Fables, Foxes, and Felons

The Fiction of Legal Personhood in Medieval England

Book Abstract

The term “person” did not always denote “human.” In medieval England, personhood by definition conferred legal status on both human and nonhuman entities as subjects of the law. Those denied legal personhood—including but not limited to convicted felons, religious others, women, and animals—occupied a liminal status outside the law, and yet in many cases were deemed capable of participating in trials and other legal practices. Recalling the fable genre’s classical legal function, medieval writers stage the entanglement of language and legal doctrines related to personhood in animal fables, beast epics, and bird debates. In my project, I trace the ways in which medieval beast literature dramatized the contradictions of early common law in England during the riotous centuries of legal and linguistic flux following the Norman Conquest (late twelfth to fourteenth centuries). Fables, Foxes, and Felons shows how medieval writers contested and revised the boundaries of the person in the figurative world of fable, revealing the “fiction” of personhood as an early common law concept still upheld in courts today.