Sobecki, Sebastian, Unwritten Verities: The Making of England's Vernacular Legal Culture, 1463-1549.
Sebastian Sobecki begins this volume with a brief outline of Victorian historiographical attitudes that treated the English law as an insular system resistant to the influence of 'foreign' systems. To simplify his argument, he too interprets 'English law' as common law and statute. Its resistance is often attributable to the oral traditions of the Inns of common law. Sobecki challenges the traditional view that the crystallisation of England's vernacular legal culture occurred during the period 1550 to 1600 as part of a movement towards vernacularism that occurred in the wake of the Reformation.
The central thesis of Unwritten Verities is that late medieval practices of vernacular translation, professional adherence to an unwritten tradition, and Lancastrian political ideas generated a vernacular legal culture that challenged Protestant ideas and Tudor ambitions to central government. The novelty of Sobecki's thesis lies in his attempt to counteract tendencies to view the medieval and premodern periods in isolation.
Sobecki begins by tracing the history of the educational and collegiate elements of the common law Inns. He highlights the importance of oral narrative at the Inns as a method by which to establish memory. The author argues that the dominance of oratory skills in the period permitted lawyers to engage in political and conceptual debate on law. He persuasively argues that the common law possessed a singular legal language, an amalgamation of French and English, which he colourfully calls 'Franglais'.
After contextualising the vernacular oral tradition of the common law and its linguistic character, Sobecki moves on to his central thesis. He turns first to the importance of the works of Chief Justice John
Fortescue for the promulgation of a non-partisan theory of the common law as it formed part of the contemporary pattern of political discourse and conciliarism in the Lancastrian period.
Sobecki explores the apparently incompatible nature of the unwritten common law tradition in a climate where oral memory was distrusted after the Reformation. He turns to St German s Doctor and Student for explanation. That work, the author explains, justifies the unwritten common law tradition by drawing upon its inherent rationality as a characteristic not requiring written expression. Sobecki argues that the common law, as a rational system, agreed with and adapted to post-Reformation religious developments that ultimately led to a relaxation in attitudes towards unwritten verities.
Sobecki considers the impact of a vernacular legal culture on English political thought after the Reformation. He distinguishes the developments in the common law from humanist views that favour an elitist monopoly on law and perceptions that the Sovereign is the only safeguard against tyranny. The author identifies John Rastells decision to print previously unwritten common law sources in English as a driving force behind populist political ideologies of commonwealth after the Reformation. He argues that the popular views Rastell presented in his vernacular translation promoted an ideology of social participation by making the law accessible to commoners.
Sobecki also examines the rebellions of 1549 to highlight the influence of the vernacular legal culture on populist movements. He argues that the accessibility of the law allowed commoners, with the support of 'learned men', to couch their demands in legal language. Demands that the monarch should promulgate laws in the vernacular for common understanding and debate, the author argues, posed a direct challenge to authority. According to Sobecki, the monarchy's assertion of authority to control common law printing after 1550 extinguished popular movements associated with the vernacular legal culture.
Sobecki convincingly argues his central thesis that a unique common law vernacular legal culture was present in England in this period, which was not limited to the works of John Fortescue, St German, and John Rastell. In a well-researched, exciting, and stimulating account, Sobecki demonstrates how the common law discourse of the Lancastrian period developed to breathe life into popular politics after the Reformation. The book is a pleasure to read and readers will find it replete with examples demonstrating the place of its argument in modern historiography.
The book would benefit from clearer signposts at the beginning of each chapter to demonstrate its position in the overarching argument. Nevertheless, Sobecki's treatment of English law presents a compelling invitation for future scholarship on the influence of the ius commune on England's vernacular legal tradition, particularly in the works of Fortescue. Sobecki's important contribution is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the common law in premodern England.
Lindsay Breach, University of Canterbury
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2015|
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