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  • Law, Chaucer, and Representation in Lydgate’s “Disguising at Hertford”
  • Emma Lipton

In John Lydgate’s “Disguising at Hertford,” a group of husbands brings a bill of complaint before the king about the tyranny of their wives.1 Invoking antimatrimonial paradigms, they decry the “bonde of sorowe” that is marriage, claiming that their wives scold, drink, fail to prepare dinner, and beat their husbands with distaffs, fists, and ladles. The husbands request that the king grant them liberty from the bonds of marriage and restore the “nature” and “raysoun” of patriarchal rule. Using a flood of legal terminology, the bill concludes by beseeching the king to use his authority to “graunte hem fraunchyse and also liberte … [and] sauf-conduyt to sauf him frome damage … Graunt hem also a proteccyoun” (ll. 138–42). For their part the wives defend themselves in equally legalistic jargon, invoking the authority of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath who, they say, “cane shewe statutes moo þan six or seven” (l. 169) to prove that law is on their side. They “clayme maystrye for prescripcyoun” (l. 203) and request the king show “his grace” (l. 212) in upholding their domestic sovereignty. Instead of ruling conclusively on the case, the king defers judgment, granting a year-long extension of female rule until the husbands “may fynde some processe oute by lawe” (l. 242) that enables them to “Haue souerayntee on þeyre prudent wyves” (l. 244). Far from offering a defense of female rule, the disguising ends by deeming woman’s sovereignty “a thing vnkouþe” (l. 245) and implying a failure of justice. The “Disguising at Hertford” thus makes the problem of [End Page 342] wifely disobedience an issue of royal rule and the occasion for exploring the relationship between sovereign and legal authority.2

The occasional nature of the piece, which was most likely performed at Christmas of 1426 or 1427 for a young King Henry VI, invites us to read its depiction of kingly justice and of the legal authority of the Hertford wives in the context of the politics of the minority and the increasing power of Parliament in the period.3 The disguising’s depiction of the king’s authority draws on the vocabulary of mirrors for princes and legal theory that justified monarchical legal authority on the grounds that the king embodied higher justice. This paradigm of the monarch’s unique ability to represent divine justice in his material person was in crisis in the minority, when counselors acted on King Henry VI’s behalf. In contrast, the Hertford wives invoke the logic of statutes, which derived authority from their wording rather than from the embodied authority of their author. The threat posed to the king by the wives in the “Disguising at Hertford” should be understood in the context of the claims of legal historians who have associated an increased use of statutes with the expansion of parliamentary authority in the late Middle Ages. Despite being identified by Derek Pearsall and others with Lydgate’s “laureate” period, “The Disguising at Hertford,” I argue, provides an ambivalent rather than purely celebratory picture of Lancastrian power that supports the ideal of monarchical authority but stages the limitations of royal justice in the minority.4 [End Page 343]

In the “Disguising at Hertford,” Lydgate develops the contrast between the legal authority of the king and the wives through a consideration of theatrical representation. Lydgate’s decision to have the king “play” himself and the absence of a verdict in first-person discourse avoid any implication that judicial authority resided in the act of speaking rather than in the specific and embodied nature of kingly authority. Indeed, for Lydgate, the theatricality of the wives’ discourse raises the fear that legal language could be performative in inappropriate contexts. Thus, although the direct dialogue of the Hertford wives (who speak in the first-person plural and occasionally in the first-person singular) has been promoted by E. K. Chambers and many subsequent medieval drama critics as granting the “Disguising at Hertford” an important role in a teleological development toward the more fully realized dialogue of Renaissance drama, when seen in the context of legal and political history, the...


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