Lanfranc of Bec and the Common Law: Part I


New York, NY – July 1, 2015

Over the next couple of posts, I’m going to discuss some of my favorite personalities from medieval England. They include a monk, a fiery feminist, and a red-headed playboy. I’m also going to point out how some of them formed the roots of United States common law. Those of you who are lawyers obviously know this in a general sense. But do you know anything about the leaders who first used, e.g., legal precedent to decide cases, or jury trials?

I’ll start chronologically, in the eleventh century. So let me tell you about my first love. I know, way personal, right? He was a monk, and we didn’t even speak the same language. Well, we both spoke French, but he spoke medieval Norman French. It’s different from the French I speak.

Lanfranc of Bec is, in my mind, arguably one of the most important people regarding the institution and use of the common law tradition of the United Kingdom and, therefore, the United States. Lanfranc lived during the eleventh century. He was born in Italy around 1010, and he was a monk. You probably know that during the Middle Ages, the Church pretty much had a monopoly on literacy and learning. Even many “nobles” (especially during the early Middle Ages), did not read, or did not read well. Lanfranc also had some knowledge of the law, although it is debated whether or not he actually received an education in civil law. But he was a great intellectual (hence my “falling in love” with him).

In this post, I’ll give a brief background of who Lanfranc was. In the next post, I’ll talk about his efforts to unify the legal structure in Britain after the Norman Conquest.

If you’re interested in reading further, I recommend checking out Helen Clover’s and Margaret Gibson’s book The Letters of Lanfranc, which contains English translations of his letters. In fact, the following brief summary is from the introduction of this book, pages 1-5. (Yes, I own it; I know, could I be any nerdier than this?)

Lanfranc eventually left Italy and went to Normandy, in northwestern France. Around 1042, he entered the monastic community of Bec, and subsequently became its prior. Bec was also a high-quality school, and Lanfranc taught many nobles. In 1063 Duke Williams of Normandy made Lanfranc abbot of the foundation at St. Etienne, Caen.

When Duke William took the English throne in 1066 (becoming ever afterward known as William the Conqueror, whom I am sure you have heard of), he ordered Lanfranc to go to England to help him bring some semblance of order there.

Lanfranc was already over 50 years old when William sent him to England. And he was not happy about being sent there. He referred to the native English people as “barbarous,” and he did not speak the language (Letter I, lines 19-27). In this manner, I sympathize with him. He was a polyglot, a stranger in a strange land, and a long way from Italy. But he was totally loyal to his boss, and his efforts to unify Britain had an effect.

All Lanfranc had to do was unify a territory where laws were applied inconsistently or not at all, where populations were scattered, and where many monks, who were supposed to be celibate, had wives. Sounds simple, right?

Stay tuned for how Lanfranc worked to accomplish that.



2 thoughts on “Lanfranc of Bec and the Common Law: Part I

  1. spmcbride1201

    Very cool post! I’m not familiar with Lanfranc. Out of curiosity, did France have a common law system until the Napoleonic Code? I was just reading this Wikipedia article about “Customoary Law.” Is there a distinction between this and Common Law? Also, I’m fascinated by the fact that Roman Law remained in force in the south of France for so long. I’ve always had the impression that France has been far less regional than Germany or Spain, but it seems that was a more recent transformation.


    1. Maria Riegger Post author

      Great observations! Thanks for posting! I’ll address your questions in person, as they would take too long to answer here. Interestingly, some elements of Roman law still exist in civil code countries, and some of those elements were carried over to Puerto Rico via the Spanish Civil Code. I have some content written about that that I will post a little later so stay tuned 🙂



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