14.01.02, Taylor, Fictions of Evidence

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Candace Barrington

The Medieval Review 14.01.02

Taylor, Jamie K.. Fictions of Evidence: Witnessing, Literature, and Community in the Late Middle Ages. Interventions: New Studies in Medieval Culture. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2013. Pp. x, 221. ISBN: 978-0-8142-1223-3.

Reviewed by:
Candace Barrington
Central Connecticut State University

In studying the intersection of law and literature in late-medieval England, Prof. Taylor enters a conversation that has provided a fruitful means for re-examining British literature of the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century. Not only were many late-medieval authors closely connected to the legal professions, but the legal systems left profound marks on literary texts. As Taylor's work so ably demonstrates, illuminating the connections between law and literature in late-medieval England requires the scholar to know the arcane world of English legal systems and to recognize the open-ended routes Middle English literary texts make through that legal world. The challenges of late-medieval English scholarship are familiar enough; those with the study of the contemporaneous legal system are less so. For instance, dealing with late-medieval English courts means understanding, at least, three systems (ecclesiastical, royal, and manorial) and three traditions (canon, civil, and common law) whose interconnections remain understudied. It also means reading primary texts in three languages--Latin, Anglo-Norman (eventually known as Law French), and Middle English. And, most frustratingly, it means coming to grips with immense gaps in the documentary record (due to fires in the Inns of Court in the early-fifteenth century) by working forward from the early thirteenth century and back from the mid-fifteenth century.

Simply put, the challenges have been enough to dissuade scholars from entering the tangle. Thus, other than the obligatory footnotes referencing landmark legal cases or significant laws, there was scant understanding how legal discourse shaped and left its imprint on literature until John Alford began exploring the profusion of technical terms in Langland's Piers Plowman. And a full-fledged study of the dialectic between the legal and the literary did not take place until Richard R. Green published his landmark 1999 study, A Crisis of Truth: Literature and Law in Ricardian England, which, among other things, challenges scholars to see law and literature as mutually nourishing discourses.

Since that time, the field has begun to take shape, and Taylor's Fictions of Evidence provides an contribution to the particular field of law and literature, as well as to the larger field of medieval literary studies. Her topic, witnessing, is a particularly challenging one because it requires intimately understanding a wide range of legal and discursive systems: the secular and the ecclesiastical, the oral and the written, the individual subject and the community, devotional and legal. As Taylor argues, witnesses were called upon to express the ideals that created communities, whether the body of Christian believers or the collection of royal subjects. Relying upon established procedures, customs, and forms, witnesses could either uphold or undermine the Church or the state. By examining these moments of witnessing, Taylor highlights how literary texts reveal the nature of ethical or legal truth in late-medieval England.

Her book's first three chapters demonstrate the way narratives of false witness allowed late-medieval jurists and writers to explore the formation, preservation, and recreation of community boundaries. She begins in her first chapter by thinking anew the tale told by Chaucer's Man of Law, the Canterbury pilgrim most closely connected to legal systems. By demonstrating how the knight's false witness against Constance demarcates the limited ability of the pagan king's legal proceedings to ascertain the truth, the tale cedes the discernment of truth to the Christian God, converts the king, and creates a new Christian nation able to witness and confirm somatic claims that transcend earthly legal procedures and documents.

Taylor's second chapter documents the ways fourteenth- and fifteenth- century permutations of Susanna's story transform her silence from a sign of female obedience into a mode of testimony made more effective when, in turn, it is witnessed by the reading community the vernacular poems create. For instance, the alliterative Pistel of Swete Susan establishes the violated woman's legal literacy when she follows the correct protocol for a rape. Then, while she seems to remain quiet in the courtroom, the poem ambiguously establishes that "the pistel witnesseth" her innocence, pointing both to her whispered complaint and the poem itself as testifying to the truth. In this manner, Susanna's silence becomes a model of resistance, especially for the heterodox Christian community.

In her third chapter, Taylor carefully parses the legal and spiritual implications of "neighbor" in order to make visible the sometimes contradictory impulses inherent in the term. While orthodox didactic texts might claim false witnessing imperils an otherwise unified community, contemporaneous verse of political protest suggests that perjury can create a new community, one conceived outside the royal courts' jurisdiction and thereby representing local ethics.

In her final two chapters, she examines witnessing through a different lens, this time to argue that devotional and legal witnessing can critique and evade political and ecclesiastical discipline. Through her reading of Langland's allegorical figures--such as Gluttony, Anima, and Book--Taylor explores how one form of witnessing, the oath, deconstructs the oath-taker, and how another, the eyewitness, links experiential and textual modes of knowledge. From here, she is able to tackle one of the thorniest interpretive cruxes in Piers Plowman, the destruction of the pardon. By recognizing the pardon as a witness that must self-destruct in order to do what it purports to do, she is able to explain the torn pardon as necessary to Piers' salvation. Similarly illuminating are her readings of the records (and subsequent martyrologies) of Lollards accused of heresy. In these, the Lollards exhibit an expertise for evading their interrogators' questions while simultaneously documenting their heterodox beliefs for receptive witnesses reading the records officially designed to condemn the Lollards.

Having so thoroughly explored both the heuristic and hermeneutic ramifications of late-medieval witnessing, Taylor closes her study by reminding us of the fragility of the witness, whether a so-called authorized manuscript or any historiographic mode claiming authenticity. With this fragility in mind, as she reminds us, we must always question the media by which truth is mediated and manufactured.

Throughout, Taylor provides a careful reading of texts, her practice informed by the well established (and newly appreciated) practice of close reading, the cultural work of new historicism, and the valuable questions clustered under the rubric of post-historicism. Her careful explications of contemporaneous court cases and legal theory deftly reveal the multiple ways late-medieval juridical thought shaped literary texts, and in doing so she helps us see these texts anew.

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Author Biography

Candace Barrington

Central Connecticut State University