Besides serving as a historical case study for ongoing inquiries into the routinely politicised relationship between language and collective identity, this programme of research will explain how the language of the common law gave rise to a new vernacular hermeneutic that is both secular and exclusive to England. It is my aim to produce the first monograph to address the dynamic function played by the common law in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, assessing the law’s contribution to emerging ideas of Englishness. This project will therefore not only contribute to a better understanding of how the Englishing of the law fed into discourses about national identity, but it will also supply a new angle on current debates about the highly problematic nature of periodisation itself by offering a narrative that transcends our institutional practices of carving up this period between medieval and early modern remits. As a result, I hope to recover a cultural transformation whose impact has been effaced in the fragmented cultural canons of medievalists and early modernists.
I argue that the cultural role played at the time by vernacular law cannot be evaluated by looking at the history of printing to the exclusion of late medieval writers. Instead, I hope to stimulate interdisciplinary thinking in Law and Literature about the formation of collective identity and offer a means of overcoming the divisions caused by periodisation, besides providing a first study of the contribution Englished law made to the formation of national identity. Because literary scholars have so far shunned the legal literature of the fifteenth-century and early modernists continue to view earlier literature through the prism of printing, my project will be uniquely positioned.
As a body of secular writings characterised by their public nature, the law constitutes the largest of the settings into which English has been introduced. This unique combination of writings that wish to define the extent of English law and that reach out to all members of the kingdom – by virtue of being translated into or composed in English – generates a secular and truly public model of Englishness that transcends the sectional interests of privileged linguistic communities such as university-educated speakers of Latin or common lawyers familiar with law French.
The years between 1460 and 1535 saw the gradual Englishing of the common law and discourses associated with it. During this period, lawyers and writers translated the law, composed law-related books in English, and disseminated them even before the arrival of the printing press. Drawing on recent developments in the disciplines of Law and Literature, this project will begin to reveal a massive cultural programme of Englishing the common law and legal thought, using its weight to realign the national identity along secular lines. This project will not only contribute to a better understanding of how the Englishing of the law fed into discourses about national identity, but it will also supply a new angle on current debates about the highly problematic nature of periodisation itself, besides serving as a historical case study for ongoing inquiries into the routinely politicised relationship between language and collective identity.