The following review is taken from the "Law and History Review", vol.23, no.1 (spring 2005). I'm sure it will be useful here.
A miniature from 1331 illustrated in this book encapsulates what the author means by "documentary culture." A woman holding a sealed writ confronts a roughian brandishing a club. She is the allegorical figure of Reason and he is "Rude Understanding" by which is meant no true understanding. The writ, which is addressed by God himself to Lady Reason, is an injunction naming Rude Understanding, who is to be given a day "at the assizes of judgement" if he fails to listen to Reason. Legal documents had become so famililar in England by the fourteenth century that authors used them as representations of Christian salvation. A Franciscan preachers' manual from the 1320s likens the Creed to a charter of feofment: if anyone holds a charter from a lord for some piece of land, the lord will protect him and warrant him as long as he serves his lord faithfully. Charters issued in Christ's name, replete with legal terminology, develop as a literary genre and are illustrated in books as letters patent complete with seals. They open with the familiar address Sciant presentes et futuri and they conclude with: "Written, read, confirmed and given to mankind on Good Friday on Mount Calvary in perpetuity."
Such uses of legal documentary forms in literature addressed to the general lay public are certainly of interest to historians of English law, as they demonstrate a respect for due legal process as well the pervasiveness of documentary culture. Lady Reason expects her injunction against Rude Understanding to be effective because it is enforceable at the next justices' assizes. Similarly Christ's charter to mankind will be honored, just as a lord (according to the Franciscan preacher) duly warrants his tenant. But would the general public have really been so familiar with the forms of charters? The answer is "Yes," if my From Memory to Written Record is correct. By 1300 many peasants possessed documents entitling them to property and those that did not heard charters being read aloud at the frequent meetings of manorial and other local courts. A difficulty with this is that before the fifteenth century charters were written in French or Latin and not in English. Authors writing in English, who use legal documents as metaphors, often make play with translating or explaining the text to their nonclerical audience.
As a professor of English literature, Emily Steiner is concerned with the significance of these documentary allegories at a much deeper level than simply demonstrating the existence of a legalistic documentary culture. The most important and problematic text is Langland's Piers Plowman, which uses a profusion of documentary metaphors and allusions. Steiner devotes nearly half her book to "Langland's documents" and especially to the significance of Piers tearing apart the letter of pardon which Truth has given him. This is a crux in the poem that has never been adequately explained; possibly Langland intended it to remain a mystery. By approaching this question from the forms of legal documents, Steiner has come up with a solution, though it is a contentious one. She suggests that the letter of pardon was in the form of a bipartite chirograph. Piers's tearing of the letter was constructive not destructive: "by tearing his chirograph, Piers simultaneously declares his faith in its terms and awards to each his or her portion." The practical objection to this is that a chirograph had to be cut with care, so that the two parts could be rejoined if required, whereas Piers is described angrily tearing or pulling his document asunder. Steiner does have good theological evidence, however, for Christ's redemption of mankind being interpreted as a compact that both sides enter into, as in the making of a chirograph.
Steiner carries her study beyond Langland into the fifteenth century, when Lollardy made devotional documents in English highly contentious. Charters issued in Christ's name became potentially subversive, once they began to be contrasted with the legalistic forms of papal indulgences. One accused Lollard, Margery Baxter, purportedly claimed that she had a charter of salvation in her womb. William Thorpe in 1407 used English to powerful effect in his Testimony as a counter to the official version of his trial for heresy. The Testimony is addressed like a letter patent "to all men that read or hear this writing." Those suspected of subverting the Scripture, like Margery Kempe, needed legal documents to protect them. When the arresting officer read the archbishop of Canterbury's letter, he became more polite and asked: "Why did you not show me this before?" This encounter, like that between Lady Reason and Rude Entendement, suggests a respect for due legal process.
The significance of all this for the understanding of English literature is complex and controversial. For historians of law, on the other hand, Steiner's evidence unequivocally suggests that legal documents were widely understood and respected. This contrasts with the disrespect for the law documented in court records and chronicles. The historical records deal with remarkable events and particular cases and they will therefore tend to emphasize lawlessness. The evidence from literature of a deeply imbedded legalistic documentary culture is a useful counterpoint to historians' generalizations about medieval lawlessness. The set forms of documents laid down pathways for obtaining justice and this was well understood.
M. T. Clanchy
Institute of Historical Research,
University of London