Tag Archives: Literature

Telling tales: Chaucer and the law

Illuminated page wit the Summoner - Chaucer, Catnetrbury Tales - Ellesmere Chaucer

The Summoner, illustration in the Ellesmere Chaucer, early 15th century – San Marino, CA, Huntington Library, ms. EL 26 C 9, fol. 81r (detail), source: http://hdl.huntington.org

Medieval literature sometimes touches law and justice, and thus it can be useful to look sometimes beyond the usual range of sources and materials legal historians prefer to study. The Biennial London Chaucer Conference will devote this year’s conference on June 30 and July 1, 2017 to Chaucer and the Law. At least three stories in the Canterbury Tales have lawyers or other persons associated with the law in its title, the sergeant-at-law in the tale of The Man of Law, the manciple and the summoner. Legal professions come into view in some of the other tales, too. The summoner had been attacked in The Friar’s Tale, to mention just one example. This post looks briefly at the upcoming conference, but I will not hesitate to add some personal remarks, too. A few months ago I came across a blog post by Candace Barrington, ‘Beyond the Anglophone Inner Circle of Chaucer Studies’ at In the Medieval Middle, and I could only agree with her about the importance of Chaucer to wider circles. The programme of the upcoming conference seems a major step in bringing him in a different context. Here I try to come closer to the field of literature than I do here usually.

The conference in London is organized at Senate House by the Institute of English Studies at the School for Advanced Studies, in cooperation with the New Chaucer Society and the Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature. Senate House is home to the Senate House Library.

A web of tales

If you come more or less from the outside to Chaucer it can really seem you enter a kind of parallel universe. When you spot at the website of the New Chaucer Society the link to the Chaucer Bibliography Online (Mark Allen, University of Texas at San Antonio) the sheer mass of studies about a plethora of subjects is awe-inspiring. With only the search term law you will retrieve more than 400 results. Chaucer definitely is treated as a part of world literature, but Barrington makes it clear it that only lately studying Chaucer has become a worldwide activity which can break though the lines of approach practised in the Anglophone world. Barrington is one of the founders of Global Chaucers, created as the “Online archive and community for post-1945, non-Anglophone Chauceriana”. The resources page of this blog shows you the wide impact of Chaucer and leads you also to a list of modern translations.

Visualizing Chaucer, Robbins Library, University Of Rochester, NY

The social media, too, have a role in creating a wider circle of people delving into Chaucer’s work. Many years ago the House of Fame, a blog maintained by a modern incarnation of Chaucer, was launched. Meanwhile this modern Chaucer has become a master of funny Middle English tweets by Le VostreGC. For Chaucer and the Law there is the Twitter account Chaucer_Law. I will not give a here a complete guide to Chaucer studies, but some websites can help you very much. Among the short introductions to Chaucer the online exhibit The World of Chaucer. Medieval Books and Manuscripts (Special Collections, Glasgow University Library) is helpful. The University of Sheffield has created a portal for critical editions of the Canterbury Tales where you can easily compare some of the main manuscripts containing this work, including the Hengwrt and Ellesmere manuscripts. eChaucer: Chaucer in the Twenty-First Century (University of Maine at Machias) is a portal with both the original texts and translations, and a concise web guide. Candace Barrington contributes also to an open access companion to the Canterbury Tales. Siân Echard (University of British Columbia) provides a great service with his web pages on Chaucer: Manuscripts and Books on the Web, but for the image of the Ellesmere manuscript shown here I preferred to visit the website of the Huntington Library. Visualizing Chaucer (University of Rochester, NY) is your online port of call for more images of and around Chaucer. If you hesitate about the importance of images you might want to look at The Robin Hood Project of the Robbins Library of the University of Rochester.

The programme of the two-day conference in London shows a wide variety of sessions. With a sigh of relief I saw the first section is dedicated to A Preface for Chaucerians: Chaucer for Historians, a promise that Chaucer will not be only the subject of literary views. Anthony Musson will discuss the sergeant-at-law, the teller of the Man of Law’s Tale, and Nigel Ramsay will speak about the manciple and his tale. A quick view of the programme shows also that the Canterbury Tales are not the exclusive source linking all contributions. Chaucer’s other works figure here as well. It is about time to confess I, too, look at Chaucer from a foreign perspective. My knowledge of English legal history, too, is refreshed and even extended here., and anyway it is simply necessary to tell something more about the three main figures associated with the law in the Canterbury Tales. The sergeants-at-law were for centuries barristers with the exclusive right to argue cases in the Court of Common Pleas. A manciple was a purveyor of goods for a court or college, sometimes a caterer of food. The summoner was an official in ecclesiastical courts who delivered charges to people compelling to appear in court. Peter Guy Brown will discuss this official in his paper.

