The Art of Law: update

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 ( ), 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 ( ). In a 2015 blog post, I noted the appearance of a thought-provoking study of the visual material in the CP rolls in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries: 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. This looks at the rise of decoration and illustration in the CP rolls in this period, and explores 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?



Going back to all this for another project, it seems to me that there is still a lot to explore here. In particular, I was intrigued at the illustrations at the foot of one late 15th C roll, associated with the name Forster. A couple of the illustrations have come up in recent tweets and on the cover of a recent book, but there is room for a study on ‘the Forster hand’ and its illustrations – ranging from a female tavern worker, to a woman clubbing a man, to a self-harming chimera, a rosary, a heron/crane gobbling a snake/eel, and fish (with nostrils) – all in CP 40/840 – Common Pleas roll for Michaelmas 1471. definitely going to pursue this character through some other rolls.

Gwen Seabourne