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Interpreting
Legal Personhood

in Animal Literature of the Middle Ages

Book Abstract

In Interpreting Legal Personhood, I read several genres of animal literature (aesopic fables, beast epics, bird debates) alongside early common law writing from England and France (12th–14th c.), finding that these legal and literary genres often resemble one another and facilitate similar rhetorical practices. Fables, for instance, present discrete case narratives followed by moral judgments, much like plea rolls. Both forms of writing envision legal personhood as an abstract concept that can be applied in individual cases. Yet, both real and fictional applications of legal personhood are troubled by embodiment and the failure of language to represent material reality. Medieval writers of animal literature, however, were keenly aware of the fallibility of human language: fable, after all, meant “fiction” and “falsehood” in both English and French. Thus, contrary to the widespread dismissal of fable by animal theorists, medieval fabular literature can offer crucial insight into one of the most pressing questions of animal studies, namely, “How do we determine subjects of legal justice?”. I argue that, by interrogating the fictionality of legal personhood in medieval common law and animal literature, we can locate moments of resistance to the law’s violence and affirmations of sentient creatures’ rights to justice. 

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