Let’s not forget to look briefly at Chaucer himself. Geoffrey Chaucer (around 1343-1400) was a public servant with functions such as a valet de chambre to king Edward III, customs official for the port of London and deputy forester in Somerset. He acted as a royal envoy in France and Italy. In 1386 he became a Member of Parliament. As a poet-diplomat he must have met all kinds of people, and these meetings are in a way mirrored in the figures portrayed in the Canterbury Tales and in his other works. He is a master at playing with reputations and stereotypes.

Of course it will not do to plod here through all papers of the upcoming conference in London, you will find here a personal choice. Some papers refer to other kinds of law as well. Samantha Katz Seal will look at laws of lineage in Chaucer’s work. Julie Chamberlin will discuss legal networks in The Franklin’s Tale. Chaucer’s Complaint unto Pity is the subject of Jonathan Forbes’ paper in which the complaint will be compared to a legal plea. Claire Fennell will discuss a Middle English statute book in the manuscript Oxford, Bodleian Library, Rawlinson MS B 520. The first day ends with a plenary lecture by Emily Steiner on medieval literature and the limits of law.

The second day will start with a contribution from Groningen. Sebastian Sobecki will give a plenary lecture about Chaucer’s lawyers. Sobecki prepares with Barrington The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Law and Literature. Recently he published Unwritten Verities. The Making of England’s Vernacular Legal Culture, 1463–1549 (Notre Dame, IN, 2015). Arvind Thomas will speak about literature and legal maxims. Euan C. Roger will look at Chaucer’s career in royal service by looking at the plea rolls. Among other themes to be addressed are sumptuary laws, the role of conscience, freedom of speech, treason and mercy.

Part of the attraction of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is his skill in picturing people by their conscious or unconscious use of particular language. In many tales he succeeds in disguising the origin of a story. The fragmentary tradition and the signs alluding to a possibly different ordering and sequence of the tales provide space to use widely different perspectives to gain insights. Every tale in the Canterbury Tales forms a kind of microcosmos with a multitude of aspects, and on the other hand they are part of a network of tales. Being aware of the very variety of medieval life, culture and society is not a bad thing when studying medieval law and justice, and Chaucer offers a focus for looking at the fourteenth century.

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An age of lawyers and literature

Flyer The Age of LawyersThe power of words seduces every honest writer to do his or her very best to write in a unique way to convey what you want to say and to add to the expressive qualities of language and literature. Only seldom people succeed in achieving immortal fame and enduring influence on a living language. In this post I want to look at an author who conjured up scenes of unforgettable power using the language of his time in ways unheard of. In fact his works were in some periods considered too rough and therefore edited and censored. Together with the English of the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Version of the Bible the works of William Shakespeare still have immeasurable influence on the English language and culture.

Shakespeare’s works have the power to stir our emotions and imagination. Until today his portraits of English kings and their courts influence our views of English history and royal circles. No doubt this year’s commemoration of Shakespeare’s death on April 23, 1616 will bring a flood of activities and events. A few weeks ahead of the central day there is still a chance to look here in a more sober setting at some of the digital initiatives which try to shed new light on one of the greatest people in world literature. At least one of them, an exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C., focused on lawyers in Shakespeare’s age, but it comes into better relief surrounded by other projects of The Folger, and by a selection of recently launched online Shakespeare projects and digital projects dealing with Early Modern letters.

