The social essence of the district court

The district court was not only a place where judicial cases were heard and other official matters dealt with but also an arena which local people used for their own ends, particularly to affirm and to defend their status and position in local society. It is this aspect of the district court as it is presented in two local communities in the north of Norway during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that is the subject of this article. This is one of several topics that have been studied over the last thirty years using court records and comparison is made with research undertaken in other parts of the country. Two aspects of the significance of the court in social life are considered: firstly, the significance of the role of lay judge in the affirmation of social status and, secondly, the use of the court to defend social status. The district courts comprised a professional judge and lay judges, eight in number after the new Norwegian Law of 1687. While the significance of the role of lay judge declined over the period in question, the importance of the court as an arena for the defence of social status was upheld, despite official irritation at the number of trivial cases that were brought before the court and most often dropped before any judgement was made. Many of these cases were related to slighted honour. Honour played a major part in the recognition of social status, but a person’s honour could be slighted in many ways. It is suggested that local people were adept at using new legal procedures and devices as they were introduced, in order to maintain their use of the courts to protect their social standing.