A Peek Inside Lambeth Palace Library’s Exhibition ‘Writing the Law’

Curator Arendse Lund explores Lambeth Palace Library’s collection of medieval manuscripts

If you were asked to name a famous medieval document, there’s a good chance you’d come up with the Magna Carta. After all, it is one of the most famous pieces of legislation from the Middle Ages. But the Middle Ages were a time of rapid legal and political change — both before and after King John’s famous document — and these changes are meticulously recorded in medieval manuscripts and many survive to share their secrets with us today.

For the last couple of months, I’ve had the privilege of working with Lambeth Palace Library’s medieval documents as I curated “Writing the Law: Lambeth’s Legal Manuscript Collection,” in Lambeth Palace’s Great Hall. Although the Great Hall is generally closed to the public, you can view the exhibition on Open Days; the next one is 2 August.

Lambeth Palace Library has an incredible collection of manuscripts, reflecting its long history as the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury. To put this in perspective: after the Vatican, Lambeth has the largest ecclesiastical holdings in the world.

Lambeth Palace Library’s Great Hall (Photo: Jonty Sexton)

It took me months to choose which manuscripts to include (or sorrowfully put aside), and, in the end, the manuscripts on display are only a small portion of Lambeth Palace Library’s vast legal collection. Consisting of everything from Anglo-Saxon manuscripts to papal decrees, these documents span hundreds of years and play witness to changing legal systems across Europe. The manuscripts demonstrate how a work was never complete: reader commentaries through glosses — both official and unofficial — led the interpretation of these texts. The marginalia give evidence of the long life and intended role of these manuscripts, both as they circulated and once they became part of Lambeth’s collection.

One of the most striking manuscripts, at least to me, is a royal family tree listing the genealogy of all the kings of England. Royal family trees were a popular method in the Middle Ages to show descent from specific people — whether or not that was true was an entirely different matter. Old Norse saga writers sometimes slotted Thor and Ođin into family trees that began with Adam and Eve. The manuscript on display is a genealogy of the kings of England from Adam; the roundels start with Irad, the Biblical son of Cain, and ends with King Henry V. The middle section contains some of the Anglo-Saxon kings, including Edward the Martyr, Æthelred ‘unræd,’ and the later Danish invader Cnut. Royal descent, traced through these frequently-invented blood relationships was a powerful legal tool used to legitimize the succession of power and promote dynastic identities. Chronicles in the form of genealogical diagrams featuring kings in order of succession became a popular way of telling English history.

A roll chronicle copied into a manuscript — here Lambeth MS 270, f. 313r — necessitating turning it sideways to maximize space (Photo: Arendse Lund)

This genealogy seems to have been copied from a roll. The scribe turned the manuscript sideways to draw in the family tree, ostensibly in an attempt to mimic the roll form and try to maximize space. So, in following the scribe’s efforts, I too have displayed the manuscript sideways.

Pope Boniface accompanying the opening text on canon law, from Lambeth MS 13, f. 89r (Photo: Arendse Lund)

Part of the beauty of these medieval manuscripts is that when a document was issued, it was hand copied by scribes and redistributed in other contexts. This means that while there are only four Magna Cartas issued in 1215 that survive to us today, the text from these spread through other manuscripts and you can see a 14th-century copy on display as part of the exhibition. The Magna Carta, literally the “great charter,” established that everyone, including the king, was subject to the law in England. Although the Magna Carta contained 63 clauses when it was issued, over the centuries many of those clauses have been repealed. Only three clauses remain part of English law: One defends the rights of the English Church, another confirms the liberties of London and other cities, and the third gives all free men the right to justice and a fair trial.

As we’ve already seen, law and politics go hand in hand. In the 16th century, Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries across England, Wales, and Ireland to increase the Crown’s income and ultimately to fund his military campaigns against the French. Eventually many of the manuscripts from some of the closed priories came to Lambeth Palace. Llanthony Secunda Priory in Wales had collected examples of Continental law codes, and so we have a 13th-century copy of the Lombard law on display. The Lombard code treated all offences as civil offences. To satisfy the dignity of the offended party, the state intervened to consider the situation and the punishment proceeded according to fixed rules. Lombard law meticulously listed every part of the body and ascribed a monetary compensation value to it. This ranged from all sorts of injuries, from hurting someone’s little finger, to pulling their hair, all the way up to cracking a skull or murdering someone.

Detail from Lambeth MS 118, f. 206v, showing the library stamp (Photo: Arendse Lund)

Each of the manuscripts has a secret to share with the viewer. In one case, this is a discrete signature by a Member of Parliament in the margins; in another, are letters from the Anglo-Saxon alphabet with modern 15th-century letter equivalents. Take a peek and see what you can spot!

“Writing the Law: Lambeth’s Legal Manuscript Collection” is on now at Lambeth Palace Library. Although generally closed to the public, you can view the exhibition on Open Days; the next one is 2 August.

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