Surrounded by lawyers

Even without the Shakespeare connection the exhibition Age of Lawyers: The Roots of American Law in Shakespeare’s Britain is really interesting. The Folger showed the exhibition from September 4, 2015 until January 4, 2016, but luckily there is an accompanying virtual exhibit. The concept for the exhibition was developed in cooperation with the Georgetown Law Library, a library with early printed legal books in its own digital collection. There are four main sections, Legal LivesThe Great Courts, Law and Communities and The King and the Law. In contrast to usual virtual exhibitions it has not been placed in a clearly defined corner or subdomain of the website, but as a seemingly unconnected item on the Folgerpedia, the website of The Folger for general information. More remarkable is the absence of illustrations. It took me some time before reaching the list of exhibitions at this library’s website. You can only applaud the inclusion of transcriptions of several exhibition items, but they yet have to appear for the fourth section. The very heart of the exhibition is an extended introduction to the materials put on show, to be read side-by-side with the list of items.

The four sections of Age of Lawyers give us a good idea of the world of Elizabethan lawyers. The first section looks at legal education, the Inns of Courts and the various legal professions. The various royal courts are the core of the second section. In the third section legal practice comes into view, its impact on daily life and local communities. The last section shows a great variety of subjects around the central theme of royal power, from major figures such as Francis Bacon and Edward Coke to subjects as Magna Charta and the influence of English developments on early American law and politics, with for example attention to Thomas Jefferson. The wealth of materials put on show in this virtual exhibition is impressive, and it is even more interesting to see how many of them come from the holdings of the Folger Shakespeare Library. In my opinion this virtual exhibition gives you a very valuable introduction to the legal history of England in the decades around 1600.

Logo Shakespeare Documented

The Folger is one of the institutions contributing to a major virtual exhibition of documents from and about Shakespeare, Shakespeare Documented. Documents, archival records and manuscripts from such institutions the National Archives (Kew), the Bodleian Library, the British Library and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust – and from a host of other institutions worldwide – make this exhibition into a real gem. It amounts to a digital collection divided in four main categories: playwright, actor and shareholder; poet, family, legal and property records, and his seventeenth-century afterlife. With 186 of the nearly 500 items the category connecting to legal history is the second largest category of this exhibition. More documents and transcriptions will be added this year. You can search at will using a free text search or preset filters. Shakespeare’s involvement as a shareholder is mostly shown in the conflict about The Globe. It is really not feasible to pick here even among the highlights an absolute must. For me this virtual exhibit is a bridge between only reading Shakespeare’s works or searching your way among the vast literature on him. It also is in a very real sense the connection and life thread between the major projects presented here.

Close to the sources

The Folger Shakespeare Library offers more things online worth exploring. Among its latest projects is Shakespeare’s World, a crowdsourcing project of The Folger, the Zooniverse project for crowdsourcing and the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). One of the objectives of this project is finding words that so far have not been included in the OED. People volunteering to cooperate can choose a genre to transcribe. At first the choice between recipes and letters seems a thing to wonder about, but recipes have not been among the resources used by the founders of the OED. Letters can show words less often used, new uses of words, and, perhaps more importantly for the aim of this post, they might show the impact of literary imagination. An apparent drawback is the lack of an overview of senders and recipients.

Private Libraries in Renaissance England (PLRE) is the Folger’s online adaptation of the printed version of this reference work. It is really a database that helps you to execute queries which you will want to check in the original edition. You can get a closer view of books from this period by looking at the section on bindings of The Folger’s LUNA image database.

Logo EMMO - EWaerly Modern Manuscripts Online

Another project is in the development phase. As for now Early Modern Manuscripts Online (EMMO) has not yet resulted in a separate website. Since 2014 a lot of workshops and events has been organized. You will find the links section particularly useful, with for example an overview by The Folger of links concerning Early Modern English palaeography and digitized manuscripts.

fdtlogo

For my brief introductions to some of The Folger’s own digital projects I use the overview in the Folgerpedia. Personally I would prefer to have this overview on the main website of The Folger, but I suppose we are dealing here with a kind of planetary system around it. The Folger has also prepared a dedicated website for Shakespeare’s works, Folger Digital Texts. For quick reference and easy access this collection is very welcome, even though scholars might want to have a version under PhiloLogic or similar linguistic tools. For this you can turn to Early Modern Print, a project of the Washington University, St. Louis, MO, and the Early English Books Online-Text Creative Partnership. You will find here tools to gain insights into changes in word frequencies, KWIC (Key Words In Context) and a N-gram browser. The very example of KWIC in this project shows results for the word slander, which might inspire legal historians, too, to have a look at it. This overview at The Folger of digital projects and tools, even the subscription-only resources most times only accessible at research libraries, is actually a splendid nutshell guide to the study of Renaissance England. The University of Chicago provides us with a special subdomain to use its Philologic technology on editions and adaptations of Shakespeare.

