2023 ASLH Pre-Conference Symposium. Open to the UPenn Community.

Organizers: Jennifer Jahner (Caltech) and Ada Kuskowski (Penn)


This symposium on “Forms and Borders of Medieval Law” brings together scholars of medieval legal cultures to discuss innovative work happening across disciplines, regions, and languages that might not otherwise appear in conjunction. Through this conversation, we hope to highlight a medieval law that—rather than being simply traditionalist or inward looking—was deeply pluralist, variegated, expansive, and innovative.

Our focus on forms and borders signals our interest in examining the complexity and diversity of medieval legal structures and practices. Medieval legal cultures stand foundational to modern law, but they cannot be fully captured by examining the statutes or caselaw of important courts, nor do they tend to reside within the boundaries of the contemporary nation-state. We have invited scholars who are working across geographical borders, as well as across the temporal and disciplinary borders that separate medieval law from later jurisprudence and legal history from literature, art history, and adjacent fields. By gathering scholars together to discuss premodern law expansively and comparatively, we hope to redraw borders within our own field as well as between medieval law and its later counterparts.

We begin the symposium with the notion of form because, while text is obviously foundational to law, we cannot understand medieval legal culture without understanding how that text was packaged. Our first three panels are thus devoted to image, material, and text. Manuscript illuminations reveal a visual program that accompanied text and acted as graphic commentary. These images do not appear in our critical editions, and they are normally studied in the field of art history or codicology, and yet they provide a unique view on to how the text of law was interpreted. The material quality of law extended beyond its images. It inflected, for instance, individual hand-written charters recording individual transactions, some with seals of wax affixed to signify ideas of authenticity and authority. Yet law also gave material things meaning: it created categories of ‘mine’ and ‘yours’, of land or rights of passage, and then these ‘things,’ invented by law, could in turn then have a determinative effect on humans, too. Text, of course, is foundational to law and a panel will be devoted to new approaches to medieval texts as well. Beyond this, law also exists as a mode of interaction between cultures and communities, the subject of our panel ‘Beyond Borders.’ We will end with a lightening round bringing together different ways of speaking of law across multiple legal cultures and perspectives.

The aim of this symposium is to bring together scholars who work on medieval legal culture but do so in different ways and may not often have an opportunity to speak to each other. In terms of discipline, we have invited scholars of art, literature, history, and law. We have invited scholars of both secular and religious law with expertise in the traditions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. In terms of geography, our invitees range from north and eastern Europe to north Africa. The benefit for participants and attendees, we hope, is an opportunity to see various subjects and approaches in broader context in order to illuminate the difference modalities and valences of not only of medieval law but also of legal culture generally.