In the last two decades or so, questions of law have moved back to the top of the research agenda in work on medieval English manor courts. This marks a shift away from the 1960s to the mid-1980s, when the historians on both sides of the Atlantic who established the court roll as the pre-eminent source for everyday life in the countryside sought inspiration from the social sciences rather than legal history. The court roll studies published in that period generated much methodological debate about use of these records to study peasants and their communities. Nonetheless, in most of those studies, consideration of the manor court as a legal forum first and foremost, or of the implications of reliance on a legal source to study social and economic history, was secondary to analysis of the data in the rolls. More recently, though, scholars have started once again to look at the court roll from the perspective adopted by Maitland in his Select Pleas in Manorial and Other Seigniorial Courts. These historians are concerned with defining and characterizing “customary law”: that is, with the nature and principles of the law applied in manor courts; the extent to which those principles were malleable or unchanging; the relationship between the rulings pronounced in the manor courts and those recorded in other areas of the legal system, most importantly the common law courts; and the machinery of manor courts with respect to procedures, personnel, and record keeping.
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