The Discourse of Law and Justice in Medieval Europe
24th Annual Medieval Studies Conference
Saturday, March 27, 2004
Law, Parliament, and ‘Aesthetic Representation’, ca. 1315-1415
Matthew Giancarlo, Yale University

In this paper I propose to discuss the developments of representation, both legal and artistic, that were central to the institutional growth of parliament from about 1315 to 1415. This is a wide period in which parliament adopted a form familiar to later ages. The division into two "houses," formal summonses, limitation of clerical representation to the Lords Spiritual, as well as legal procedures such as trial by the house of Lords and impeachment, the solidification of statutory law, control of taxation by the Commons, and others, all arose during this period. At the same time, this was also the period in which the representation of parliament in literature reached a new intensity of interest. Early romances such as Havelok the Dane, later poetry such as Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls and the Visio of Piers Plowman, and the lyrics of the Digby 102 manuscript: each offers its own image of the national assembly, and in unique ways they reflect the changing notion of representation as both a political and an aesthetic category.

For this exposition, I will focus on a few texts demonstrating the broad contours of the changes involved. Beginning with Havelok and early ballads, I will show how the early representations of parliament present it as a semi-divine assembly more akin to an idea ecclesial convocation than to the rancorous political and legal gathering it generally was. Moving from these early idealizations, I will analyze specific passages from a later semi-legal treatise, the Modus tenendi parliamentorum, which demonstrates similar idealizing tendencies even as it tries to offer a pragmatic solution to the problem of parliamentary representation. And lastly, I will use these earlier texts to provide a broader context for understanding some later poetry of parliament, Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls most prominently. Overall, I will argue that the poetry of parliament offers an insightful gauge for the changing conception of "representation" as it was being worked out as a political and legal idea (i.e., how the "voice of the people" could be lawfully represented for public policy and debate). For this argument, I will make specific use of the notion of "aesthetic representation" developed by the political theorist F. R. Ankersmit.

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