- Spenser's Legal Language: Law and Poetry in Early Modern England
Much recent work on the intersection of imaginative literature and early modern common law has focused on English drama's special relation to the courtroom and Inns of Court. Andrew Zurcher nicely adjusts the ongoing conversation by focusing on poetry, specifically Spenser's use of legal language in The Faerie Queene. The book is most impressive for its comprehensive presentation of Spenser's legal lexicon, and most successful where Zurcher works up from the extraordinary catalogue he has reconstructed to analyze in depth the implications of law's language for the poem's argument.
The book has three introductory chapters, two of them theoretical. The first argues for the general importance of attending to the particulars (historical, etymological, syntactical) of Spenser's inventive language. The second concerns the interpretive strategies of the humanist classroom (and of E. K.'s paratext in The Shepheardes Calender), with special attention to philology and, ultimately, to an analogical hermeneutics that Zurcher associates both with the common law and [End Page 1034] with Spenser's allegorical technique. But the interesting argument here that the early modern poetic text should be construed "as a lex" (18, 49) —and that the common law provided an interpretive paradigm for Spenser (and for early modern readers of poetry in general) —remains more suggestive than fully convincing. First, the common law was itself embedded in longstanding exegetical traditions, whose reach into poetic interpretation seems just as great. Moreover, the Spenserian fusion of the "need for interpretation" with the "problem of action upon judgment" does not belong to the common law "alone among the hermeneutical traditions" (48), but instead permeates various early disciplines and reading practices (including the reading of exemplary historical and poetic texts in the classroom). However central the common law was as a hermeneutic order (a point Zurcher richly substantiates), it was not alone in linking interpretive reading to judgment-toward-action.
As an empirical survey of Spenser's legal language, chapter 3 offers an illuminating frame for the book's core findings. At the level of the word, Zurcher demonstrates Spenser's broad interest in property, contract, defamation, and the relation of equity to common law. Especially interesting, as background to Spenser's legal poetics, is Zurcher's discovery of a significant overlap in the legal diction of The Faerie Queene with that of "Spenser's autograph diplomatic letters" (80), a connection that underlines Ireland's importance for the development of Spenser's technical interests and juridico-political thought.
The following chapters give detailed readings of law's central place in Spenser's allegoresis. Chapter 4 concerns the intersection of marriage, contract, and property in books 3 and 4. Most notable here is a first-rate reading of Florimell and Marinell. Zurcher shows how the association of Florimell with chattel property allows Spenser to represent the appeal to Neptune for her release from Proteus's prison in terms of replevin, a common-law process for adjudicating the claim of a lord (here, Proteus) over goods belonging to a tenant (Marinell) who owes the lord an unfulfilled service. Zurcher beautifully supports his novel reading with an analogous Admiralty case in Ireland, concerning wines taken as prize and subsequently seized by Spenser's neighbor from a ship harbored in Munster.
A chapter on equity in book 5 is also finely done. Zurcher extends earlier criticism on the topic by providing an unusually clear account of the political implications of Christopher St. German's work in the 1520s to reconfigure equity and conscience for the common law. And in that context, he usefully characterizes the equity pursued and practiced by Artegall and Mercilla as a very English equity that fits mercy (and the "merciful prerogative of the crown" ) to legal rule, and vice versa. Chapter 6, on book 6, similarly pursues the question of the prerogative by looking to courtesy as a category of extrajudicial privilege. Turpine...