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A Power to Do Justice

Jurisdiction, English Literature, and the Rise of Common Law

A Power to Do Justice

Jurisdiction, English Literature, and the Rise of Common Law

English law underwent rapid transformation in the sixteenth century, in response to the Reformation and also to heightened litigation and legal professionalization. As the common law became more comprehensive and systematic, the principle of jurisdiction came under particular strain. When the common law engaged with other court systems in England, when it encountered territories like Ireland and France, or when it confronted the ocean as a juridical space, the law revealed its qualities of ingenuity and improvisation. In other words, as Bradin Cormack argues, jurisdictional crisis made visible the law’s resemblance to the literary arts.  
A Power to Do Justice
shows how Renaissance writers engaged the practical and conceptual dynamics of jurisdiction, both as a subject for critical investigation and as a frame for articulating literature’s sense of itself. Reassessing the relation between English literature and law from More to Shakespeare, Cormack argues that where literary texts attend to jurisdiction, they dramatize how boundaries and limits are the very precondition of law’s power, even as they clarify the forms of intensification that make literary space a reality.

Tracking cultural responses to Renaissance jurisdictional thinking and legal centralization, A Power to Do Justice makes theoretical, literary-historical, and methodological contributions that set a new standard for law and the humanities and for the cultural history of early modern law and literature.

424 pages | 21 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2008

History: European History

Law and Legal Studies: Legal History

Literature and Literary Criticism: British and Irish Literature


“Out goes ahistorical Power, and in comes historically specific Jurisdiction. Thanks to Bradin Cormack’s searching and original study, literary critics have a newly usable instrument of analysis: in his hands the concept of Jurisdiction reveals afresh not only the legal narratives of literary texts, but also the literary practice of those very texts.”

James Simpson, Douglas P. and Katherine B. Loker Professor of English, Harvard University

“There could be no stronger argument for integrating the study of literature and the law than this book. A Power to Do Justice is a magisterial accomplishment: for its formidable scholarship, its conceptual sophistication, and its stunning sensitivity to language, both poetic and prescriptive.”

Margreta de Grazia, Sheli Z. and Burton X. Rosenberg Professor of Humanities, University of Pennsylvania

“In this learned and legible book, Bradin Cormack shifts our attention from sovereignty and its others, to jurisdiction as the persistently problematic practice of representing and enacting legal authority. He convincingly demonstrates that Elizabethan and Tudor literature was a rich site for working out massively important material shifts in the construction of the legal order. A contribution to critical legal studies to be treasured; a contribution to critical legal history to be emulated; a contribution to our understanding of the relationship between law and literature that —to my complete delight—transcends the parochial terms in which the two fields of interpretive practice have typically encountered one another.”

Janet Halley, Royall Professor of Law, Harvard Law School

“In A Power to do Justice, Bradin Cormack brilliantly revises our way of thinking about the relationships between literature, law, and ‘power’ in early modern England. He encourages us to think of law as constituted by jurisdictional boundaries, and shows us how profoundly the poetic fictions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are engaged in reimagining these boundaries, and all that they make possible. The dialogue between the disciplines isn’t just advanced by Cormack’s thoughtful and generous book: it is taken to a new level of theoretical and historical understanding.”

Lorna Hutson, Berry Professor of English Literature, University of St. Andrews

“This is a work of enormous erudition, enviable rigor, and considerable consequence. A Power to Do Justice offers a new model of law and literature, and it will act as a humanizing presence within jurisprudence for many years to come.”

Peter Goodrich, Professor of Law, Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University

"In this brilliant book, Brandin Cormack permanently reconfigures our understanding of the early modern literary imagination, showing that it was involved in legal culture to a degree not previously realized. Specifically, he demonstrates that literary works were one of the cultural areas in which new and contested forms of jurisdiction over people and territory were negotiated. . . . This vision of literature and law as mutually constitutive is the study of law and literature at its most fruitful and sophisticated."

Carla Spivack | H-Net Book Review

"In addition to demonstrating the relevance of literary sources to legal history, Cormack’s method shows how literary techniques can uncover what might otherwise be neglected within the historical record."

Bernadette Meyler | Law & History Review

"A significant book, which will contribute a great deal to our growing understanding of the relationship between law and literature in early modern Britain. . . . It is a painstaking and learned study that has clearly matured over several years and every chapter yields much information for the diligent reader."

Andrew Hadfield | Review of English Studies

"A fine and formidable book that makes an important cross-disciplinary intervention into early modern literary studies and English legal history. . . . [The author’s] insights are striking, and his patient exposition is thorough and persuasive. This is an impressive and illuminating book, generative of exciting new questions; it deserves a wide audience."

Elliott Visconsi | Journal of British Studies

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Note on Citations

Prologue: A Power to Do Justice
Introduction: Literature and Jurisdiction

Part I     Centralization
1     “Shewe Us Your Mynde Then”: Bureaucracy and Royal Privilege in Skelton’s Magnyfycence
2     “No More to Medle of the Matter”: Thomas More, Equity, and the Claims of Jurisdiction

Part II     Rationalization
3     Inconveniencing the Irish: Custom, Allegory, and the Common Law in
Spenser’s Ireland
4     “If We Be Conquered”: Legal Nationalism and the France of
Shakespeare’s English Histories

Part III     Formalization
5     “To Stride a Limit”: Imperium, Crisis, and Accommodation in
Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and Pericles
6     “To Law for Our Children”: Norm and Jurisdiction in Webster, Rowley,
and Heywood’s Cure for a Cuckold




Sixteenth Century Studies Conference: Roland H. Bainton Book Prize
Honorable Mention

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