the law and
procedure used by legal practitioners also contributed significantly to the prevailing
Reproduced in Alexander/Binski, Chivalry (nt. 11), 277.
Clanchy, Memory (nt. 6), 121.
For example: in the Furness Coucher Book the woman with white headdress and pink dress in the
‘O’ of omnibus may well be Alica de Staveley, who gave some pasture (‘Suterschales’) to Furness Abbey
(London, British Library, MS Additional 33244 fol. 120r).
A rather crude drawing of an abbot with a crozier on a throne holding a document with a church
to his left and monks praying to his right accompanies the text concerning the foundation of the abbey of St
Mary’s in York in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 39 fol. 92.
This claim is also made in the so-called rhymed charter of King Athelstan (dating from around
Edward II’s reign): A. F Leach (ed.), Memorials of Beverley Minster: The Chapter Act Book of the
Collegiate Church of St John of Beverley AD 1286–1347, in: Surtees Society, 108 (1903), 280–287.
Oxford, University College MS 82 fol. 7.
visual culture, orienting the reader both literally (in terms of location within the book)
and figuratively with regard to the meaning of the ensuing text. Where an image at the
book division encapsulates the import or meaning of the passage to come it serves as a
vital mental stimulus, conveying visually concepts that were often by their very nature
abstract37. The images, therefore, probably functioned as memory aids for practitioners
who had learnt swathes of law off by heart, but who needed a trigger to unlock the legal
points they required. What better than a picture encapsulating the very point? This
phenomenon can be found employed in books of Roman civil law and canon law
produced both in Continental Europe and in England and offers a whole universe of
analysis since the common schemes (akin to the practices adopted by illustrators of
Bibles) were not always understood or the instructions correctly followed by the
illuminators. It was a characteristic borrowed for illuminated books of English law, albeit
in a slightly more simplistic fashion than their ius commune counterparts38. A glance at
an image accompanying the statute of Winchester (1285), for instance, which shows a
king with his sword held upright and men standing before him, one of whom is carrying a
sword, another a staff, would be reminded that the statute sets out provisions concerning
local policing and the requirements for assize of arms39. [Plate 10] The Charter of the
Forest has a scene reminiscent of hunting, such as an archer firing an arrow at a stag in a
wood40, while the Statute of Wards and Relief is marked out by the presence of a child
M. Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture, Cambridge 1990,
19–21, 253–256.
For examples see L’Engle/Gibbs, Illuminating (nt. 5).
BL MS Lansdowne 1174 fol. 142r.
Cambridge, Trinity College, MS O.7.27 fol. 14r; Harvard, MS 12, fol. 5r (reproduced in Michael,
Wedding Gift, (nt. 23, fig. 37).
(or children)41. At least one English Register of Writs conveniently has little images
associated with the legal requirements of particular writs. As Camille has shown, the
images were consciously produced to accompany the text of the breviary and intended
not only to be visual representations of various rights, but also, more functionally, visual
aids towards the location of the relevant writ for originating legal action42.
Depiction of the physical document or book in the illustration has meaning and
function too. In some illustrations of Magna Carta, the Great Charter or the volume of
statutes is specifically depicted as a book with a green (or sometimes red) cover;
occasionally it is drawn as a parchment document with a green seal.43 The symbolism
associated with the physical appearance of the volume is significant. Portrayal in
medieval art of the presentation of a sealed document normally indicates that the
document has a performative aspect and thus symbolises its oral recitation or
proclamation.44 This iconographic motif has its basis in reality as Magna Carta was read
out in every county court four times a year by royal decree. Statutes were also proclaimed
orally not just in the county courts, but in market places and other public spaces within
the county.45 Simialrly, where a charter is itself represented in the picture (often with a
seal attached – another potent symbol), this is not only proof of its donation, but usually
regarded as visual shorthand for the charter’s recitation or proclamation, which in
keeping with the first word ‘Scientes’ (‘Be it known’) would normally accompany its
BL MS Lansdowne 1174 fol. 141r; Harvard, MS 12 fol. 33r (reproduced in Michael, Manuscript
Wedding Gift, nt. 23, fig. 41).
