03.04.18, Steiner and Barrington, Letter of the Law

Main Article Content

William Kuskin

The Medieval Review baj9928.0304.018


Steiner, Emily and Candace Barrington. The Letter of the Law: Legal Practice and Literary Production in Medieval England. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001. Pp. x, 257. ISBN: 0-8014-8770-6.
ISBN: 0-8014-3975-2.

Reviewed by:
William Kuskin
University of Southern Mississippi

This is an exciting collection of essays. Written by a strong selection of scholars and well assembled by its co-editors, Emily Steiner and Candace Barrington, the collection's focus is inspired, the editors tell us, by R. F. Green's entry on law and literature in The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature. There Green argues that, where studies of literature and law are usually occupied with either reading law as a species of literature, or with analyzing various literary trials, "there remains, however, a third area of investigation: regarding the law and literature as parallel forms of discourse" (407). The book's subtitle, Legal Practice and Literary Production in Medieval England, promises something more: that legal practice is embedded in the production of vernacular literature. Thus, The Letter of the Law suggests that the discursive lines of literature and law exceed any kind of discrete parallel, and its collective argument outlines the rich interlace pattern of cultural discourses that produces English literature.

The collection includes an introduction, nine essays, and a sizeable appendix. The first essay is Christine Chism's "Robin Hood: Thinking Globally, Acting Locally in the Fifteenth-Century Ballads," which argues that local authorities in late fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England used the increasingly centralized legal institutional structure to build social alliances and partition the community towards personal gain. Chism's essay is followed by Jana Matthews's "Land, Lepers, and the Law in The Testament of Cresseid," which reads Henryson's text against Scottish agricultural tenure, subject, and leper law, and provides an excellent discussion of Henryson's career as a lawyer. Both essays are ultimately about outlawry: Chism's outlaws, Robin and Little John, mimic the insiders' use of legal networks to reveal the arbitrary nature of those networks; Matthews's Cresseid becomes an outlaw of another kind: "stripped of her points of social and legal reference," she is, "ostensibly 'selfless'" (63). In this way, the two essays show how individuals become outlaws and how outlawry allows resistance.

The next two essays focus on legal terminology in Gower and Chaucer. Andrew Galloway reads three documents related to the 1388 Merciless Parliament (the Monk of Westminster's chronicle, the chronicle of Henry Knighton, and Thomas Favent's tract -- the last translated by Galloway in the appendix) to argue, first, that that Gower's Chronica tripertita belongs to this early body of work, and, second, that these works -- and the Confessio -- share a paradoxical sense of pity as "sense of pious justice, even though this involves severe 'purging'" (87). In his essay, Richard Firth Green reads the legal terminology at work in Palamon's rebuke to Arcite upon first sight of Emelye (Knight's Tale, lines 1129-32). Pointing out that this language is not in Boccaccio's Tesedia, Green finds Chaucer interested in the distinction between civil and military jurisdiction, a point of public concern.

If Green underscores fourteenth-century Londoners' anxiety about reducing civil matters to bodily combat, the next essay, Emma Lipton's, argues against scholarly characterizations of medieval justice as defined purely by spectacles of the body. Lipton reads the N-Town play, The Trial of Mary and Joseph, against fifteenth-century legal practices -- the legal authority of rumor, trial for defamation, and trial by ordeal -- to argue that the play intertwines legal motifs with literary and religious tropes. In turn, Maura Nolan's essay connects the problems of the Man of Law's character with the textual crux surrounding the placement of his tale, concluding, "for a vernacular poet such as Chaucer, seeking to establish not only his own authority but also the authority of poetic and secular discourse itself, the language of the law could provide an essential vocabulary of legitimacy" (153). Like Galloway and Green, then, Lipton and Nolan thus find legal terms embedded in literary works; they also suggest a strong sense of Marxist theory, and their arguments are edged with allusions to Althusser and Macherey, which they use to theorize the relationship between material practice and the production of authority.

