The Art of Law: important article on images in rolls of the late medieval Court of Common Pleas

An area in which many legal historians have become increasingly interested in recent years is the visual composition of legal records. I gave a paper on this at the British Legal History Conference in 2013 (http://www.gla.ac.uk/media/media_282282_en.pdf ), highlighting the need to integrate the images from the Common Pleas rolls into the King’s Bench-dominated view acquired from Erna Auerbach’s work, and have also made some comments on visual material in this blog (http://vifgage.blogs.bristol.ac.uk/2013/04/07/p-is-for-profile-henry-viii-in-the-rolls-of-the-common-pleas/ ). The appearance of a thought-provoking study of the visual material in the CP rolls in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries is a welcome addition to this area, and certainly one for reading lists in medieval legal history.

Elizabeth A Danbury and Kathleen L Scott, ‘The Plea Rolls of the Court of Common Pleas: an unused source for the art and history of later medieval England. 1422-1509’. The Antiquaries Journal, 95  (2015), 157-210 looks at the rise of decoration and illustration in the CP rolls in this period, and explored the iconography of the images and the meanings of words and mottoes associated with them. There is much of interest in the identification of particular kings and other characters, and the discussion of the way in which particular images fit in with contemporary political events. I am also intrigued by the mysterious popularity of dragons in these records. Helpfully, there are several good-quality photographs of key images.

Medieval historians are naturally drawn to the political ramifications of the images. I think that legal historians can and should also consider the implications of the illustration and decoration which relates to the image or self-image of particular courts. Auerbach’s work saw the inclusion of loyal, royal pictures in the KB rolls as something which flowed from the particular connection of the monarch with that court. Noting that the CP also included such images makes that conclusion less secure. There is also the issue of the inclusion of decoration and mottoes associated with the names of judges, which deserves some consideration in connection with the image they were trying to project. Finally, there is the intriguing issue of the expected ‘consumers’ of these images: who would have seen them? Did our ‘clerk-illustrators’ imagine that they were drawing only for their immediate colleagues and contemporaries, or for posterity?

Gwen Seabourne

11/12/2015