M. Camille, At the Edge of the Law: An Illustrated Register of Writs in the Pierpont Morgan
Library, in N. Rogers (ed.), England in the Fourteenth Century, Proceedings of the 1991 Harlaxton
Symposium, Stamford 1993, 1–14.
For example: BL Hargrave 274 f. 204v, BL Harley 926 f. 9r, BL Lansdowne 1174 f. 3r; Bodleian Douce 35 f. 25r.
Seals themselves carried symbolic power and authority as well as helping “to bridge the gap between the literate and
the non-literate.” Clanchy, Memory, pp. 308, 314-7 (quotation at p. 308).
45 SR, 1: 136; Maddicott, “County Community,” pp. 32, 34-5; Doig, “Royal Proclamations,” pp. 259-60.
presentation. Visual and aural elements thus combined with the written text to provide the
required legitimacy.
Royal images are employed to enhance the illuminated volumes of statutes,
registers of writs and legal treatises and as Rosemarie McGerr has demonstrated, ‘help to
construct discourses of royal justice and grace that both responded to a particular
historical moment and continue to resonate over time’. Significantly with regard to their
wider impact, these volumes were bespoke and fashioned not simply for legal
practitioners and administrators, but members of the nobility and gentry, monastic
institutions and civic bodies from the late thirteenth century onwards. Medieval people
were familiar with royal images and understood their associated symbolism both in an
ecclesiastical context (symbolizing God or Biblical monarchs) and in the secular world
(serving as an icon of royal government).46 The illuminated initial at the opening of most
of these volumes (frequently accompanying the text of Magna Carta, regarded by
contemporaries as the touchstone of good governance and the exercise of right justice),47
employs the image of an enthroned king looking and/or pointing towards start of the
written text.48 The king should be viewed in conjunction with the written text: his gesture
(the raised index finger or sword) not only serves as a directional device for the reader,
but can be regarded as underlining the importance of the text and/or endorsing its
authority.49 A graphic instance of this can be seen in an exchequer memoranda roll of
1300, which unusually has the marginal figure of a bearded and crowned Edward I
Kauffmann, Biblical Imagery; Watts, “Looking for the State,” pp. 245, 264-5.
Some volumes of nova statuta also lead with Magna Carta before going on to the statutes of Edward III’s reign (for
example, Bodleian Hatton 10; Merton 297B).
48 For example: Bodleian Rawl. C 454 f. 19r; CUL DD. 15.12 f. 9r; Cambridge St John’s A.7 f. 1r.
49 L’Engle and Gibbs, Illuminating the Law, pp. 77, 80-2; Hibbitts, “Making Motions,” pp. 56-7.
pointing to a request that the barons of the Exchequer should observe the clauses of
Magna Carta.50
As one might expect the images reflect something of the majesty of the sovereign.
He is portrayed in a stylized way in full administrative/judicial mode. As analysis of the
illuminated statute books demonstrates, there are, however, significant shifts in the
iconography employed over time that enhance this. For instance, the simple bench-like
throne in late thirteenth and fourteenth-century miniatures becomes more ornate and
canopied in the fifteenth-century images. Similarly, the regalia held by the king in the
fifteenth-century miniatures are an orb and sceptre (rather than a sword). The crown too,
metamorphoses into a more imperial style diadem. The plain and functional image of the
monarch in the late thirteenth and fourteenth-century manuscripts is given a make-over in
the fifteenth century ones and a more grandiose version is revealed.
The formal iconic qualities and rigidity of the kingly figure nevertheless offer
gravitas to the portrayal in the initial and to the statute book as a whole. The picture is
emblematic of royal judicial authority and the monarch as lawgiver. It is his law (royal
law) that is enshrined in these acts and given effect through his person (and likewise the
apparatus of justice he controls).51 In this there are clear parallels with royal charters
issued to individuals and institutions, the design of which was intended to convey in
visual terms the charter’s authority or legal effect.52 The significance of the portrait of the
TNA E 368/72 m. 12 (reproduced in Prestwich, Edward I, plate 20 in between pp. 330 and 331).
