Illuminated Manuscripts - ILLUSTRATED LAWS

ILLUSTRATED LAWS (Illustration) History Social Studies Visual Arts World History Law and Politics Philosophy Medieval Times

This image depicts a page from the Fordwich Custumal (dealing with forms of very harsh punishment—such as drowning in a well—for individuals found guilty of certain crimes).  Among other things, the “goods of the guilty party are to be forfeited...”  This image depicts the type of illustrated manuscript which was used for secular purposes (i.e. the laws of England) during medieval times.  Click on the image for a much-better view.


Today, non-lawyers (and even some professionals) who research the law, are quickly bored by endless pages of uninterrupted text. Rarely are pictures, or illustrations of any kind, found in law books.

Such was not always the case. Even books of the Common Law (the Liber Albus, or, "White Book") of London (from early15th century England) contain some color and marginal imagery.

The following samples present additional legal texts, and books of statutes, which employ more than words to make their points.

  • Charles IV issued a constitution (called the Golden Bull of 1356) to codify the rights of German princes. His son, Emperor Wenceslas, commissioned a manuscript depicting the opening of an official copy of that law. Centuries later, historian Lord Bryce noted that the Golden Bull "codified anarchy and called it a constitution." Located at the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna.

  • An illustration from Grand Coutumier de Normandie (1480) portrays a court bailiff and several knights visiting a sick room - likely checking out whether the defendant was really too ill to appear in court!

  • Also from the second half of the 15th century, we see a page (in French with Latin titles) of an English Nova Statuta (New Statute) reflecting the end of 9 Henry V and the start of 1 Henry VI. (Bodleian Library, Oxford)

  • Unlike the unadorned draft, and final version, of America’s Declaration of Independence, Great Britain’s Magna Carta (the Great Charter) of 1215 is a work of art as well as a grantor of rights. Even when this fundamental law appears in medieval books of English Statutes, it (like other pages) is decorated.

  • On the other hand, France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man follows more closely the presentation of the American Declaration of Independence and George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights after which it was patterned.

This virtual trip back in time, to view miniatures, illuminations, and other magnificent treasures created in the Middle Ages, prompts some questions:

  • When future generations examine the books and ponder the archives we have created, what will our endless pages of typewritten (or computer-printed) text tell them about us?
  • What will our lack of printed (let alone handmade) drawings and illuminations in books convey about how people learned in the 20th/21st centuries?

What written treasures, in short, are we creating for future generations to study and admire?

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5190stories and lessons created

Original Release: Jul 01, 2001

Updated Last Revision: May 02, 2019

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