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Fictions of Evidence

Witnessing, Literature, and Community in the Late Middle Ages

Jamie K. Taylor

Publication Year: 2013

Throughout the Middle Ages, witnessing was a crucial way religious and legal “truths” were understood and produced. Religious and secular officials alike harnessed the power of testimony to assert doctrinal, political, or legal responsibilities. Swearing an oath, testifying in court, and signing a deposition were common ways to shape and discipline both devotional and legal communities. In Fictions of Evidence: Witnessing, Literature, and Community in the Late Middle Ages, Jamie K. Taylor traces depictions of witnessing in a wide range of late medieval texts and shows how witnessing practices formed and reformed, policed and challenged medieval communities. Through close study of texts like the Man of Law’s Tale and Piers Plowman alongside sermon exempla, common law statutes, and pastoral treatises, Fictions of Evidence argues that vernacular literature was a vital site of criticism and dissent. It shows that devotional and legal witnessing practices offered medieval writers a distinct vocabulary they could use to expose how the ethical and legal obligations to one’s community were constructed. And since vernacular writers often challenged the ways ecclesiastical or secular authorities asserted community bonds, they found they could use those same witnessing practices and language to imagine extra-legal or extra-ecclesiastical communities that followed different ethical codes.

Published by: The Ohio State University Press

Series: Interventions: New Studies in Medieval Culture


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-5


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-ix

I am fortunate to have many colleagues and friends who have shown me innumerable kindnesses while I researched and wrote this book. It is a true pleasure to express my gratitude to them. ...

List of Abbreviations

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pp. x-xi

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Introduction: Witness Testimony and Literary Production in the Later Middle Ages

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pp. 1-23

Witnesses were integral to a wide range of devotional and legal practices throughout the Middle Ages. As the crowds at martyrs’ trials, the audiences of mystery plays, and the readers of saints’ lives, they were repeatedly invoked in the traditions, rituals, and texts that shaped and articulated the ideals of Christian communities ...

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Chapter One: The Face of a Saint and the Seal of a King

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pp. 24-54

Chaucer’s Man of Law takes seriously his role as a narrator, the medieval Latin term for both someone who enters legal pleas and a teller of stories. Indeed, the Man of Law insists he is not a poet, but a lawyer, insulting Chaucer as a silly rhymer: “‘I kan right now no thrifty tale seyn / That Chaucer, thogh he kan but lewedly ...

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Chapter Two: Silence, Testimony, and the Case of Susanna

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pp. 55-85

Chaucer takes the Constance story as an opportunity to imagine a unified Christian “nacioun” which triumphs over the heathen communities that threaten it. In particular, the multiple scenes of false witness in the Man of Law’s Tale demonstrate the necessity of witnessing to construct and affirm the cultural and ethical requirements of a community. ...

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Chapter Three: Neighbors, Witnesses, and Outlaws in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries

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pp. 86-114

In a sermon preached to a Norfolk community sometime around 1365, John Waldeby, an Augustinian friar and Yorkshire preacher, condemned a congregation for failing to testify about a murder in the area. Waldeby argues that the congregation’s reticence unfortunately placed the burden of guilt on God, with disastrous effects for the community: ...

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Chapter Four: Piers Plowman, Book, and the Testimonial Body

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pp. 115-150

Chaucer’s Wife of Bath begins her prologue by asserting that she can easily expound upon the trials and woes of marriage, since she has had five husbands and is in search of a sixth. She establishes the foundation of her expertise immediately: “‘Experience, though noon auctoritee / Were in this world, is right ynogh for me / To speke of wo that is in mariage’” (III.1–3). ...

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Chapter Five: Witnessing, Presence, and Lollard Communities

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pp. 151-188

The trial records of accused Lollards produced in the fifteenth century, coupled with the printed compilations of Lollard “martyrs” in the sixteenth century, are critical to thinking about the procedural and conceptual legacy of witnessing in the later Middle Ages. As Andrew Cole has shown, the persecution of heresy in late medieval England, ...

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Coda: Witnessing the Middle Ages

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pp. 189-198

The questions posed at the end of the previous chapter deserve a sustained answer, beginning with a brief summary of what this book has tried to accomplish. As this book has shown, medieval witnessing might be understood both heuristically—that is, as a method to retrieve evidence that can uncover truth, ...

Works Cited

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pp. 199-212


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pp. 213-221

E-ISBN-13: 9780814270189
E-ISBN-10: 0814270182
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814212233
Print-ISBN-10: 0814212239

Page Count: 256
Illustrations: 1 halftone
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Interventions: New Studies in Medieval Culture