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Exploring the Curious Sources of Medieval Law: An Interview with Acclaimed Historian Robin Chapman Stacey

As my research has shown, lawbooks of this period could communicate ideas and opinions as well as information; they could convey outrage and resentment as well as the stability of custom.

Our challenge as scholars is to read in ways that allow us to fully get whatever jokes these authors might be telling.

Robin Chapman Stacey, Law and the Imagination in Medieval Wales

I first met Professor Robin Chapman Stacey, an acclaimed medieval historian, at the University of Washington in Seattle in May 2019. She had recently published a book about Wales of the thirteenth century, Law and the Imagination in Medieval Wales (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019). 

I told her I thought that law and imagination were contradictions. She briefly explained that she had found that literature, rituals, myth and other imaginative enterprises had influenced and shaped the law she examined at this far off time in Wales. I was hooked when she mentioned the bawdy humor, flights of whimsy, and even burlesque in this body of law. For her, the law then was actually a complex political fiction. 

I was intrigued by her remarkable book. It was apparent that Professor Stacey had spent years on this ambitious project that required painstaking translating from medieval Welsh and Latin, as well as rigorous exploration of the work of other scholars—and a perceptive and knowing sense of humor. 

In Law and the Imagination in Medieval Wales, Professor Stacey examines the literary and political aspects of the Welsh lawbooks, and argues that the laws are best read not as objective records of native custom but, rather, as important and often humorous commentaries on the politics of thirteenth-century Wales, a nation facing challenges from within and without.

Professor Stacey finds political commentary and even bizarre comedy in the Welsh lawbooks, arguing that they addressed threats to native traditions posed by the encroaching English while attempting to assure stability in domestic concerns such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance, as well as deal with corruption, abuse and violence. Welsh law then also reflects a special concern for preserving male authority, evidence of discomfort with the participation of women in the economic and political affairs. Professor Stacey peppers her examination of the old lawbooks with examples of medieval Welsh irreverence, bawdiness, wit, and sexual humor as she breathes life into the dry bones of this law of yore.

Robin Chapman Stacey is a Professor of History at the University of Washington. She teaches medieval history, and her academic focus is Ireland, Wales, and England from the Iron Age through the thirteenth century. In addition to her appointment in History, she is an Adjunct Professor in the Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies Department. Her work with students has been honored with the UW Distinguished Teaching Award. She has graduate degrees from Yale and Oxford, and has done intensive academic study in medieval Welsh and Irish languages. 

Professor Stacey’s other books include The Road to Judgment: From Custom to Court in Medieval Ireland and Wales (1994), on the Irish and Welsh institution of personal suretyship in the high middle ages; and Dark Speech: The Performance of Law in Early Ireland (2007), on the role played by speech and performance in ensuring social order in early medieval Ireland. Her books have received prizes from the Medieval Academy of America, the American Conference for Irish Studies, and the Board of Celtic Studies of the University of Wales. She has also written numerous articles on subjects pertaining to medieval Ireland, Wales, and England, including divorce, law and memory, riddles, and legal education. 

Professor Stacey’s research has been supported by grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, All Souls College Oxford, and the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. She is a Past President of the Celtic Studies Association of North America, and has served on the Board of Directors of the American Society for Legal History, and was a past Councilor and Executive Board member of the Medieval Academy of America. 

Professor Stacey graciously responded by email to my barrage of questions about her career and her new book. 

Robin Lindley: Thank you Professor Stacey for agreeing to respond to some questions on your work as a historian and your new book, Law and the Imagination in Medieval Wales. Before getting to your book, could you mention how and why you decided to study history?

Professor Robin Chapman Stacey: I have always been fascinated by the past, but until I went to college, I was planning to be an archaeologist.  In fact, I taught myself Egyptian hieroglyphics in middle school—only to realize once the deed was done that I wasn’t going to get very far knowing the script if I didn’t also know the language!   

