Alison A Chapman, The Legal Epic: Paradise Lost and the Early Modern Law

Alison A Chapman, The Legal Epic: Paradise Lost and the Early Modern Law (Chicago: Chicago University Press 2017) 248 pp. $40 Hb. ISBN: 9780226435138

Among the plethora of connections Alison A Chapman makes between the jurisprudential and theological realms in her thoroughly contextualized The Legal Epic: Paradise Lost and The Early Modern Law, is a passage from the end of Chapter Two, 'Law and Religion in Milton’s World' which encapsulates this relationship. In that section, not only does she distinguish her undertaking from works such as Jason Rosenblatt’s Torah and Law and Staley Fish’s Surprised by Sin but she also gives a list of examples illustrating the kinds of early modern 'Law-law' works which would have set a precedent for John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667). In what is perhaps the most telling phrase of her book, by 'Law-law' Chapman refers to a Mosaic-temporal law construct in which the relation of the 'Law' to 'law' finds its parallel 'between those normative rules authored by God and those authored by human legislators and jurists' (62). Among the authors who made use of the parallels perceived between godly and worldly laws were Sir Francis Bacon, Sir Mathew Hale and Richard Hooker – just a few of the natural scientists and legal theorists whose works reflect the early modern preoccupation with the mirroring of God’s laws by human communities. The title of Richard Hooker’s work, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (published in separate volumes throughout the sixteenth century), represents the essence of the seventeenth and early eighteenth century’s complex and intuitive intermingling of the ecclesiastical (connoting a sacred assembly) and the political. It is within such an atmosphere that the stage is set for Milton’s poetic crescendo of early modern Britain’s theologically contingent understanding of the law.

Chapman’s first two chapters, in their close and original readings of Milton’s political texts, are foundational not only for the rest her own book but also for scholarship on Milton. She clearly states her premises preceding the dexterous arguments of the later chapters which deal directly with Paradise Lost: 'All of the chapters in this book rest on the bedrock assumption that Milton knows his way around the early modern law and that when he uses words like "accessories" or "bond", he does so with a full appreciation of their technical legal meanings and associated jurisprudential contexts […] I show how this personal familiarity with the law emerges at various points in his prose works' (16). She begins this task by illustrating how deeply versed were various of Milton’s family and close friends in Britain’s legal system. Most importantly, John Milton Sr worked as a scrivener and John Milton’s brother, Christopher Milton, studied law at the Inner Temple (17). After providing a lineage of legal workers associated with the Milton family, she states 'As a result, John Milton’s brother, brother-in-law, and four nephews were all prominent lawyers' (18). As if that snippet of biography were not convincing enough, Chapman points out that 'the major milestones in an ordinary life increasingly involved legal documents' (25) and provides a profusion of illustrations. Those two quotes are typical of Chapman’s book, which with facility slides between biographical and historical evidence for her claims – and this is even before she begins to navigate the entirety of Paradise Lost with the same deftness.

Since Chapman points out that, predominantly, 'studies of Milton and law […] are focused on his prose works', she wastes no time in describing Milton’s preoccupation with both the Romano-canon law and Justinian’s Institutes in order to move towards the pith of her focus on Paradise Lost as a legal Epic, which forms the content of chapters three to eight. Milton’s 'fit audience' for Paradise Lost, Chapman explains, are the 'juror-readers' who are called upon to come to a 'just verdict' regarding Satan’s character. Thus, Chapman posits Milton’s work as essentially teleological in asserting that Milton’s epic contains culturally recognizable tropes of legality and illegality by which the audience would know how to judge Satan’s every action. Presumably, the 'juror-reader' would have had an easy verdict. The thread of Chapman’s argument allows her to conclude that 'throughout Paradise Lost, Milton pairs theology and law not to exalt the law itself but rather to emphasize the way that the law indexes something larger and more important' (246). But Satan’s probable reputation as an embodiment of evil in the minds of an early modern audience would have preceded the specific criminal laws with which Milton associates him, making the reader’s judgmental task decidedly simpler than Chapman’s nuanced work indicates.

The litany of transgressions Satan perpetrates start with treason, which Chapman argues became more associated with 'threats to the rule of law and de-emphasized assaults on the monarch’s person' (13). Chapman fleshes out the rest of Satan’s individual violations of criminal law in Book Four: 'trespassing, larceny, burglary, poaching, and murder' (13). Chapman convincingly argues that Adam and Eve project an ambiguity of character, ripe for the interpretative purposes of the juror-reader, if one reads Milton’s epic as a meditation on the law. For example, Adam and Eve both seek pardon in Book Ten using the historically-documented and more effective technique of asking for it at the scene of the crime, which Chapman cites at lines 10.1098–1100 of Milton’s narrative: 'They forthwith to the place/ Repairing where he judged them prostrate fell/ Before him reverent'. Chapman’s acumen for seeking textual evidence which is identically aligned with her arguments is on frequent display in the chapters dealing directly with Paradise Lost (three to eight). Chapman concludes that Paradise Lost accomplishes the opposite of Milton’s intent. By depicting temporal (human) law as a reflection of divine Law in a text grounded in the clash between good and evil, the path has been cleared for the current understanding of the law which, according to Chapman, has gained 'a sacral mystique of its own, the claims of law no longer need to be measured against the mandates of conscience and true religion, and lex moves further and further away from jus' (250). The Legal Epic, aside from being a rare study of the variegated manifestations of law found in Paradise Lost, is a solid contribution to political philosophy. Chapman’s book is also a reminder that contemporary instances of separation between law (lex) and justice (jus) have deleterious political effects beyond unnuanced readings of Milton’s best-known work.

Nicholas Gomez, Saint Louis University