- Lloyd Bonfield, New York Law School, USA
Seventeenth-century England was a country obsessed with property rights. For only those who owned property were considered to have a vested interest in the maintenance of law, order and social harmony. As such, establishing the ownership of 'things' was a constant concern for all people, and nowhere is this more evident than in the cases of disputed wills. Based on a wealth of surviving evidence from the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, the probate jurisdiction which probated wills of the more wealthy English property owners as well as some of those with a more modest quantity of property, this book investigates what litigation over the validity of wills reveals about the interplay between society and law. The volume investigates, catalogs, and systematizes the legal issues that were raised in will disputes in the Canterbury Court in the last half of the seventeenth century. However, this is not just a book about law and legal practice. The records from which it draws plunge us into deeply personal and often tragic situations, revealing how the last requests of the dead and dying were often ignored or misinterpreted by family, friends and creditors for their own benefit.
By focusing on property law as reflected in cases of disputed wills, the book provides a glimpse at a much fuller spectrum of society than is often the case. Even people of relatively modest means were concerned to pass on their possessions, and their cases provide a snapshot of the type of objects owned and social relationships revealed by patterns of bequests. This too is true for women, who despite being denied full participation in many areas of civic life, are frequently encountered as key players in court cases over disputed wills.
What emerges from this study is a picture of a society for which notions of law and private property were increasingly intertwined, yet in which courts were less concerned with formality than with ensuring that the intentions of will-makers were properly carried out.
Contents: Preface; Introduction: devising, dying, and dispute in early modern England; The 'culture of will-making' in early modern England. Part I The Forum and Its Litigation: Probate jurisdiction in early modern England: England's own 'peculiar institution' in crisis; Disputes: the subject matter of testamentary litigation. Part II The Legal Issues: Mental Element in Will-Making and the Authenticity of Legal Acts: 'Of sound and disposing mind and memory': testamentary capacity and undue influence; Estate plans by 'word of mouth': the validity of nuncupative wills; The sanctity of the written word: testamentary causes challenging the authenticity and due execution of written wills; Which shall it be? Multiple testamentary documents and the revocation of wills. Part III Windows into Social Relationships: Contested successions and contested marriages: evidence from the records of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury; Discord and inheritance: windows into family relations from testamentary litigation; The myriad roles of women in will-making and testamentary litigation in late 17th century England; Conclusion; Appendix; Bibliography; Index.
About the Author: Lloyd Bonfield, is Professor of Law and Director of the Center for International Law at New York Law School, USA
Reviews: 'An authoritative introduction to one of the richest and least explored sources for English social history, and in particular the history of family relationships.'
Keith Wrightson, Yale University, USA
'A short review cannot encapsulate the richness of these chapters. Legal, social, and economic historians will find much of value. Also of great benefit is a detailed appendix with a primer on early modern probate jurisdiction and a discussion of the primary sources… Bonfield’s book sheds important light on legal and social understandings very different from our own, yet in some ways strikingly familiar.' Law & History Review
'… [Devising, Dying and Dispute] makes a useful and accessible contribution to legal history. Specialists in that field will provide its principal readership, though social historians will also find in it much to interest them.' Renaissance Quarterly
'This is a social and administrative history of the law, written by a well-regarded legal historian. Its principal strength lies in the exceptional clarity and precision with which the author, Lloyd Bonfield, sets out the letter and logic of the law and the workings of a senior ecclesiastical court. Its main contribution is to offer a comprehensive study of early modern probate litigation and an analysis of an important arena in which law and social practice interacted.' English Historical Review
'Bonfield is absolutely correct … in identifying the PCC wills as a rich and untapped source for social history, particularly that pertaining to unhappy families and broken social relations… While not itself a social history, Bonfield’s book will be essential reading for social historians exploring what happened when someone devised, died, and disputed in early modern England.' Canadian Journal of History
'… this thoughtful study of probate litigation proves an enlightening and stimulating read. While we have long known that the final wishes of the dead tell us a great deal about the living, Bonfield makes clear that disputes over those last requests have their own stories to tell, about the hopes and schemes of survivors as well as the judges and institutions under whose jurisdiction they came.' Sixteenth Century Journal
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