Clanchy, Memory, p. 311 similarly makes the point that the Great Seal “was a portentous object which gave weight,
physically and symbolically, to the king’s most solemn grants…Its wax impression was a visible sign of the king’s
52 Clanchy, Memory, p. 292. The initial ‘E’ of Edward III’s grant of privileges to the University of Oxford in
1375, for example, depicts the elderly king, sceptre in one hand, handing the charter to the chancellor of the
University (Oxford Archives A. 1 f. 17r.), while another initial ‘E’, this time of an inspeximus (confirmation
copy) from Edward III to Richard of Arundel (son of Edmund, lately earl of Arundel) shows the young
king giving a charter complete with green seal to a young man kneeling ( BL Harley Ch. 83 C 13. The green
seal pictured is similar to the one attached to the surviving charter).
king at the opening of nova statuta collections or in other legal texts lies similarly in the
fact that he is the embodiment and executor of both law and justice. An image of the
originating fount of justice was clearly felt to be a potent symbol as well as a reminder of
his jurisdictional power.53
This relationship is made clearer in some illustrations by iconographic
correspondences derived through similarities with images in other genres of manuscript
(notably Bibles and psalters). To the initiated, these overlaps can imbue the picture with
cosmic and divine connotations, highlighting the symbolic fusion of God and king and
the close relationship between heavenly and earthly kingdoms.54 The direct link between
the heavenly and earthly kingdoms and the bestowal of the power (symbolised by the
regalia) is demonstrated in images of Henry VI with whom (along with St Edward the
Confessor) there is an overlap between his dual status as an historical figure and (to
certain contemporaries at least) a religious icon. The standard royal portrait is especially
enhanced with religious imagery in the case of one of the illustrations of Henry VI
prefacing statutes from his reign, which has two descending angels in the upper half of
the initial ‘H’ holding the regalia, one preparing to crown him, the other handing him a
sceptre.55 The iconographic symbiosis is also apparent in portraits of iconic kings of the
Old Testament. In the book of Psalms, for instance, David is usually portrayed in an
authoritative pose, bearded, crowned, dressed in ermine and seated on a throne, a parallel
See below in relation to specific legal treatises.
The legal treatise known as Bracton speaks of the king as being God’s vicar: ‘For judgments
are not made by man but by God, which is why the heart of a king who rules well is said to be in
the hand of God’ (Bracton, De Legibus, ed. Woodbine, 2:20).
BL MS Hargrave 274 fol. 204v.
for contemporary sovereigns,56 while Solomon is frequently the kingly icon for the book
of Wisdom57 and depicted exercising his critical powers of judgment.58 A notable
iconographic coincidence occurs in the Windmill psalter, in that Solomon’s judgment not
only takes place within the initial ‘E’, but he resembles known likenesses of Edward I.59
In addition to contributing to the discourse of justice and kingship, the legal texts
contain illustrations of judges and lawyers. In showing legal practitioners in action, the
law books provide a sense of the dedication of the profession, but also offer a human
touch, moving beyond its abstract principals to reveal its personnel60. [Plate 11] Judges
and lawyers themselves used their distinctive costume to enhance the law’s image as well
as promote their own status within the hierarchy. Indeed, the effigies on their tombs and
images on their funerary brasses enable us to tap into how they represented themselves
and signalled to others not only their achievements but also their aspirations and
pretensions. [Plate 12] The visual element of the law and its concern with purveying
authority and power thus extends to funerary monuments and personal portraits.
Bodleian, MSS Laud Lat. 81 fol. 103r, Bodley 263 fol. 113v.
Cambridge, Trinity College, MS O.5.1 fol. 240v; Emmanuel College, MS 116 fol. 200v. He
also features (crowned) in the Speculum Historiale: see, for example, BL MS Egerton 1500 fol.
