Allen Porter Mendenhall

Posts Tagged ‘Medieval law’

A Tale of the Rise of Law (Part Two of Two)

In Arts & Letters, Britain, Fiction, Historicism, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Justice, Law, Law-and-Literature, Liberalism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Politics, Western Civilization, Writing on March 13, 2012 at 1:00 am

Allen Mendenhall

This essay originally appeared here at Inquire: Journal of Comparative Literature (Issue 2.1, 2012)

As the sovereign, or king, was never fixed in Geoffrey’s lifetime, even if the idea of sovereignty was, The History treats law as transcending any particular human sovereign. Geoffrey creates a need for law by portraying it as sovereign, anchored in a classical past and cloaked in religious terms. Austin works as a functional lens through which to view The History’s suggestion that law is necessary to provide shape to the nation-state. Geoffrey’s text signals what Mooers calls the “outgrowth” of twelfth-century legal principles that enabled coercive, nationalist projects and agendas before people could speak of concepts like nation-states. Put another way, Geoffrey was an originator of and a participator in twelfth-century jurisprudence not necessarily a transcriber of an ancient corpus juris.5 This claim is not to reduce Geoffrey’s text to the grade of propaganda but rather to adduce jurisprudence from The History to support a claim that Geoffrey champions legal theory instead of simply documenting it. Because the term “uniform and rational justice” does not admit ready definition, I defer to Mooers’s clarifying focus on the comprehensive systemization of law manufactured by royal writs and other like instruments (341). Uniform and rational justice had to do with the proliferation of court systems whereby centralized authorities could begin to impose and enforce sets of common, consistent rules. The twelfth century was, after all, the age laying the institutional structures of the Anglo common law.6 The common law was the distillation of custom (a claim made by its iconic protagonists such as Bracton, Fortescue, and St. German) and thus was of time immemorial, beyond the memory of man. But the solidification of the common law as a mass system enforceable by a centralized body – the precursor to the modern state – began in the twelfth century. Roman law may have influenced these common, consistent rules and inspired Henry I, Matilda, Henry II, Geoffrey and their contemporaries, but tracing the concept of uniform and rational justice back to pre-Britain is not my aim, for that would entail looking beyond Britain in a way that Geoffrey refuses (or fails) to do. Medieval and early modern common law derived its authority from religion, and medieval jurists claimed unequivocally that common law was derived from God.7

Geoffrey’s first sustained treatment of law and the sovereign and their relationship to uniform and rational justice appears at the end of Brutus’ section. Here, Geoffrey submits that when Brutus built his capital on the River Thames, Brutus not only presented the city “to the citizens by right of inheritance,” but also gave those citizens “a code of laws by which they might live peacefully together” (74). Coming as they do after Brutus’ many battles and conquests, these laws suggest peace and order befitting a civilization prophesied by a goddess: Diana. No sooner is this putative history of a nation professed in terms of law than it is consumed in mythology and institutional legend. That Brutus, the eminent Trojan, would establish this city (“Troia Nova” or “New Troy”) suggests that the British legal system had the proper pedigree, according to Geoffrey and his contemporaries. 

Authored during the reign of Henry II in the late 1180s, roughly half a century after the publication of The History, Ranulf de Glanvill’s landmark legal treatise, The Treatise on the Laws and Customs of the Realm of England Commonly Called Glanvill, is important as it suggests that The History reflects ideas common to the period, showing the workaday application of various strands of jurisprudence. Moreover, like The History, The Treatise anchors law in history and tradition, asserting that the “laws and customs of the realm had their origin in reason and have long prevailed,” and as if to neutralize anxieties about the fact that many of these laws remained unwritten, Glanvill adds that if “merely for lack of writing, they were not deemed to be laws, then surely writing would seem to supply to written laws a force of greater authority than either the justice of him who decrees them or the reason of him who establishes them” (2). The epigram preceding the prologue of Glanvill, apparently affixed to the text after Glanvill’s death, adds to this invocation of history and celebrates Glanvill himself as “the most learned of that time in the law and ancient customs of the realm” (1). Foregrounding custom and tradition seems like a strategy for both Geoffrey and Glanvill as well as other contemporary writers who sought to anticipate objections to law or to mobilize support for legal mechanisms currently in flux (because the monarchy is in flux).     

