The original public meaning of texts like the Second Amendment, or of the 1328 Statute of Northampton, includes the social context, and social norms, of the relevant period. The semantic meaning of the words in these legal texts must be situated within the context of norms that people took for granted. The crucial role of social norms in understanding legal behavior has been the subject of earlier work by legal scholars, such as Robert C. Ellickson in his 1991 book Order Without Law: How Neighbors Settle Disputes, or Tom Tyler in his 2006 book Why People Obey the Law.
Jonah Skolnik’s recent post on this blog sheds some light on how later medieval and early modern legal writers understood the Statute of Northampton, which on its face seems to prohibit bearing arms in public places like “fairs, markets, or the presence of the justices or ministers.” Here, I want to introduce a non-legal cultural text from just a few years after the Statute of Northampton that may shed some light on the social norms and mores about carrying weapons in public.
Sir John Clonvowe (c.1341-1391) was a chamber knight of Richard II, and a close friend of Chaucer and Sir William Neville. He died of the plague on military campaign in Byzantium (modern Istanbul) and was buried in an elaborate tomb there next to Neville. A few literary works by Clonvowe survived, mostly of interest to scholars of medieval literature. Clonvowe is an interesting figure for historians, however, because of his association with John Wycliff and the Lollard movement, the proto-Protestant reformers, who were eventually condemned by the church of the era as heretics. The Wycliff-Lollard movement attracted some adherents among the gentry in the 1300s; today it is mostly remembered for its emphasis on translating the Bible and other religious texts into the language of the people (that is, Middle English) rather than Latin. Educated Lollards produced an impressive corpus of literature, therefore, in the dialect of the common people of their day. Clonvowe’s religious writings suggest he was a Lollard knight, and apparently some of the later heresy trial records and historical chronicles confirm this.
One of Clonvowe’s religious essays, The Two Ways, composed shortly before his death in 1391, survived in two old manuscripts. The Two Ways reads like a medieval sermon, encouraging readers to be more devout, prayerful, and rigorous in their pursuit of personal holiness. Of interest for discussing the public meaning of “bearing arms” and the surrounding social norms, Clonvowe makes a comparison at the end of the fourth paragraph/beginning of fifth paragraph between sinners who refuse to repent and “fools” who are so attached to being armed – all the time – that no inducement could persuade them to go anywhere unarmed. Here is a modern translation of the passage:
…Truly, [those who do not repent of their sins] are [even] greater fools than those who will not give up their weapons for all the king’s treasure.
For a weapon is an instrument that is made out of something worth little, with which a fool beats other men, and with which other men often beat him in return, so that he both beats and is beaten with it. And though it serves no other purpose, yet a fool will always have it near him and will not give it up for any reason. And men say that when a fool loves his weapon this much, then that is proof that he is a natural fool.
(Translation note: the Middle English word translated as “weapon” is “babel,” which means in the context “a scourge with spiked balls on thongs,” though the same word was sometimes used for “a trinket” (i.e., the precursor of our modern word “bauble”); the writer may have been making a play on words to emphasize his spiritual point that weapons are not worthwhile objects.)
The takeaway here is that the writer, like many writers of religious devotional literature through the ages, wants to compare the folly of living in sin with something the readers will easily recognize as foolish or stupid. His example is the fool who always wants to have his weapons near him, who cannot be persuaded to leave them at home, etc. The point about the weapons not being particularly valuable is that that they are not priceless items that someone might want to safeguard carefully at all times – instead, they are just instruments that people end up using to hurt each other in day-to-day interpersonal disputes. Clonvowe assumes his readers will 1) know the type of person he is talking about, and 2) agree that everyone else looks down on these weapons enthusiasts. He says everyone in his day called these people “natural fools,” that is, someone who has always been foolish, impulsive, or unintelligent, not, for example, someone who merely has a momentary lapse of irrationality or a single character flaw. His writing implies, in other words, a strong social norm against being armed all the time, a strong enough norm that everyone made fun of people who did that. He uses this to support his main spiritual point is that people who continue living in sin are being even more foolish than those people.
Note that John Clonvowe was not a pacifist – he was a knight, apparently close to Richard II, and died on a crusade. He bore arms in battles. That is what makes this passage so striking – his disparaging comparison of those living irrationally in self-destructive indulgent behavior to people who carry weapons everywhere they go.
To the extent that the Statute of Northampton is relevant to understanding the text, history, and tradition of the Second Amendment, non-legal writings from the same period can help us understand the social context of the prohibitions. The social norms about carrying weapons in public are part of the history and tradition of the English laws and rights of bearing arms. When English law later recognized a legal right to have arms, the social norms and customs of the time were boundaries for how everyone would have understood this right, at least operationally. The social context of the Statute of Northampton was that most people did not bear arms in public often – in fact, it appears that most people made fun of the few who did.
 This translation is from Sir John Clonvowe, The Two Ways, in J. Patrick Hornbeck II, Stephen E. Lahey, and Fiona Somerset, eds., Wycliffite Spirituality 166 (2013). For the Middle English original text, see V. J. Scattergood, The Two Ways – An Unpublished Religious Treatise of Sir John Clonvowe, English Philological Studies 10 (1967) 33-56; for the scholarly dating of the text, see John Scattergood, The Date of Sir John Clanvowe’s “The Two Ways” And The ‘Reinvention of Lollardy’, 79 Medium Ævum 116 (2010). See also John Scattergood, The Works of Sir John Clanvowe: The Boke of Cupide and The Two Ways (1975)(a typewritten dissertation).