Book Series Studies and Texts, vol. 15

Excommunication and the Secular Arm in Medieval England

A Study in Legal Procedure from the Thirteenth to the Sixteenth Century

F. Donald Logan

  • Pages: 239 p.
  • Size:155 x 230 mm
  • Language(s):English, Latin
  • Publication Year:1968

Out of Print
  • ISBN: 978-0-88844-015-0
  • Paperback
  • Out of Print


In the arsenal of weapons available to the medieval church none was thought to be more powerful than the penalty of excommunication. By its imposition a person was cut off not only from Eucharistic Communion but also from the communion of the faithful. It was viewed as a sort of excision by the church of a malignant member, and in the practical order it was intended to restore that member to health by social ostracism.

Yet even in the face of an excommunication a person could contumaciously refuse to seek reconciliation. At this point the force of the secular arm could be requested by the church. In England there existed from at least the beginning of the thirteenth century until the end of the sixteenth a routine procedure whereby English bishops could invoke the secular arm against such recalcitrant excommunicates. After an excommunicate had spent at least forty days in his penalty without making any effective effort for reconciliation, the local bishop could send to the royal chancery a request (called a signification) for his arrest; as a matter of course, a writ for his capture (calles a Significavit) was issued to the local sheriff.

For the period from 1200 to the Reformation, about 7,600 significations relating to almost 17,000 excommunicates survive. These records are without parallel in western Europe, just as, it would appear, the highly formalized and institutionalized English procedure against excommunicates was itself without parallel.