The Letter of the Law: Legal Practice and Literary Production in Medieval England ed. by Emily Steiner, Candace Barrington (review)
- Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies
- University of California, Los Angeles, Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies
- Volume 34, 2003
- pp. 253-254
- Additional Information
REVIEWS 253 source material at their disposal, and Kuefler does not have any unknown texts at his disposal. Nevertheless in this vibrant work, he manages to reread known texts in a refreshingly new light thereby providing new, a nuanced interpretation of why it was stressful to be a man in the Roman Empire and why conversion to Christianity was such an attractive proposition. EDNA RUTH YAHIL, History, UCLA The Letter of the Law: Legal Practice and Literary Production in Medieval England, ed. Emily Steiner and Candace Barrington (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press 2002) viii + 257 pp. The Letter of the Law is a wonderful example of cross-disciplinary studies in the areas of history, law, and literature. It takes the new definition of medieval law, a broader more inclusive definition as it was redefined in the last twenty years by historians such as Stephen White, John Hudson, Warren Brown, and Piotr Górecki, and looks with new perspective at literary works that use legalistic language. Late medieval literature provides the nine authors of The Letter of the Law and their editors with a conclave of information on how law manifested in the minds of the English. Most of the articles are rooted in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, an era rich in legal documents. Medieval people must certainly have understood and known the “law” more so than previously thought, according to the research in this volume. It seems that social boundaries, a mentalité of sorts, controlled the people by granting authority to the “protectors” of the law. This mind set of societal position provides interesting explanations as to why peasants remained oppressed after 1350: the social boundaries gave their lives structure as a group and this conformity hinged on the association formed around those people who enforced the law. The articles cover a variety of mediums from poetry, ballads, and plays to charters, sermons, and wills. Allow me to provide a quick run-down of the articles, which might prove helpful to potential readers. Christine Chism writes a fascinating article on “Robin Hood: Thinking Globally, Acting Locally in the Fifteenth-Century Ballads.” She acknowledges that the three ballads she is using may have been composed much earlier than the fifteenth century and, with that in mind, looks at local appropriations, common complaints and cries for reform of the law. Jana Mathews’s work on “Land, Lepers, and the Law in The Testament of Cresseid,” was a personal favorite, since I work on medieval medical and legal issues from a historical point of view. Mathews is wellversed in the historical legal texts and used them competently to examine how “medieval conceptions of personhood” impinged on decisions about inheritance in matters of those who were alive but too ill to continue as contractual participants . Several of the authors look at popular literary authors, especially Chaucer and Gower. Andrew Galloway wrote “The Literature of 1388 and the Politics of Pity in Gower’s Confessio amantis” and translated the appendix document from 1386. Galloway gives readers a detailed explanation and inquiry into the concepts of pity, grace and mercy in law during the final decade of the fourteenth century. Frank Grady, also investigates the end of the reign of Richard II in his article, “The Generation of 1399.” Grady explores what he terms a new REVIEWS 254 “Lancastrian” style of writing by looking at the works of Gower, Chaucer, and Langland among others. Richard Firth Green, as always, researches yet another fascinating topic; this time he looks at the juridical nature of a quarrel in Chaucer ’s Knight’s Tale. In particular, Green examines the “trial by battle” and the related concepts of treason, vindication and arbitrary justice. Maura Nolan also looks at Chaucer, in particular (and appropriately for this volume) the introduction to his tale of the “Man of Law” and how Chaucer “recognized the tension between the concrete and the abstract in legal discourse.” Emily Steiner in “Inventing Legality: Documentary Culture and Lollard Preaching” makes two important points for the study of law in general. First, people began to desire law and documentary evidence in order to give beliefs, perhaps even life, structure, “from which even an anti-establishment agenda may...