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Courts, Jurisdictions, and Law in John Milton and His Contemporaries

John Milton is widely known as the poet of liberty and freedom. But his commitment to justice has been often overlooked. As Alison A. Chapman shows, Milton’s many prose works are saturated in legal ways of thinking, and he also actively shifts between citing Roman, common, and ecclesiastical law to best suit his purpose in any given text. This book provides literary scholars with a working knowledge of the multiple, jostling, real-world legal systems in conflict in seventeenth-century England and brings to light Milton’s use of the various legal systems and vocabularies of the time—natural versus positive law, for example—and the differences between them.

Surveying Milton’s early pamphlets, divorce tracts, late political tracts, and major prose works in comparison with the writings and cases of some of Milton’s contemporaries—including George Herbert, John Donne, Ben Jonson, and John Bunyan—Chapman reveals the variety and nuance in Milton’s juridical toolkit and his subtle use of competing legal traditions in pursuit of justice.

216 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2020

History: British and Irish History

Law and Legal Studies: Legal History

Literature and Literary Criticism: British and Irish Literature


“Chapman’s new book, Courts, Jurisdictions, and Law in John Milton and His Contemporaries, extends her prior examinations and makes a significant contribution to our understanding of how Milton approached the existing patchwork of English legal systems.”

New Rambler Review

"Well suited to an intersectional field of law and literature that places questions of race, gender and religion at its center."

Seventeenth-Century News

“Chapman’s work is both highly original and exceptionally readable, bringing together imaginative engagement with legal language, convincing arguments, and refreshingly forthright responses to other scholars. She presents unfamiliar legal matters in lucid, sometimes witty prose and cautions her readers against importing modern assumptions into early modern English literature. Students and scholars of Milton will benefit enormously from her carefully developed contextualization of Milton’s assumptions regarding jurisprudential fields, specific legal terms, and his own rhetorical practices.”

Mary Nyquist, University of Toronto

“With careful attention to legal language, Chapman pulls at the tensions between libel and defamation, convincingly showing Milton’s continued interest in such questions. These are valuable new readings that explain several apparent tensions, and they show that Milton’s legal orientation can account for many of the most oddly vituperative moments in his prose. This is a very welcome addition to Milton studies.”

Christopher Warren, Carnegie Mellon University

Table of Contents

A Note on Texts
List of Abbreviations
Preface: Making Sense of Many Laws

Chapter 1: Introduction
Chapter 2: Defending One’s Good Name: Free Speech in the Early Prose
Chapter 3: Monstrous Books: Areopagitica and the Problem of Libel
Chapter 4: Civil Law and Equity in the Divorce Tracts
Chapter 5: Defending Pro Se Defensio
Chapter 6: The Tithes of War: Paying God Back in Paradise Lost
Chapter 7: “Justice in Thir Own Hands”: Local Courts in the Late Prose
Afterword: Justice in the Columbia Manuscript

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