Chaucer's Hard Cases
Dominion (Latin dominium) is a fundamental concept of medieval and early modern political philosophy, and for all its importance, it is exquisitely volatile. The topic of dominion lies at the center of the most important debates in European jurisprudence: it is an issue that retains its urgency across the span that stretches from the investiture controversies of the High Middle Ages to the fourteenth-century conflicts over religious poverty, and from the cultural, medical, and commercial crises of European colonial expansion to the Reformation. Theories of dominion consider the sources, limits, institutions, and justification— in a word, the constitution—of power.1
Dominion is best understood as a relationship rather than an idea or a quality attributed to the person.2 All social relations or bonds, including those between people and things, necessarily reflect a form of dominion insofar as they model and contain rights and powers: dominium is not the same word as our domination, but a category that includes it. In its narrowest legal definition, dominium refers to ownership in its perfect or complete sense. In use both in and out of the law, however, its semantic field is much wider. Dominion means the legal right to possession of a thing or of knowledge, as in the modern words title, possession, ownership, proprietorship, mastery; it means the exercise of a controlling power or the condition of that control, as in the words Imperium, lordship, rule, command, dominance, sway; it means the right or power to command, decide, rule, or judge, as in the words sovereignty, authority, jurisdiction, domination, might, prerogative.
Medieval and early modern English writing offers a tradition of thought heavily marked by what I will call jurisprudential topoi: scenes, motifs, concepts, or formulas that raise philosophical questions about legal principles.3 These topoi were alive in the romance and other popular literary forms, in sermon literature, in the chronicles, in theology, and in jurisprudence. To take three examples: first, the origins of both sexual and political dominion are explored through the topos of Eden (and its offshoot, the hortus conclusus) by canon lawyers and theologians in commentaries on Genesis, by the rebels of the 1381 rising, by Hooker in The Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie, by colonial writers about Ireland, and by countless medieval and early modern poets, including Milton in Paradise Lost, a poem directly responsive to the powerful natural jurisprudence of Hugo