Seminar Six

Land, Law, and Literature

In this seminar we begin to address the question of relations between literature and the discourse of law. We choose the usefully broad term ‘discourse’ because a discourse doesn’t depend on texts and genres: the discourse of law might embrace for instance, the performance of someone presenting a case in court – the narrators, as Clanchy tells us such persons were called- or the ideas non-lawyers or literary texts might have of legalities, rights, possibilities under the law, or the model in a medieval census taker’s head of what he was counting, and so on. This enables us to move beyond simply indexing legal lexis or representations of legal process in literary texts and beyond the formal analysis of law documents as a literary species to the third area signaled by Richard Firth Green (in his chapter on medieval literature and law in the 1999 Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature): that of ‘regarding law and literature as parallel forms of discourse’ in which we can ask how the lawyer’s ‘comparatively more formal analysis of mental or social processes can help us understand what the imaginative writer sometimes leaves unspoken or expresses only obliquely’ (p. 407). And also, as Bruce Holsinger points out in his study of thirteenth century legal discourse and English poetry (see below), how ‘the so-called imaginative writer may be able to expose logical or cognitive gaps unacknowledged or under-theorized within official legal culture and exploit them through the alternative medium of literary language’.

We will consider literature and law in both divergent and convergent ways. At the simplest level, theory and practice are not the same, and the formulations of statute books and law codes often differs both from their enactments in practice and from what is thought imaginative, desirable or possible in literature. Thus, we read medieval codifications of women’s absence of legal personhood alongside Marie de France’s Lanval and its comprehensively empowered heroine for a sense of the divergences here, and further consider St Osith, a virgin patroness of landholding, and the relations between her powers and the legal subject.

Secondly, we look in detail at the trial scene in Lanval to consider possible convergences between literature and law in the conceptualisation of truth, proof, evidence, lordship, the question of what structuring cause or notion organizes a trial, what sanctions its outcome, what enables dispute resolution.


  1. Marie de France, Lanval (text and translation on Eres). [Ed. A. Ewert, The Lais of Marie de France, rev. Glyn S. Burgess (Oxford, Blackwell, 1995), and tr. Burgess and Busby, The Lais of Marie de France (Harmondsworth, 1986 and repr)].
  2. Britton (thirteenth-century vernacular law code): photocopied translation extracts to be distributed. For paragraphs set for your translation from the French, go to anglo-norman.nethome page, and choose, “List or Browse” under “On-line Source Texts”.  Scroll down to findBritton then search for the  following sections for translation (if you have good downloading capacity, you should be able to download them by requesting specific pages or by downloading the lot if you have serious capacity for large files): Britton,
    • Livre III, ch. III, De Mariage: translate paragraphs 1 and 2.
    • Livre V, ch I, De Dowaries: translate paragraph 1.
    • Livre VI, ch II, De Successioun: translate paragraph 2.
  3. La Vie de sainte Osith, text ed. A.T.Baker, ‘An Anglo-French Life of St Osith’, in Modern Language Review 6 (1911) 476-502 (this is a highly interventionist edition, and Professor D.W. Russell of Waterloo University has kindly given us permission to use the new edition he is preparing for a large web-based project: see separate instructions). The email translation of this life is by the late Professor Jane Zatta and, like Professor Russell’s, not to be quoted from for publication without prior permission. [Note: A new edition of Osith by Professor Russell and Jane Zatta’s translation revised and annotated by Jocelyn Wogan-Browne is now available in a memorial volume for Zatta in Illinois Papers on Language and Literature 41 (2005), pp. 297-305, 339-444.]


  1. Basic background in English common law: two short extracts on marriage and inheritance from Sir John Baker, An Introduction to English Legal History, 3rd edition (London, 1990) and one from Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record on ‘The Spoken Word in Legal Procedure’ (pp. 272-78) should be read by all.
  2. Three articles:
    • Hyams, Paul R., ‘Henry II and Ganelon’, The Syracuse Scholar 4.1 (Spring, 1983), 23-35 [includes Lanval discussion].
    • Rothwell, W. A., ‘The Trial Scene in Lanval and the Development of the Legal Register in Anglo-Norman’, Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 101 (2000), 17-36.
    • Zatta, Jane, ‘The Vie Seinte Osith: Hagiography and Politics in Anglo-Norman England’, Studies in Philology 96 (1999), 367-93.


Report on legal and secondary reading, looking at the question, ‘Do women exist in the discourse of law, and if so in what way/s?’


  1. What powers are exercised by the Lanval’s mistress, and from what do they derive? (5-6 minute discussion opener)
  2. What is at stake in the trial scene in Lanval? (5-6 minute discussion opener)


  1. Bloch, R. Howard, Medieval French Literature and Law (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977).
  2. Green, Richard Firth, ‘Medieval Literature and Law’ in The Cambridge History of Medieval Literature, ed. David Wallace (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp.407-31.
  3. Holsinger, Bruce, ‘Vernacular Legality: The English Jurisdictions of The Owl and the Nightingale’, in Emily Steiner and Candace Barrington, eds., The Letter of the Law: Legal Practice and Literary Production in Medieval England (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2002), pp. 154-84. (sophisticated and stimulating, worth reading whether or not you are concerned with the (for once) English thirteenth-century octosyllabic Owl and Nightingale (which is explicitly intertextual with Marie de France’s Laustic and more generally perhaps with her Fables).
  4. Menuge, Noel, ed., Medieval Women and the Law (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2002).
  5. A Lanval bibliography and more bibliography on women and the law are available for anyone who wants to follow up with their course projects in mind.