Shelina, Language and Power in 13th Century Castilian Law

The Power of Language and the Language of Power in the 13thCentury Castilian Law

Evgeniya Shelina (Centro de Ciencias Humanas y Sociales, Madrid)

Law was a very effective channel for medieval rulers to spread new political ideas, as medieval law was not as “conservative” as modern historians sometimes tend to present it, and it was always possible for medieval rulers to insert their political programme into the laws. This is why the laws often served as a platform for long-term power negotiations, in particular in 13th-century Castile. One of the ways to impose new ideas or reinterpret the old ones was the usage of special “vocabulary”: by carefully choosing well-considered, sometimes loan, words that would transmit the ideas necessary for the ruler; by putting old words into new contexts in order to attach new connotations to them etc., especially the words that designated the different aspects of power. To do so was even easier than nowadays, as in Latin and the vernaculars there was no such an “umbrella” term as the modern term “power”. Different “aspects” of power were designated by different terms, highly polysemic, sometimes interchangeable, but with distinguishable meanings, which were clear to their contemporaries. Latin potestas, auctoritas, potentia, regnum, dominium, jurisdictio, Castilian poder, autoridad, fuerza, hueste, juro, jurisdiccion, to mention only the most important power-words, denoted divergent types of relations among individuals and groups, these relations formed networks of connections distinctly different from those that are denoted as “power” nowadays. These words were the “signs” of different medieval power concepts with overlapping characteristics. This paper will explore how different representatives of medieval Castilian elites used the “political” language to impose and maintain their power, and how their successes and failures were reflected in the language of the Castilian laws.