From Lawmen to Plowmen: Anglo-Saxon Legal Tradition and the School of Langland
From Lawmen to Plowmen explores the connections between Middle English alliterative verse and the writing of the Anglo-Saxon period, focusing on later medieval continuations of Anglo-Saxon legal traditions. Long-standing corporate institutions like ancient Benedictine monasteries and the city of London continued to copy and study Anglo-Saxon charters and law codes throughout the Middle Ages, because these texts guaranteed their independence and autonomy. Yeager’s study demonstrates that this legal and homiletic literature had an influential afterlife in the fourteenth-century poetry of L and his imitators in the PPl tradition.
As the work of Aldhelm and Wulfstan illustrates, Anglo-Saxon law codes, charters, and other legal texts were frequently authorized by the inclusion of ornate religious rhetoric. Indeed, as literacy in Anglo-Saxon England became more sophisticated, it seems that literate authorities became more reliant on florid and quasi-poetic prose to affirm the efficacy of their legal texts. These texts and documents were often written entirely in Old English, or included Old English legal terms or boundary clauses. With the emergence of the royal and papal bureaucracies in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, these homiletic and often vernacular texts became less effective for enforcing legal claims. Yet, Yeager argues that in the emerging Middle English literature of this period, which in the cases of The Proverbs of Alfred and the Brut of ‘Lawman’ is both alliterative and attributed to a legislating author, we may see the beginning of a new vernacular literature of complaint, which imitates the quasi-vernacular and legal-homiletic forms of Anglo-Saxon laws and charters as a way of critiquing bureaucratic innovation.
In chapters 5 and 6, Yeager turns to imitations and continuations of PPl, and in particular the fragments Richard the Redeless and Mum and the Sothsegger. More than PPl itself, he argues, these fragments reveal the quasi-documentary nature of the Langlandian ‘public’ mode. They relate to PPl not as imitations of a literary antecedent, but as new documents based on an exemplum of sententious formal conventions. It is the very informal and poetic open-endedness of those conventions that makes them suitable for criticizing the excessively formalistic and hypocritical legal conventions of fourteenth-century literate professionals. Chapter 5 surveys the traces of Anglo-Saxon legal-homiletic discourse that may be found in the South English Legendary, The Lay Folks’ Catechism, and other Middle English literary traditions, and argues that it found its way into L’s original poetic idiom via these sources. Although ‘time out of mind’ had been excluded from official legal precedent, Yeager argues that memorials of Anglo-Saxon legal customs nonetheless persisted in the fourteenth century, in different constructions of ‘oral’ prehistory that were exploited in different ways by different political interests. The form of PPl derives its power from this context. The chapter culminates in a reading of Richard the Redeless, which employs and advocates the Langlandian idiom as an alternative mode for educating and advising the king. Chapter 6 closes the book with a reading of Mum and the Sothsegger. Mum is fundamentally ambivalent about ‘literacy’ itself, as is apparent in its constant re-imaginings of the relationship between text and gloss. In the poem, the text of true wisdom is far too vague to be productively applied in the present, and yet the gloss that would contextualize it is by its very nature deceitful. To the extent that the poem addresses this problem, it does so by employing the Langlandian dream vision as a documentary form in its own right, which is able to transcend the text / gloss dichotomy. In this way, Mum demonstrates a paradox that may be observed in all of the texts studied in this book: the text’s very nostalgia for indefinite and idealized point of origin drives the poet to participate in one of the most original and innovative poetic traditions of the late-medieval period.
From Lawmen to Plowmen: Anglo-Saxon Legal Tradition and the School of Langland (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014)
Yeager, Stephen M.