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Royal legislation issued in English between the baptism of Æthelberht of Kent (c. 600 ad) and the reign of Cnut (r. 1016–35) comprises one of Europe’s more remarkable records of early political and legal thought. In it we see the transformation of England from a collection of disputing kingdoms to a nation united under the rule of Wessex in resistance to Viking incursions – all before one such Viking, Cnut (or ‘Canute the Great’), overcame Æthelred II (‘Ethelred the Unready’) and then made full use of the laws maintained by Æthelred and his ancestors, thereby easing the shock of alien rule. No polity of early Western Europe (save Ireland) left such a lengthy record of its reflections on matters of law in its own language. As we will see, this corpus encompasses a range of prose genres beyond those issuing from the royal court; most were read and copied long after the Norman Conquest.
The extent of Chaucer’s direct involvement with legal practice has been an open question since the fifteenth century. Although a practical knowledge of both the law and legal procedure was expected of London’s citizens, details from Chaucer’s life-records and his ease with legal terminology and protocol would seem to associate him closely with the courts, though in ways broader and less reliant on institutional credentialing than experienced by the many legal professionals he encountered in his dealings. Beyond Thomas Speght’s observation in the biographical note prefacing his 1598 Workes of Chaucer that ‘It seemeth that [Chaucer was] of the inner Temple’ (a note based on an already-lost document noted by Speght’s contemporary, William Buckley), we have no evidence substantiating Chaucer’s connection to formal legal studies. Instead, we can understand his legal knowledge through a mass of extant records, now assembled in the Chaucer Life-Records, consisting ‘largely of legal documents: records of expenses, exchequer writs, payments of annuities, appointments to office, witness statements, pleas of debt, house leases’. Rather than record his career, they witness his multiple and lifelong transactions within England’s legal systems. In fact, because we have no record of Chaucer’s life as a poet, these legal documents provide the primary window into his biography.
Attempts to define treason often imply a debate about the very nature and limits of the law, and about the legal authority of governments. Medieval literature reflects such tensions, but also seems to invest imaginatively in the concept of treason to an extent that the history of law alone cannot explain. In this chapter it is argued that treason took on a new shape during the period from the 1260s to the 1340s, and that this was to have a lasting effect on its representation, not just in English law, but also in English culture more generally. This evolution was significantly conditioned by the political turmoils of the period, including the Second Barons’ War of 1264–7, Edward I’s campaigns in Wales and Scotland, Edward II’s conflict with Thomas of Lancaster, and Edward II’s eventual deposition in 1327. Literary texts testify to the legal paradigm-shifts provoked by these events, and to the differences of political principle that underlay them; but they themselves seem to have played a part in the very processes that led to the creation of these new paradigms. What we see in several late thirteenth- and early fourteenth-century texts is something of the cultural and political ferment in which new attitudes to treason were formed.
Despite an unprecedented level of interest in the interaction between law and literature over the past two decades, readers have had no accessible introduction to this rich engagement in medieval and early Tudor England. The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Law and Literature addresses this need by combining an authoritative guide through the bewildering maze of medieval law with concise examples illustrating how the law infiltrated literary texts during this period. Foundational chapters written by leading specialists in legal history prepare readers to be guided by noted literary scholars through unexpected conversations with the law found in numerous medieval texts, including major works by Chaucer, Langland, Gower, and Malory. Part I contains detailed introductions to legal concepts, practices and institutions in medieval England, and Part II covers medieval texts and authors whose verse and prose can be understood as engaging with the law.