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  • Laӡamon and the Laws of Men
  • Christopher Cannon

There is reason to think that the word "laӡamon" meant "man of law" in early thirteenth-century English and, therefore, that the legendary history of British kings called "Laӡamon's Brut" (circa 1200) uses this name in order to signal its author's interest in and knowledge of the law.1 It is true that J. S. P. Tatlock claimed otherwise: he understood this name as a thirteenth-century fossil, an onomastic memory of an outmoded profession, and he marshals numerous examples of the word's use as a Middle English surname to prove his point.2 But Tatlock also had other evidence, which he downplayed. He knew that the twelve "lageman" of Lincoln described in Domesday Book (1086), for example, were still conducting legal affairs as late as 1275.3 In addition, although the Brut does provide Laӡamon with a profession when it says that he was "an preost" (L, 1)-and this is doubtless why no other profession has been sought for him-thirteenth-century "men of law" were clerics as often as not.4 Overlooked by Tatlock, too, is the simple fact that a compound such as "laӡamon" would not actually need authorization from contemporaneous linguistic practice to mean "man of law" in this poem: this Brut's language is unusual as it employs, on the one hand, nominal compounds that had become rare in Middle English (that is, antiquated compounds characteristic of Old English poetry) and, on the other hand, compounds unattested in other Middle English texts (that is, nonce compounds coined in imitation of Old English poetic practice).5 In the unusual style that characterizes this poem, "laӡamon" would have meant "man of law" even if the word did not customarily carry this meaning.

To current understandings of Laӡamon's Brut, of course, such a finding will seem irrelevant, since it is not the profession of this poem's author that has posed the problem, but the very odd marriage of his subject (a legendary history of British kings), source (Wace's Anglo-Norman Roman de Brut [circa 1155]), and style (imitative of Anglo-Saxon alliterative meter and diction). How can sense be made of a poem, commentators have wondered, which celebrates the accomplishments of the British by means of a poetics imported by the Anglo-Saxons who subjugated them, while finding its story in a poem that only [End Page 337] exists because those Anglo-Saxon conquerors were themselves conquered by the Normans in 1066? And yet these commentators have also tended to lay all responsibility for this problem at Laӡamon's door: it is "Laӡamon's character" that has required "vindication"; it is not this poem but this poet who has been seen to be "at odds with himself . . . confused to know where to place his sympathies."6 By this reading, the poem's problems are produced by a Laӡamon who is either "ambivalent" about the disparate political affinities his narrative embraces or simply "mistaken" in his effort to combine such incompatible materials.7

It has never really been noticed, of course, that the "man" so extensively criticized and defended by commentators is merely a peg on which readers have hung their own reactions: since Laӡamon has no documentary presence outside this Brut, his very existence is a textual effect. After so much clarifying discussion of the author-function, it is simply worth noticing the strangeness of such attention: it would be an interesting project in itself to describe the various strategies commentators have used to confect this author in order to malign or vindicate him. And yet, even as these strategies were described, it would also be necessary to count the power Laӡamon has exerted over commentary on this Brut as one of his important functions: in a period in which Middle English texts are generally anonymous, the presence of an authorial signature, a thumb-nail biography, and an account (albeit disingenuous) of the sources used in this poem, are all attempts by this text to project animating attitudes and principles onto a "man."8 It is for this reason that I...


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