Library Spotlight: John Selden's The Duel (1610) & The Closed Sea (1636) | Salisbury Cathedral

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Library Spotlight: John Selden's The Duel (1610) & The Closed Sea (1636)

Posted By : Emily Naish Friday 9th October 2015

This blog was written by Nathan Shipstone, Cathedral Verger


John Selden’s The Duello (1610) and Mare Clausum (1636)


Of the thousands of volumes that have been donated to Salisbury Cathedral’s library over its 900 year history, not all have come in book form. Many of these unbound works, or pamphlets, have subsequently been rebound as ‘Tracts’ – books that contain several different works at once. There are many examples of this in the Cathedral library, and one such tract houses John Selden’s rather eclectic treatise on dueling, dating back to 1610.


John Selden was one of the leading legal experts of his day. He began his highly successful career by studying Law at Oxford, before being admitted as a lawyer to the Inner Temple in London in 1604, aged just 20. From a young age Selden was consulted on an enormous range of legal issues; this exposure being reflected in the many books he published over a lifetime of myriad interests – ranging from history, to theology, and even linguistics. One of the first books of law that he published (aged 26) was The Duello, in which Selden explained the legal status of trial by combat and its wider historical setting. Trial by combat was, in essence, a judicially sanctioned duel; a way to settle accusations in the absence of a witnesses or a confession. The two parties in the dispute fought in single combat and the winner was proclaimed to be in the right. However, given its legal status, there were strict conditions as to whether a defendant could be eligible for a trail by combat; for no woman, youth, elderly, or lame person was legally allowed duel (in which case the dispute would be settled by a jury). There were also equally strict conditions on how dueling was to be initiated and conducted; which Selden takes great pains to meticulously illustrate in his treatise, including: the exact wording of the oath that initiates a duel, an inventory of the armor and equipment permitted to be worn during a duel, and the length of time a duel is allowed to last. Selden prefaced The Duello by highlighting famous instances of single combat that appear in the bible (such as David and Goliath), the classical writings of Homer and Herodotus, and in historical examples like the Olympians of Greece and the gladiators of Ancient Rome.


In Selden’s reading of history, single combat was a highly practical and relatively ‘clean’ way of resolving conflicts that could have otherwise led to greater bloodshed (such as quarrels between rival claimants to a throne) and thus gradually became written into law through such precedents. However, the origins of trial by combat in England only began with the Norman Conquest – even though it had been in common use on the continent for centuries before this. Curiously, different nations in Europe developed the practice independently of one another, and Selden argued (in typical English fashion) that although French law had strong influence over trial by combat in Normandy (at one time administered by England), in England itself there were no such ‘French’ influences, and stressed that the true legal origins of English dueling therefore lay in Scandinavia – the former home of the Norman people. By the time Selden was writing (in the early 17th century), legal duelling was becoming less frequent, and by the following century Parliament made repeated attempts to abolish the practice, finally doing so in 1819.


Selden’s influence continued to grow in the years following the publishing of The Duello; his legal rulings making him as many enemies as it did friends. In his late 30s, Selden was elected to Parliament and there began a lengthy political career that spanned almost the entirety of King Charles I’s turbulent reign and even led him into brief imprisonment in the Tower of London. Throughout this time Selden continued publishing, and the Cathedral library houses a copy of his Mare Clausum (the Closed Sea) from 1636, which became the framework for the legal jurisdiction exercised over sovereign territorial waters. Selden’s Mare Clausum was in direct contrast to the earlier Dutch work Mare Liberum (the Open Sea) by Hugo Grotius in 1609, which argued that all seas and waterways must be free for all nations to use so there would be no impediment to international trade. These two opposing legal definitions comprised the main corpus of early modern maritime theory, and each had enormous political ramifications in the 17th century given England’s desire to protect its lucrative trade routes, and Dutch aspirations to expand their own influence into them. This struggle over who has responsibility of the seas continues to be of great legal, moral, and political concern today.


View the gallery of images of these books here.