This theoretical step is made explicit in Bruce Holsinger's excellent essay, "Vernacular Legality: The English Jurisdictions of The Owl and the Nightingale." Holsinger argues that The Owl and the Nightingale is not structured according to a specific law code so much as through connections to a variety of discursive forms: law, liturgy, literature. Echoing Nicolas Watson's "Vernacular Theology," Holsinger coins the term "Vernacular Legality" to capture this density: "vernacular legality will be defined as the self-conscious use of a medieval vernacular in order to explore a specialized realm of authoritative legal knowledge and practice whose documentary and discursive apparatus is confined primarily to Latin" (157). Such theoretical clarity is only one aspect of Holsinger's essay, and much of the thrill of his piece lies in his performance of his argument, both in his reading of The Owl and the Nightingale, and in his range overall as he moves from that poem to a discussion of The Wife of Bath, to a footnote on Bleak House, to a reading of Bracton's De legibus, while also presenting a compelling discussion of the legal profession in the thirteenth century, and a clear review of musical genre.

Following Holsinger's essay is Emily Steiner's "Inventing Legality: Documentary Culture and Lollard Preaching," which demonstrates the ways such vernacular legality develops in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century religious material. Steiner argues that the Charters of Christ tradition stands at an ideological intersection: as evidence of Christ, it formulates the material documents of orthodox penance; as a foundational grant of Christ's justice, however, it simultaneously offers Lollard readers a touchstone for their own arguments, and Steiner illustrates this paradox through two Lollard heresy trials, Margery Baxter's and William Thorpe's. The collection's last essay is Frank Grady's "The Generation of 1399." Grady uses Mum and the Sothsegger, Richard the Redeless, Gower's Cronica tripertita to characterize Lancastrian poetry both politically -- partisan and deeply anti-Ricardian -- and formally: a turning away from the dream vision towards increasingly legalistic language and representations of parliament.

To my mind the book makes two sustained arguments. It follows out Green's "third area of investigation" by offering a number of clear examples in which law and literature operate in parallel. It also recalls that the law and literature are joint cultural productions. Here, literature is less parallel with the law than constructed through it. Holsinger has coined an excellent term to express this synthesis -- Vernacular Legality -- and he presses it to two significant observations: first, "that the law can be claimed as a powerful discursive weapon even by those possessing only a rudimentary knowledge of its technicalities and procedural intricacies" (158), and second, "that many vernacular writings in medieval England create their own legal cultures that we will obscure if we privilege those writings that correspond most closely to external legal norms" (159; italics Holsinger). Were these points exclusively his, the collection would not cohere so well; but many of the essays offer similar conclusions. For example, in Chism's essay we find just such a rudimentary knowledge of law used as a "powerful discursive weapon" of mimicry (16); in Lipton's and in Nolan's we see a very similar kind of discursive density (133 and 152, respectively); and in Steiner's we see orthodox documents appropriated for Lollards' own legal culture (187). In one gesture, then, Steiner and Barrington's collection has not only confirmed Green's third area of investigation for law and literature, but has also suggested a fourth: the construction of cultural authority through legal writing.

One can always quibble. In a book so focused on the production of vernacular writing, one might wish for a greater emphasis on the artifacts themselves: books and documents become somewhat disembodied in the Letter of the Law. And, in a collection given over -- at times somewhat relentlessly -- to finding points of resistance in what seems at face value oppressive legal code, Grady's argument that Lancastrian letters are so absolutely partisan seems an odd last word. The editors, too, might make a stronger historical case in the introduction. Indeed, half the book's essays are devoted to fifteenth-century literature, and given that Holsinger makes such a clear case for the role of the thirteenth century in the founding of vernacular legality (156), the editors might have presented a stronger explanation for the general emphasis on the fifteenth, as well as articulated the overall relationship to modernity a bit more. Still, a good collection of essays should not be so tightly organized as a monograph, and one enjoys the room this collection offers. This is a very good and useful book that presents interesting research and thoughtful readings of an intelligent selection of texts. It leaves one with is a renewed sense of the creativity possible in the writing and reading of medieval literature.


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Author Biography

William Kuskin

University of Southern Mississippi