Compare BL MSS Royal 6 E vi fol. 6r, Cotton, Faustina B vii fol. 48r; Oxford, New College,
MS 20 fol. 113v.
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, MS M.102 fol. 2r; Bennett, “Windmill Psalter”, 52-67.
See, for example: BL, MS Add. 11353, fol. 9r; BL, MS Harley 947, fol. 107r; Oxford, MS Douce
159, fol. 1r; Oxford, Oriel College, MS 46, fol. 156r.
But this is not the full picture or to use the image of Janus again, the only side of the face.
In the illuminated manuscript tradition, as with linguistic passages, there were often
deeper layers of meaning and more sophisticated readings of apparently straightforward
images are possible. Indeed, many of the legal volumes include pictures that offer an
opportunity for undermining the authority of law and a forum for the subversion of legal
concepts and relationships (even concepts of status and traditional hierarchy as portrayed
by kings and legal personnel). Many of these notions, including the playing out of
transgressive elements common in rituals of shame and punishment, find their way into
the margins of illuminated manuscripts. As many of you are probably aware, the margins,
which were populated with images of hybrid animals and birds and other grotesques, can
be regarded as inhabiting the informal space of the page (the space framing the text, an
efflorescence of both the conscious and the subconscious mind). In the case of law books,
the appearance of such images may represent the disorder of the imagination vying with
the ordered world not just of the written word, but the legal text itself. Why should this
occur, especially in a law book? It is significant that potentially subversive or antiauthoritarian elements inhabit the illuminated page of some of the statute books since it
suggests that the patron/illuminator wishes the viewer to engage in a more sophisticated
manner, perhaps within an alternative discourse on the nature of authority through images
implying criticism of the monarch, the prevailing political regime or the judicial system.
The pictures employed in legal texts, therefore, on one level are simply
illustrating aspects of kingship, law and justice, but in their juxtaposition of different
representational elements in fact insinuate a range of possible meanings thereby
manipulating the reader’s response to the image. Jousting figures, whether real knights,
animals or hybrid half animal-half humans, are fairly common in the regions above and
below the written text in various genres of manuscript and in the bas-de-pages scenes of
some law volumes there are hooded men with animal-or bird-like bodies engaged in
combat, using extended fingers as lances. While these could be taken as caricatures of
lawyers disputing, the illustrator poking fun at the law and the adversarial system, they
may also comically embody the Justinian maxim embraced by Bracton ‘clothed with
arms: armed with laws’, which rather than undermining the royal image would
accordingly jog the viewer’s memory and reflect positively back on the nature of king’s
power and authority and the functioning of the legal system.
An interloper in the space afforded the royal scene appears in several books.
Constituting a deliberate intrusion into the space occupied by the king, the image in turn
disturbs and challenges the viewer’s response to the traditional regal scene. In one, a head
pokes into the initial from the decorated border and is looking up towards the king.61
Elsewhere in the same collection a man dressed in blue with a blue feather in his cap
inhabits the left hand corner of the initial and is pointing at the king with his index
finger.62 Is he mimicking what the king is doing (and thereby endorsing his actions) or is
he poking fun at the king and (employing the iudex/index pun) judging him in effect? In
another, a figure with a red hood in the left-hand margin grasps the bottom rung of the
‘E’. He is looking up towards the king and brandishing a cudgel.63 This individual can be
assumed to represent a threat to the rule of law that the king is seeking to impose through
his statutes, perhaps even a pictorial reference to the so-called ‘baston’ or club-weilding
Lambeth, MS 429 fol. 6r.
Ibid., fol. 163r.
Bodleian, MS Rawlinson C 612B fol. 7r.
gangs made up of outlaws and returned soldiers (pictured in certain chronicles) that the
notorious trailbaston commissions of the early fourteenth century were issued to combat.
