SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Canada) Standard Research Grant, Written Culture and the Common Law in the 15th and Early 16th Centuries

  • Sobecki, Sebastian (PI)
  • Critten, Rory (PhD student)
  • Honeyman, Chelsea (Postdoc)
  • Barootes, Ben (PhD student)
  • Oberer, Karen (Researcher)

    Project Details


    The overarching goal of this project is to study the contribution of the common law to written culture in fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century England. I will assess how the first phase of vernacular legal writings contributed to emerging ideas of Englishness, with particular emphasis on John Fortescue (c. 1394–1476), William Caxton (1422- c. 1491), and John Rastell (1475-1536). Drawing on recent developments in the disciplines of Law and Literature, this project will help clarify how the common law participated in the shaping of a collective vernacular identity in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. This project will examine the dynamic relationship between social change and literary activity broadly connected to the common law. By covering the stages of production, dissemination, and reception, each of the project’s three streams has its own objective that, in turn, is aligned with the main goal. The first stream, the language of the law, will scrutinise the production of Englished law and its impact on new ideas of Englishness. The second stream, the dissemination of legal writings, will establish and analyse the methods of circulating legal and law-related texts and documents during this period. Finally, the project’s third stream, practices of reading, will investigate how written law, law-related texts, and legal thought were received and interpreted.

    My research on written culture and the common law in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries has taken me on journey that proved far more rewarding than I could have expected. Whereas my preliminary research had indicated that translation would be the most productive area of the common law at the time of planning this project, it has now emerged that this was only one branch of my research. After four fruitful years of archival, argumentative, and explorative work I have reformulated my thesis, which will be fully articulated in my monograph Unwritten Verities: The Making of England's Vernacular Legal Culture, 1460-1549. I am arguing for the existence of a distinct vernacular legal culture between the fifteenth and mid-sixteenth centuries that proved pivotal in the shaping of a secular and broad understanding of Englishness. The time markers are set by John Fortescue's works and the popular rebellions of 1549. The characteristic features of this vernacular legal culture were:

    1. a complex linguistic fabric that assigns a privileged role to the vernacular, which is split into spoken English and written French;
    2. an approach to reading that builds its hermeneutics on unwritten tradition, and that found itself at loggerheads with the reading ideologies of the Reformation;
    3. a commitment to a professional code that embodies and continues Lancastrian ideas of consensual governance and political conciliarism.

    Layman's description

    I ran this interdisciplinary project on the common law, Written Culture and the Common Law in the Fifteenth and Early Sixteenth Centuries at McGill University, Canada, and completed it at Groningen after my move. The project received a substantial Standard Research Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), the Canadian equivalent to an NWO Vidi/Vici grant. The objective was to show how common-law culture contributed to ideas of collective identity in fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century England. Funded posts: one PhD student for three years; one postdoctoral research assistant for two years; one MA student employed as a research assistant for two years.

    Key findings

    I argue that the commitment by English common law to an unwritten tradition, along with its association with Lancastrian political ideas of consensual government, generated a vernacular legal culture on the eve of the Reformation that challenged the centralizing ambitions of Tudor monarchs, the scriptural literalism of ardent Protestants, and the Latinity of English humanists. I identify the widespread dissemination of legal books and William Caxton's printing of the Statutes of Henry VII as crucial events in the creation of a vernacular legal culture. I reveal the impact of medieval concepts of language, governance, and unwritten authority on such sixteenth-century humanists, reformers, playwrights, and legal writers as John Rastell, Thomas Elyot, Christopher St. German, Edmund Dudley, John Heywood, and Thomas Starkey. Finally, I argue that three significant developments contributed to the emergence of a vernacular legal culture in fifteenth-century England: medieval literary theories of translation, a Lancastrian legacy of conciliar government, and an adherence to unwritten tradition. This vernacular legal culture, in turn, challenged the textual practices of English humanism and the early Reformation in the following century. Ultimately, the spread of vernacular law books found a response in the popular rebellions of 1549, at the helm of which often stood petitioners trained in legal writing. Informed by new developments in medieval literature and early modern social history, Unwritten Verities sheds new light on law printing, John Fortescue's constitutional thought, ideas of the commonwealth, and the role of French in medieval and Tudor England.
    Short title Written Culture and the Common Law
    Effective start/end date01/04/200831/03/2011


    • Law
    • Tudor literature
    • England
    • Printing
    • Common Law
    • Inns of Court