Telling Stories in Medieval English Courts: Whose Voices Do We Hear?
Lecture by Barbara Hanawalt
Given April 2006 at Ohio State University
Abstract: Economic, social, and cultural historians confront the problem of establishing narratives, evoking personal experiences, and trying to find broader patterns and trends out of the obscure records of various written court records. Sometimes, but not often, storytellers were literate. Often their testimony was given in English and translated into French, the language the judges used, and then written down in Latin, which was the language of the court. Could the victim or the accused understand the language of the court as they stood before the bar? How do we know about these people, speaking in their own vernacular language, but filtered through official Latin translations, formulas of testimony, questioning by inquisitors, and distortions of scribes charged with recording the information? It is the sense of solving mysteries that keeps researchers going back to archives hoping to find some insight into daily life. We want to know people’s attitudes toward personal affront or calumny, loss of life and property, and love. Could some emotional statement slip through the official record and give us, in the twenty-first century, some voice of the past? We also want to know who was listening at the time to these people who tell their tales of woe, of folly, of good intentions or bad. These people had an audience to whom they told their tales. What was the audience to take away? In accidental deaths, perhaps a didactic lesson is learned about the dangers of certain activities. In the case of a rape, the warning might be to young girls about dangerous places or times of day. In murders trials, the story might be an exculpating one. The stories were told repeatedly among community members and were woven into the number of tales that circulated and provided entertainment, education, and oral histories. We will, in this hour, listen to some of their stories.