Riding the Black Ram: Law, Literature, and Gender


Unruly women are not often represented in a good light. Whether historical, or fictional, disruptive women with their real or imagined excesses have long provided the material for literary and legal narratives. This probing new work analyzes a series of literary, legal, and historical texts to demonstrate the persistence of certain gender stereotypes.

In her 1820 adultery trial, Queen Caroline was depicted in a cartoon riding into the House of Lords on a black ram that had the ...

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Unruly women are not often represented in a good light. Whether historical, or fictional, disruptive women with their real or imagined excesses have long provided the material for literary and legal narratives. This probing new work analyzes a series of literary, legal, and historical texts to demonstrate the persistence of certain gender stereotypes.

In her 1820 adultery trial, Queen Caroline was depicted in a cartoon riding into the House of Lords on a black ram that had the face of her Italian lover. As this book reveals, a number of women, remembered largely for their insubordinate presence, have metaphorically "ridden the black ram" in the last 700 years. Heinzelman's historicized understanding of the relationship between law and literature reveals a disquieting pattern in the legal and literary representations of women and provides a new recognition of the significance of sexuality and gender in the way we narrate our world.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Riding the Black Ram offers new ways to appreciate the complexity of eighteenth-century women writers and force of literary investments in eighteenth-century legal narratives."—Laura Rosenthal, Modern Philology

"Susan Sage Heinzelman's Riding the Black Ram: Law, Literature, and Gender explores the divergence between legal and literary discourses from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries. . . She thus argues for a more nuanced view of power and powerlessness in relation to legislative and literary discourse."—Year's Work in English Studies

"A solid resource for those interested in the rise of the novel, gender studies, or literature of the period."—V.A. Murrenus Pilmaier, University of Wisconsin Sheboygan

"With the sophistication of a major critical theorist and the rigor of the archival historian, Susan Sage Heinzelman has produced a masterpiece that will set the court of law and literature abuzz. By bringing 'law' and 'literature' into dialogue under the sign of 'the feminine', her new book prosecutes a knock-down case for a feminist literary jurisprudence with pure barristerial brio. Step aside Stanley Fish, Peter Goodrich and James Boyd White: there's a new law-and-literrateuse abroad, and riding her black ram into the very heart of cultural legal studies!" —William P. MacNeil, Griffith University

"In uncovering the feminine concept of nostos and placing it alongside the more masculine nomos, Heinzelman sheds new light on the romance narrative. This brilliant book with a wide historical scope makes a very welcome addition to interdisciplinary studies in law and literature." —Nan Goodman, University of Colorado

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780804756808
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press
  • Publication date: 3/15/2010
  • Series: The Cultural Lives of Law Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 200
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Susan Sage Heinzelman is Associate Professor of English and Director of the Center for Women's and Gender Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the coeditor of Representing Women: Law, Literature and Narrative (1994).

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Read an Excerpt

Riding the Black Ram

Law, Literature, and Gender

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2010 Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-5680-8

Chapter One

"Termes Queinte of Lawe" and Quaint Fantasies of Literature

Chaucer's Man of Law and Wife of Bath

Quaint: queinte:-Latin cognitum: known Of persons and things: knowing, canny, cunning; Of speech: full of fancies or conceits; Of the woman's body: ingeniously wrought, uncanny, genitalia (vulgar: cunt). From definition of "quaint," Oxford English Dictionary

It would be too reductive to claim that The Man of Law speaks for nomos, or regulation, and that the widowed Wife of Bath speaks out of nostos, or desire, but we can provisionally adopt these terms to conceptualize the relationship between these two tales of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. As an allegory of the complicated and gendered relationship between literature and law, these tales offer a way of understanding how disciplinary knowledge can be managed to secure the appearance of stable gender identities. Shuttling historical, legal, and literary analyses, I place these two tales in juxtaposition-as the widow responding to the lawyer-to reveal what happens when forms of knowledge (and the power implied by their possession) reveal themselves to be arbitrarily, rather than inherently, embodied in gender stereotypes.

Chaucer's Canterbury Tales have assumed canonical status in literary history, a status confirmed by the fact that they are often "translated" into children's literature. They are the storehouse of a particular set of images and metaphors that through repetition have come to signify women's problematic and apparently fixed relation to religious and secular authority. This signification through repetition, what I call "historical inscription," is itself a form of disciplining, limiting potentially transformative representations of gender, and reinforcing the authority of the discipline of literature itself. In addition to its place in literary history, Chaucer's late fourteenth-century representation of the Man of Law marks two significant moments in the ascendance of English common law: first, Chaucer draws attention to the role of lawyers and the law in affairs both great and small. No one, he suggests, remains untouched by the network of legal, religious, and political alliances that marks the beginning of modern conceptions of the state. Those alliances, of course, promote and define certain rights and responsibilities in a specifically gendered and socially hierarchical manner. Second, the growing value attached to the Englishness of the common law-as distinguished from the Roman continental tradition-would be seen, retroactively, as inextricably linked to a specific kind of national identity and literature that relied upon and reinforced those gender and class distinctions.

