Academic journal article Studies in Philology

Mirabella's Crime and the Laws of Love in the Faerie Queene 6.7-8

Academic journal article Studies in Philology

Mirabella's Crime and the Laws of Love in the Faerie Queene 6.7-8

Article excerpt

In an often-neglected episode from book 6 of Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene, the beautiful courtly lady Mirabella rejects the love of numerous suitors and thereby causes their death. For her transgression, she is tried and sentenced at the court of Cupid. This essay considers the historical and poetic meaning of the law that determines the judgment of Mirabella. On the one hand, the episode revives several aspects of the medieval poetic tradition of amorous jurisprudence, imagining her crime as a violation of the laws of love (a distinct legal sphere outside of the reach of positive law where desire can claim a jurisdictional autonomy). At the same time, Spenser's text suggests that Mirabella's actions can be also construed as murder, which translates her transgression into the language of the common law of felony. As the essay demonstrates, The Faerie Queene intertwines the poetic laws of love with the mechanisms of the common law, creating a powerful legal resonance that both curbs the oppressive ambitions of Elizabethan positive law and reshapes medieval erotic law to answer the demands of modernity. As a result, the episode imagines a heterogeneous and more successful legality that reconciles the past and the present and the juridical and the poetic, in the process asserting the unrivaled power of poetry to articulate a vision of justice.


THE story of Mirabella is scattered across cantos 7 and 8 of book 6 of Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene. (1) A courtly lady and a denizen of Cupid's kingdom, Mirabella was "deckt with wondrous giftes of natures grace," which "did kindle louely fire / In th'harts of many a knight, and many a gentle squire" (6.7.28). But the beautiful lady "grew proud and insolent / ... [and] scornd them all, that loue vnto her ment" (6.7.29)/ SO that many, Spenser writes, "for want of remedie, / Did languish long in lifeconsuming smart, / And at the last through dreary dolour die" (6.7.31). Their deaths come to light on St. Valentine's Day, when Cupid, going through "the roules ... / In which the names of all loues folke were fyled," discovers to his chagrin that a good number of his subjects are missing--"ded, / Or kept in bands, or from their loues exyled, / Or by some other violence despoyled" (6.7.33). Date, Cupid sets in motion his legal machine:

   Therefore a Iurie was impaneld streight,
   T'enquire of them, whether by force, or sleight,
   Or their owne guilt, they were away conuayd.
   To whom foule Infamie, and fell Despight
   Gaue euidence, that they were all betrayd,
   And murdred cruelly by a rebellious Mayd.

   Fayre Mirabella was her name, whereby
   Of all those crymes she there indited was:
   All which when Cupid heard, he by and by
   In great displeasure, wild a Capias
   Should issue forth, t'attach that scornefull lasse.
   The warrant straight was made, and therewithall
   A Baylieffe errant forth in post did passe,
   Whom they by name there Portamore did call;
   He which doth summon louers to loues iudgement hall.

   The damzell was attacht, and shortly brought
   Vnto the barre, whereas she was arrayned:
   But she thereto nould plead, nor answere ought
   Euen for stubborne pride, which her restrayned.
   So iudgement past, as is by law ordayned
   In cases like, which when at last she saw,
   Her stubborne hart, which loue before disdayned,
   Gan stoupe, and falling downe with humble awe,
   Cryde mercie, to abate the extremitie of law.

As we read in the next stanza, Mirabella's pleas for mercy are not in vain as Cupid substitutes his initial sentence with a hopeless journey Mirabella has to undertake "through this worlds wyde wildernes / ... / Till she had sau'd so many loues, as she did lose" (6.7.37).

The passage, Judith Anderson writes, is "remarkable for its legality." (2) The density of legal terminology and imagery within these stanzas is indeed so pervasive that the poet's intention to position the consequences of Mirabella's coldness toward her suitors within the discourse of the law is unmistakable. …

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