Lives and letters around Shakespeare

Banner Six Degrees of Francis Bacon

If lawyers played such a large role in Shakespeare’s life you will probably want to know more exactly which lawyers, and more generally which people were closest to Shakespeare. On my journeys around the web I found recently the website Six Degrees of Francis Bacon. The aim of this Anglo-American project is collecting and visualizing data which show you the Early Modern social network. After registration you can download data, and also add new data. Everyone can look at the visualizations or relationships. Bacon (1561-1626) was originally also trained as a lawyer. Even if a similar website could already exist for Shakespeare it becomes quickly clear that you can immensely benefit from using this website when researching Shakespeare’s entourage, especially when you fortify your results with the letters of the project for Shakespeare’s World and the virtual exhibition Shakespeare Documented.

Choosing Bacon is just an example of the many projects dealing with English letters and correspondents. The most generous portal to them is certainly Cultures of Knowledge: Networking the Republic of Letters, 1550-1750 (University College London). Perhaps its main offspring, and certainly one closely connected to the theme of this post, is the project Early Modern Letters Online under the aegis of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, where you can search directly in letters written in many countries. Some of the resources at Cultures of Knowledge stem from the Lives and Letters project developed and led by the late Lisa Jardine. Among its projects is the edition of the correspondence of Francis Bacon, the main resource behind Six Degrees of Francis Bacon. For those wanting to look at more online projects dealing with letters the overview at Digitizing Correspondence should quench a lot of your thirst, and you might also contemplate the examples of interfaces for these projects. If you add to this wealth the links page at Cultures of Knowledge you can start to investigate for yourself the epistolary culture of Early Modern Europe. Going back to the subject of this post it is the project for the letters of Edmund Spenser which comes close to the sphere of action of William Shakespeare.

Celebrating Shakespeare

How can one avoid the obvious things around Shakespeare and have a fresh look at him? The Folger has created its own list of quatercentenary online projects. When preparing this post I thought about the manifold activities of another American research library, The Newberry in Chicago. Among nearly fifty online educational resources you might have a look at three virtual exhibitions concerning William Shakespeare, Marriage and Family in Shakespeare’s England, Shakespeare’s Romans: Politics and Ethics in Julius Caesar and Coriolanus, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the Utopias of the European Renaissance, the last item providing me with a connection to my recent blog post about More’s Utopia.

Instead of going to one of the sections of library websites about their copy of the First Folio, an object for which the label Holy Grail seems almost too simple, it is possible to have a look at digitized First Quartos and to compare various editions. They bring you closer to the times of Shakespeare himself than the posthumous First Folio. However, if you had rather stay with a time-tested resource, there is all reason to visit the section Discover Literature: Shakespeare of the British Library’s website with for example an article by Liza Picard on crime and punishment in Elizabethan England. Andrew Dickson looks at the only existing literary manuscript with Shakespeare’s handwriting, The Booke of Sir Thomas More. The play contains a plea for tolerance towards immigrants, and I cannot help feeling touched by the poignancy of this subject. More was a man for all seasons, and Shakespeare is indeed a writer for all times! The play seems to have been never performed during his life. In the project England’s immigrants 1350-1550: Resident Aliens in the Late Middle Ages curated by the universities of Sheffield (HRI Online) and York in cooperation with the National Archives at Kew you can find out about 64,000 persons coming to England during two centuries.

Drawing of The Swan. London, by Buchelius

Drawing of The Swan theatre, London, 1596 – Aernout van Buchell, Adversaria – Utrecht, UB, ms. 842, fol. 132r – image: http://objects.library.uu.nl

The customary Dutch view shown here has in fact figured here in 2013, but without the famous illustration. The image has been used in countless printed publications. Aernout van Buchell (Buchelius) (1565-1646), an antiquarian scholar from Utrecht, copied a drawing around 1596 of The Swan theatre in London (Utrecht, UB, ms. 842, fol. 132 r). In my earlier post where I wrote about Buchelius you can find the links to more digitized manuscripts of this author.

