States of the Union: Law, Marriage, and Genre in Middle English Literature, 1200-1500

Skalak, Chelsea, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Holsinger, Bruce, Department of English, University of Virginia
Fowler, Elizabeth, Department of English, University of Virginia
Waters, Claire, Department of English, UC Davis

“States of the Union: Law, Marriage, and Genre in Middle English Literature, 1200-1500” analyzes the interplay between literary genres and ecclesiastical marriage law in medieval England. Before the late Middle Ages, marriage remained the purview of families, regulated by local custom. As the Church grew in influence, it increasingly sought to gain power over marriage, creating policies that clashed with local traditions and familial authority. Vernacular writers engaged such issues by leveraging their readers’ expectations of genre, exploiting the porous boundaries of medieval genres to propose unorthodox solutions to pressing social and legal concerns. While Lateran IV, for example, sought to expand church oversight by banning clandestine marriages, the early romance King Horn presents a series of disrupted marriage vows in order to argue for the primacy of individual will over the edicts of the church. The expectations set by genre help establish what questions the text asks of marriage: the lives of married saints like Cecelia and Valerian probe the connections between different models of authority and spiritual chastity, while Chaucer’s fabliaux problematize the mercantile understanding of conjugal debt by raising the specter of marital rape. For medieval reading communities, genre refracts the complex and contradictory debates about marriage instigated by the gaps and inconsistencies within medieval marriage law.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
literature, medieval, genre, marriage, law, sexuality
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