Voices of Law: Law and Language


Continuing the round-up of activities and events for the Voices of Law: Language, Text and Practice project for 2015-16, we thought we would give you a quick look at the forthcoming publications. Voices of Law are working on our first volume, Law and Language, based on the very first Colloquium held in Copenhagen, sponsored by the Carlsberg Foundation, back in 2015.


This will not be the only publication of the Voices of Law project. We hope to get the second volume, based on the Law and Ritual conference, underway as well. In the meantime, see our Bibliography Page for selected publications on the topics of language, law and medieval legal history that may be of interest, as well as a list of translation and transcription guides and handbooks. It is being updated, so do leave us suggestions in the comments on the Bibliography Page, DM us on Twitter, or Message us on Facebook.


Why Law and Language in the Middle Ages?  


All communities generate their own legal cultures, and in all historical contexts law uses language at every level on which it operates. Even when explicit rules are or remain identical across time and space, they are not necessarily reflected by the same legal practices, because they are produced, interpreted and applied according to different social concepts and experiences. It was in the translation, performance and application of law and juridical discourse that the encounter and negotiation between legal culture and the cultures of society at large took place in the medieval period. Legal language created by translation and interpretation inevitably affected not only how medieval people represented themselves in public, in order to take advantage of perceived norms or to present arguments of moral or political legitimacy, but also how such images have been transmitted to posterity. Observing the transformation of language and law through these encounters over a long period and across a wide geographical area is one of the best ways to track key factors governing the lives of the medieval people we study.


Law is a technical subject with a specialised vocabulary defining practices, procedures, and terms that are often tricky to interpret and translate, whether into medieval or modern languages. Indeed, histories of law, texts and legal practice across the medieval west have an intricate web of connections and relationships that are well attested in contemporary documentary sources but rarely explored by researchers because of boundaries created by languages and scholarly traditions. The last decade has seen a great range of scholarship devoted to the translation of medieval law into modern English and its interpretation, which has shed valuable light on the transmission of texts and manuscripts and legal culture. It has, furthermore, reduced the obstacles posed by highly technical and specialised non-English editions. Nonetheless, most research projects that have developed this new material have adhered closely to national and/or disciplinary boundaries and few of the published outputs from these projects have specifically dealt with the topic of law and language in a wider comparative perspective.


Purpose of the Edited Collection – Law and Language Volume


This collection of edited papers aims to form new understandings from a transnational experience and perspective, with the authors having been asked to specifically highlight issues of wider interest. It will do so by focusing on four specific aspects of law and language: the creation of vernacular law; change, innovation and interaction across legal languages; the translation and interpretation of law; and the language of legal practice. Each aspect highlights cross-cultural connections and covers areas of exceptional significance for the study of law, language and legal practice in Western Europe in the period c. 600-c.1600. The collection raises, on the one hand, methodological questions about how historians can approach legal languages, and on the other, raises theoretical questions about how to conceptualise the relationship between law and language within a Europe marked by multiple – sometimes conflicting, sometimes cooperating – legal systems.


In short, Law and Language in the Middle Ages deals with the relationship between law and legal practice from the linguistic perspective, exploring topics such as similarities/dissimilarities in terminology and practice, the connection between Latin and vernacular in legal texts, the cultural contexts in which legal translation occurred, and the adoption and application of legal language in other domains.


Meet the Editors


Dr Helle Vogt, Faculty of Law, University of Copenhagen



Dr Jenny Benham, Lecturer in History, Cardiff University


Dr Matthew McHaffie, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow, Kings College London  


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