Whose Judgment? Local Legal Cultures, Judicial Process, and State Building in Early Modern France

Sunday, January 10, 2010: 9:10 AM
Manchester Ballroom G (Hyatt)
Julie Hardwick , University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX
The complex dynamic that shaped “what happened” in local litigation in seventeenth-century France had important consequences for contemporary access to the legal system and for our understanding of early modern state formation. The paper will focus on three inter-related aspects of civil law in action in local courts: the creation of powerful local legal cultures, the actors in court rooms, and the roles of people in the community. Distinctive local legal cultures persisted as the rhetoric of state formation increased. They were shaped in part by court personnel. In local courts, the much studied advocates were almost entirely absent. Instead, the official legal actors were judges, royal prosecutors who were critical gatekeepers, procureurs who handled the cases for clients, and the sergeants and bailiffs who delivered notices to appear to witnesses or served orders for the sale of goods to cover unpaid debts. All of these people did their work on the streets and in households as well as in court. The process of litigation took place in the community as well as the courthouse. Working men and women were avid users of the civil law process and shapers of local legal cultures as plaintiffs, defenders, witnesses and spectators. Their perspectives and expectations shaped how judges decided cases. Going to court in civil cases was a matter of choice, not necessity, and the authority of the court rested in significant degree on providing judgments communities found appropriate – or people could choose not to go to court and resolve their difficulties by other means. State-building viewed from this perspective then had a powerful grassroots element in which working people appropriated the authority of the state as long as it served their needs, choices that when repeated thousands of times were central in enhancing the role of the state.
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