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The Tree and the Rod: Jurisdiction in Late-Medieval England

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Publication details

JournalPast and Present
DateAccepted/In press - 2 Aug 2017
DatePublished (current) - 3 Nov 2017
Issue number1
Number of pages39
Pages (from-to)13-51
Original languageEnglish


As more rights were accumulated by different institutions, so it became more difficult to satisfactorily reconcle them; and moreover, the expanding political public of the fifteenth century had more opportunities to intervene, and disrupt the successful communication of jurisdictional authority. The model of jurisdiction as a process of interpretation and communication can thus help to explain the more general proliferation of jurisdictional disputes in later medieval England, as well as the complex and often contested ways in which institutions attempted to exercise their authority. Through an exploration of jurisdictional disputes at Dunwich that stretched from the 1380s to the 1460s, this article sets out to provide a more compelling explanation of late-medieval jurisdiction. At Dunwich, conflict was precipitated by massive environmental change, as the town's harbour silted up, 'moved' northwards into another jurisdiction, and then later overflowed. This began a process in which jurisdiction - constituted in the relationship between authority, community, and the physical landsacpe - unravelled, flaring into a long dispute. Through a detailed examination of the vernacular documentation produced during the disputes at Dunwich, a new model of jurisdiction is proposed. Rather than seeing late-medieval jurisdictions as static entities formed around particular communities or territories, this article argues that jurisdiction was an ongoing process of interpreting and communicating authority. It was an interpretative act insofar as accumulated legal privileges had to be textually reconciled with one another; it was communicative insofar as these projections of authority had to be imparted to a wide audience.

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© The Past and Present Society,Oxford,2017. This is an author-produced version of the published paper. Uploaded in accordance with the publisher’s self-archiving policy. Further copying may not be permitted; contact the publisher for details.

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