|Image credit: The Historical Association|
(For those of you who might be wondering what I’m on about . . . ‘romance’, in this context, refers to: ‘a tale, in prose or verse, that embodies the adventures of some hero of chivalry, belonging both in matter and form to the ages of knighthood.’)
So, what do fantastic tales about knights, magic and adventures have to do with the fairly dry subject of law? As it turns out, quite a lot. An understanding of law helps us understand why some characters behave the way they do, say what they say, and occasionally, it even make us question the efficacy (and justice) of the norm. Here’s an example of how the use of legal language and procedure can help us approach romance in a new light.
Talking Ghosts and a Question of Ethics
Here commes an errant knightDo him reson and right
Reminders of the transience of life and earthly
glory is a prevalent motif in medieval art,
and is frequently found on tombs.
Image credit: Morbid Anatomy
In the first half of the poem, Arthur is off on a hunt while Gawain and Queen Guinevere take rest by the Tarn Walding. Here, they end up receiving a few key life lessons from the ghost of Guinevere’s mother.
Its skeletal body caked in mud, sunken eyes glowing like coals and a toad biting into the skull, the ghost preaches (with words and by its very presence) private as well as social responsibility: So as I am, you shall also be. All earthly things are but temporary. Remember the poor while you are still alive, and stay away from sin.
While the message seems somewhat lost on Guinevere, Gawain is led to question the lifestyle of his king and fellow knights:
“How shal we fare," quod the freke, "that fonden to fight,
And thus defoulen the folke on fele kinges londes,
And riches over reymes withouten eny right,
Wynnen worshipp in werre thorgh wightnesse of hondes?"
‘How shall we fare,’ said the warrior, ‘that undertake to fight,Our hero has come to realise that his livelihood and reputation are built on depriving others of their rights. (An important concept, as much of English common law was concerned with the question of who was entitled to what.) How does he reconcile this with the knightly ideal of achieving renown through warfare and acts of violence? The Ghost concludes that Arthur is ‘too covetous,’ and prophesies that once his time atop Fortune’s Wheel is past, he (and Gawain) will meet a tragic end.
And thus trample over the folk on various kings’ lands
And enter realms without any right
Winning worship in war through prowess of arms?’
|Image credit: id-ology|
According to Howard Petch, among those with a philosophical turn of mind, `a belief in pure chance is not commonly found.’ Rather, ‘there seems to be a notion that it is your own fault if you suffer, because you have a certain control over the question of whether you will get on the wheel at all.' Good fortune may not be constant, but an element of choice was involved in going down a particular path. Arthur does not need to pursue his acquisitive instincts, neglecting his own domain while busily attempting to conquer those of others.
This sense of accountability also carries over to the second half of the poem. The lessons from the first part appear to be set aside, as neither Gawain nor Guinevere mention their encounter with the Ghost and instead sit down to a lavish banquet with the king and his company. Into this scene rides an aggrieved knight, led by a beautiful lady who utters the challenge from our earlier quote: “Do him reason and right.”
The knight is one Sir Galleron of Galloway (in Southwest Scotland), who accuses Arthur of taking his lands by unjust means and giving them to Gawain. He challenges Gawain to a fight to reclaim them, Gawain agrees, and it all seems to be very macho. However, you may be surprised to learn that the challenge issued by lady and the gory battle that ensues is, in fact very much founded in the legal proceedings of Medieval England.
With apologies to legal historians everywhere, here’s the super-condensed dirt on medieval English law.
English Law: It’s Rather Odd
Unlike that of its continental counterparts, the development of English law owed relatively little to Roman law. Instead, the predominant system of law was the common law, which was mainly concerned with land, and the right to hold land. Land was the most important source income in the Middle Ages, and, as such was deeply tied with power and jurisdiction – with lordship. Unfortunately, land-holding was a rather complicated business – and no one, except the king, could be 100% sure to what extent they ‘possessed’ something.
Notionally, all land belonged to the Crown. The subjects, in different degrees, held land of the king, of the lord, of a knight, so forth. There were many different ways that you could be in possession of land depending on your station in life/circumstances, and one of these was ‘seisin.’
‘Seisin’ was the fact of being in possession as a feudal tenant, and one’s ‘rights’ and ‘inheritance’ usually meant the right to succeed one’s father in continuing the tenancy. The only protection against ‘disseisin’ (dispossession) was the lord’s social/moral obligation to protect his men. Grievances could, in theory, be heard in the lord’s court – but what if he was the one who’s wronged you?