The switch from archaeology to history, however, was the direct result of my taking a mind-numbingly dull class in anthropology at the University of Colorado followed a year later by a mind-blowingly stupendous class in history on the French Revolution at Colorado College.  The teacher I had for French Revolution, Professor Susan Ashley, was the best undergraduate teacher I ever had:  one of those instructors who could make everything you did for class matter so intensely that you stopped paying attention to what was actually going on in your day-to-day life.  After her class, the die was cast--I switched to history and never looked back.  

Ironically, of course, I now make use of both archaeology and anthropology in my historical work, whereas the closest I get to the French Revolution is the occasional novel!

Robin Lindley: And how did you decide to specialize in medieval history with an emphasis on Wales, Ireland and England? 

Professor Robin Chapman Stacey:  I had a class on medieval English history at Colorado College in which we were asked to write a short paper on the Easter controversy as depicted in Bede.  I was so intrigued by the manner in which Anglo-Saxon, British, and Irish met and mingled in the multi-cultural world of the north that I decided later to write my senior Honors thesis on a related topic. Naively, I thought this would be a great thing to study in graduate school—I didn’t even know enough about what I was doing when applying for schools to realize that most graduate programs wouldn’t have someone teaching that period of history.  

Happily, while there were no Celtic specialists in sight at Yale, where I went (Harvard is the premier Celtic program in the country), I did have the good fortune to work with two very supportive (though decisively non-Celtic) medievalists, Professors John Boswell and Jaroslav Pelikan, who did everything they could to promote my interest in what seemed to them the most obscure of subjects.  Then, in my second year, Professor Warren Cowgill, an eminent Indo-European linguist, decided to offer a course in Old Irish, which I jumped at the chance to take. Honestly, I was terrible at it: I had never even had a course in linguistics before, and Old Irish is an incredibly complex language.  However, I was also stubborn, wouldn’t quit, and was fortunate enough to win a Fulbright to study Irish at Oxford, where I met my mentor and now good friend, Professor Thomas Charles-Edwards.  He was both a world expert in Irish and Welsh law and the nicest and most patient man in the universe; without his help, I might never have finished my degree.   

Robin Lindley: You have a gift for writing that breathes life into the dry bones of the law. How did you also come to focus on law in your work as a historian? Did you ever consider law school and working as a lawyer?

Professor Robin Chapman Stacey:  Thank you! I enjoy writing, at least when I don’t hate it, if you know what I mean.  

In terms of law:  well, I am intellectually interested in legal issues and always have been.  However, the fact that law emerged as my professional focus was the result of an entirely random event:  when I went in to consult Professor Cowgill about a paper topic for Old Irish, he pulled a legal text down off the shelf and told me to work on it.  That text, Berrad Airechta, a tract on personal suretyship, ended up being the basis for both my Oxford and Yale theses.  It was probably also my experience with that text that caused Professor Charles-Edwards to agree to work with me later at Oxford.  Had he chosen a literary rather than a legal text, my career might have been altogether different.

Robin Lindley: Your background is fascinating. You’ve studied Welsh and other languages and translated from documents that are hundreds of years old. I read that you had a special tutor at Oxford in Welsh. How would you describe your interest in learning often obscure languages and your facility with languages other than modern English?

Professor Robin Chapman Stacey:   Well, I had done some French, Latin, and German in high school, and until I went to graduate school and studied Old Irish, I had thought of myself as being fairly decent at learning languages.  In fact, my graduate degree was actually in Medieval Studies rather than in History, because I had initially thought when applying that I would like to work across the disciplines of history, language, and literature.  A year of Old Irish cured me of any illusions I might have had about my facility with languages (!), though it also persuaded me that I needed them if I was to do serious historical work, and that is why I applied for the Fulbright.  

I hadn’t intended to tackle Welsh until I went to Oxford and found myself on the receiving end of this rather intimidating question: “You do know French, Latin, German, Anglo-Saxon, Irish, and Welsh, don’t you?”  (For the record, my tutor now claims this account to be entirely apocryphal, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!)  Two weeks later, I had started Welsh and found myself completely wasting the time of the highly eminent Welsh professor D. Ellis Evans, who sat there patiently as I went painfully, word by word, through one of the easiest texts in the medieval language.  Then came a summer course in Modern Welsh, and now I work more with medieval Welsh and Irish than I do with Latin.

