Animal Fables and Felons:

The Fiction of Legal Personhood in Medieval England

Book Abstract

Animal Fables and Felons analyzes legal narratives in medieval fables as a means of reconstructing the contested emergence of personhood as a legal concept during the twelfth though fourteenth centuries in England. The term “person” has not always signified “human” exclusively. In early English common law, persons were defined as abstract subjects of legal rights and duties. Modern lawmakers have problematized this definition as a “legal fiction,” open to expansion or exclusion depending on interpretation. My project asks: What can fictional legal scenes depicted in medieval fables tells us about the metaphorical and culturally constructed nature of legal personhood?

This book examines how medieval writers used the fictional space of fable to investigate the boundaries of personhood and reimagine who could be a subject of legal justice. Defying animal fables’ modern association with oversimplified morals and children’s stories, the beast literature genre in the Middle Ages depicts a surprising degree of realism in representing court scenes and legal procedures while also pushing the theoretical boundaries of legal praxis in the imaginative space of literature. Medieval vernacular fables—such as Marie de France’s twelfth-century fable, “The Peasant and the Jackdaw,” which stages the trial of a man for murdering a bird—consider the intersection of humanity, animality, and legal ethics. Medieval vernacular fables tell the story of a legal culture in its infancy, challenged by questions of linguistic authority and jurisdiction at a time when England’s language and political landscape were in flux. I argue that, by confronting the fiction of legal personhood, medieval animal fables invite us to reexamine the narratives of sovereignty and victimization encoded in our legal system today.