Law and Society in the Early Middle Ages - HI5105

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Module delivery information

Location Term Level1 Credits (ECTS)2 Current Convenor3 2020 to 2021
Spring 5 30 (15) DR E Roberts checkmark-circle


How common was trial by combat in medieval society? Why did individuals sometimes voluntarily enter slavery? What could a woman do if she wished to divorce her husband? These are the kinds of questions students will consider in this module on law and order in early medieval Europe. Legal texts are among the most voluminous sources to have survived from the early Middle Ages, providing fascinating perspectives on government and the reach of the state, dispute settlement, courts and trials, social relations, literacy, the influence of the Church and more. While the bulk of our material comes from Merovingian and Carolingian Francia, we shall also consider evidence from other regions, including the Byzantine world, Anglo-Saxon England and Visigothic Spain. Different types of legal records will be studied in order to learn how early medieval societies were regulated and how rulers attempted to govern their realms. By examining law, custom and justice in theory and in practice, students will gain an appreciation for the ideals of early medieval law and government, as well as the thornier realities of its operation in society at large.


This module appears in the following module collections.

Contact hours

This module will be taught through one 1-hour lecture and one 2-hour seminar each week, with the exception of Enhancement Week and one week that will be dedicated to coursework feedback.

Method of assessment

This module will be assessed by:

- Essay 1 (3,000 words) - 20%
- Essay 2 (3,000 words) - 20%
- Presentation (10 minutes) - 10%
- Seminar Participation - 10%
- Examination in the summer term (2 hours) - 40%

Indicative reading

Davies, W. and Fouracre, P., eds (1986). The Settlement of Disputes in Early Medieval Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Davies, W. and Fouracre, P., eds (1995). Property and Power in the Early Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lambert, T. (2017). Law and Order in Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
McKitterick, R. (1989). The Carolingians and the Written Word. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rio, A., ed. (2008). Law, Custom and Justice in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. London: KCL Centre for Hellenic Studies.
Rio, A. (2017). Slavery after Rome, 500–1100. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wormald, P. (1999). Legal Culture in the Early Medieval West: Law as Text, Image and Experience. London: Hambledon.

See the library reading list for this module (Canterbury)

Learning outcomes

The intended subject specific learning outcomes of this module are that, on completion of this module, students will be able to:

- Demonstrate knowledge and critical understanding of the operation of law, custom and justice in early medieval Europe and the relevance of these topics to the broader social and legal history of Europe.
- Evaluate critically the appropriateness of a range of methodological approaches to the study of legal history in order to combine them in an overall assessment of an early medieval society.
- Confidently articulate an understanding of the possibilities and limitations of different types of primary sources, and show how these influence historical analysis and interpretation.

The intended generic learning outcomes of this module are that, on completion of this module, students will be able to:

- Formulate robust historical arguments in writing that are supported by critical evaluation of primary and secondary sources.
- Clearly express information, arguments and analysis orally, thus demonstrating strong communication skills.
- Exercise personal responsibility and decision-making in the course of carrying out independent research and seeking out research materials.
- Demonstrate skills in conceptualisation, reflexivity, critical thought and epistemological awareness.


  1. Credit level 5. Intermediate level module usually taken in Stage 2 of an undergraduate degree.
  2. ECTS credits are recognised throughout the EU and allow you to transfer credit easily from one university to another.
  3. The named convenor is the convenor for the current academic session.
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