12.09.33, McGerr, A Lancastrian Mirror for Princes

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Sonja Drimmer

The Medieval Review 12.09.33

McGerr, Rosemarie. A Lancastrian Mirror for Princes: The Yale Law School New Statutes of England. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011. Pp. xv, 232. ISBN: 978-0-253-35641-3.
ISBN: 978-0-253-00198-6.

Reviewed by:
Sonja Drimmer
British Library

n this perceptive study, Rosemarie McGerr elicits the entangled relations of legal literature, political expression, and manuscript production in late medieval England. The centerpiece of A Lancastrian Mirror for Princes is a fifteenth-century manuscript of the Nova statuta Angliae, which includes a collection of statutes issued from Edward III to Richard III accompanied by an index and two treatises, Modus tenendi Parliamentum and De senescalsia Angliae (New Haven, Yale Law School, Goldman Library MssG +St11 no.1). Noting the unusual nature of the manuscript's illumination, as well as anomalies in its facture, McGerr develops a compelling case for the manuscript's participation in Lancastrian polemics during the tempestuous period between the late 1450s and early 1470s.

Readers of McGerr's article of 2006 will find familiar the central thesis of the book, as well as some of the material covered. [1] However the book affords the author space to develop fully arguments staked out in the earlier version: especially successful are the expanded discussions of both pictorial analogues to the manuscript's historiated initials and the literary context within which the manuscript was produced. In addition, McGerr's conclusions are now supported by a substantial appendix and a generous number of plates--80 in total and a glorious 56 in color.

After a brief introduction (more on which below), the first chapter considers the physical features of the Yale Law School manuscript in relation to other copies of the Nova statuta Angliae. McGerr revises and refines previous datings of the manuscript, placing its original production in the years between 1457 and 1460, with additions made between 1468 and 1471, and with a final quire produced and added in the mid 1480s. McGerr's examination of the evidence is meticulous and in the end convincing (an appendix gives a thorough account of the manuscript's content, physical make-up and ownership history).

In Chapter Two, McGerr trains her focus on the historiated initials in the Yale Law School Nova statuta. Like many other statutes manuscripts produced in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Yale Law School copy contains a historiated initial that marks the statutes issued in the first regnal year of each king. Yet the iconography of the historiated initials here is unique among this corpus. Through deft comparisons to representations of King David at prayer, as well as to depictions of kings in the Coram rege rolls, McGerr argues that the Yale manuscript "associates Henry VI with King David's divinely guided kingship and associates Edward IV with violation of that ideal" (66-67). The discussion of representations in the Coram rege rolls is not just apposite to the material at hand, it is also inspired and shines a light on some of the most unloved art of medieval England.

At the same time that McGerr's overall argument in this chapter is persuasive and supported by the visual media she introduces, a problem arises from her invocation of a standard iconography from which the initials purportedly deviate (47-49). For McGerr, this deviation reveals an effort to reflect the Lancastrian prioritization of pious kingship. Yet this argument is perfectly sound by virtue of the Davidic model cited here, regardless of its incoherence with common iconography. Although it is true that eleven Nova statuta manuscripts do contain nearly identical representations of a king enthroned and flanked by counselors, they all date from the period of c.1470 to the mid-1480s. Yet McGerr dates the first five historiated initials in the manuscript--and I believe rightly--to the period between 1457 and 1460. Furthermore, that this consistency can be called a standard is questionable: we learn that 125 Nova statuta manuscripts from the fifteenth century survive, yet the number of copies containing figural illumination is not given. An appendix with a summary catalogue of these manuscripts might have lent heft to McGerr's argument for a standard and would have provided an invaluable resource for future work on this corpus. As it stands, the standard is a superfluous and potentially invalid prop supporting an already valid claim.

