Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Hunting Law and Ritual in Medieval English Literature

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Hunting Law and Ritual in Medieval English Literature

Article excerpt

William Perry Marvin, Hunting Law and Ritual in Medieval English Literature (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer; Rochester, NY: Boydell & Brewer, 2006). x + 198 pp. ISBN 1-84384-082-0. £40.00.

The unpopularity of the forest laws imposed on England by its Norman and Angevin kings is well attested, as too is the notoriety of the state machinery for enforcing them: it was not simply for the sake of witty wordplay that Hugh, Prior of Selwood, said mockingly to a group of foresters in the presence of Henry II, 'Forestarii foris stent!' ('Let foresters stand without!"), and it was not in idle rebuke that Walter Map referred to the king's foresters as 'venatores hominum' ('hunters of men"). But what is not so clear from surviving records is how much credibility to afford allegations that offences against the king's vert and venison regularly exacted grisly penalties, such as the loss of eyes or limbs. Several recent scholars (including Oliver Rackham) have urged a reassessment of many long-held assumptions, arguing that English forest laws provided valuable income for the Crown through an extensive system of fines, taxes, and rents, rather than simply menacing the populace with hideous punishments. It is therefore surprising to find William Perry Marvin reasserting an older notion of the forests as the kings' vast playgrounds (the 'penetralia regum' ('inner chambers') as they are called by Richard FitzNigel), taking polemical complaints against forest law at face value, and reading them as 'troping' (a favourite expression) real events in reliably transparent ways. The result is a mixture of interpretation that is often both densely theoretical and thinly supported by the available evidence, as can also be seen in Marvin's discussion of the West- and Ostgetolag codifications of Swedish law (p. 26), which is not satisfactorily referenced though it is central to the discussion of Beowulf that follows. …

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