The most outrageous or shocking for our twenty-first century sensibility for
its effrontery (though medieval readers would not have baulked quite so much at the
obscenity) is the scene below the text of Magna Carta in the Lansdowne 1174 statute
book in which a figure has pulled down his breeches and is baring his bottom. (The other
figure appears to be shielding himself.) On the one hand this could be taken simply as a
comical, if somewhat inappropriate vignette, in which the king and by implication, the
constitutional importance of Magna Carta, are mocked profanely. However, I think there
is a deeper symbolism here, which goes beyond this particular illustration and links it
with other iconographic and literary contexts, notably the contest of wits known as The
Dialogue of Solomon and Marcolf, pitting the paradigm of wisdom and equity King
Solomon against a foolish, but cunning peasant, Marcolf, which was a theme familiar in
iconography in England from at least the early fourteenth century and survives in verse
form from the early fifteenth century. For those who have not come across this literary
work, the Dialogue, which has its origin in scholastic disputation, initially takes the form
of a ‘discourse of opposites’, a dialectic in which different sources of authority are pitted
against each other. They move on to a series of riddles set by Solomon, which Marcolf
proves empirically, rather than using logic. Finally, Marcolf sets Solomon some proverbs,
which he is unable to fathom, possibly because of their absurdity.
In the initial dialectical contest, Solomon’s words echo scriptural verses from
Ecclesiasticus associated with his Biblical persona (DI’s necessary authority), which are
then followed by parodic irreverent responses from Marcolf, man’s response (less
authoritative), but with their own earthy profundity. As DI quoted, ‘Every cunning man
must be believed in his own art!’ In the course of their encounter, Marcolf makes a
number of retorts or repudiations with legal or jurisdictional connotations that could
relate to the figure in the statute book, among them ‘A naked ars no man kan robbe or
disployle’ (4.43b) and ‘An opyn arse hath no lord’ (4.48b). There is also a scene
(afforded visual reality in the bas-de-page a fourteenth-century illuminated copy of
Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, but is found in a few illuminated psalters and the
Smithfield Decretals) where the King comes across Marcolf with his breeches down
revealing his ‘ars hole and other fowle gere’.
The inclusion of the bare-bottomed character, his possible affinity with
Marcolf and their relationship to the king’s role as fount of justice and lawgiver is not
perhaps as surprising as may be first thought.
A link with the Dialogue of Solomon and Marcolf, could also explain another
unusual illustration of Magna Carta, a fifteenth century version whose original owner was
[John Pygot, a sergeant-at-law]. The king is wholly absent from the miniature and has
been replaced by someone who from his dress resembles a jester or court fool (featured
similarly in other genres of manuscript). The fool figure has a bird on his arm and his legs
are either side of the bar of the initial letter as if riding it. This has parallels with the
answer to one of the proverbs Marcolf sets Solomon in which he is variously depicted
shown riding a goat or in one version on crutches (a possible variant here riding the bar
of the letter), with an owl or hawk on his arm.64 A number of Marcolf’s challenges make
Marculf appears in the Pierpont Morgan Register of Writs and is also depicted variously in the Smithfield
Decretals, the Ormesby Psalter and a misericord in Worcester Cathedral: Camille, “Edge of the Law,” pp.
6-13; Camille, Image on the Edge, p. 26 (fig 15); Alexander and Binski, Age of Chivalry, p. 433 (cat. no
the wise king seem foolish and the fool, wise (a trope we are more familiar with from
Shakespeare). Indeed, Marcolf himself states: ‘He is holden wise that reputeth himself a
fool’. The prevalence of this conceit makes it likely that it would not be stretching
medieval interpretation too far to suggest that a meaningful correspondence is intended
between the substitution of the jester/fool for the normal king in Hatton 10. Since a fool
is quite literally without reason, the king’s absence can be interpreted as a lack of
rationality. As Magna Carta’s provisions are infused with the requirement for
reasonableness, the inherent irrationality highlighted by the image may thus be read as a
clever visual pun that in turn signals the deeply held notion that the king ought to rule in
accord with reason. This is further underlined by the damning retort from Marcolf issued
when the King refuses to honour his promise of reward (to make him rich and have a
name above all others in the realm –cf devil’s temptation of Christ): I shall always say
“There is no king where no law is”. And here we have no king, only a fool. Whether this
in turn has an historical parallel with Henry VI’s failure of kingship and manifest lack of
authority in the mid fifteenth century (during the period known as the Wars of the Roses).