The History is thus a model for government and for those subject to government. It mythologizes what law can be – derivations of divine prophesy couched in terms of Roman mythology and not Christian truth – and so inspires readers to ensure that law realizes its full potential. From Geoffrey’s attention to Brutus, for instance, readers are supposed to learn that law corresponds with peace and that the king initiates and sanctions law. It is Brutus, after all, who drives away the giants from the caves of Britain into the mountains and who commands the populace to “divide the land among themselves,” “cultivate the fields,” and “build houses” (72). Geoffrey uses Brutus to establish the image of an authoritative king and, more specifically, a glorified body as a site of sanctified authority.8   

Glanvill underscores the centrality of peace to law and even suggests that law, which vests in the king, endeavours primarily toward peace and harmony. Glanvill opens by rendering law as the sovereign’s decorative yet lethal façade: “Not only must royal power be furnished with arms against rebels and nations which rise up against the king and the realm, but it is also fitting that it should be adorned with laws for the governance of subject and peaceful peoples” (1). Like Geoffrey, Glanvill does not put a name on the sovereign; he merely extols law and its utility to the king. These lines suggest that peace cannot exist without war and that law obtains in the jurisdiction not to make peace or war but to assist the king in the functioning of his office. Uniform and rational justice does not arise for its own sake but for the service of the sovereign so that he “may so successfully perform his office that, crushing the pride of the unbridled and ungovernable with the right hand of strength and tempering justice for the humble and meek with the rod of equity, he may both be always victorious in wars with his enemies and also show himself continually impartial in dealing with his subjects” (1). For Glanvill and for Geoffrey, law is mostly about utility to the king in that it sanctions sovereign violence and centralizes power such that one individual, the sovereign, can issue commands to his subjects, demand the submission of his subjects to his authority by visiting punishment upon those who violate his commands and, therefore, ensure the habitual obedience of multiple subjects across a vast territory.

The lack of a centralized authority or definite sovereign is the reason that Britain falls into disarray when, after Brutus’ death, Brutus’ sons Locrinus, Kamber, and Albanactus divide the kingdom of Britain into thirds (Geoffrey 75). As a result of this partition, the brothers are unable to maintain the military presence necessary to preserve the polis and its laws, and therefore the island suffers from foreign invasion and bloodshed. Likewise, Maddan’s sons quarrel over the crown upon Maddan’s death, and as a result, law becomes something oppressive as one son, Mempricius, given to sodomy and other “vices,” murders the other son, Malin, and “by force and by treachery” does away with “anyone who he feared might succeed him in the kingship” (78). Unlike Brutus, Mempricius exercised “so great a tyranny over the people that he encompassed the death of almost all the more distinguished men” (78). Geoffrey redeems law by giving Mempricius the fate of being devoured by wolves, presumably due to his despotism (78). The suggestion here is that although laws are, as Austin claims, the commands of a sovereign, a sovereign like Mempricius will forfeit sovereignty if his commands take on forms that the polis cannot or will not habitually obey. God or Nature will destroy him for that failing, since the devouring by wolves seems to have some kind of divine justice. Such bodily mutilation signifies destruction of law itself; as Goodrich points out, law and the body are interactive in religious terms:

[The annunciation] is logos, the word as incarnation of divine presence, the spirit made flesh. For the law, the spirit made flesh takes the form of a text, vellum or skin in which is inscribed the form of the institution, of society and its subjects as the unified members and membrane of a body, the corpus iuris civilis or civilised body, the corpus mysticum or body politic, Leviathan or law. (248-49) Read the rest of this entry »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 6,119 other followers

%d bloggers like this: