12.02.09, Sturges, Law and Sovereignty

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Lorraine Attreed

The Medieval Review 12.02.09

Sturges, Robert S.. Law and Sovereignty in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Arizona Studies in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers n.v., 2011. Pp. xviii+302. ISBN: 978-2-503-53309-4.

Reviewed by:
Lorraine Attreed
College of the Holy Cross

The thirteen essays that compose this collection all originated at Tempe, Arizona's Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies 2008 conference on "Law and Sovereignty in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance." Sturges's introduction attempts to broaden readers' conceptions of sovereignty, and to argue that the concept had influence even in periods before the emergence of the modern nation- state. He deliberately refuses to organize the contributions in ways that might have solidified narrow definitions of the concepts. Instead, the volume is divided into four parts, each with three or four essays that cross boundaries of time, space, genre, and gender.

Part One, entitled "Theories," explores theoretical perspectives on the relationship between law and sovereignty, through three studies of thirteenth-century literature, sixteenth-century politics, and seventeenth-century theology. In "Unjust Rulers and Conflicts with Law and Sovereignty: The Case of Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan," Albrecht Classen shows how medieval literature interacted with and responded to current political discourse, rooting its fictional characters and situations in real-world issues of law, power, and military conflicts. The High German romance tells the story not only of Tristan, but his father, various Irish rulers, and the Roman emperor. Both father and son are presented as spontaneous, inconsiderate towards others, and irresponsible as feudal rulers. King Marke of Cornwall is no better, a weak cuckold unable to defend his people or even his own marriage. Classen shows how the romance criticizes the failure of rulers to uphold honor and responsibility, and to fulfill the expectations of the ruled. More than just a love story, Classen argues, Tristan can only be fully understood in the context of the political and military world of the author. Public expectations are also at the heart of H. E. Braun's examination of a "mirror for princes" written for Philip III of Spain in "'Lawless' Sovereignty in Sixteenth-Century Spain: Juan de Mariana's De Rege et Regis Institutione." The Jesuit Mariana's work earned condemnation in its own time for proposing a radical theory of popular sovereignty and promoting regicide. Braun provides a different reading, showing that Mariana did not locate ultimate sovereignty in the body politic. Concerned that the inexperienced king would be badly influenced by selfish courtiers, he argued that the ideal prince never violated custom and tradition, but needed the support of the majority of the people to make changes and thus rule over willing subjects. According to Mariana, monarchs could best exercise extensive sovereignty by perceiving the nature of public expectations and aligning their own desires to those of their subjects, without the fear of reprisal that haunted rulers espousing narrowly legalist notions of absolutism. This section concludes with Torrance Kirby's study "From 'Generall Meditations' to 'Particular Decisions': The Augustinian Coherence of Richard Hooker's Political Theology." Hooker's writing on the Elizabethan Settlement of 1559, Of the Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie, has been criticized as inconsistent, his concept of law at odds with his exploration of theology. Kirby argues this is not so, finding unity in the influence of Augustinian thought on Hooker's thinking. The two natures of the church are at the heart of the treatise, with Christ exercising headship over the inner, invisible, mystical Church, and the Prince (Elizabeth in this case, followed by James I) properly ruling over the outward, visible, external Church.

Part Two, entitled "Fictions," tracks the use of fictions (dramatic, poetic, and diplomatic) in real-world politics. Lee Manion explores two anonymous Arthurian texts, the Alliterative Morte Arthure (completed c.1399-1402) and The Awntyrs off Arthur (composed c. 1430) to show how romance could deal with political concerns and claims while showing "the thoughtful engagement of English romance with larger cultural issues that transcended national borders and expose literature's contributions to medieval political thought" (72). Manion notes how Edward I tried to justify his claim over Scotland to Boniface VIII by citing the sovereign recognition of Arthur by an equally fictional Scottish king. The extensive use these romances made of legal language and relationships indicates that Edward was not grasping at straws to make a credible argument. Issues of governance, legal claim, and sovereignty permeated medieval society, and found expression even amongst fictional characters. Sharon D. King's translation of the anonymous fifteenth-century French farce "The Fart" provides some comic relief at this point, just as it may have during its 1476 performance before King Rene of Provence who was grappling with Louis XI over lands. The actors' quarrel over who could claim sovereignty over a fart satirized royal disputes of the time, and reminds modern readers of the prevalence of legal issues even in farce. Although other writers in this collection argue for close and sincere readings of documents, Retha Warnicke provides the proverbial grain of salt while showing how even the falsehoods in written reports reveal important insights into cultural attitudes. In "Diplomatic Rumor-Mongering: An Analysis of Mendoza's Report on Elizabeth I's Audience with Scottish Ambassadors in 1583," Warnicke discusses the role of diplomatic dispatches in the early days of residential ambassadors, making good use of the classics in the field by Mattingly and Queller. She argues that Mendoza's analysis of the queen's dependence on male counselors and manipulation of international relations to reflect her own personal jealousies is more valuable for its reflection of the cultural view of women than for insight into diplomatic policy. The section concludes with Catherine Loomis's analysis of the poetry that welcomed James to the throne on Elizabeth's death. In "'Withered Plants do Bud and Blossome Yeelds': Naturalizing James I's Succession," Loomis argues that poetry helped to articulate "a unified national response to the loss of one monarch and the arrival of another," (150) using genealogies and even sexual allusions to "suggest that James's arrival in England is as welcome and seemingly miraculous as the springtime reappearance of flowers" (139). For those unconvinced that the new king was a breath of spring, references to the Tudor rose and its memories of civil war reminded the recalcitrant that such conflict could result again if James were not accepted. The natural imagery naturalized James's succession and with it his claims to sovereignty.

