Friday, July 26, 2019

Stacey's "Law and Imagination in Medieval Wales"

Robin Chapman Stacey, University of Washington, has published Law and the Imagination in Medieval Wales (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019):
In Law and the Imagination in Medieval Wales, Robin Chapman Stacey explores the idea of law as a form of political fiction: a body of literature that blurs the lines generally drawn between the legal and literary genres. She argues that for jurists of thirteenth-century Wales, legal writing was an intensely imaginative genre, one acutely responsive to nationalist concerns and capable of reproducing them in sophisticated symbolic form. She identifies narrative devices and tropes running throughout successive revisions of legal texts that frame the body as an analogy for unity and for the court, that equate maleness with authority and just rule and femaleness with its opposite, and that employ descriptions of internal and external landscapes as metaphors for safety and peril, respectively.

Historians disagree about the context in which the lawbooks of medieval Wales should be read and interpreted. Some accept the claim that they originated in a council called by the tenth-century king Hywel Dda, while others see them less as a repository of ancient custom than as the Welsh response to the general resurgence in law taking place in western Europe. Stacey builds on the latter approach to argue that whatever their origins, the lawbooks functioned in the thirteenth century as a critical venue for political commentary and debate on a wide range of subjects, including the threat posed to native independence and identity by the encroaching English; concerns about violence and disunity among the native Welsh; abusive behavior on the part of native officials; unwelcome changes in native practice concerning marriage, divorce, and inheritance; and fears about the increasing political and economic role of women.
The TOC and an engaging excerpt is here.  The latter commences:
Some years ago, I found myself teaching a class on medieval law. This was a seminar intended for history majors, many of whom were planning ultimately to enter the legal profession, and the students were both bright and curious. We were discussing a text I knew well, the Welsh Laws of Court, when a student raised her hand to ask about a passage that appeared to limit the sanctuary (nawdd) a female baker was allowed to grant an offender to the distance she could throw her baking scraper. I started in with an explanation of how nawdd worked and why persons of greater status would have been able to extend more protection had they been approached. She looked confused, so I dramatized the event for her, imagining a scenario in which a wild-eyed offender with pursuers hot on his heels bursts into a prince's kitchen searching for someone to help him. He rushes over to the baker, who is there scraping flour into a bowl, and hurls himself at her feet begging for sanctuary. Taking pity on him, she throws her baking tool into the air, and he then becomes safe from arrest as long as he stays within the space defined by her throw, remaining amid the pots and pans for several days while the terms for his release are negotiated. The questions that ensued were completely predictable.
And you thought you were learned.

Some endorsements:

"A field-changing book. Robin Chapman Stacey's approach not only offers a valuable corrective to those histories that treat legal texts as straightforward representations of practice; it also gets us out of the mire of speculation about lost manuscripts, dating, and provenance."—Emily Steiner, University of Pennsylvania

"Drawing on research into the poetry, narrative, and biography of the period, as well as its law and literature, Robin Chapman Stacey argues that the corpus of medieval Welsh Law known as Cyfraith Hywel Dda is a political document emerging from a changing thirteenth-century Wales in which the nobility and learned classes felt themselves and their traditions threatened by English cultural influence and political power on one hand, and the expanding pretensions of Welsh princes on the other."—Catherine McKenna, Harvard University

--Dan Ernst

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