An Old Manuscript, A New Page
‘Summa de Legibus Normanniae’ goes digital
HLS Library Historical and Special Collections
Among the legal issues addressed in “Summa de Legibus” is the problem of too much snow. What happens if jurors assigned to a case about a piece of land can’t see the land that they are trying to make a judgment on? The law says … wait until the snow melts.
The HLS Library’s recent acquisition and digitization of “Summa de Legibus Normanniae” (Summary of the [Customary] Laws of Normandy) has the attention of legal history scholars, particularly HLS Professor Charles Donahue, author of “Law, Marriage, and Society in the Later Middle Ages: Arguments about Marriage in Five Courts.”
Duplication of the laws of Normandy was done by scribes. At times a whole roomful would copy words as they were dictated. At other times, a scribe would work alone to copy the text line by line. According to Donahue, the occasional skips and omissions in the ”Summa de Legibus” suggest that this manuscript was originally copied in the latter manner.
“I am interested in the process of development [of law] that is happening over the centuries in Normandy,” said Donahue, who hopes that the digitization of this important record of legal practice in feudal Normandy and Norman England will contribute to an understanding of the period for scholars all over the world.
Written in Latin, circa 1300, the manuscript describes customary law in Normandy in the 12th and 13th centuries. Its 127 vellum pages include regulations on marriage, land ownership, finance, trading, the crusades, trial by combat, military service and even a legal issue arising from too much snow.
It is one of 25 known copies of this manuscript, and text variations between copies and a wealth of marginal commentary raise their own intriguing questions. This is “a living text,” said Donahue. “The changes reflect what the law really was.”
According to Donahue, the manuscript promises to be especially valuable for the study of early English law. Though it was probably written in Normandy, marginal annotations by an English hand are evidence of the early appearance of “Summa de Legibus” in England. “Why would someone in England want a copy of a manuscript that described the custom of Normandy after Normandy had ceased to be a possession of the English crown?” said Donahue. “That is a puzzle, one of the many that are yet to be solved.”
View the digitized manuscript
“The text starts circulating, then people start making notes, adding and changing things. People in Normandy stayed pretty close to the original text and tended to put their notes in the margins,” said Donahue.
“Summa de Legibus” was translated into the French “Grand Coutumier de Normandie” sometime in the middle of the 13th century. The HLS Library owns the French text, which has also been digitized. (See it online.) Comparing the two versions gives researchers an opportunity to see how the laws changed.
The first part of the text deals with the relations between landholders and the duke, who was also the King of France. In an earlier copy of the manuscript, it appears the intent of the law was that knights and barons who held land were obliged to serve in the military or the “army” for 40 days a year. By comparing the manuscripts, Donahue found evidence that this eventually came to be understood as an obligation only to send money so that others could be hired to fight. “That’s the kind of thing that this text is good for,” said Donahue. Layers of text and commentary illuminate, over time, the decline of feudalism and changing feudal relations.