Chaucer's "Legal Fiction": Reading the Records

Chaucer's "Legal Fiction": Reading the Records

Chaucer's "Legal Fiction": Reading the Records

Chaucer's "Legal Fiction": Reading the Records


"As a Member of Parliament, Justice of the Peace, Justice ad Inquirendum, litigant, plaintiff, and "attornato," Geoffrey Chaucer read the literature of the law. But what actually did he read and what did it tell him about law, about life, and, ultimately, about art? Did documents from the Manor Courts, for example, suggest the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales? Was a Norwich lending law the impetus for the Shipman's Tale? Milling ordinances, for the fabliau told by the Reeve? Does the House of Fame draw on a law of publica fama, and could there be a legal reading for that strange poem? Did specific methods for reading legal tracts suggest to Chaucer certain techniques that he in turn could require of his audience when they read his works? And if so, how are we to know? It is questions such as these that this book addresses." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved


It would be surprising, indeed, if a writer, who has described so
accurately almost all the other details of our national life at this
period, should have passed over all references to our legal system.

—Major Greenwood, “The Canterbury Tales and
Our Early Legal History,” in The Green Bag:
A Useless but Entertaining Magazine for Lawyers

Several years ago, while tracking another thesis in the BRITish Library, I unexpectedly came across a fourteenth-century lending law that seemed to be the source for Chaucer’s Shipman’s Tale. Printed in Borough Customs, that law, like Chaucer’s tale, depicted a bourgeois financial triangle involving a willful wife, an absent husband, and a third party from whom the wife negotiated a loan. the law seemed not only to supply the plot for that particular story but also to account for certain of the textual problems it raised. Feeling that if Chaucer had used this one ordinance, he might also have used others, I inspected his language, finding additional commercial laws. After examining these and their relationship to Chaucer’s tale, I wrote up my findings, but many questions remained unanswered. It seemed clear that Chaucer knew a great deal about a certain type of law—in this case, business law—but where did he learn it and how deep did his knowledge go? Were such statutes commonplace, such knowledge “in the air”? Or would Chaucer actually have studied legal records, adapting their narratives and techniques? Was the borough law an “in-joke” for a specially targeted group? If so, who was its audience and how was it intended to have been read? Did the poet leave clues in the text we can recover—“hot-links” to writs and records? and most important, would knowing about the law elucidate Chaucer’s work in its larger context? Were Chaucer’s legal techniques somehow unique? a chance encounter at the British Library led abruptly into a maze.

It is clear even to the most casual observer that Chaucer wrote . . .

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