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Archaeologia Cantiana -  Vol. 134  2014  page 276

A History of the Ecclesiastical Courts of the Diocese of Canterbury, 1566-86, based on the
   Cause papers bound within the Volume MS.F.4.12. By Karen Rushton

a defamation case related to the importance of ‘good name, reputation, and honour’, in medieval society.44 A much more practical and pressing motive for initiating a defamation case was the need for an individual to prevent the possibility of the court itself bringing an office case against them for the actions they were reported to have committed.
   The church at this time ‘had a general responsibility to ensure the salvation of as many of its members as possible, and if necessary the conditions needed for salvation had to be enforced’.45 The possibility of being taken to court for adultery or other sexual misbehaviour was a real one. This can be seen in entry 82 of MS.F.4.12, involving a correction case in which evidence is presented saying that the defendant was married in December of 1585 but by April 1586 had already had a child. The need to clear one’s name promptly was reinforced by the fact that the churchwardens responsible for presenting members of the parish to court for reported misdemeanours were obliged to do so by law and could themselves face court if they did not. It was the criminal nature of the slanderous words that was problematic and as such did not just relate to cases of sexual misbehaviour. Because of this reasoning it was not just the church courts that witnessed many defamation cases but the common law courts as well where defamation cases involving slanderous words would be heard.


The jurisdiction of ecclesiastical courts over matrimonial matters was nearly complete, with the secular courts generally only dealing with disputes involving property rights and inheritance.46 Only eight instances of matrimonial suits appear in MS.F.4.12 and discovering the nature of the dispute in two of the cases is made difficult by the types of records that they are represented by. One, entry 42, is a sentence and as such gives very little information on the details of the original suit, and the other, entry 59, is an exceptions concerned largely with discrediting the witnesses of the opposition. Consequently, the types of matrimonial disputes found in MS.F.4.12 can be based on just six entries, which cannot realistically be considered representative.
   Nevertheless, the suits featured in MS.F.4.12 can still provide some level of insight into the kinds of matrimonial disputes that might feature before the ecclesiastical courts and in some respects they do follow the patterns described by others writing in the subject. Helmholz states that ‘by far the most common matrimonial cause in the medieval Church courts was the suit brought to enforce a marriage contract’, something that seems to hold true with the cases in MS.F.4.12.47 Five of the six entries relate to the enforcement of marriage contracts, with a distinct possibility that entries 42 and 59 do also as the parties involved have different surnames and so clearly do not relate to a dispute concerning some form of separation

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