Scholars have long been aware of the looming presence of law in medieval English literature, from Christ as a litigious redemptor to Chaucer's deal-making Host in The Canterbury Tales. Most scholarly work on the subject has been confined either to tracking down representations of legal practices in texts or to examining formal questions relating to legal discourse. In a groundbreaking departure, The Letter of the Law suggests that law and literature should be understood as parallel forms of discourse-at times complementary, at times antagonistic, but always mutually illuminating.
Emily Steiner and Candace Barrington maintain that medievalists are uniquely placed to make valuable new contributions to the subject of law and literature, in part because of the inherently interdisciplinary nature of the study of medieval law, inseparable as it was from political theory and theology. The editors bring together medievalists from all over North America to explore the development of vernacular English literature within the context of legal discourse, practice, and conflict.
Treating texts as varied as Chaucer's Knight's Tale, the fifteenth-century Robin Hood ballads, and William Thorpe's account of his own heresy trial, the nine never-before-published essays in this volume reveal the intersections of legal and documentary culture with vernacular literary production. They establish that law and English literature were intimately bound up in processes of institutional, linguistic, and social change, and they explain how the specific conditions of medieval law and literature offer useful models in studying later periods. An appendix contains a translation by Andrew Galloway of History or Narration Concerning the Manner and Form of the Miraculous Parliament at Westminster in the Year 1386.