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Title: Felony's Dark Imagining in Middle English Literature
Authors: Wang, Elise
Advisors: Smith, Vance
Jordan, William
Contributors: Comparative Literature Department
Keywords: Criminal procedure
Man of Law's Tale
Piers Plowman
Subjects: Medieval literature
Medieval history
Issue Date: 2018
Publisher: Princeton, NJ : Princeton University
Abstract: Felony’s Dark Imagining in Middle English Literature traces the literary, religious, and legal histories of felony procedure through four case studies. Each explore an aspect of the felony trial: the charge, the investigation, the verdict, and the delay that attends each step. In the first chapter, I examine the meaning of felony in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parson’s Tale and Mum and the Sothsegger to argue that the charge of felony was defined by mental consent and that, contrary to previous scholarship, the category represented more than its punishment. My second chapter examines two scenes of investigation – Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale and the encounter with Haukyn in William Langland’s Piers Plowman – to show how both reveal critical pitfalls in turning testimony into narrative, the primary mechanism of investigation. My third chapter narrows its focus to one felony offense – robbery – in order to address the role documentation plays in coming to a verdict. In it, I argue that the equivocal treatment of the robber in Piers Plowman suggests that the puzzling combination of high indictment and low conviction rates for medieval robbery was an expression of the high social value placed on documenting a community’s knowledge of itself. Finally, my last chapter places examples of judicial delay beside the poem St. Erkenwald to argue that the poem proceeds through the negotiation of delay in its form and in its subject matter. It thus gives us access to the ways in which delay, by virtue of generating idle time, is both a danger to and constitutive of judicial satisfaction. In each case, this project reveals medieval writers struggling to build an ethics of procedure that lives up to their ideals of social order and their representations. This dissertation builds on a rich history of scholarly conversation about late medieval law and literature to suggest that felony procedure, as a heuristic for the most severe form of culpability, provided medieval writers a unique landscape on which to work out their ideas about guilt, its proof, and its repair.
Alternate format: The Mudd Manuscript Library retains one bound copy of each dissertation. Search for these copies in the library's main catalog:
Type of Material: Academic dissertations (Ph.D.)
Language: en
Appears in Collections:Comparative Literature

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