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William Langland

William Langland

In this chapter, Steiner theorizes the various ways in which L imagines laws, lawful bodies, and legal frameworks in PPl. At the heart of his work is the idea that “law is a language-making machine” (127). Steiner begins by noting that “law” in the middle ages ran through a variety of disciplines now thought to be distinct: theology, ethics, political theory, and aesthetics, inter alia. In reading PPl, therefore, we must be attentive to the variety of intersections and overlaps historically attached to this concept. The most obvious of these, according to Steiner, is the way in which L explores, and at times skewers, the corruption of the legal system in his own time. Lady Mede expresses, for example, how easily money can complicate and even poison everything from clerical power to personal relationships to just rule by the king. In addressing this issue, L downplays the role of legal bodies such as parliaments; he does not offer us a mirror for princes, concerning himself instead with the individual responsibility each person has for choosing the good. Using this observation as a springboard, Steiner then interrogates how L’s understanding of salvation is necessarily caught up in legal concepts and metaphors. The poet, she argues, asks people to imagine themselves as legal entities who can sue or be sued, enter into contracts, and pay back debts. Turning to concepts like inheritance and mainprise, Steiner shows how inextricably L links such legal ideas with Christians’ “inheritance” of the kingdom of heaven. These observations return Steiner to an explication of how wonderfully elastic legal metaphors are when placed in L’s hands. In B.11.129-136, for example, the dreamer imagines baptism as “a contract of unfreedom between a lord and a churl” (128). This image shocks the reader into faith, tying together spiritual fears about the soul and salvation with earthly fears about villeinage and legal bondage. According to Steiner, however, L’s exploration of the law is not limited to such grimness; he imagines a variety of exceptions, feeling out the limits of medieval legal frameworks, most especially in cases where canon and common law rubbed up against each other. Steiner, in laying out this variety of modes of engagement, showcases how deftly L handles this series of interrelated frameworks—their abuttals, controversies, and stakes. (CP)


The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Law and Literature, ed. by Candace Barrington and Sebastian Sobecki (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), pp. 121–34


Steiner, Emily