Photo of Professor Anthony Musson

Professor Anthony Musson

Professor of Legal History

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01392 723362

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Professor Anthony Musson is Professor of Legal History and a Barrister of the Middle Temple. He gained an LL.M from Lancaster University and his doctorate from King's College Cambridge, where he was also an undergraduate. Reflecting the interdisciplinary nature of his research, he is a Fellow and Council member of the Royal Historical Society and was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 2012. He was a Research Associate of the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of York (1996-8) and a Visiting Senior Research Fellow of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, School of Advanced Studies, University of London (2003-6). He is co-director of the Bracton Centre for Legal History Research.

Anthony has published extensively in the field of medieval legal history and legal culture and in his work on legal iconography in particular has developed both interdisciplinary and comparative approaches. His major funded projects have examined visual representations of law and justice in the art and architecture of medieval Europe (British Academy) and the role of Lawyers in Society, 1258-1558 (ESRC). His latest project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, examines the origins and jurisdiction of the Medieval Court of Chivalry. He is also involved with several collaborative projects notably on 'Books of Law: The Transmission of Western Legal Culture' (jointly led with scholars from Lille, Ghent and Helsinki), funded by a special collaborative projects grant from the CNRS, and on 'Jurisdictional Complexity in Europe, 1500-1900', led by scholars from Ghent and Limerick and funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation.

His expertise on the administration of criminal justice in medieval England, especially the tensions created by criminal gangs and outlaws has been showcased in BBC programmes such as The Long View (Radio 4) and the Emmy award-winning Terry Jones Medieval Lives (BBC 2/The History Channel). He has sought to promote public understanding of the private lives of medieval and Tudor lawyers through illustrated lectures to professional and cultural groups (including the Devon and Somerset Law Society, the Devon Historical Society, the University of the Third Age and the Richard III Society of Devon and Cornwall) and has worked with actors from the Elysium Theatre Company as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company (Open Stage) scheme's project, assisting their understanding of their characters in relation to the constitutional and legal issues in Shakespeare's historical plays, which led to 'The Wars of the Roses' performed at Buckfast Abbey in 2012. As part of the Magna Carta 800 Celebrations he has been commissioned by the Magna Carta Trust (in collaboration with the American Bar Association and the International Bar Association) to contribute to a commemorative volume: Magna Carta: The Foundation of Freedom, 1215-2015.

Supervisor to postgraduate students in Legal History, Medieval History and Criminal Law.
 

Research group links

Research interests

Interdisciplinary research in the field of medieval legal history and legal culture

  • History of Criminal Justice
  • Visual Representations of Law and Justice
  • The Legal Profession
  • Law and Governance in Medieval Europe 

The main thrust of my work to date has been in the field of the administration of criminal justice (in charting the rise of the justices of the peace and assize circuits) and the evolution of English justice in its formative period. Recent research has pioneered a contextual approach to medieval legal culture and investigated expectations, perceptions and attitudes towards the law. It has also sought to breakdown erstwhile perceptual and conceptual boundaries that have dogged historical interpretation. My approach has generally been to try and seek answers to both familiar and previously unasked questions by utilising a wide variety of source material or by placing them in a different or more holistic context.

I am also interested in the culture of the visual and for the past few years have been analysing legal iconography in order to see what artistic expression and visual stimuli can tell us about the nature and extent of notions of power, authority, jurisdiction, fairness and due process. In so doing I am aiming to recapture (in as far as is possible) the experience not just of those closely associated with the judicial system, but ordinary people of differing rank and status and with regard not only to royal justice and the ambit of the English common law, but also the impact of canon law, Roman civil law and the various manifestations of customary law. In particular I have been examining the ideological and theological context in which visual representations of law and justice operated during the late medieval period (drawing upon the various literary genres and ranges of images contained in illuminated manuscripts) and assessing their impact in legal and political terms when viewed historically.

My research focus has been on a two-year project awarded £80,640 from the ESRC examining 'Lawyers in Society 1258-1558': the private lives of medieval and early Tudor lawyers and their role in English society.

LAWYERS IN SOCIETY

Employing an interdisciplinary approach, this study re-interprets the role of the legal profession in medieval and Tudor England. By examining the domestic lives of lawyers, their social world, ethos and the interplay between professional and private networks, it provides a profounder, more holistic analysis than hitherto available.

Examining not just individuals or even single families over time, but generations of lawyers across three centuries, it demonstrates how education and study of the law provided a social dynamic that enabled class barriers to be transcended. Those born illegitimate or who had little or no prospects were, as a result of their legal know-how, able to achieve high professional and social status. Successful men founded legal dynasties, but their blood-lines were not immortal: impotence, infant mortality, and heirs’ premature death brought extinction.

Acceptance within local society emerged through marriage, friendship, joint-service within an affinity, or by engagement as executor or feoffee. Although lawyers integrated by securing advantageous marriages to young heiresses or influential rich widows, a proportion preferred to marry their own kind. Female relations could enhance (or undermine) lawyers’ reputations and were vital in ensuring testamentary wishes were carried out. Cliques of lawyers, living within a close geographical radius, suggest the profession had a strong sense of identity and community irrespective of any social blurring. The collected biographical information on 1000 lawyers has facilitated an impression of landholding and the distribution of lawyers within specific towns and regions on a more national scale.

Lawyers upset the equilibrium of local society because they benefited from gifts of forfeited land, accumulated property through their purchasing ability, profited from money-lending and utilised inside knowledge about particular situations and personal circumstances, often to the detriment of neighbours. While many lawyers were prosperous, some over-reached themselves financially, succumbing to indebtedness and penury. Others through sharp practice earned a reputation for untrustworthiness, lost favour and similarly ended life in poverty.

Contrary to popular opinion, lawyers were not without conscience and engaged in significant acts of charity. Evidence of their public philanthropy still survives today in the churches they re-edified, the schools and colleges they endowed and in the hospitals and almshouses they founded. For some, generosity stemmed from exceptional Christian piety that went beyond conventional religious sentiments. Some post-Reformation lawyers were prepared to die for their faith (whether protestant or catholic), while others trimmed their beliefs accordingly to avoid persecution. Monuments to lawyers (attired variously in legal robes, civilian clothes and even armour) prove that their public image and legacy to posterity mattered to them. Indeed, the various visual media play a significant role in revealing their material world and their own self-representation.

The project has shown how the professional and private lives of lawyers can never be wholly separated, that they themselves had multiple identities, and that in whatever era, their life-style, relationships and associations colour attitudes towards the law. As a consequence of analysing their relationship to society (as a profession) and their own private lives and personal associations within it, it is possible to form a contextualised, balanced view of the criticisms levelled against lawyers.