16.02.12, Sobecki, Unwritten Verities

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Kathleen E. Kennedy

The Medieval Review 16.02.12

Sobecki, Sebastian. Unwritten Verities: The Making of England's Vernacular Legal Culture, 1463-1549. Reformations: Medieval and Early Modern. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2015. pp. 272. ISBN: 978-0-268-04145-8 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Kathleen E. Kennedy
Pennsylvania State University- Brandywine

Despite the enormous amount of parchment and paper devoted to the law in medieval England, and despite the importance of legal writing to historicist landmarks like Richard Firth Green's A Crisis of Truth, law remains exotic in the field of literary criticism. To a similar degree early Tudor literature continues to lurk outside of critical view, hidden behind the fifteenth-century Chaucerians on one side, and early English drama on the other. In this context, Sobecki deserves much credit for Unwritten Verities: in this book he delivers the sum of a wide range of parts and conveys the importance of those pieces to a community of scholars accustomed to looking past them.

Like a set of tables in a medieval church Unwritten Verities is designed with a diptych structure. The first group of chapters lays out method and unpacks terminology, and the second traces changes in those conditions from the mid-fifteenth century into the later sixteenth century. This structure is necessary given how unfamiliar fifteenth-century English law remains to most audiences. Further, Sobecki uses the opportunities provided in the first table to offer some novel arguments of his own. In the first chapter he underscores how unwritten English law has always been. While statute law, written law, existed, the common law of England was memorial and was therefore taught and practiced orally. A wide range of legal literature developed, but this all served paratextually, as tools with which to manipulate the memorial law. Sobecki claims that in such a cybernetic relationship, authority resided in speech based on memorial law. Since this speech had to be shared in person, authority was therefore formulated through consensus. Physical legal texts provided guidance and memorial aids only. In chapter 2, Sobecki explores law French, the dialect of French used in English law roughly from the Conquest until the eighteenth century. Here he boldly claims that, within the legal profession at least, law French and English existed as linked vernaculars, or even as a blended semantic field, a single professional vernacular. In chapter 3 Sobecki educates his audience regarding Lancastrian conciliarism using the extraordinary works of Sir John Fortescue, CJ. Fortescue affords the first extended textual analysis of the volume, and this reveals a vibrant common law system very much on par with parliament as an organ of government and check against royal power.

Beginning the second table, in chapter 4, Sobecki unpacks his title, and examines the special tensions a memorial law, those "unwritten verities," faced during the Reformation, which was an era of sola scriptura on many fronts. As with chapter 3, in chapter 4 his star witness is another under-cited political theorist, Christopher St. German, who argues for the existence and worthiness of a memorial book of law. St. German further claims that when coupled with physical paratexts, memorial law can be even more stable than written law. These paratexts are the implicit heart of chapter 5. Sobecki is one of the first contemporary literary critics to work with the prologues written by pioneering law translator, editor and printer, John Rastell. Sobecki shows how Rastell promoted the same wide participation in legal culture characteristic of both Fortescue's and St. German's social and political theories. In chapter 6 Sobecki takes all of this Tudor theorizing and argues for a notion of 'commonwealth' distinct from that of the humanist tradition. Unlike the political structures desired by the humanists, the English commonwealth was participatory, limited, and vernacular. In fact it was so participatory that by the second quarter of the sixteenth century, following the broad dissemination of legal writing in English, the law was being leveraged even by rebellious subjects. According to Sobecki, only at this point was there enough internal support among the legal profession to support royal policies enforcing reform in legal education, including religious practice, and dissemination of the law.

As with any book, there are ways in which Unwritten Verities's reach exceeds its grasp, but this mismatch can be attributed to its exceptional originality. When one approaches texts no one else considers and places them in conversation in ways no one has before, one essentially engages in a truly experimental process that by its very nature cannot be complete. For example Sobecki explicitly founds his work in literary criticism, and so he considers John Rastell's prologues, and Edmund Dudley's The Tree of Commonwealth, but not the historical connections between the two men's circles. Likewise, Fortescue's works largely stand in for the wide-ranging recent historiography on Lancastrian government. The necessity of maintaining a manageable project size demands such limitations. In a few chapters Sobecki walks readers through the critical or historiographical history of his topics in a way that feels more teacherly than some specialists might prefer. Yet, such grounding will be useful to readers coming at his arguments with little to no previous work in legal or political history. Perhaps the largest piece missing from Sobecki's project is the seemingly uneasy forcing of religious reform into this essentially legal and political argument. However few today can publish a 600-page revisionist monograph like Simpson's Reform and Cultural Revolution, and the length of the standard scholarly monograph simply does not leave Sobecki the space to fully flesh out how religious reform tracks along with these legal changes. In the end, chapter 4 and the end of chapter 6 offer much for scholars to consider in this regard, and both highlight areas in which more work could further uncover the religious side of this cultural shift.

Chapter after chapter features fresh, robust claims that shed light on authors rarely considered by critics and are sure to shape the direction of future scholarship. For example, Sobecki is duly cautious in limiting his claim concerning a blended Anglo-French vernacular to the legal profession, but this theory might offer interesting context for critics who study the lawyer John Gower's Anglo-French works. Likewise, despite their lasting importance, scholars more frequently mention than explicate Fortescue's works, and Sobecki's labor here emphasizes their utility to literary critics. John Rastell offers another case of a rarely read vernacular theorist introduced in Unwritten Verities. If English law was memorial, as chapter 1 noted, its paratexts were not. Rastell printed these paratexts, indexes and glossaries, and in some cases provided the first translations of these into English. As Sobecki demonstrates, Rastell's prologues make trenchant claims for the necessity of such texts across a wide audience, including people who would not have had memorial access to the original texts.

Sobecki finds compelling evidence that supports James Simpson's revisionist approach to humanism and the English Reformation, and this deserves separate consideration. Sobecki's argument here is crucial: deriving from conciliar Lancastrian real politik and a vernacular, memorial legal system, English legal and political theory was antithetical to much humanist political theory. Furthermore, English political culture remained at odds with humanism into the Elizabethan era (by which point humanist theory itself had modified). This argument emphatically underscores that neither humanism nor the Reformation ended "medieval culture," and the persistence of legal traditions demands that scholars take medieval culture into account when considering the sixteenth century as a whole.

Unwritten Verities offers an engaging and challenging entry among recent criticism grappling with the transition from Lancastrian to later Tudor culture. Sobecki provides incisive readings of a range of texts rarely approached in scholarship, and argues convincingly for their importance to understanding this period.

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