The Beginnings of English Law and Literature

In England’s medieval period, it has been said, ‘law and literature grew up together’. In this course, we will examine the early history of English law: from the blunt legal codes of the earliest medieval English kings, through the rise of the common law after 1066, to the rapid growth of a complex and professionalised legal system in the early renaissance. Our survey of the foundational laws of England will be informed and enriched by a close examination of major literary works – such as the Old English epic Beowulf, the legends of King Arthur, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and early renaissance drama. The focus will be how English law and literature before the year 1600 influenced each other, and how both discourses tackled questions of authority, sovereignty and the rule of law – questions that   both law and literature still grapple with today.

In addition to offering a window into a number of medieval worlds – early royal courts, the first universities, the scriptorium, the early Inns of Court, the guildhalls of London – this course traces the history of the English book itself. The legal and literary texts we study survive in medieval documents, rolls, manuscripts and early printed books; as we learn how these artefacts were composed and produced, we will discover the profound influence that legal writing had on the way that books were created, organised, reproduced and read in the medieval period and for centuries to come.

Students completing the course will have a strong sense of the history and development of English statute and common law, familiarity with many of the canonical literary texts and authors of the medieval and renaissance periods, and a critical understanding of the interactions of pre-modern law and literature, as well as the ability to undertake legal and literary research using primary texts and documentary artefacts from manuscript libraries and archives.