In both these examples, arguably, wisdom is found to be incomplete without its
antithesis. By extension, in the abstract law lacks practical reality and does not
necessarily correspond or respond to the full range of human needs. The subversive
images are the product of a dialectic about authority. Indeed, the images co-exist and
appear to be accepted as part of the legal culture and in turn provide a positive
underscoring of royal political and judicial authority and serve to underline the overriding
importance of good governance and highlight the qualities required of a just king.
IV. Conclusion
Study of its visual culture enables historians of the law to the see its operation
through a new prism. Such research, however, is not purely an exploration of the nonverbal, non-textual crystallisation and distillation of legal principles; the spoken and the
written word play an important part too, combining with image at times to underpin and
legitimise particular elements of law, among them, the proper exercise of authority,
upholding of rights, and fair and due process. We need to appreciate the visual and
psychological impact that the law had on medieval people, but we cannot treat image as
unconnected with those who created or determined its message, nor can we regard it as
unaffected by changes in meaning over time. One of the main problems for the historian,
therefore, is discerning who was using or deploying these legal images – was it royal
government (i.e., the state), was it communities, or were they adopted or propagated by
individuals? We know legislators and lawyers embraced visuality as a means of
conveying or communicating its authority, principals and processes, but what was the
role of the artist or craftsman and what was the scope for imaginative input or for
improvisation within given guidelines? Equally seeing the exercise of justice in public
courts, in illuminated miniatures, wall paintings or in dramatic reconstructions was
intended to educate and advise as well as to warn and deter from misbehaviour all
members of society not just the lower classes; the experiences of the visual side of the
law, stretched like the law itself from the unfree peasant to the ordinary citizen, through
members of the clergy and the legal profession to the gentry, nobility and even kings.
The visual side was not necessarily simplistic, nor was it necessarily directed at
the illiterate. However, some images were complex and only intellectually accessible to
viewers with the requisite knowledge and experience, usually judges, lawyers and legal
intermediaries. Since the law books were essentially privately produced, the images they
contain can be regarded as providing a means of communicating ideas and creating
opportunities for discussion concerning particular legal and political issues amongst their
literate (and non-literate) law-minded owners and users. Indeed, the illuminated book,
whether overtly legal in content or literary in nature but containing images relating to
justice or legal issues was an important medium for the transmission of ideas about law.
[Plate 14]
Taking a step back, however, while Magna Carta and the statutes had been
conceded or enacted and thereby have authority, technically the statute books and thus
the illuminations in which they are contained were not for public consumption. The
books may well have been borrowed or shown around, but they were bespoke
compilations and the illuminations commissioned by the owner, probably discussed in
advance with the artist, though it is unclear the extent to which they were the product of
detailed input from the patron or the imagination and prior experience of the
illuminator(s) himself. It was a comparatively small group of people who would have had
access to them. These illuminations, subversive though are, were not threatening
anyone’s position, no one was prosecuted for sedition as a result of them! The circle may
have been small, but its existence demonstrates a willingness to explore alternative view
points. The satire, however, for all its obscenity and impropriety, ultimately endorses the
The use of image within a spectacle or legal context and the methods by which it
could be discerned by or highlighted for onlookers is therefore an important consideration
for historians. Equally crucial for an understanding of the reception of the image is the
extent to which its deployment (and meaning) remained constant or altered over time.
Moreover, since visual aspects of the law in the form of art and spectacle drew on
elements of both high and low culture, it could be claimed that law as a dynamic was able
to permeate and erode the traditional class/cultural boundaries, thereby enriching
interpretations. Significantly, therefore, the visual culture not only stimulates the little
grey cells of researchers, but facilitates our engagement with legal cultures and judicial
experiences of past ages.