03.02.16, Braswell, Chaucer's "Legal Fiction"

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Cynthia Gravlee

The Medieval Review baj9928.0302.016


Braswell, Mary Flowers. Chaucer's "Legal Fiction": Reading the Records. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2001. Pp. 170. ISBN: 0-8386-3917-8.

Reviewed by:
Cynthia Gravlee
Univ. of Montevallo

Chaucer's "Legal Fiction" is an illuminating study of Chaucer's subversive use of legal references throughout his works. In addition to his overt allusions to the law and its practitioners and his depiction of legal proceedings, Chaucer weaves legal terminology into his texts and uses "embedded" references to court cases in developing his plots and characters, as Mary Flowers Braswell clearly demonstrates. "Legal fiction" was a term that referred to the pretense that a law had not changed its mode of operation. Braswell adopts the term, but modifies its meaning to describe Chaucer's texts, which contain numerous legal terms, as well as situations and characters based on actual court proceedings. Like the courtroom participants, the literary audience is expected to analyze the evidence and reach conclusions that Chaucer purposely withholds. Braswell supports her theses with copious and compelling examples from court cases that Chaucer would have known about or taken part in.

Braswell's plan and methods are set forth in the "Introduction," in which she acknowledges Chaucer's obvious references to the law and lawyers. Her interest here, however, is on how he incorporates the law into his texts in more subtle ways. She believes that Chaucer was probably directing his narratives to colleagues who, like himself, were familiar with legal proceedings and would recognize his strategies.

The general public seemed fascinated with the law in Chaucer's era and after. Braswell cites two contemporary works that show how the law could serve as a basis for fiction in earlier times. William Ian Miller's Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland shows how Icelandic sagas deal with legal issues and feature courtroom settings. In the virtual absence of official documentation from the era, the sagas give valuable insights into legal procedures. Natalie Zemon Davis, in Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and Their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France, discusses the literary merits of pardon letters in which defendants eloquently begged for forgiveness or leniency from the authorities. Chaucer presumably saw literary potential in the cases that he witnessed, participated in, or read about.

In Chapter One, "Literature and the Law Courts," Braswell discusses Chaucer's roles as Justice of the Peace, member of Parliament, juror, actual or potential defendant, witness, and victim of crime. Although he was sued for debt more than once, accused of "contempt and trespass," and indicted for rape, Chaucer managed to avoid prosecution, but he was often a witness to it. In Chaucer's day, defendants had narrators who served as advocates or "professional pleaders." The dramatic testimony of these skilled speakers could be more persuasive than the defendants' own words. Chaucer probably merged these story tellers into his own characters, who are clearly proud of their rhetorical expertise.

Chapter Two, "Before The Canterbury Tales: Law in The House of Fame," argues that Chaucer's legal subtext was designed to teach the audience how to "read" his hidden agendas, a skill needed to analyze The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer probably witnessed the arbitrary "justice" that Fame dispenses during his own experiences in courtrooms. Medieval people were concerned with their personal "fame" or reputation, but also with publica fama, their public reputation as good, law-abiding citizens. This "fame" could be validated or besmirched by courtroom actions. Chaucer was aware of this and shows the misuse of power and authority by Fame, whose capricious decisions create disappointment and disorder.

Chapter Three, "Legal Exemplars and Narrative Technique: The Canterbury Tales I," connects the annual Manor Courts, or Leet Courts, with The Canterbury Tales. These courts began in April or late March, and a bailiff (or "Bailie") brought people together and took charge of them. The group members then told their tales. The official court narrators played a major role in the proceedings. Chaucer would have observed that the ostensibly factual data evoked different "readings" from the audience. He later would engage his readers in his narratives, just as the courtroom audiences were absorbed in the testimony they heard. Braswell gives examples of legal language and techniques in several of The Canterbury Tales here, with special focus on "The Shipman's Tale" as representative of medieval laws on borrowing and lending.

The issue of fraud is explored in-depth in Chapter Four, "Law and Social History: The Canterbury Tales II." Braswell notes that tricksters thrived in the fourteenth century, when society was moving away from tradition and conformity toward an assertion of individualism. Many, like Chaucer's self-centered Pardoner, violated ethics with impunity. Society was in flux, and unscrupulous people were determined to advance their own interests. Religion had concentrated on "intention" in evaluating sinners. The courts, however, were concerned with actions and their consequences. Chaucer is interested in intention or motive and reiterates "intent" or "intention" throughout his texts, but he also deals with actions and their effects. While professing certain intentions, his Pilgrims inadvertently confess to others, and they often convict themselves while attempting to justify their actions.

Braswell illustrates her points through many examples, with particular attention given to the Cook and his tale. Scrutiny of Chaucer's texts shows that they are "interrogative" rather than "declarative," like those of many of his contemporaries. Chaucer raises questions, and his resistance to closure keeps the audience questioning as well.

The "Epilogue" discusses Chaucer in relation to his contemporaries, Gower and Langland, who were also well-versed in the law. Indeed, Gower may have been a lawyer in spite of his dim view of the legal profession. Although Gower has many textual references to the law, Braswell contends that he doesn't develope characters "through the law" and he doesn't use the legal "framework" that Chaucer employs. Langland clearly knew the law, as many legal terms and phrases are included in Piers. However, he and Chaucer differ in style. Braswell states, "Chaucer is witty, ironic, ambiguous, detached. Langland is unrelievedly didactic" (129).

Langland scholars would probably disagree with this assessment, countering that Langland's speakers are didactic, but he could be mocking their rigidity and often pharisaical preaching. They would also argue that Langland is "witty, ironic, and ambiguous," although probably not "detached." In her final assessment of these two authors, Braswell suggests that Langland wanted the audience to recognize and be responsible for their sins. "Chaucer, as we have seen, is after something other" (130). Although Braswell has illustrated Chaucer's aims and techniques throughout, one still wishes for a concluding sentence reiterating them here.

Overall, this is a strongly argued, well-developed text with convincing examples from Chaucer's works and carefully researched evidence from court cases of Chaucer's day. Indeed, these cases serve as entertaining "literary" tales.

Informative notes expand on issues raised in the text. A bibliography of primary and secondary texts and a brief index are included. Although Braswell explains the legal terminology in her text or notes, a glossary would be helpful for quick reference. Chaucer's "Legal Fiction" is a valuable addition to Chaucer scholarship. Moreover, Braswell's extensive knowledge of medieval law and her astute interpretations of Chaucerian texts are presented in a lively and accessible style that engages the reader throughout.

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Cynthia Gravlee

Univ. of Montevallo