Of course much more can be said, and has already been said this year. Today I looked briefly at the fine aggregator of Early Modern blogs created by Sharon Howard. If you follow her tag for Shakespeare at Early Modern Commons you will find already dozens of celebratory articles. Hopefully you will appreciate the urgent need to restrict myself here to only a few dozen projects. A search for Shakespeare at Early Modern Resources brings us ten online resources mentioning him. No doubt Sharon Howard will soon add a number of the new Shakespeare projects to Early Modern Resources.

However large and inviting the temptation to end here with one of the countless proverbial words of Shakespeare I had rather invite you to look yourself again and again at this writer whose works breathed life into the English language. His imagination both as a playwright and poet is at many turns so powerful that its glow will last as long people care for the right words which do justice to the humanity living in his works.

A postscript

One of the possible follow-ups to this contribution is looking in more detail at Shakespeare’s plays and the role of law. You can get a taste of this subject by looking at free accessible recent articles in the journals Law and Literature and Law and Humanities.

The power of words: Some thoughts about Umberto Eco

Image of Umbert Eco - photographer unknown - source: Wikimedia Commons

Umbert Eco – photographer unknown – source: Wikimedia Commons

The death of Umberto Eco (1932-2016) makes the world mourn a most versatile author. In fact you might do him justice by seeing him almost as a true uomo universale. In his writings, both his scholarly work and his novels, the thing resonating within you long afterwards was and is the encounter with a mind full of curiosity about the world, culture and life at large. As a small contribution in remembrance of a great intellectual I will look here at a few aspects of a period close to his heart, the Middle Ages. With The Name of the Rose Eco did not only write a great detective novel and a philosophical treatise about visions of reality and truth, but he returned in a way to the territory where his career started. This novel is marked by elements of law and justice, reason enough to have a look at it here.

A story in black and white

Eco’s great story, set in the early fourteenth century, has not just one central narrative thread, the quest of William of Baskerville and his assistant Adso of Melk to solve crimes and the mysteries surrounding them. The Name of the Rose is also a book about confrontations between old and new ways of thinking and action, and of strife even between people at both sides. The Franciscan William of Baskerville meets a formidable opponent when the Dominican friar and inquisitor Bernard Gui arrives on the scene of the monastery in Northern Italy. Both religious orders came into existence shortly after 1200. They almost fought each other to receive able men into their ranks. The different ways of living and preaching inspired them to outshine each other. Now Bernard Gui (around 1262-1331) was a historical figure. Interestingly he was not only the most famous inquisitor of his time, but also a very active historian of his order, see A.-M. Lamarrigue, Bernard Gui. Un historien et sa méthode (Paris, 2000).

Cambridge Uniersity Library, ms. Ff 3.18,fol. 1r

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, start of II-I; England, circa 1320-1340 – Cambridge, UL, ms. Ff 3.18, fol. 1r – image: Cambridge University Library

800 years ago the Dominican order was founded. Part of the worldwide jubilee celebrations is the virtual exhibition A pipeline from heaven: eight centuries of Dominican books created by Cambridge University Library. Among the manuscripts shown in the online gallery you can find the Summa Theologiae, the major work produced by Thomas Aquinas. I searched in this exhibit in vain for the inquisition and Bernard Gui, but let’s first remember how Eco started as a scholar with writing about Thomas Aquinas. Eco’s Ph.D. thesis dealt with the views on art of this Dominican philosopher and theologian. Aquinas wrote many of his works using the scholastic method of distinctions using questions and answers. Argument after argument is dissected in a seemingly cool and calm way. Personal views or involvement seldom surface. Eco succeeded in pinpointing Aquinas’ views of art in his discussions of perception, contrary to the opinions of eminent scholars such as Étienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain. Once you realize this, it is easier to see how this discovery influenced Eco’s later scholarly and literary works.