Robin Lindley: It seems you have a long-term interest in the role of imagination in the politics and culture of the societies you study. Did your new book on Wales somehow grow from your previous research on performance and law in early Ireland in your book Dark Speech?

Professor Robin Chapman Stacey: That is a fascinating question, and I’m not sure I know the answer to it.  My M.Litt. thesis at Oxford was fairly straight-forward legal history.  However, as I worked to turn that into a book, I became more and more interested in questions like the social context of the law, the nature of its authority, and its relationship to other genres and ways of thinking in the period.   

In my subsequent work, I found myself returning more and more to the connections between law and language, on the one hand, and law and literature on the other.  Dark Speech is focused very much on the former topic, the main issue being the ways in which the use of heightened language in performance lent authority to particular legal rituals or specialists.  Law and the Imagination, by contrast, focuses on the latter, exploring the ways in which literary themes and tropes were used by the medieval Welsh jurists to comment on contemporary political events. I suppose one could say that imagination ties both of these projects together, and in that sense one may have led to the other.

Robin Lindley: How do you see the historical problem you address in your new book on medieval Wales?

Professor Robin Chapman Stacey:  The Welsh lawbooks are the most extensive body of prose literature extant from medieval Wales.  They are preserved in approximately 40 manuscripts, both in Welsh and in Latin, and were clearly extremely important to the people who wrote and made use of them.  One can read them as law is traditionally read, as more or less straight-forward (if stylized) accounts of legal practice.  Reading them in this way gives us a sense of how Welsh law worked and developed over time.  However, these lawbooks were written in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the last two centuries of Welsh independence and a time of rapid internal change and heightened external conflict with England.  It is my belief that these texts reflect the period in which they were composed in very direct ways, and that reading them in the way we read literature, with close attention to theme and symbolic detail, reveals them to be a sophisticated, opinionated, occasionally even humorous commentary on contemporary political events. 

Robin Lindley: When I first saw your book, I thought that the concepts of law and imagination were absolutely contradictory. How do you respond to that sense in light of your findings on the law in medieval Wales?

Professor Robin Chapman Stacey:  We are so accustomed to seeing historical legal texts in the light of our own experience—no one nowadays would likely turn to a statute book for fun!—that we often make presumptions about lawbooks written in the past, and those presumptions govern how we read them.  

What I am arguing in this book is that at least with respect to this particular body of sources, we need to let go of our expectations and read these texts within their own historical context.  The lawbooks of medieval Wales were not legislative in nature, and their authors had extensive family connections with poets, storytellers, and other more overtly literary artists.  There is a rich body of political poetry extant from this period, as well as a number of fabulous tales and a considerable corpus of erotic verse.  The lawbook authors are aware of all of these and, I argue, deploy many of the same tropes and symbols in their own work.   If we abandon the idea that law is always factual and instead approach these lawbooks in the way we might a tale, I think we will see that these texts also are meant to be read on more than one level.

Robin Lindley: Your work is deeply researched and thoughtful. What are the some of the challenges and limitations regarding sources in the kind of work you do?

Professor Robin Chapman Stacey:  The biggest general challenge was realizing what I was arguing and deciding how far I was willing to take it, on which you see further below.  The biggest source challenge was that every tractate within the lawbooks is different from the others in its nature and development; additionally, many lawbook manuscript versions also differ significantly from one another.  This made it challenging to draw general conclusions while respecting also the fact that what is true of one tractate or manuscript might not be true of another.

Robin Lindley: How did your book evolve from your initial conception to the final product?

Professor Robin Chapman Stacey:  Honestly, this was one of those books that crept up on me article by article until I realized that everything I was writing about Welsh law was tending to go in the same direction and ought actually to be a book. 

