03.09.04, Menuge, Medieval English Wardship in Romance and Law

Main Article Content

Daniel Kline

The Medieval Review baj9928.0309.004


Menuge, Noel James. Medieval English Wardship in Romance and Law. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2001. Pp. viii, 149. ISBN: 0-859-91632-4.

Reviewed by:
Daniel Kline
University of Alaska-Anchorage

In this slim but provocative volume, Nöel James Menuge brings the substantial legal and historical literature concerning medieval wardship to bear upon Middle English romance, particularly Havelok the Dane, Beues of Hamptoun, William of Palerne, and Gamelyn. Menuge terms these "the wardship romances," in contrast to the (perhaps) more familiar "exile and return romances" (6). After an introductory section, Medieval English Wardship in Romance and Law proceeds through five chapters and an Afterward. In short, the material is rich, the readings interesting, and the study admirable. Menuge's study goes beyond simple questions of the historicity of the romances to approach the divergent and complementary ideological investments of these two interrelated medieval discourses. At the same time, Medieval English Wardship in Romance and Law suffers somewhat from uneven analysis due to both an inadequately theorized conception of the relation between legal and literary texts and less than rigorously defined terms, as if the implications of the provocative ideas presented have not yet fully developed.

In her Introduction, Menuge quickly lays out the issues that will be treated in more detail throughout the balance of the study. In particular, she gives brief summaries of each romance (for those of us who haven't read William of Palerne in awhile, for example), briefly details the legal sources that contribute to her analysis (Glanville, Très ancien coutoumier, Bracton, and the substantial surviving case law like Year Books and other documentation), and characterizes her own interdisciplinary approach to the material: "to consider its [wardship's] occurrence equally in the genres of romance and the evidence of litigation and legal treatises, and to analyze the resulting readings alongside, and against, each other" (20), for both law and literature are "related fictions with consciously constructed narratives and ideological agendas which serve specific purposes" (21). While recognizing the difficulties in such an interdisciplinary venture and the richness of cross-disciplinary dialogue, Menuge's aim seems ultimately to be an historical one: to read "perhaps more nearly into the lives of medieval wards and guardians" (23).

Chapter 1, "Wardship and the Ideological Father: Exploring Meanings and Contexts" begins Menuge's venture to hear "the various 'voice' of ward, guardian and family members" (22) in the legal and literary texts, all of which are "'narrative fictions'" (21) carrying recognizable agendas. However, in the case of the medieval father, when a wardship case is brought, the father is, in fact, "already dead (by definition)" (25). More than any of the other characters, the father is seen at a remove, his words and wishes filtered through the voices of others, for his death is his primary function. Therefore, the father in medieval wardship-whether in law or literature-is a particular ideological construct: the father is head of the family and purveyor of inheritance, on the one hand, and a symbolic manifestation of cultural authority, on the other: "Put simply, the ideal symbolic father is used to encode the patriarchal principles in the name of the lord, in the name of the society, and in turn, the legal process which seeks to enforce these principles does so in the name of the father" (32). The chapter concludes with an intertextual analysis in which Gamelyn is used to illustrate a puzzling contention in Glanville, the important 12th century legal treatise, in which a father's affection for the someone other than the eldest heir (in the case of Gamelyn, the youngest son) creates legal difficulties and familial discord. In the law, a father's generosity to anyone other than the heir is disparaged as a threat to patriarchy, while in the literature, the father's favor is lauded because of his ability to see beyond an unsuitable heir, as in Gamelyn. Conflicts at the heart of inheritance law fuel narrative development of Menuge's reading of the wardship romances.

"The Matter of Inheritance: Conflicts and Resolutions" provides the focus for Chapter 2, and the legal status and final disposition of the will and the transmission of property and its use or abuse by the elder brother during the ward's minority present an historical and literary problem in Gamelyn. As in previous chapters, Menuge's process is to review the historical material related to the literary and legal issues raised in the romance, in this case Gamelyn, and to read the literary text in light of specific legal texts. Menuge presents an overview of the question of inheritance and its changing particulars during the late-medieval period before locating Gamelyn in the Northeast Midlands of the fourteenth-century, a place and time in which the Danelaw still influenced legal practice and the question of partible inheritance created legal and familial discord, as in Gamelyn. Thus, the representation of wardship in Gamelyn stages the "conflict not only between the individual and the law, the father and primogeniture, but between the region and the crown" (49), particularly in regard to the issue of waste (the misuse of a ward's inheritance) and the problem of legal infancy (the age of minority). Johann, the eldest brother in Gamelyn, wastes his youngest brother's land, and Gamelyn, like the wards of the law cases, does not have a voice in the narrative until he reaches his majority (presumably 21, according to Menuge), and like some younger sons in the legal documents, Gamelyn's outlawry is "symbolic of his legal status as a disinherited heir" (p. 59). Ote, the third son in Gamelyn, receives his due in Medieval English Wardship as the felicitous son who comes to Gamelyn's aid, and Menuge concludes the chapter by explaining Gamelyn as a composite of Johan's "diabolical" nature and Ote's "desirable" character.

In Chapter 3, "The Ward as Outlaw: Symbolizing Infancy," Menuge takes under consideration the related issues of age, social status, and agency, for the underage heir in the wardship romances is deprived of a voice in juridical proceedings, left without an appropriate social position through exile, and denied the chance to exercise legitimate political power on his or her own behalf. "Legal infancy" thus becomes for Menuge the point of contact for the different legal, historical, and literary concerns expressed in Havelok the Dane, Beues of Hamtoun, Gamelyn, and William of Palerne, for the infant-literally infans, or unable to speak-is multiply marginalized, often through the heir's outlaw status.