Enter the royal court! For central justice to be administered effectively and fairly, a systematic mechanism is needed, and this is where forms of action come in. These were specific procedural methods adapted to different kinds of cases, and one had to obtain a writ (a formal written order issued – usually by the king) for the appropriate action.
There are several forms of action dealing with disseisin, but for our purposes, the writ of right is the most interesting. Here’s an example:
Edward, by the grace of God king of England, lord of Ireland, and duke of Aquitaine, to Edward earl of Lancaster Greeting. We command you that without delay you do full right to A. of B. in respect of one messuage and twenty acres of land with the appurtenances in J. which he claims to hold of you by the free service of one penny a year for all service, and which W. of T. deforces him. And if you will not do so, let the sheriff of Nottingham do it, that we may hear no more complaint about this for want of right. Witness, etc.The writ of right was the highest plea that one could make under the common law, but also the most cumbersome (and for this reason, it eventually falls out of favour). It was the only form of action under the common law that involved the possibility of judicial combat as a method of resolution, and always favoured right over seisin. (In other words, one’s entitlement to hold the land of one’s lord/king was stronger than the claims of the current occupant.)
With me so far? Good. Now, we can get back to the challenge issued by Sir Galleron’s lady in The Awntyrs.
Legal Justice vs. Poetic Justice?
Let’s revisit the lady’s petition to Arthur, now quoted in full:
Mon makeles of might
Here commes an errant knight
Do him reson and right
For thi manhedei
Sire without equalBy calling on Arthur to see that reason and right is done to Galeron, the lady is acting as a walking, talking writ of right. And as with actions on the writ of right, combat is selected as the means of settling the dispute.
Here comes an errant knight
Do him reason and right
For thy manhood (i.e. honour)
Recall that Galeron is accusing Arthur of wrongfully taking his lands – and looking back to the first half of the poem where Arthur is condemned for being ‘too covetous,’ we have little difficulty in believing him. If this is the case, the law must rule in favour of Galeron (who has the right to the land) over Gawain (who is merely seised of it from Arthur). On the other hand, literary convention dictates that Gawain, Arthur’s right-hand man, should win.
Reason (audience expectations) and right (legal justice) are at odds with each other, and for literary nerds like me, this is where things get quite interesting. It’s no longer a straightforward case of good vs. evil, hero vs. villain. I won’t spoil the ending for you, other than to say that the poet works out a somewhat uneasy compromise – one that involves a rather gory battle that allows Gawain to save face, while satisfying Galeron’s demand for justice. (I challenge all you sciency types to have a go at reading the poem for yourselves. It’s only 700-odd lines long, and with a glossary in the margins, isn’t too difficult to work out what’s going on!).
Why Use Legal Jargon?
So, when all is said and done, we’re left the question of ‘Why bother?’ Why bring in legal references in an otherwise perfectly interesting work of fiction? Does the recurrent invocation of ‘reason and right’ actually have any significance, or is it simply a convenient phrase that sounds good in poetry?
As it turns out, it’s not that unusual to find fictive fancy and very real social concerns existing side by side in Middle English literary texts. There is a particularly strong tendency, seen in even the earliest Middle English romances that have nothing to do with Arthur, to display a preoccupation with justice and ethical conduct. (After all, this is probably what most of you would picture when thinking about chivalry and ideals of knighthood.) And it seems that invoking the language/aspects of the law was a surefire way of making an author’s point.
Despite all the complicating factors surrounding the legal situation in medieval England, there was also a high level of ‘legal consciousness’– a sense of law experienced by those who came into contact with it as part of their daily lives. As one scholar so elegantly put it,
It is not a matter of the authors simply inserting a legal expression here and there . . . On the contrary, their use of legal forms and terminology generally grows naturally . . . Out of a profound faith in law as the tie that binds all things, in heaven and in earth.And it is at the crossroads of law and literature that quite a lot of exciting work is being done. Interdisciplinary studies, you see, are all the rage these days. My modest contribution to this developing field is a study into how a simple legally-charged phrase (such as ‘reason and right’) can open up a dialogue between legal reality and literary expectations, thereby simultaneously informing and challenging our understanding of justice within late-medieval Arthurian romance.
About the Author
Jenn has an M.Phil in English Literature (650 - 1550) from Balliol College, Oxford, and is wondering whether she should have left things there. Instead, she decided to stick with postgrad life for a few more years and is now having to field constant enquiries from friends, family and members of the general public as to what she intends to do with a doctorate in medieval literature. (For the record, if one more person suggests teaching, she promises to get positively medieval on their well-meaning derrieres).