When you would ask me to single out any legal historian for his or her versatility, path-breaking articles and books, stimulating teaching and generous help I would answer that choosing anyone would mean that I seriously underestimate the qualities of a lot of other fine scholars. On November 29 Harvard Law Today published an article about the honours lately bestowed upon Charles Donahue. In October a conference was held to celebrate his efforts in the field of legal history, both for the history of the common law and medieval canon law. This last field offered me the original impulse to start my blog, and therefore it is fitting to create space for a truly great scholar.
John Witte, Sara McDougall and Anna di Robilante edited a Festschrift called Texts and Contexts in Legal History: Essays in Honor of Charles Donahue (Berkeley, CA, 2016). Remarkably this volume does not yet figure on the website of the publishing institution, the Robbins Collection at Berkeley’s School of Law. Its website might be in the midst of a substantial makeover, including the launch of a new website for the manuscript catalogue, but this surely is an omission, yet another reason to get into action here. In this post I will focus mainly on Donahue’s work for the history of canon law, but you will not mind reading some remarks about other periods and themes which received and receive his attention. A third reason for writing this post is the opportunity to look at two most interesting projects for digitizing archival records which form a wonderful window to the practice of medieval canon law.
Taking the plunge
My most vivid memory of Charles Donahue is the way he presented a paper at the International Congress of Medieval Canon Law in 1996 at Syracuse, NY. He commented on the needs to combine the qualities of research into legal doctrine, ecclesiastical institutions and social history. The three of them benefit immensely by being studied together, not in isolation. Of course this is a huge challenge, but Donahue memorably ended saying: “Let’s get out here and do it!” He did indeed exactly what he announced. One of the challenges is having the courage and stamina to work at all in a field like the history of medieval canon law which is both utterly fascinating and bewildering in its complexity. Critical text editions are still scarce, and you might be the first scholar since decades to look at particular manuscripts, or literally the first in centuries to study archival records.
In order to assess the possibilities to use archival records from medieval church courts Donahue set out to create a survey of these records with reports by a team of scholars from all over the world, The Records of the Medieval Ecclesiastical Courts: Reports of the Working Group on Church Courts Records (2 vol., Berlin 1989-1994). Earlier on he published with Norma Adams Select Cases from the Ecclesiastical Courts of the Province of Canterbury, c. 1200–1301 (London 1981; Selden Society Publications, 95). A recurring theme in a number of his publications is medieval marriage. In 2008 Donahue’s great study Law, Marriage, and Society in the Later Middle Ages: Arguments about Marriage in Five Courts appeared. Cambridge University Press provides online access to some 300 additional pages with notes and texts. The five courts in this work are York, Ely, Paris, Cambrai and Brussels. At his Harvard homepage you can download Excel sheets from the databases with the materials from these courts. Sharing these data with other scholars is wonderful when you realize how much work it takes over many years to prepare these materials before you can execute the kind of study Donahue did.
Projects at York
For one of the dioceses Donahue studied in his great book about medieval marriage, law and society you can now access documents online. Surprisingly there are even two connected projects which bring you to ecclesiastical justice in the medieval archdiocese of York. The first project to come online was The Cause Papers in the Diocesan Courts of the Archbishopric of York, 1300-1858, the fruit of cooperation between the University of York, in particular the Borthwick Institute for Archives, the Andrew Mellon Foundation, History Online and JISC. The Borthwick Institute provides you with background information about the digitized records. It is also instructive to read entries at the project blog which ended in 2011 with the launch of the database. The Cause Papers can also be searched online at the portal Connected Histories. It is a bit weird to see at this portal the label Local records applied to both the Cause Papers and the Proceedings of the Old Bailey. It is precisely a strength that they are also important sources for local history, but they can bring those investigating them much more.
The core of the project for the York Cause Papers (CP) is the database which allow you to search more than 15,000 cases from many perspectives. For a number of cause papers images are provided, but I cannot determine the algorithm or human reasons behind the selection. Looking for cases after 1500 can bring you to images of the records involved. Earlier on the Borthwick Instituted had published guides to the cause papers, W.J. Sheils, Ecclesiastical Cause Papers at York: files transmitted on appeal 1500-1883 (Borthwick Texts & Calendars 9, 1983), D.M. Smith, Ecclesiastical Cause Papers at York: the Court of York 1301-1399 (Borthwick Texts & Calendars 14, 1988), and D.M. Smith, The Court of York 1400-1499: a handlist of the cause papers and an index to the archiepiscopal court books (Borthwick Texts & Calendars 29, 2003). At the website of the Borthwick Institute is also a very useful guide to records from other courts at Carlisle, Chester, Durham, Sodor, the diocese of the Hebrides, and Man, all of them, however, for the period after 1500. The database of the Cause Papers brings you to summarized information about the cases dealt with in these records. If you want to look in it for matrimonial cases you will see at least 1,600 cases from four centuries. A search with the keyword matrimonial brought me 241 results between 1300 and 1500. Donahue prepares for the Selden Society the volume Select cases from the ecclesiastical courts of York, 1300-1500 which will contain some 400 cases from the Cause Papers.
