Civil Justice in Renaissance Scotland

The Origins of a Central Court


This book offers a fundamental reassessment of the origins of a central court in Scotland. It examines the early judicial role of Parliament, the development of “the Session” in the fifteenth century as a judicial sitting of the King’s Council, and its reconstitution as the College of Justice in 1532. Drawing on new archival research into jurisdictional change, litigation and dispute settlement, the book breaks with established interpretations and argues for the overriding significance of the foundation of the College of Justice as a supreme central court administering civil justice. This signalled a fundamental transformation in the medieval legal order of Scotland, reflecting a European pattern in which new courts of justice developed out of the jurisdiction of royal councils.

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Biographical Note

A.M. Godfrey, M.A., LL.B., Ph.D. is Lecturer in Scots Law at the University of Glasgow. He previously lectured at the University of Aberdeen and has been a visiting research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for European Legal History in Frankfurt.

Review Quotes

"...Godfrey has produced the definitive study of the development of the early modern Session, which has both resolved many academic debates and provided an invaluable foundation for future historical research.”
Dr Andrew R C Simpson, University of Aberdeen, Edinburgh Law Review, Vol. 15 (2011), pp. 497-500
"...Die Behutsamkeit, in der Godfrey Schnellschüsse vermeidet, die Quellen ganz zurückhaltend interpretiert und gerade durch diese unaufgeregte Exegese auf der Basis zahlreicher mühsam erzielter Einzelfunde zum Schluss doch das Feld ganz neu vermisst, erweisen ihn als quellenkundigen und methodensicheren Rechtshistoriker von Rang. Dem Buch, an dem er inklusive Vorarbeiten fast zehn Jahre gearbeitet hat, ist auch außerhalb Schottlands die Beachtung zu wünschen, die es verdient."
Prof Dr Peter Oestmann, University of Münster, Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung für Rechtsgeschichte (Germanistische Abteilung) Vol. 128 ( 2011), pp. 719-21
"In this unusually promising first book, legal historian Mark Godfrey charts a crucial aspect of Scotland's distinctive history of legal adoption and adaptation in the Renaissance. He shows how conciliar jurisdiction developed into a formally constituted supreme civil court for Scotland in the century before 1532 ... At the core of Godfrey's contribution is the realisation that jurisdiction was a form of political power, increasingly enabling the Session to suspend, reduce, and advocate decisions and cases of lesser courts. He argues that centrally-provided justice was a significant element of Scottish society much earlier than is conventionally assumed ... Godfrey offers intriguing comparisons between the justice of the feud and that of the courts; in doing so he demonstrates that there was much more to Scottish society than feuding ... An important achievement in its own right, Godfrey's volume points the way forward. Scholarly in treatment, accurate in detail, thoughtful in realisation and well informed by the literature on England and the continent alike, it is broad in vision and bold in argument. It makes a valuable contribution to our understanding not only of Scottish but also of British and European history in an era of profound legal change."
R.A. Houston, University of St. Andrews
English Historical Review December 2010, pp. 1513-1515
"A.M. Godfrey has written a magnificent, multilayered study with wide-ranging implications for legal history and for an understanding of sixteenth-century Scotland. Though the central pivot of his volume is the foundation of the College of Justice in 1532, this book also offers answers to the broad questions of what constituted civil justice during the Renaissance period and what role a central court had to play in changing the legal culture of early modern Scotland. ...The detailed study of the Session as a ius commune central court is successfully combined with a broad comparative perspective of changes within other European polities. Particularly in the introduction and conclusion, Godfrey generates some important general observations concerning the development of legal cultures within Renaissance states..."
Jane E. A. Dawson, University of Edinburgh
Law and History Review, May 2010
…In a bold and thought provoking book Mark Godfrey offers a thorough reassessment of the foundation of the College and the significance of the legislation of 1532 in the evolution of a system of centralised justice in the northern kingdom… The result is a meticulously detailed study of the nature of law and justice in early modern Scotland and an altogether compelling account of the history of a central civil court civil with supreme jurisdiction… Not least among an impressive series of skills that Godfrey demonstrates is a mastery of a body of record material that many a scholar has found impenetrable and unrewarding and a rare ability to present the varied strands of a complex argument in clear language. This book deserves to become obligatory reading for all students and scholars interested in the history of the law and development of the early modern state in Scotland, Britain and Europe.
Cynthia J. Neville, Dalhousie University
Scottish Historical Review, April 2010: DOI: 10.3366/E0036924110001253

Table of contents


1. The Medieval Scottish Parliament as a Central Court
2. The Evolution of the Session 1426-1532
3. The Foundation of the College of Justice
4. The Procedure of the Session
5. The Jurisdiction of the Session
6. Jurisdiction over Fee and Heritage
7. The Jurisdiction of the Session of Fee and Heritage
8. Litigation, Arbitration and Dispute resolution before the Session
9. The Role of the Session in Dispute Resolution



All those interested in the history of law, dispute settlement, and the state in late medieval and early modern Europe, as well as in the Court of Session and Scottish history.

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