In the opening lines of her "Prologue," the Wife of Bath refers to two supposedly distinct types of knowledge-"authority" and "experience"-which one might also call the juridico-religious and the literary. The distinction between these two ways of knowing is constantly under threat, as are its gendered affiliations, and such instability inevitably transforms the nature of political power. The play of competing discourses-not simply juridico-religious and literary but also the familiar and the foreign, the aristocratic and popular, the formal and customary, the written and the oral, the Christian and pre-Christian, the material and spiritual-is ubiquitous in Canterbury Tales, but the Man of Law and the Wife of Bath offer us two precise and gendered versions of this discursive contest. As two of the twenty-nine pilgrims in the "General Prologue" journeying from London to the shrine of the martyred St. Thomas à Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, the Man of Law and the Wife of Bath enact a contest between the centralized and professional face of the law and what Clifford Geertz calls "the informal logic of actual life," a logic that includes constant negotiations with different forms of political and social power. It was a contest familiar to Chaucer's audience and even now provides fertile ground for scholars who look to those occasions when law on the books bumps up against lived experience.

The Man of Law is of the company of Serjeants-at-Law (servientes ad legem), one of the king's legal servants belonging to the Order of the Coif who "had exclusive rights to plead cases in the Court of Common Pleas." During Chaucer's time, there would have been about twenty such Serjeants from whom were selected the judges of the king's court and the chief baron of the Exchequer. As a practitioner of the common law, the Man of Law is part of that tradition of English common law that might be said to have been baptized, if not born, during the reign of Henry II (1154-89), the king responsible for the death of that same "hooly blisful martir" to whose shrine the pilgrims are traveling.

Becket was martyred in 1170, murdered by royal assassins for defending the church against the jurisdictional encroachments of Henry II. The king crafted new laws governing the relationship between church and state and systematized the Curia Regis, royal courts that heard both criminal cases and land disputes. In these royal courts, citizens could bring suits that would then be heard by officers the king had appointed rather than by local authorities. Beginning with Henry II, we can trace the gradual centralizing and enlarging of the power and scope of the common law, a system of juridical government that inevitably reflected and reinforced the gender asymmetry of the state. Despite the growing ascendancy of a centralized system of law, however, local knowledge and custom (customary law) still shaped (and would continue to shape) much of the social and political life outside London and offered a more flexible legal space to those formally excluded from the royal courts either by birth or gender, like the Wife of Bath.

As a woman, the Wife's official relationship to law mimicked her relationship to the greatest source of authority in medieval society, the church. Theoretically, she would be "excluded from a wide variety of legal functions, including acting as witness, making contracts and administering property." The growth of common law during the medieval period may have actually lessened the limited representation of women in the courts: in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, for example, a woman "could only bring charges against an offender for rape, miscarriage, or death of her husband. She could not bring charges for theft, burglary, or death of any other relative." As property, she could make claims only when that property was diminished in value-through assault on her body or her spouse. Since legally she owned nothing, she could not claim to have been robbed of anything. As is obvious from the Wife of Bath's matrimonial history, however, women of noble and bourgeois rank participated actively in the management of domestic affairs, especially in matters of family property: many sales contracts, leases, and donations, for example, were signed by women, or by men who identified themselves through their mother's name.

In particular, widows were named executrices in their husband's wills and frequently undertook to manage their husband's affairs, running businesses, protecting their children's interests, and representing themselves in court. Some widows could achieve a degree of social independence in business, as well as authority in matters of trade and law. Some even controlled, as the Wife does, the distribution of their property, although even she would not officially claim the financial and legal sovereignty she appears to hold over her husbands, largely on account of her merchant status. As Judith Bennett argues, widows were anomalies in a world where women rarely took on public duties:

As long as [the widow] remained unremarried ... she shared with all other widows the status of a female endowed with extensive public authority; as a result, widows fit awkwardly into the social hierarchy of the medieval world. In a world of male householders, they were female heads of households. In a legal system that so often distinguished clearly between the public rights of males and females, they took on some of the public attributes of men. In an economy that most valued landholding, their peculiar land claims threatened the proper devolution of assets from father to son.

Even though during the 1300s "women as plaintiffs in both criminal and land law gained greater access to the courts," and the development of the jury trial provided some women with peers more closely aligned to them in class, if not in gender, women nevertheless disappeared from the courtroom in one major capacity: "[I]n the early thirteenth century, we see women acting as attorneys, even for their husbands. By the end of the thirteenth century, lawyers have become an almost entirely male professional class. The common law courts have become increasingly the arena of men."

The Man of Law's "Queinte Termes" and the Romance of Nomos

According to the narrator's account in the "General Prologue," each pilgrim has agreed to tell a story to pass the time on the journey. The one who, in the opinion of the Host of the tavern where their pilgrimage begins, "telleth in this caas / Tales of best sentence and moost solaas" ("tells in this way, tales of best significance and most comfort") will be rewarded with a prize (I, 798). The Host invites the Serjeant-at-Law to fulfill the terms of the contract and begin the contest. "Biheste is dette" ("A promise is a debt"), responds the lawyer, for whom" the act of tale-telling is all in a day's work" and who claims the law and its authority as "oure text" (II, 41, 45).