Chapter Three takes on the challenge of interpreting the unique occurrence of a queen's arms in a Nova statuta manuscript, which do not necessarily denote ownership. The appearance of Margaret of Anjou's arms in the manuscript parallels the narrative text that opens it, an Anglo-Norman account that rationalizes Edward III's deposition of his own father, with the aid of his mother Queen Isabelle. Like Isabelle, "Margaret of Anjou could become the queen who fulfills her proper role in preparing her son to restore justice and peace to the realm, acting in accordance with the grace of God" (81). This assertion finds support in discussions of the ceremonial pageants that celebrated Margaret as the agent of both grace and justice for the nation, as well as the juridical nature of Margaret's efforts to defend both her husband's authority and the inheritance of her son Prince Edward of Lancaster. The Yale Law School manuscript, then, presents a royal ideal that aligns with the tactics used by Margaret of Anjou to secure its continued Lancastrian embodiment.

The following chapter carries this argument further by relating the manuscript to a body of literature on princely education directed at Prince Edward. These works centered on the king's responsibility to rule according to just law while remaining humble before the law of God. Particularly engrossing is the chapter's synthesis of material drawn from Fortescue and Ashby, which dovetails with the Yale Law School manuscript's verbal and visual curriculum of piety and just rule. Lines drawn directly from Fortescue show that he assumed Prince Edward had (or eventually would have) access to the Nova statuta, but aside from some tantalizing suggestions, McGerr resists the temptation to attribute the patronage of the Yale Law School manuscript to Fortescue. Nevertheless, all signs point to Prince Edward as its original intended recipient.

The book concludes with a history of the manuscript's later ownership, examined as "testimony to its evolving significance as an historical artifact, as well as legal resource" (122). Some interesting points are raised here regarding late medieval annotations, the arms of a female owner added to the manuscript, and its possession during the eighteenth-century rehabilitation of Margaret of Anjou's reputation.

The only troubling portion of the book is its introduction. The purpose of this introduction is to establish "the multidimensional relationship of the margin and the center [as a] framework for [the author's] study of the Yale Law School manuscript" (4). For one, McGerr does not apply this framework consistently or very much at all throughout the book (which turns out to be much to its advantage). While discussions of margins and centers can carry a great deal of analytical force, what is troubling about the framework here is how poorly it fits the material under examination. There is nothing either literally or conceptually "marginal" about the components of this manuscript; the historiated initials are fully integrated with the text and the heraldry occupies--even according to the most doctrinaire analysis--a place within the decorative frame. But nowhere does either fall off the frontier of a rigidly defined center. With respect to the conceptualization of these elements, we have no evidence that medieval audiences "marginalized" them by subordinating them or finding in them an ironic, satirical, or otherwise contradictory commentary on the legal text. It seems that this analytic device has been applied without regard for the contours of the object that it is designed to elucidate. Ultimately, the ascription of marginality to images serves only, and ironically, to fortify a straw man, i.e. that "the decoration and illustration...might seem entirely marginal to the meaning of the verbal texts" (5).

And yet throughout the book McGerr enriches her analyses through reference to frames and enframing. I wonder why the introduction did not focus on this idea. Not only does it match the nature of the illumination in the Yale Law School manuscript, but as an idea it is also sufficiently expansive to accommodate different directions of meaning; reading a text might enframe our response to an image, and contemplation of an image might enframe our response to a text.

One final note: although the prose is generally easy to follow throughout, the prodigious use, especially in the earlier chapters, of the construction "[something] suggests that [something else]" could have been limited. The formula appears twelve times between pages 28 and 30, seven times each between pages 36-37, 44-45, 72- 73, and frequently elsewhere.

Let me return here to the positive aspects of this book, because there are many, and because it is a book worth reading and worth emulating in its interdisciplinary prowess. McGerr takes on a manuscript that defies categorization and for this reason would trammel the work of other scholars. The author tackles this material with great enthusiasm and insight, and as readers we emerge with a deeper appreciation for the agency of a Nova statuta manuscript in the defining conflict of late fifteenth- century England. Combining evidence and analyses from literature, codicology, history, and art history, A Lancastrian Mirror for Princes returns a considerable dividend for investing sustained attention in one manuscript.



1. Rosemarie McGerr, "A Statute Book and a Lancastrian Mirror for Princes: The Yale Law School Manuscript of the Nova statuta Angliae," Textual Cultures: Text, Contexts, Interpretation 2 (2006): 6-59.

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Sonja Drimmer

British Library