When William of Baskerville reads and explains the telling signs which contain clues to unravel what happened at the Benedictine monastery infected by crime, Eco knowingly plays with scholarly views of medieval and modern philosophy. Using and focusing on signs was for some time the very heart of the vogue for microhistory. The Italian word connected with the microhistory paradigm is spie, traces. Eco was virtually the founder – together with Roland Barthes – of semioticsthe theory of signs, their meanings and relations. In the thirteenth century a number of Dominican friars set out to write both manuals and encyclopedias covering all kinds of knowledge. Very soon the papacy realized that their deep theological knowledge made these friars fit to become inquisitors. Bernard Gui himself wrote a manual for inquisitors, edited by Michel Mollat, Bernard Gui. Manuel de l’inquisiteur (Paris 1926, reprint 1964; Les classiques de l’histoire de France au moyen âge, 8-9). Gui made notes and instructions and carefully documented his activity in the Languedoc in another manuscript [Le livre des sentences de l’inquisiteur Bernard Gui (1308-1323), Annette Pales-Gobillard (ed.) (Paris 2002)]. David Burr (Virginia Tech) has translated a number of the texts in this edition, in particular Gui’s views on detecting heresy. Gui mentions among other heretical matters the views on poverty of the Franciscan writer Petrus Olivi which figure in Eco’s novel, too.

As part of the Dutch jubilee celebrations of the Dominican order the journal Tijdschrift voor Geestelijk Leven [Journal for Spiritual Life] published a special about Dominican history [Het hart op de tong. 800 jaar dominicaanse verkondiging (TGL 72/1 (2016)] with an article by legal historian and theologian Daniela Müller (Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen) on Bernard Gui (pp. 27-35), summarizing in Dutch at the same time a part of her recent research about medieval heresy and the position of women. Müller writes Gui served his order also as a procurator generalis at the papal court in Avignon, and even became involved in the canonisation of Thomas Aquinas. He also acted as a papal nuntius. Müller’s recent research about Gui’s protest against the decision of pope Clement V compelling bishops and inquisitors to work together is real news (see her article ‘Der Bischof und der Inquisitor’, in: Ketzer und Kirche. Betrachtungen aus zwei Jahrtausenden, Daniela Müller (ed.) (Münster 2014) 237-262).

For Bernard Gui words and views did not stand independent of beliefs and practices. You might say he read the views of people as signs of religious convictions and adherence. He outright connected particular expressions with heretical views, even if he had not yet asked specifically about the latter. Eco succeeded most powerfully in showing one of the major faults of the inquisitorial procedure, the combination of the function of persecuting officer and judge in one person. Is it a play on his own name – Eco means echo in Italian – that the other main character in The Name of the Rose, Jorge of Burgos, the monk killing so many of his brethren, also acted as a staunch persecutor of new views and a terrible self-appointed judge? Eco would have spoilt his novel by placing the motto Only connect used by Virginia Woolf at the start of his first novel, but surely this is the most concise clue to his book.

The joy of writing and sharing knowledge

Banner Index Translationum

Eco involved himself in Italian life and culture with his own column for a newspaper and regular appearances on television. In a number of his books, for example about the history of beauty, he left behind him his familiar territories of medieval history and current philosophy, and reached out to a much larger audience. Among these books I personally most like his work touching on the history of language research, La ricerca della lingua perfetta nella cultura europea (1993), translated into nearly twenty languages, as you can check in the Index Translationum of UNESCO. The history of the search for the perfect language brought Eco in many cases to authors expressing their own theory about the original language of humanity. Even Dutch was in the seventeenth century sometimes presented as the language spoken in Paradise! Having started with studying the world where Latin was the lingua franca this subject certainly made Eco smile. His command of European languages made him the ideal author for this theme.

I first read The Name of the Rose as a student of medieval history. Although I did find at first his proliferation of extracts from medieval authors close to going through an overturned card file I had no doubt whatsoever of his skills as a great story-teller. The joy of writing and sharing is visible everywhere in his writings. Since I first read this book I have reread it several times, and my admiration for it has grown. While writing this post I noticed how many tags I can use for classifying my musings about Eco. We are lucky to see in Umberto Eco someone defying normal classifications. He was a great scholar, and even his faults and flaws have turned into art. Few scholars have been as candid and full of humour as Eco about his own mistakes. Nobody is perfect, but Eco’s legacy will continue to help us perceiving signs, detecting hidden perceptions and connections. He makes you transcend the world of books and marvel at the Book of the World.

Musing upon liberty and law

While musing myself on themes suitable for a new post on my blog at least one subject offered itself last week in my mailbox. An antiquarian bookshop with stores in Brooklyn, NY and Stevenson, MD, sent me a message about nineteenth-century manuscripts for sale. One of the items attracted my attention because of a remarkable series of subjects touching on law, history and liberty brought together in a manuscript note by a well-known American author. Here I will try to focus on two questions which call out for an answer. Do these subjects really combine so easily and naturally as this author assumed? How can legal historians bring them into discussion again? Here I would like to share with you my first impressions.