The medieval records themselves are at the center of a second project at York, York Archbishops’ Registers Revealed, The digitized registers cover the period 1225 to 1646. The contents here are much wider than only legal cases, but they, too, appear. As one of the showcases in the background information you can look at documents concerning the divorce of king Henry VIII from Anne of Cleves in 1540 (Abp Reg 28, f. 142r). For this project 32 registers have been digitized (Abp Reg) and also five Institution act books (Abp Inst AB) from the sixteenth and seventeenth century. You can browse a particular register and browse for people, religious institutions and groups. locations and subjects, or use the free text search field. A simple search for marriage yielded some 300 results. Supplementary indexes exist already for three registers. These indexes are rather important. When you look under A for Anne of Cleves she is absent in the database because in the standard view only input from indexed registers is shown. You cannot reach directly for records for people not included in these indexes. It is evident that the case from 1540 was found using earlier indexes, and primarily the historical overview of matters at the beginning of a register. The need for indexing some forty registers with 21,000 digitized images is clear and just as important as compliance with IIIF, the initiative for interoperability between images from various sources, rightly advocated in this project. Having the digitized images in front of you on your screen is great, but some of the classic activities of the historian’s craft are still indispensable, if only for deciphering the texts. Maybe I can seduce you to have a look at ‘Under a magnifying glass’, a recent post on my second blog Glossae concerning juridical glosses from the twelfth century, where I compare a number of online tutorials for medieval palaeography. By the way, the Borthwick Institute has also started digitizing seventeenth-century visitation records from York.
For yet another diocese in medieval England, London, you can consult at home records thanks to the Consistory database created by Shannon McSheffrey (Concordia University, Montreal) using registers covering the periods 1467-1476 and 1487-1496. The database contains transcriptions and translations of documents for this last period. McSheffrey helpfully provides a generous bibliography of modern scholarship about late medieval civil and ecclesiastical courts in England. McSheffrey provides introductions to major themes in the cases from London, such as defamation, marriage and divorce, tithes, testaments, clerical behaviour, and matters as debt and perjury. You can approach the cases directly or look for specific subjects, people, locations, and also for depositions. The variety in possible approaches to these records is not new for those already familiar with medieval canon law, but surely this range of subjects covered by ecclesiastical law should make more people curious about canon law.
Among the supporting institutions of the Canadian Consistory project is the Ames Foundation, since many years led at Harvard by Charles Donahue. One of the online resources of the Ames Foundation are the page proofs of The Register of the Official of the Bishop of Ely: 21 March 1374 – 28 February 1382 edited by Marcia Stentz and Charles Donahue. I had used the word opus magnum for Donahue’s book on the comparative history of medieval marriage courts, but this edition deserves this description, too. Marcia Stentz’ calendar of the Ely register formed the starting point for a full critical edition. As an asset the Ames Foundation has also put online digital images of this register [Cambridge, Cambridge University Library, Ely Diocesan Records, EDR D2/1]. Establishing a correct numbering of all pages in this register is just one of the myriad things needed to pursue the long road to the final edition. At the first folio the Ely register has the heading Registrum primum causarum consistorii episcopi Eliensis (..), but this register does not contain solely cases heard in an ecclesiastical court. Other tasks and actions of an officialis, the episcopal judge, come into view, too.
I leave it to my readers to see for themselves the recent additions concerning medieval canon law among the online publications of the Ames Foundation, a remarkable feature of a society promoting the history of English law! You will also spot Charles Donahue’s name for his support for the online edition of Appeals to the Privy Council from the American Colonies: An Annotated Digital Catalogue, edited by Sharon O’Connor and Mary Bilder, but his work for the Ames Foundation reaches beyond specific editions.
Editions in the digital age
When reading this contribution you will notice with me a great variety in editorial approaches for online editions or presentations of late medieval church court records. The Cause Papers of York are accessible in a database, but you will find for cases before 1500 only detailed summaries of cases. The range over the centuries is great. I would view it as a search tool. York Archbishops’ Registers Revealed does give you access to digitized images, but the online indexation of the records has not yet been completed. Here you will need medieval and Early Modern palaeography, and you have documents from an even longer time span. The Consistory database for diocesan records from London offers you detailed access to transcriptions and even translations, but for just one decade. Here you can quickly focus on the cases. The edition of the Ely register is certainly both a classic edition enhanced with images, and in a way it is in a class of its own. The context of an ecclesiastical judge during eight years is here right in front of you. Depending on your personal interest as a scholar or teacher you will sometimes prefer a full edition, to provide either students with a quick road to a first encounter with a source, or inversely make the importance of auxiliary sciences clear by showing images of historical records. Each approach is to some extent perfectly valid and valuable. Space forbids me to discuss here the editions by Monique Vleeschouwers-Van Melkebeek for Cambrai and Brussels of records of the officialis, let alone her work on Tournai with probably the earliest surviving records from the late twelfth century. Donahue does use these sources, too.
At the end of this contribution I am sure that Charles Donahue would very much want to make this extensive comparison of editions in print and online. Of course I could only point to some aspects of Donahue’s work. It makes me eager to look at his work in more depth! Studying medieval law is one of the means to discover the great differences of law and society in place and time during a millennium. It teaches you to be wary about rapid generalizations and labels. I confess to be charmed and sometimes very much moved by the records of medieval courts and the way they can be made tell-tale witnesses of society at large, of life in all its dimensions, of people trying to lead their lives. Somehow human interest is the greatest when you see people facing the machineries of the law, be they cunning plaintiffs, helpless defendants, shrewd or wise lawyers. In its best incarnations as in the work of Charles Donahue studying and writing about medieval canon law is both part of legal history and the humanities.
Please forget my grumblings about the manuscripts catalogue of the Robbins Collections! In 2018 the new searchable database version was launched. It can now readily respond to many inquiries.