The Law in Piers Plowman

This past winter, we noted a book on how the law figures in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Here is another book arguing that a classic of medieval literature can shed light on that era’s law, especially its canon law: Piers Plowman and the Reinvention of Church Law in the Late Middle Ages, by UCLA English professor Arvind Thomas. The publisher is the University of Toronto Press. I don’t know why, but I’ve always thought of “Piers Plowman” as an early Protestant work. The publisher’s introduction suggests the poem was firmly situated in medieval Catholicism:

It is a medieval truism that the poet meddles with words, the lawyer with the world. But are the poet’s words and the lawyer’s world really so far apart? To what extent does the art of making poems share in the craft of making laws, and vice versa? Framed by such questions, Piers Plowman and the Reinvention of Church Law in the Late Middle Ages examines the mutually productive interaction between literary and legal “makyngs” in England’s great Middle English poem by William Langland.

Focusing on Piers Plowman’s preoccupation with wrongdoing in the B and C versions, Arvind Thomas examines the versions’ representations of trials, confessions, restitutions, penalties, and pardons. Thomas explores how the “literary” informs and transforms the “legal” until they finally cannot be separated. Thomas shows how the poem’s narrative voice, metaphor, syntax and style not only reflect but also act upon properties of canon law, such as penitential procedures and authoritative maxims. Langland’s mobilization of juridical concepts, Thomas insists, not only engenders a poetics informed by canonist thought but also expresses an alternative vision of canon law from that proposed by medieval jurists and today’s medievalists.

The New Medievalism

In the 1990s, many scholars in international law and politics championed a “new medievalism,” an order of multiple, overlapping political units to challenge the traditional nation-state. The new medievalism in world politics was always an exaggeration, and it certainly seems so today. Just consider what’s happening in Europe. But medievalism may have greater purchase in other aspects of contemporary life. Remi Brague (University of Paris – emeritus), who participated in one of our early Tradition Project meetings, this month releases a new book arguing for a reevaluation of medieval thought, Curing Mad Truths: Medieval Wisdom for the Modern Age. It’s Brague’s first book in English and looks quite interesting. Here’s the description from the publisher, the Notre Dame Press:

In his first book composed in English, Rémi Brague maintains that there is a fundamental problem with modernity: we no longer consider the created world and humanity as intrinsically valuable. Curing Mad Truths, based on a number of Brague’s lectures to English-speaking audiences, explores the idea that humanity must return to the Middle Ages. Not the Middle Ages of purported backwardness and barbarism, but rather a Middle Ages that understood creation—including human beings—as the product of an intelligent and benevolent God. The positive developments that have come about due to the modern project, be they health, knowledge, freedom, or peace, are not grounded in a rational project because human existence itself is no longer the good that it once was. Brague turns to our intellectual forebears of the medieval world to present a reasoned argument as to why humanity and civilizations are goods worth promoting and preserving.

Curing Mad Truths will be of interest to a learned audience of philosophers, historians, and medievalists.

Kellogg, “The Wisdom of the Middle Ages”

In Law and Revolution, law professor Harold Berman famously described how legal pluralism, a central feature of the Western legal tradition, traces back to the Middle Ages. And medieval legal pluralism was not simply a product of competing jurisdictions, but of a philosophy comfortable with complexity generally.

Here is an interesting-looking new book on medieval philosophy from Penguin Random House, The Wisdom of the Middle Ages, by Michael K. Kellogg. The publisher’s description follows:

Fudgé, “Medieval Religion and its Anxieties”

Last month, Palgrave Macmillan released “Medieval Religion and its Anxieties: History and Mystery in the Middles Ages,” by Thomas Fudgé (University of New England).  The publisher’s description follows:

This book examines the broad varieties of religious belief, religious practices, and the 61wv02rfdul-_sx352_bo1204203200_influence of religion within medieval society. Religion in the Middle Ages was not monolithic. Medieval religion and the Latin Church are not synonymous. While theology and liturgy are important, an examination of animal trials, gargoyles, last judgments, various aspects of the medieval underworld, and the quest for salvation illuminate lesser known dimensions of religion in the Middle Ages. Several themes run throughout the book including visual culture, heresy and heretics, law and legal procedure, along with sexuality and an awareness of mentalities and anxieties. Although an expanse of 800 years has passed, the remains of those other Middle Ages can be seen today, forcing us to reassess our evaluations of this alluring and often overlooked past.

“Pope Innocent II (1130-43)” (Doran & Smith, eds.)

In June, Routledge released “Pope Innocent II (1130-43): The World vs. The City,” edited by John Doran (University of Chester) and Damian J. Smith (St. Louis University).  The publisher’s description follows:

The pontificate of Innocent II (1130-1143) has long been recognized as a watershed in the history of the papacy, marking the transition from the age of reform to the so-9781472421098called papal monarchy, when an earlier generation of idealistic reformers gave way to hard-headed pragmatists intent on securing worldly power for the Church. Whilst such a conception may be a cliché its effect has been to concentrate scholarship more on the schism of 1130 and its effects than on Innocent II himself. This volume puts Innocent at the centre, bringing together the authorities in the field to give an overarching view of his pontificate, which was very important in terms of the internationalization of the papacy, the internal development of the Roman Curia, the integrity of the papal state and the governance of the local church, as well as vital to the development of the Kingdom of Sicily and the Empire.