The very first article I wrote on the subject was an assignment given to me by the editors of a volume on the court tractate to write about the king, queen, and royal heir.  I was asked—a daunting invitation for a relatively young scholar!--to write on these figures because all the other contributors (infinitely more experienced and venerable than myself) had already written on the subject.  At first, I felt stymied and intimidated, but then I began to study these sections carefully and to realize that what I had expected to see was not at all what I was finding.  I was particularly taken by the manner in which the passages I had been assigned seemed intentionally to be creating an image of space within the court that was more politicized than real.  When I later found myself writing about divorce, I was struck again by the “unreality” of what was being described, and by the political subtext that seemed to me to be emerging from what purported to be a description of procedure.  Other chapters followed, and the book progressed from there.

Robin Lindley: You write about Wales in the thirteenth century. What was Wales like then? Was it a loose group of principalities bound by a common language? 

Professor Robin Chapman Stacey: The unity of Wales in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was vested primarily in language, culture, law, and a shared mythology. Various Welsh rulers, usually but not always from the northern province of Gwynedd, had made attempts over the centuries to exert political control over the other regions of Wales. However, these attempts were sometimes successful and sometimes not, and they never lasted, not least because Welsh lords from other regions often resisted Gwynedd’s attempts to extend its rule. Additionally, the pressures posed by the presence of Marcher lords and by the aggression of the English crown were a constant obstacle to native unification. 

Native law was an important factor in defining Welsh identity in the period, but it was already the case that individual Welshmen—and even some Welsh rulers—were beginning to adopt Common Law ideas and procedures even before the final conquest of Wales by Edward I in 1282-1283. The Statute of Rhuddlan, enacted in 1284, established the basis for English rule of the Principality up till 1536, permitting some aspects of native law to continue, but introducing Common Law procedures in other areas.

Robin Lindley: You also write about a period when the Wales was eventually conquered by Britain. How did Welsh law respond to English power and Welsh nationalist concerns?  

Professor Robin Chapman Stacey: My argument is that the Welsh lawbooks speak directly to the need for political unity in face of external aggression and to the importance of native law as a marker of Welsh identity.  They tackle some of the criticisms commonly made against the Welsh in the period, such as sexual immorality and an inordinate penchant for violence.  They also voice, albeit obliquely, criticisms of native rulers for their abandonment of native customs and increasingly intrusive forms of governance.

Robin Lindley: You see the law as a form of political literature where even the ridiculous can have meaning. Could you give a couple of examples of where you found this quality in law?

Professor Robin Chapman Stacey:  My favorite examples are the “burlesques”—ridiculous and even obscene rituals described by the jurists as taking place in the court or localities.  For example, one of the things the authors of the lawbooks were concerned about was the degree to which native Welsh rulers were enlarging their jurisdiction by intruding on the traditional prerogatives of the uchelwyr, “noble” or “free” classes from which the lawbook authors came.  The manner in which they described the royal officers taking part in this process was intended (I think) to convey their contempt for them.  The royal sergeant or tax collector, for example, is depicted in the lawbooks as wearing ridiculously short clothing with boots better suited to a child than to a full-grown man; additionally, he is wrongly dressed for the season, wears his underwear on the outside, and goes about trying to do his dirty business holding a short (and flaccid) spear in front of him in a gesture that certainly looks sexual to me in the manuscript illustration we have of it.  Similarly, the judge is said to sleep at night on the pillow the king sits on during the day (imagine the odors here, not to mention the posterior as a source of royal justice); and the porter (who guards the entrances and exits to the court) is imagined as receiving all the bovine rectums from the court as his due.  If this isn’t satire, then I don’t know what is!  

Also held up for ridicule are women and men who violate native Welsh sexual strictures by having sex without marrying.  Women would normally get property as part of an authorized marital arrangement.  What happens in one passage is that the greased tail of a steer is thrust through the keyhole of a house.  The woman is on the inside; the man is on the outside with two of his friends urging on the steer with whips.  If she can hold on to the tail, she can keep the animal; if she can’t, she gets nothing.  If one imagines the see-sawing motion back and forth, the grease coming off on her hand, and the two “helpers” stirring on the excited animal…well, the sexual imagery is pretty hard to avoid.  We don’t know whether this was an actual ritual in the community; however, it functions in the lawbook as a response to the perceived immorality of the Welsh by showing that they do indeed punish bad behavior and uphold marriage.