The three essays of Part 3 all exhibit some aspect of "Contestations" or competition over sovereign power. Andrew Rabin provides a close reading of Anglo-Saxon legislation in "Testimony and Authority in Old English Law: Writing the Subject in the 'Fonthill Letter.'" The document, written early in Edward the Elder's reign, describes to the king a protracted property dispute settled by Alfred but once again requiring intervention. Rabin is quick to argue that kings may have influenced and even composed legislation, but the legislated themselves were not passive or silent. In charters and case records, they complicated later views of law and sovereignty by providing their own interpretations of the case and of their own identity. In the Fonthill Letter, the writer wished to avoid a second and possibly unfavorable finding in the case, but rather than reference his own personal vulnerability he focused instead on the nature of royal power, particularly its need to rule and to uphold the law in ways that were consistent, coherent, and steadfast. Other subjects who took an active role in defining their place in law and society included the citizens of Italian city-states. Martina Saltamacchia in "The Prince and the Prostitute: Competing Sovereignties in Fourteenth- Century Milan" reveals the contest of wills between Prince Gian Galeazzo Visconti and the members of the Fabbrica del Duomo, the group in charge of the building and maintenance of the city's cathedral. Denied the use of the cathedral as a mausoleum celebrating his dynasty, Visconti looked to Pavia instead leaving the Milanese to complete the Duomo. Financing, building, and decorating the cathedral involved all walks of life, uniting the community and becoming "a symbol of civic identity forged by the people in defense of their sovereignty" (183). The final contribution to this section echoes some of Braun's findings on Mariana's treatise while providing a foundation for that later writing. Aurelio Espinosa in "Sovereignty of the People: Discourses of Popular Sovereignty in Renaissance Spain," studies the Comunero revolt of 1520-21 and the strong assertions of power in Castile by municipal councils and the Cortes. Although the most radical agenda of the comuneros, namely a republic of autonomous towns and cities, never developed, the threat of popular sovereignty curbed Habsburg absolutist tendencies and reinforced the fiscal and jurisdictional power of the Cortes.

Part Four, "Applications," is perhaps the most awkward of the sections, containing essays of great interest but only tenuous connection to the themes in the rest of the volume. All three essays focus on women and the law, through the study of literature, artistic depiction, and administrative documentation. Erika Hess studies the late thirteenth-century Arthurian verse-romance Roman de Silence to trace changing meanings of ius naturale in inheritance cases. A rash decision by a monarch to outlaw all female inheritance, heretofore considered a natural right, results in a female child being disguised as a male in order to inherit her father's wealth. Ius naturale comes into conflict with natural identity, and royal sovereignty is charged to respect the former or risk chaos within the social order. The question of medieval women's involvement in and understanding of a legal culture is undertaken by Adrienne Williams Boyarin, who focuses on depictions of the Virgin Mary's body in miracle stories such as the Legend of Theophilus and in Chaucer's poem "An ABC." In these works, Mary is presented as not only able to handle and negotiate legal documents, but also as a kind of charter in and of herself, sealed by her Son and permitting her to become an advocate on Judgment Day, "when she will herself act as the text written in our favor and thus literally become the saving document that she commands in the Legend of Theophilus" (243). While the Virgin Mary may have acted as a role model for medieval Christian women not just in terms of virtue but also of legal transactions, Boyarin is quick to observe that Jewish women modeled behavior as well, as they took active roles in legal dealings as recorded in the documents of England's Exchequer of the Jews.

The contribution by Richard Firth Green, "Cecily Champain v. Geoffrey Chaucer: A New Look at an Old Dispute," served as the plenary address of the Arizona conference. In contradistinction to Warnicke's warnings that written documents cannot be accepted uncritically, Green provides a close reading of the two quitclaims that removed Chaucer from any threat of Champain's prosecution for raptus. The unusual nature of two quitclaims being enrolled in royal archives prompts Green to introduce two other documents involving a London cutler and an armorer, possibly men with whom Chaucer invested Champain's money. Green comes to no firm or new conclusions about Chaucer's innocence or culpability, but he provides a valuable discussion of the use of quitclaims and the nature of their language.

The collection would have benefited from more guidance by Sturges on how the four categories were created and how their constituent parts relate to the theme. The title chosen for the volume may not encourage scholars of different disciplines from exploring the contents and benefiting from the variety of approaches. The interdisciplinary nature of the collection provides unusual riches and a salutary reminder that legal historians are not, and should not be, the only scholars interested in topics of law and sovereignty.

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Lorraine Attreed

College of the Holy Cross