Salonen, “Papal Justice in the Late Middle Ages”

In April, Routledge released “Papal Justice in the Late Middle Ages: The Sacra Romana Rota,” by Kirsi Salonen (University of Turku).  The publisher’s description follows:

This is a study of the history and function of the highest ecclesiastical tribunal, the Sacra Romana Rota, from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries. Despite its 9781472482266importance for Christendom and in contrast with other important papal offices, the activity of the Rota has never been thoroughly investigated on the basis of archival sources, in large part due to the vast source material and the perceived “difficulty” of the subject. This book fills this significant gap by explaining how the Rota functioned-its organization, the phases of a Rota process, everyday practices at the tribunal-and the kinds of issues it handled, where the processes originated from and how long they lasted. The study demonstrates that the Rota dealt with a range of cases much broader than has previously been acknowledged, whilst also confirming that the tribunal mainly oversaw litigation over benefices. The results of this research reveal the true role of the Rota and its significance for Christians from the middle ages to the dawn of the Reformation.

Fried, “The Middle Ages” (Lewis trans.)

Out this month from Harvard University Press is a new English translation of The Middle Agesthe eminent German medievalist Johannes Fried’s monumental work, The Middle Ages. The publisher’s description follows.

Since the fifteenth century, when humanist writers began to speak of a “middle” period in history linking their time to the ancient world, the nature of the Middle Ages has been widely debated. Across the millennium from 500 to 1500, distinguished historian Johannes Fried describes a dynamic confluence of political, social, religious, economic, and scientific developments that draws a guiding thread through the era: the growth of a culture of reason.

Beginning with the rise of the Franks, Fried uses individuals to introduce key themes, bringing to life those who have too often been reduced to abstractions of the medieval “monk” or “knight.” Milestones encountered in this thousand-year traversal include Europe’s political, cultural, and religious renovation under Charlemagne; the Holy Roman Empire under Charles IV, whose court in Prague was patron to crowning cultural achievements; and the series of conflicts between England and France that made up the Hundred Years’ War and gave to history the enduringly fascinating Joan of Arc. Broader political and intellectual currents are examined, from the authority of the papacy and impact of the Great Schism, to new theories of monarchy and jurisprudence, to the rise of scholarship and science.

The Middle Ages is full of people encountering the unfamiliar, grappling with new ideas, redefining power, and interacting with different societies. Fried gives readers an era of innovation and turbulence, of continuities and discontinuities, but one above all characterized by the vibrant expansion of knowledge and an understanding of the growing complexity of the world.

Schmugge, “Marriage on Trial: Late Medieval German Couples at the Papal Court”

This November, The Catholic University of America Press will publish Marriage on Trial: Late Medieval German Couples at the Papal Court by Ludwig Schmugge (President, Scientific Committee of the German Historical Institute, Rome, Italy), translated by Atria A. Larson (The Catholic University of America). The publisher’s description follows.

In the first detailed study of papal penitentiary materials on marriage, renowned medieval historian Ludwig Schmugge tells the exciting stories of seduced maidens, too-closely-related husbands and wives, and thousands of couples who faced lawsuits–all of whom had transgressed marriage law on various grounds in the Middle Ages. This work vividly describes many of the individual cases and offers new insight into the social and legal pressures on marriage in the Middle Ages.

At a time when betrothal, marriage, and sexual morals were strictly subject to the church’s law, petitions from couples abounded. More than two hundred clerics of the penitentiary in the papal curia devoted their time and attention to these petitions alone. With exceptional thoroughness, Schmugge sifted through the thick volumes of registers in the Vatican Secret Archives for his research. Here he presents the exciting, almost unbelievable, and often scandalous fates of these late medieval men and women, while highlighting the important connection between the papal monarchy and the social history of the laity in the later Middle Ages.

The Donation of Constantine

Last week, Marc posted about the fantastic exhibit of the Vatican archives currently underway at the Capitoline Museum in Rome. One of the documents on display is Lorenzo Valla’s definitive refutation of the so-called “Donation of Constantine.” Forgotten today, except by historians of law and religion, the Donation played an important role in justifying papal assertions of temporal power in the Middle Ages.

The Donation was a purportedly an imperial decree, signed by the Emperor Constantine, granting the entirety of the Western Roman Empire to Pope Sylvester I and his successors. Constantine supposedly made this gift in gratitude for Sylvester’s actions in miraculously curing him of leprosy and baptizing him in the Christian faith. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Donation was taken as authentic, and it played a major role in justifying papal assertions during the investiture crisis that Harold Berman famously described in Law and Revolution. By the Renaissance, however, scholars within the Church had begun to have doubts. On the basis of textual analysis, Valla, a priest, demonstrated that the Donation was a forgery in the fifteenth century. Protestant reformers made much of the forgery in their arguments against the Catholic Church.

All this is fun for law-and-religion nerds, but, back when people believed it to be true, the Donation was the subject of some powerful art. On the Coelian Hill near the Colosseum, off a very quiet street, stands a medieval church called Santi Quattro Coronati. In the church’s courtyard, a separate entrance leads to the Oratory of St. Sylvester, where — after giving a small donation — you can see a series of medieval frescoes that tell the whole story: Constantine’s illness, his subjects’ despair, his miraculous cure by Pope Sylvester, and the Donation itself (above). In their credulity, the frescoes are really rather charming. It’s definitely worth going out of your way to see them — even if you’re not a law-and-religion nerd, and even if the story is a complete hoax.

Oakley on the Reshaping of Ancient Political Inheritance

This month, Yale University Press publishes The Mortgage of the Past: Reshaping the Ancient Political Inheritance (1o50–1300), by Francis Oakley, President Emeritus of Williams College.  The volume is part of a three part series on the emergence of a secular from a religious socio-political worldview during the Middle Ages.   In this book, Oakley explores the confluence of secular and religious forces in the Middle Ages that shaped the transformation from a political conception of (1) a divine procession from king to heir to (2) a more secular understanding of the procession from ruler to ruler.

Please follow the jump for the publisher’s description. Continue reading

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