Sunday, January 14, 2018

Water law in Star Chamber

‘A plotte of the landes about Ashebourne’, Derbyshire. 1556–1557
(Folger Shakespeare Library)
One difficulty of English water-law history is the dearth of reported water cases predating the nineteenth century. Fortunately young historians are doing good work in digging up archival documentation of water litigation. We heard a few years ago from Leona Skelton about her interesting work on the Tyne River Court, and now I'd like to note Lehua Yim's work on a sixteenth century water law dispute litigated in the Court of Star Chamber: "A Watercourse ‘in Variance’: Re-situating a Sixteenth-Century Legal Map from Ashbourne, Derbyshire", published last year in Imago Mundi. The abstract:
Law-related English local maps, especially those dating from the early- to mid-sixteenth century, remain in need of both extensive and close study. In this article, a hand-drawn sketch map in the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC, is re-contextualized in relation to documents connected with lawsuits in The National Archives in England. These lawsuit documents, concerning disputes brought before the court of the Star Chamber in the mid-sixteenth century, allow us to correct the accepted date of the map’s creation, suggest its likely creator and identify its probable use at a time of expanding cartographic consciousness among the educated classes. The importance of the manuscript map to one English family’s subsequent assertions of proprietary rights in a small stream running from Bradbourne to Ashbourne, Derbyshire, explains its provenance outside official court records.
Star Chamber has gotten a bad name in the last few hundred years, especially in the US, but it was an important court in the early modern period, capable--as Yim's article shows--of providing justice where the common law courts could not.

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