Headshot of Alice Rio

Alice Rio

Rostovtzeff Lecture Series: As If: Fiction, Make-Believe, and the Legal World of Early Medieval Francia, 5th-9th Centuries AD

Lecture I: What Was Legal about Early Medieval Legal Culture?

Alice Rio

King's College London

The Rostovtzeff Lectures are supported in part by a generous endowment fund given by Roger and Whitney Bagnall.

Alice Rio is Professor of Medieval History at King’s College London. She is the author of Legal Practice and the Written Word in the Early Middle Ages: Frankish Formulae, c. 500-1000 (Cambridge, 2009) and Slavery After Rome, 500-1100 (Oxford, 2017), and has published on various aspects of early medieval law and social life.

Early medieval Francia was a world filled with law; yet profound doubts as to the reach and relevance of law to social life have made this plentiful evidence tricky to assess. These lectures attempt to recast the problem by arguing that the reason these things don’t add up now is because they did not add up then. Legal activity was driven by the need to convert hard-to-solve real-life conflicts into legal problems. This process of translation allowed the deployment of often highly fictionalized representations both of legal processes themselves and of society more widely. While these representations needed to be basically plausible, the absence of any homogenizing forces encouraging consistency meant they could take quite different yet valid forms from one case to the next, which is why examples from either law or legal practice can paint such radically different pictures of both authority and society – and why these pictures in turn are so often contradicted by other evidence. Looking at things in this way can help to see the gap between law and practice no longer in terms of a barrier which law consistently failed to clear, but as a busy and fruitful zone, whose potential contemporaries exploited creatively.

This lecture sets up the basic framework for the series, and its broad line of argument. Most of the existing historiography tends to assume that the bigger the gap between written norms and legal practice, the more irrelevant the norms must have been. Such gaps, however, could be productive in their own right. Once law is understood as a starting-point for the construction of scenarios, rather than dictating outcomes, one can start to see why the most useful laws might not necessarily always have been the ones that came closest to the practical solutions eventually reached. The process of reinventing the social world as a set of knowable legal objects allowed for creative misconstruing, which intervened in different ways in both norm and practice.

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