Robin Lindley: The Welsh distinguished court and country in law. Did this mean that there was one law for royalty and elites at court and another law for workers and farmers in the country? Why was this distinction significant?   

Professor Robin Chapman Stacey:  The basic pattern of the lawbook divides Wales into court and country.  The court is where the prince and his entourage and servants live, and the country is all the rest.  The intent is not so much to suggest that each live by different laws, as to highlight the differing spheres of jurisdiction.  The tractate on the court really just describes the different royal officers and their duties and prerogatives.  The tractates on the country are focused on different legal subjects and procedures affecting Welshmen as a whole:  suretyship, land law, marriage, animal law, and the like. Part of the idea here is, I think, to create a sense of spatial politics moving outwards from the royal court to encompass the settled and wild parts of the gwlad, “kingdom.”  Opposed to this (at least in one redaction) is the gorwlad, the lands outside of gwlad, which are portrayed as regions of danger and predation.  This is part of how the jurists highlight the need for political unity in the face of external threat.  

Robin Lindley: What are some ways the Welsh law reflected past stories, lore, myth, and such?  

Professor Robin Chapman Stacey: There are certain myths reflected in the lawbooks, again with political intent.  Perhaps the most obvious of them is the harkening back to a (mythical and politically motivated rather than historical) time before the coming of the English when Britain was ruled by a Welsh-speaking king residing in London.  But another, I think, is the image of Wales itself created in these lawbooks:  as timeless, set in the reign of no particular king and thus of them all, and enduringly native.  It says something important about these sources, I think, that some of the most obvious facts of political life in thirteenth-century Wales—such as the March and Marcher lords--aren’t even mentioned.

Robin Lindley: It seems law always has a role in assuring stability. Under Welsh law, wasn’t there a special interest in limiting any social mobility and keeping people in their place?   

Professor Robin Chapman Stacey: Yes, I think you would find that in any body of medieval law to some extent.  But because these texts are written by uchelwyr, this free or noble class, the focus is mainly on protecting themselves from unwarranted and untraditional royal demands, and on preserving their own distinctiveness as a class from economic pressures fragmenting their wealth and pushing them downwards.

Robin Lindley: You stress “bodies” in the law. How did the law see gender and class in terms of the bodies pertaining to law?

Professor Robin Chapman Stacey:  I think bodies and, particularly, the gendering of bodies, play an important role in the political commentary implicit in these tracts. One example would be the depiction of the sergeant mentioned earlier, where he is portrayed symbolically not only as ridiculous, but as simultaneously a child and a woman in the items he is given by the king.  In fact, I think the body itself is an important metaphor in these texts, with the prince being depicted as the only person fully in possession of an entire body, while his courtiers are represented by the body parts of the animals they receive as rewards for their service.  Each officer receives something appropriate for his office—the judge gets the tongues, the watchman gets the eyes, the doorkeeper the skins, etc.  It may be that we are supposed to take these rewards as serious; after all, animal body parts had real value in the middle ages. On the other hand, their symbolism is evident, and some of them (in my view) just have to have been invented by the jurists.  What was a porter to do with a pile of rectums, for example?  And what are we to make of the image of a watchman surrounded by a mound of eyes?

Robin Lindley: You mention that slaves were considered “no-bodies” under Welsh law. What did this mean in terms of the treatment of slaves?

Professor Robin Chapman Stacey: Given the way in which other ranks of person are represented in the lawbooks by body parts symbolic of their status and duties, it seems significant to me that slaves receive nothing themselves, and that their owners receive only the tools of their trade in compensation if the slave is killed.  They are, literally, “no-bodies” as far as the lawbooks are concerned.

Robin Lindley: The Welsh sense of humor was often ribald and sexual and that came through in some laws. How did this humor influence legal relationships such as marriage?