In the "General Prologue" to Canterbury Tales, the Sergeant is described, as Carolyn Dinshaw suggests, not merely as a man of the law but a man "made up of law"; he has in his Year Books all the cases and decisions made since the Conquest and he knows every statute by heart ("And every statut koude he pleyn by rote" [I, 327]). Since the common law of England "legislated land tenure, commercial relations and transactions, and the structure of the family" and reinforced royal prerogatives, the Man of Law might be said to embody "patriarchal ideology and its expressed system of law." However, even if the Man of Law "stands" for the justice of the royal courts, the pilgrims would also see him as a representative of the less formal practice of law in customary (or local) courts with which they were likely to be more familiar.

The Man of Law offers as his version of the best "sentence and solaas" a four-part, providential narrative of Christian, imperial patriarchy that romances the suffering of the faithful in their relationship to God's authority and will. Beginning and ending in Rome, the Man of Law's tale recalls the Roman legal system, codified by Justinian in the sixth century and taken up by the Christian church in its canon laws and papal decretals. Roman Law, like the Bible, was perceived as the work of antiquity and not the work of man, its origins wreathed in the mists of time. Thus the Man of Law links his own practice of English common law to the jus commune (ecclesiastical and Roman civil law) and thereby establishes his authority to speak of things both religious and juridical.

This is the story he tells: Constance, the beautiful Christian daughter of the Emperor of Rome, is given in marriage by her father to the Muslim Sultan of Syria after he, so captivated by merchants' reports of Constance's beauty, has promised to convert his entire kingdom to Christianity rather than lose her. Unlike both the boisterous Wife of Bath, whose enthusiasm about marriage is vexed by her unwillingness to cede authority to her husbands, and those sainted female martyrs who died rather than lose their virginity, Constance accepts her fate without complaint, with Christian piety and female passivity, reaffirming the conventional, allegorical reading of the relationship between the Christian soul and suffering.

The Sultan's mother, angered by her son's apostasy and her forced conversion, kills him and casts Constance adrift in a boat, bidding her sail back to her father. Aimlessly drifting for years, Constance finally lands in Northumbria where she is once again the instrument of religious conversion, this time of the pagan king of Northumbria, Alla, whom she marries. For a second time, however, Constance is the victim of a wicked mother-in-law who tricks her son into casting Constance and their child, Maurice, out of the kingdom and adrift on the ocean, where she is threatened with rape and death by a professed Christian. Constance and Maurice finally return by chance to Rome where she is united with her father and where Alla, coincidentally, has arrived on a pilgrimage to atone for his treatment of his wife and son. Constance is restored to her husband-the transfer of woman from father to husband is enacted yet again-and after the death of Constance's father, Maurice becomes the Emperor of Rome and its Christian kingdoms.

This tale of Constance, the Man of Law claims, draws its authority from its association with antiquity. The repeated pattern of exile, false accusation, punishment, and conversion has the formulaic quality of an oral narrative, reminding us both of the importance of memory in constructing the social during this era before the printing press and of the significance of the oral tradition in training lawyers. The tale also has the predictability of a familiar genre of storytelling that appears to be distant from the law or the church-the "once upon a time" of chivalric romance. Like the ideological narratives of church and state, however, romance is driven by a desire for closure, however temporary and expedient that resolution may be. And so, as befits the narrative protocols of his profession and its reliance on precedent, the Man of Law turns back to what has gone before. Putting his trust in authorized narratives to sanction the "truth" of his tale, he fashions a nomos: a Christian romance, a tale of constancy, that asserts the immutability of Christian faith (in God, in law).

Like the creation of legal doctrine through precedent, however, this constancy is continually undermined by the inevitability of change: every effort to assure the stability of the story by retelling it inexorably confirms its impermanence and thus generates yet more longing for the immutable, which can only be satisfied by yet another story. It is precisely this longing for an ever-elusive constancy that instigates the tale of Constance and models the repetitious structure of desire itself (and the nature of narrative) in the recurring trope of conversion, which might be thought of as the substitution of one desire for another. (I use the term "desire" here in its Lacanian sense-as the object that can never be achieved and which is veiled in the fantasy that both perpetuates its existence and establishes its contours.) Situated, then, at the very heart of the Man of Law's narrative and functioning narratologically as its modus vivendi is what I have termed nostos. Ironically, it appears that the desire for a juridico-religious truth, the desire for a kind of nomos that will resist change and secure order, inevitably produces precisely that which threatens it.


Excerpted from Riding the Black Ram by SUSAN SAGE HEINZELMAN Copyright © 2010 by Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


1 "Termes Queinte of Lawe" and Quaint Fantasies of Literature: Chaucer's Man of Law and Wife of Bath....................1
2 Public Affairs and Juridical Intimacies: Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century French and English Women Novelists....................24
3 Black Letters and Black Rams: Law, Gender, and the Novel in Early Eighteenth-Century England....................47
4 How to Tell a Story That Might Prevent a Hanging: Mary Blandy, Parricide, 1752....................72
5 Statues, Statutes, and Queens on Trial....................92
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