Ralph Waldo Emerson and the law

Ralph Waldo Emerson, manuscript notes on liberty

The manuscript at the center of this post is a two-page note written by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) in 1855. Both the website of the antiquarian firm and their mail message point out this text features in Emerson’s book English Traits (1856). From Emerson Central, one of the online portals to Emerson’s texts, I take the quote at stake here:

Magna-charta, jury-trial, habeas-corpus, star-chamber, ship-money, Popery, Plymouth-colony, American Revolution, are all questions involving a yeoman’s right to his dinner, and, except as touching that, would not have lashed the British nation to rage and revolt.

Emerson had studied theology at Harvard. He had visited England in 1833 and 1847, and France in 1848 during the year of revolutions all over the European continent. My first impression of this sentence from the chapter “Ability” of English Traits is that of someone applauding the steady character of the British who do not let them foil into violent actions for some goal, however lofty or urgent. The Glorious Revolution of 1688, revolts in medieval England, the break with Scotland and the Dissolution of the Monasteries are conspicuously absent, and I choose here only a few themes. Instead of character I should perhaps say “nature”, taking the lead from Emerson’s famous essay Nature (1836/1849). In his even more famous address The American Scholar (1837) he urged writers to break away from literary conventions and to find their own voice. Some twenty years later love for things British seemed to be very real. Emerson definitely wrote in the century of the nation-state, and his opinions might be both fired and coloured by feelings of national pride, influenced also by personal experiences. His use of the words Saxon and Scandinavian race is distinctively mainly for the apparent conviction it carries, and not only for its factual imprecision. To all appearances Emerson shared here a Whig view of British history, one long and unbroken road to liberty. Emerson was a poet, too, and we should acknowledge that his vision of the United Kingdom is visionary, perhaps even utopic. Historical facts or their reassessment do not alter the poetic view expressed by Emerson.

For a first online orientation concerning Emerson the article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is very helpful. You can execute illuminating textual searches in Emerson’s writings in the digital edition created by the University of Michigan, and continue your research at RWE.org. The nature of this blog post is a very simple first impression, a first look at a resource which surely can be studied in more depth.

Great events

The core of Emerson’s note to be discussed here is the combination of familiar subjects for legal historians: Magna Carta, the trial jury, the Habeas corpus rule, the Star Chamber, the Plymouth colony and the American Revolution. In the image above you can spot that the ship money figured immediately after Magna Carta, but in the published text it has been moved to a fifth place. The fight against Catholic influences and the creation of the Anglican Church is concisely evoked by the word “popery”. The ship-money was the tax levied by Charles I of England between 1629 and 1640 without parliamentary consent. Once upon a time such subjects might have been included at least in continental capita selecta lectures about British history, but they more probably were and are at the heart of an introductory course in British legal history taught anywhere in the Anglo-American world. By the way, law is not forgotten among the digital resources presented at The Plymouth Colony Archive.

Next year legal historians will face the celebrations around 800 years Magna Carta. The original copies will be shown in exhibitions, sometimes far from their present location. Cultural institutions such as the British Library will rightfully exhaust themselves to show their treasures and to appraise them anew. Hopefully historians can take a distance from preconceived opinions and look at their own prejudices, and help explaining how and why some themes in legal history gained their iconic importance.

The thing that struck me most about Emerson’s words is the vitality of history and the value attached to it, even when admittedly the nineteenth century was the century of history par excellence. The two pages with his notes show in a very immediate way – notice the fluency of his hand! – how he saw himself as part of a living continuity. Whatever the reasons behind the American Revolution it followed nevertheless the example of a country with a long experience of institutions safeguarding liberty.

The website of the antiquarian firm gives a five number amount of money as the prize of Emerson’s note. The prize of liberty and the just course of law and justice is beyond any prize. Legal historians should honour the history of liberty by pointing to its prime examples, to the grave and grim periods and events threatening liberty, to mistakes and opportunities recognisable in our days, too.

The 1855 manuscript of Emerson – with a 1875 carte de visite photograph of Emerson – is for sale at the 19th Century Rare Book and Photograph Shop