Professor Robin Chapman Stacey:  I don’t think we have any real way of knowing how humor played out in marriage.  However, I can see a mordant sort of humor in the divorce procedure described in these texts, where the divorcing parties divide up their goods one by one. Previous historical interpretations portrayed this process as practical in nature, as setting each party up to move on into a new life and new relationships.  However, when one looks at the items being separated, many of them are things that cannot function apart from one another—one party gets all the hens and only one cat to protect them, while the other gets all the cats and no hens, for example.  One party gets the sieve with large holes and the other the sieve with fine holes.  Moreover, several of these symbols are sexual and, I think, intended to be shaming and perhaps ruefully funny.  Not only are there lots of phallic symbols (validated as such by contemporary Welsh poetry), the top and bottom stones of the quern by which seed is ground go to different parties, and it is surely not coincidental that this provision comes right after one about the separation of the bedclothes.  What we have here, I think, is a symbolic “sermon” on the infertility and waste that result from divorce.

Robin Lindley: Many readers may be surprised that Welsh law permitted divorce and canon law did not prevail there in the thirteenth century. How would you describe the reality of divorce in Wales then? Although permitted in law, it seems divorce was regarded as a great human failure.   

Professor Robin Chapman Stacey:  Yes, I think that is exactly the point.  Welsh law did permit divorce, although the Welsh were severely criticized by the Church for this because divorce was not allowed under canon law.  My suspicion about the divorce “burlesque” is that it is a sign that attitudes to divorce were changing on this front even in native Wales, even though the practice had not yet been abolished.

Robin Lindley: Female virginity was prized in the law. Why was this status so significant?

Professor Robin Chapman Stacey:  I’m not sure how to explain why some societies value female virginity and some seem to care somewhat less about it.  For the Welsh, virginity was tied up in lordship, which might explain something of its importance.  Lords received monetary payments for the first sexual experiences of women under their jurisdiction; these payments are said to parallel in very direct ways the payments made to lords when men under their jurisdiction die.  My guess is that virginity was perceived as an asset for the lord:  both a duty that their female dependents owed them and a source of revenue and potential political connections.

Robin Lindley: Outsiders saw the Welsh as violent and bloodthirsty. What was the reality you found when you compare other societies of the period?

Professor Robin Chapman Stacey:  Most studies done of Welsh violence have found that the Welsh were no more or less bloodthirsty than others at this period. Indeed, at least one study has even argued that the Welsh learned some of their most gruesome practices from England! However, it was a common criticism of the Welsh, and I believe that many lawbook authors deliberately downplay violence in their work as a way of rebutting this accusation. 

Robin Lindley: In the Welsh law of homicide you discuss, murderers are less of a concern than those who abet or assist in murders. Why was that the focus of the law?   

Professor Robin Chapman Stacey:  Again, a fascinating question to which I wish I knew the answer!  Part of it likely reflects the fact that payments for abetment go to lords, and these sources are written in part to support good lordship.  Part of it also, I think, is the desire on the part of the lawbook authors to downplay the specter of actual violence.  They couldn’t just leave the abetments section out of their work, as all indications are that it was an old and traditional part of the lawbook pattern.  However, only certain manuscripts go on to describe actual violence:  most don’t, and I think that is deliberate.

Robin Lindley: Is there anything you’d like to add for readers about your work or your groundbreaking new book on law and imagination in Medieval Wales?

Professor Robin Chapman Stacey:  Merely my thanks to you for taking the time to ask about it!  Few people realize just how interesting and important these sources are.  The written Welsh legal tradition is extensive and, as I hope I have suggested above, wonderfully absorbing in its imagery and attention to symbolic detail.  And yet few medievalists are acquainted with these texts.  One of my hopes is that by tackling questions of interest to historians of other medieval regions, that might change.  

Robin Lindley: Thank you for your generosity and thoughtful comments Professor Stacey. And congratulations on your fascinating new book.  

Professor Robin Chapman Stacey: You’re welcome and thank you!