The opening portion of Book 4 in John Milton’s Paradise Lost finds Satan, newly arrived from Hell, temporarily stymied by the great wall of vegetation that surrounds Paradise. As the narrative voice of the poem explains, however, this natural barrier ultimately presents little hindrance, for ‘when th’ arch-felon saw/Due entrance he disdained, and in contempt,/At one slight bound high over leaped all bound/Of hill or highest wall, and sheer within/Lights on his feet’ (179–83). While Satan’s penetration of the garden is usually glossed for its theological meaning, Alison Chapman’s book approaches this moment—and many others in the epic—from the perspective of legal history, uncovering in terms such as ‘felon’ and ‘contempt’ Milton’s deep familiarity with the strictures and processes of both criminal and civil law in the seventeenth century. In pursuing this investigation, however, Chapman does not eschew religion. Rather, she details how, contrary to modern presumptions regarding the secularity of the law, early moderns understood the law and religion to be deeply intertwined, and how Milton deploys this understanding to sustain the poem’s justification of God’s ways to an active and critically aware readership. The result is not only a compelling reading of Paradise Lost but also a valuable contribution to the larger study of early modern law and literature, one that will repay reading by Miltonists and non-Miltonists alike. Chapman grounds her analysis in the law’s ubiquity in the lives of the early modern English, detailing in Milton’s case how his experiences and those of his family and friends would have left the poet with a clear sense of not only the law’s larger claims regarding morality but also its procedural and statutory specifics. The influence of this knowledge, Chapman shows, can be found in much of Milton’s work, as throughout her book citations from contemporary statues, legal handbooks and reports, and popular print are deftly intertwined with those from the epic, thereby establishing the continuing attention Milton paid to legal details. Following her proof of these initial arguments, Chapman then moves into a series of chapters focused on more specific forms of law and legal manoeuvring she finds of particular interest to Paradise Lost. The first, perhaps not surprisingly, is treason, a crime that has attracted a good deal of critical attention from both literary and historical scholars. In addition to explicating how both Satan’s and Adam’s actions in the poem meet early modern standards of treason, and how the distinctions between their treasons bear both legal and theological weight, Chapman importantly details how in the poem God operates within rather than outside English legal norms, thereby ensuring the consonance of divine justice and temporal law. Chapman then turns to Satan’s other crimes, meticulously charting how Milton builds a case against the adversary that begins first with minor crimes such as the trespass alluded to above and then continues into more serious violations of law such as burglary, poaching, and homicide, all of which combine to provide Satan with the sort of criminal biography that increasingly fascinated late seventeenth-century readers of more ephemeral ‘true crime’ tracts. This chapter in particular is indicative of the new understandings one can garner from a close attention to the project of taking the lived cases of early modern law seriously as not only a historical but also literary resource. In Chapman’s reading, for example, Satan’s poaching, likened by Milton to a lion or tiger stalking his prey, is not a matter of feeding the hungry but of a particularly intense form of lawless political hostility readily cognizable to early moderns. To her credit Chapman also delves into civil as well as criminal law, exploring in two successive chapters how evolving definitions of English property law shape the marital relationship of Adam and Eve and their joint and separate relationships with the garden. Using a definition of ‘property’ that includes not only material items but also more immaterial senses of communal rights—a definition again familiar to early moderns but that has since been eroded in modern law—Chapman argues that rather than introducing private property into the epic the fall instead corrupts relationships regarding property that had already existed. Adam’s failure forces Eve more fully into the subordination of coverture, while Eve—prompted by Satan’s own poisoned legal reasoning—pursues a false form of ownership that ultimately comes to infect her husband as well. Chapman then concludes with two substantive chapters that focus in large part on the procedures of early modern English justice, and how the mechanics of arraignment, pleading, sentencing, and pardoning track key moments in the later portions of the epic. Christ’s intervention and examination of Adam and Eve, for example, are in keeping with the professional procedures expected of English circuit court judges, while Adam becomes a figure whose biased use of fact—a legal category of increasing importance and complexity in the seventeenth century—further affirms his moral fall. The subsequent pleas of both individuals for mercy similarly conform to early judicial and social norms regarding the pursuit of pardons, themselves an act of grace that in Paradise Lost once again confirms the poem’s connection between law and justice, and secular authority and divine omnipotence. Clearly conversant with a myriad of legal and historical sources, Chapman in The Legal Epic wears her considerable knowledge lightly, resulting in a book that is both convincing and compulsively readable. Specialists in both Milton and early modern law and literature will likely find themselves prompted to consider new avenues for further criticism on the poem, while scholars of other authors might be encouraged to take up similarly detailed investigations of their own. What if, for example, we examined Kirkrapine’s intrusion in Book 1 of Edmund Spenser’s Fairie Queene with a similar attention to the legal (as well as theological) concerns regarding breaking and entering? Chapman’s details also offer new avenues for teaching Milton’s work—her recognition of how early modern treason carried with it a taint that could affect not only the traitor but also his family might provide another way of helping students unpack their frequent objections as to the apparent injustice of God’s punishment of all humanity for Adam and Eve’s crime. To be sure, not all of Chapman’s readings may be as individually compelling—her link between Adam’s seizure of Eve’s hand (4.489) and the form of land ownership known as ‘seisin’ will likely not dampen the sense of violence contemporary readers (if not their early modern counterparts) frequently find in this moment (pp. 135–6). In ordering the Archangel Michael to ‘seize’ possession of the postlapsarian garden, Milton’s God seems to play upon this joint notion of legal taking and aggression, a point Chapman acknowledges in a subsequent chapter (p. 240). Such differences of interpretation, however, are in keeping with the form of readership Chapman argues the poem assiduously constructs, one reliant on its active judgments for a conviction of both the law’s particulars and the divine grace and justice that undergirds it. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press 2017; all rights reserved
The Review of English Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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