Lorna Hutson on The Oxford Handbook of English Law and Literature, 1550-1700

A Handbook of What?
The Oxford Handbook of English Law and Literature, 1500-1700

You’d think a handbook would be, by definition, an indispensable guide to a coherent body of knowledge. In literary studies, this might be an author; in history, a period; in law an area of litigation, like health or tax. At the boundaries of disciplines, though, the idea of a handbook starts to look a little more eccentric. A Handbook of English Law and Literature, 1500-1700, for goodness sake. What kind of a topic is that? Why not a handbook of things drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, or that from a long way off look like flies? Sure enough, baffling Borgesian ironies aren’t completely out of place. This particular handbook offers no reliable travel guide to a country called ‘Law and Literature’. Rather, new perspectives are opened up for readers across the disciplines in chapters on topics that are, by their nature, legal, literary and historical. It is, in a sense, disciplinary division that has obscured them.

But to beg the question, first. There’s been debate among those who study early modern England about the much-touted affinity of legal and literary culture in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Some have argued that the connection is evident and ubiquitous; others that it has been exaggerated and scarcely exits. The opening section of the Handbook broaches this question with the precision that only an interdisciplinary convergence can bring. Kathy Eden offers a beautifully lucid guide to the foundations of humanistic pedagogy in Roman forensic rhetoric, the effects of which are clearly seen in Quentin Skinner’s startling new explanation of why Shylock loses his case. On the other hand, historians Margaret McGlynn and Ian Williams draw on archival research and the sociology of texts to emphasize the idiosyncratic and professionally discrete transmission of legal learning in the Inns of Court. Any reader perplexed by the contradictory generalisations of earlier accounts can turn to OHELL (an acronym which speaks volumes about the production of the Oxford Handbook of English Law and Literature) and make up her own mind.

But the opening up of new interdisciplinary perspectives doesn’t stop there. Another cluster of chapters revisits the much-debated question of the political purposes of England’s lawyers at play. Were they principled oppositionists, or arse-licking monarchists, or is the dichotomy itself misguided? A reader will get a lively sense of the debate on this question from chapters by Jessica Winston, Martin Butler and Paul Raffield, while a chapter by the late Christopher Brooks shines new light on the under-explored legal-literary relations of the Inns in the late seventeenth century.

In some topics, the payoffs of interdisciplinary convergence are dazzlingly obvious. In a chapter on a literary genre -- Jacobean City Comedy -- the historian Tim Stretton brings to life the entangled intrigue plots of city comedies by explaining transformative legal developments in the practices of dower and jointure. New legal instruments both deprived women of customary protections and offered financial opportunities for those of either sex smart and savvy enough to exploit them. From another angle (and just to up the stakes of controversy) the literary scholar, Luke Wilson, argues against interdisciplinary approaches which turn the literary text into a sensitive seismograph of every contemporary legal development. It’s up to the reader, again, to decide.

There are debates of contemporary global urgency in which the literary, legal and historical developments of early modern England are recognized as playing a foundational role. For example: the contemporary debate on the place of religion in the public sphere; contemporary debates on the rights of migrants crossing borders; contemporary debates on freedom of speech and new media. Chapters by Ethan Shagan and Alan Cromartie offer powerful new ways of thinking about relations of law and conscience precisely at the point of the emergence of a ‘public sphere’ and a rule of law in England, while chapters by Daniel Hulsebosch, Paul Halliday, Nigel Smith and Mary Nyquist give new food for thought on questions of the legal and literary foundations of the Anglo-American discourses of birthright, liberty and slavery. On print, law and freedom of speech we have legal historians, literary critics and historians – David Ibbetson, Joad Raymond and Alistair Bellany – bringing incisive interventions to the debate sparked by revisionist denials and Foucauldian deconstructions of early modern censorship.

I’ve had to leave out much else that will tempt readers: chapters on witchcraft, on women and property, on torture, oaths and evidence and legal reform; on the English common law in Ireland; on Scottish law; on natural law and heroic drama. Think of this blog as an appetizer for OHELL. As my Borges opening suggested, it’s a collection of taxonomy-defying diversity. And readers of this blog might want to see if they can identify the authors of the poems featured in the manuscript which forms the book’s cover illustration (Huntington MS 4623, fols. 32v-33r). The cover shows a page from the commonplace book of a seventeenth-century law student, a page in which the legal and literary texts sit cheek by jowl, epitomizing the shared textual space to which this Handbook is devoted.


Lorna Hutson


The Oxford Handbook of English Law and Literature, 1500-1700, edited by Lorna Hutson, was published on 22 June 2017 by Oxford University Press.