Parish, participation & power
: legal pluralism in Early Modern England

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis argues that early modern England was a legally pluralist society. I argue that there existed a large sphere of popular early modern legalism that existed outside of the courts and government-backed system of law. This legalism found its primary setting within the early modern parish, where individuals often performed legal-type actions to deal with disputes between themselves and their communities.
My thesis explores this pluralism by focusing on: quiet as an underlying ideology in early modern England; arbitration and mediation of disputes within the locality; the collection of tithes in the parish; will-making, marriages and witnessing by ordinary early modern people. I primarily use depositions taken from the London Consistory Court, transcribed from 1550–1620, although this material is supplemented with other archival documents and printed literature. I use these depositions to create a fine-grained picture of what early modern parochial legalism looked like.
I develop the argument that early modern legal pluralism was a particular kind of legal pluralism—it existed within the early modern parish, and did not operate to oppose the central government. This is contrary to scholars who have defined legal pluralism as an anti-state concept. I argue that by taking account of the early modern data, scholars will have a more comprehensive understanding of legal pluralism.
The final chapter of the thesis offers some wider comments on areas of historiographical debate: the nature of early modern London, and the early modern state. I argue for an understanding of early modern state power as primarily manifested within the parish, and that it was this manifestation of state power that underpinned the way in which early modern England remained governable, when the political centre had limited means to impose its will on the localities. The early modern state was itself a pluralistic one—with state and legal power delegated to the parishes. A broad and shared ideology (from elites to ordinary people) meant that the early modern government did not need centralised state power; up until at least 1600 the particularly early modern articulation of state power kept the system working, and England governed.
Date of Award1 Jul 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorLaura Gowing (Supervisor) & Andy Wood (Supervisor)

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