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Law and Consent in Medieval Britain


30 October 2020

Workshop organized by the German Historical Institute London in co-operation with the History of Parliament Trust
Conveners: Hannes Kleineke (History of Parliament Trust) and Stephan Bruhn (GHI London)
Venue: This is an online event that will take place via the Zoom video conferencing platform. Access details will be emailed to participants nearer to the event. Please click here to register for the workshop via Eventbrite.


Consent undeniably holds a key position in contemporary medieval studies. Yet despite its omnipresence, the concept can convey very different meanings in different historiographical traditions. German historians, for instance, have mostly focussed on the less formalized aspects of political communication and decision-making—so-called Spielregeln—using consent as a means to highlight the limits of statehood and rulership in the Early and High Middle Ages in particular. British medievalists, on the other hand, have paid more attention to the formation of political institutions and their formal role in government and law-making, putting consent, contrary to attitudes in German scholarship, at the very heart of the nascent state in the Middle Ages.

The reason for these different, even contradictory views lies in the underdetermined, often ambiguous use of the concept itself. Consent is seldom explained, let alone defined, as it seems to be self-explanatory. Yet on closer consideration, questions arise. Is there only one type of consent? For instance, does the term apply to all practices of collective decision-making? How can consent be achieved? Who needs to give his or her consent, and to what? Does it follow the principle of majority rule or is there a need for unanimity? Is consent a means to an end or can it also be an end in itself? Is it an essential prerequisite to action, or just a mere topos used to legitimize decisions already made by others, be it by a single ruler or a small elite?

The workshop will tackle these and other issues by focusing on the making and application of law in medieval Britain. It brings together medievalists from different periods (Early to Late Middle Ages) and research contexts (England and Germany) to reach a more nuanced understanding of consent. The case studies will come from a broad spectrum of topics, ranging from Anglo-Saxon synods to the medieval parliament.

Conference programme (PDF file)

Conference report (PDF file)