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Detective Fiction in the Archives: Court Records and the Uses of Law in Late Medieval England

Detective Fiction in the Archives: Court Records and the Uses of Law in Late Medieval England

Detective Fiction in the Archives: Court Records and the Uses of Law in Late Medieval England

By Shannon McSheffrey

History Workshop Journal, Vol.65:1 (2008)

Abstract: This article explores two issues. The first is a problem in legal and social history: how did late medieval Londoners make use of the legal and archival powers of governing authorities in order to negotiate their lives? The second is a problem in historical methodology: how can thinking about the archives as historical agents rather than as inert repositories of evidence refine the way we use historical documents? My method is to juxtapose the methods of the archival turn – borrowing from Derrida, Farge, Steedman, Burton, and Stoler – with ‘law in society’, an approach to legal history deriving ultimately from E.P. Thomson, which underscores the workings of law through social interaction. A legal-history lens of this kind is particularly suited to examining pre-modern archives, as most pre-modern archival documents are records of legal proceedings and transactions. Legal documents were not just inert and transparent accounts of a legal proceeding or act. Such documents were meant to do something, to be, at least potentially, performative, or they were created because they might later be called upon, either by the recording authorities or by the parties involved, to demonstrate that particular people did something in a particular way at a particular time and place. Accordingly the way documents were recorded was subject to the various interests of the parties involved and the recording authorities. At the same time, legal archives also include documents that recorded what someone thought should happen, hoped would happen, wanted to pretend had happened – and yet sometimes had not happened at all, or at least not as recorded in the document. In being archived. However, those aspirational documents in a sense become what happened.

These themes are teased out through a microhistorical examination of a late medieval English marriage case involving two Londoners named Joan Stokton Turnaunt and Richard Turnaunt. In the circumstances surrounding the Turnaunt case, someone manipulated the processes of law, using the authority and perceived truthfulness of the legal record – the power of the archive – to perpetrate a falsity. As historians, we pride ourselves on our empiricism: we derive our arguments from archival, textual, and material evidence. The epistemic problem for a discipline that relies on what can be documented, however, is that what is documentable is sometimes false, and indeed deliberately written and archived so as to deceive. Moreover, the possible scenarios for the Turnaunt marriage that we can derive from the surviving documents remind us that individuals sometimes acted in unpredictable or irrational ways. This creates further difficulties for us as historians, for we often depend upon our assumptions about rational strategies of social negotiation to make narrative connections between the scattered bits of evidence out of which we write our history. How can we account for the emotional and the irrational in our understanding of the past?


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