“The Doom of Resoim”
Accommodating Lay Interpretation in
Late Medieval England
James H. Landman
Interpretation always takes place in the shadow of coercion.
— Robert Cover
Lete al the clergie of divinité bese hem silf wiseli in this mater… for to
hi cleer witt drawe men into consente of trewe feith otherwise than bi
fier and swerd or hangement.
— Bishop Reginald Pecock
Bishop Reginald Pecock and Sir John Fortescue share, among many things, an interest in lay interpretation and the desirability of maintaining— or tolerating—a lay interpretive role in ecclesiastic doctrinal debate and common law adjudication.1 Pecock and Fortescue also share a concern with defending their respective institutions of the church and the English common law from what they perceive as a detrimental reliance on extreme forms of physical coercion in place or in suppression of lay interpretive voices. Neither writer denies coercion a role in the maintenance of institutional authority; instead, the issue for both is the effect of too great an application of coercive force in the church's quest for doctrinal conformity and the law's search for proof of guilt. Equally troubled by the implications of interpretive multiplicity, on the one hand, and of coercively constraining or silencing variant lay voices, on the other, Pecock and Fortescue each attempt to fashion an accommodation between lay interpretation and institutional coercive force.
Qualifying his preference for consent to church doctrine produced by “cleer witt” over that produced by “fier and swerd or hangement,” Bishop Pecock acknowledges “that the bothe now seid meenys ben good,” urging only “that the former meene be parfitli excercisid, eer it schal be come into the iie.”2 Coercion, in other words, is a force to be held in reserve— or kept in the shadows — to be called upon when a failure of “cleer witt” compels reliance on a more severe form of persuasion. Nonetheless, Pecock's preference for the consent of “cleer witt” over coerced consent marks an important concession, one that is thoroughly explicated in a