30th Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval Studies
Fordham University, Lincoln Center, New York City: March 27-28, 2010

Anders Leegaard Knudsen, "Documenting the Reception of Learned law: The Evidence of the Local Courts"

I propose to present a paper on the reception of some of the principles of Canon and Roman law at the local level of the Danish medieval legal system.

In the past decade Danish historians have greatly advanced our knowledge of the reception of Canon and Roman law as well as the influence of these two legal systems on Danish law. We now know that legal principles which we used to think were genuinely Danish, or even Germanic, are, in fact, imports from the so-called learned law or at least inspired by it. Far from being ancient and homegrown, so to speak, the Danish law codes are now believed to be not only fairly new at the time of codification in the thirteenth century but also internationally oriented.

The influence of Canon and Roman law on the various legal systems of Europe in the Middle Ages is of course an international field of research. In particular, the disciplining and civilizing effect of Canon law through the ecclesiastical courts has attracted much attention and new insight has been gained into subjects such as marriage, family, sexual practices, corporate organizations of all kinds, and business as well as financial practices. Canon law touched nearly all areas of human life.

Lacking the court rolls and registers of the ecclesiastical courts which so dominate this field of research in the major European countries, Danish historians have been unable to work in this way and have had to write legal history from the top down, following the reception of the principles of Canon and Roman law in the Danish law codes.

I aim to do it the other way. Rather than focusing on the normative aspects of the Danish legal system in the Middle Ages, I shall look at transactions at the local level. This means that I shall have to concentrate on the conveyance of landed property and ownership, as these are almost the only cases whose documents have survived. Even if the history of medieval Danish criminal law cannot be written in this way because the sources simply are not there, we can at least follow the reception of canonical and Roman legal principles of ownership and property.

My paper is based on my research on the workings of the local courts, the things. I have examined all extant charters emanating from the non-contentious jurisdiction, or jurisdictio voluntaria, of these local and regional things until the mid-fifteenth century. This research is part of the editorial project of Diplomatarium Danicum, whose fifth series (covering the years 1413-1450) is now in progress.

The charters allow us to follow the introduction and eventual dominance of the terminology and procedures of the learned law at the local level in the Danish legal system, as well as the gradual acceptance of written documents in this otherwise predominantly oral system. Despite a strong influence from the ars notaria the form of the documents shows an independent adaptation of an international pattern rather than a wholesale import.


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