Chapter 4, "Female Wards and Marriage: A Question of Consent," explicitly turns to the problem of gender in the wardship romances, specifically "the issue of who controls the marriage, and of male and female autonomy" (82). While the male heirs in all the wardship romances are married by the tale's end, Goldborough in Havelok the Dane and Florence in William of Palerne, the only heiresses in these romances, have their "marriages arranged by guardians" (82). Menuge considers the question of the female ward's consent to marriage in Havelok and William of Palerne, each in reference to a fourteenth century case from the York consistory court. The case of Constance (Hopton c. del Brome), like Goldborough in Havelok, is a forced marriage in which both partners were over the age of consent, and the case of Alice (Marrays c. de Rouclif), like Florence in William of Palerne, depicts arranged marriages of heirs of uncertain age. The threat of violence against the female ward hovers over all of these incidents, which makes problematic the question of consent and reveals the vulnerability of the heiress. Female wards like Goldborough and Florence need to be controlled lest the flow of property and power between males be disrupted.

"Controlling Behaviour: Mothers as Guardians" is the subject of Chapter 5. Menuge's task is to define how and why "the mother is given a symbology of her own" (101) through an examination of the image of the mother in Beues of Hamtoun and William of Palerne in relation to Tres ancien coutoumier and Bracton. While perhaps unusual to modern sensibilities, mothers were not given automatic guardianship of wards, as Menuge makes clear, for the disposition of wardship was based upon feudal relationships, not emotional or blood ties. Thus, according to Menuge, patriarchy is reinforced at the expense of the family. However, this legal framework did not prevent a mother from acting on her own behalf and potentially threatening this patriarchal economy. In Beues of Hamtoun, the mother is portrayed as evil, a sexual monster as in the fabliaux (110), and a threat to the ward to the point that she takes on masculine characteristics. William of Palerne, in contrast, presents two mothers, "the good mother and the bad step-mother" (118), for the stepmother can act for the benefit of her own child and to the detriment of her step son, the legitimate heir, like the stepmother who bewitches Alphoun in favor of her own son Braundinis. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the "hidden narrative" of subversion in the romances (125). The matter treated in chapters 3 and 4 present examples of what is both laudable and frustrating about Menuge's procedure in Medieval English Wardship in Romance and Law. On one hand, she amply demonstrates the centrality of the notion of legal infancy for understanding the social dynamics of Beues of Hamptoun in chapter 3, for "Here we find the wardship romances exploring and seeking to explain a paradox which lay at the heart of wardship law. The law must protect the heir because of his infancy, but, because of his infancy, the law denies him agency" (71). On the other, the notions of age, infancy, gender, and agency, for example, are not interrogated theoretically but are simplistically adopted from the often inconsistent and various legal definitions of the period. This uncomplicated acceptance of the historical classifications leads Menuge's analysis to a kind of univocality: the romance texts are seen as simply reflecting the historical understandings and legal controversies of the period. In chapter 3, Menuge insists that the romance characters reflect "good" or "bad" characteristics "according to their roles within the patriarchy" (73) and that the romances provide important historical detail that the legal treatises lack (80-81). In chapter 4 she states that "the romance can be seen as a lay, or secular, version of the legal narrative. The romance is a more experimental, more controlled, and also more simplified forum for exploring the legal and moral issues raised by the marriage of female wards than is the legal case" (86).

However, a number of recent medieval critics (although different in their approaches and emphases, Paul Strohm, Richard Firth Green, and Louise Fradenberg come immediately to mind) have shown that the dynamic relationship between historical and literary texts is anything but simple reflection and is in fact ideologically fraught-complementary as well as contentious, conflicted as well as conflicting. For example, chapter 3's discussion of the wolf/werewolf imagery in relationship to heraldry in William of Palerne could benefit from a more nuanced investigation of the ideological dimensions of shape-shifting and the theoretical implications monstrousness, as in Jeffrey Jerome Cohen's Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages (1999), to name one example, for such narrative symbols as the werewolf surely take on implications beyond the level of characterization that is Menuge's chief concern. A further concern is a slippage in Menuge's understanding of the texts themselves to the point that in the later chapters she turns repeatedly to the idea of "authorial desire" or an authentic "voice" to resolve particular interpretive questions rather than ascertaining completely the discursive effects of the texts.

Medieval English Wardship in Romance and Law aspires to a reading of the medieval ideology of wardship but remains rather more rooted in the formalistic dimensions of narrative, plot, and characterization. While opening an important new avenue of investigation into this group of romances, Medieval English Wardship in Romance and Law is also a frustrating book at times. Bringing legal and literary texts of wardship into conversation with each other is an important first step for which Menuge should be recognized; however, the material appears to be able to sustain a more intensive theoretical and sophisticated social analysis. The wardship romances are each long, involved, and complicated texts in themselves, and the shortcomings of Menuge's important book are likely a result of attempting too broad a survey in too short a study, and-perhaps-publishing it too quickly. Havelok the Dane, Beues of Hamptoun, William of Palerne, and Gamelyn each merit book length treatments along the lines suggested by Menuge. I think we can look forward to further work from Menuge, and I hope that other scholars will take up the issues she has presented.

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Author Biography

Daniel Kline

University of Alaska-Anchorage