Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

First Advisor

Jesse M. Gellrich


This work explores the connections between Middle English literature and transitions occurring within the English legal system. It focuses on the way Chaucer and the Gawain-poet negotiate the tension between the legal potency of the written word and the spoken word. As the common law contains an ongoing negotiation between written and unwritten forms of law, the dissertation discusses the function and significance of the tension between the lex scripta and the lex non scripta. It argues that the increasing displacement of oral and written language in the legal realm is a source of considerable cultural anxiety, and this anxiety is expressed in the works of literature chosen for discussion. Entering into the current re-evaluation of the Middle Ages, the dissertation addresses historical, cultural, and literary issues of contemporary relevance. The first chapter argues that the Wife of Bath manipulates hidden texts in a rhetorical strategy which parodies that of the medieval courtroom, not the pulpit. Chapter two demonstrates that the General Prologue's portrait of the Sergeant of the Law points to the legal profession's subversive use of its influence over the formation of the lex non scripta in the area of land law, an influence which facilitated profound social changes, and subverted the written laws created by parliament. The third chapter presents the thesis Chaucer's Pardoner is a textual exhibitionist and his Prologue and Tale depict the abuse of texts, and the fetishization of texts and writing. Chapter four demonstrates that the Canon's Yeoman's Prologue and Tale expresses the fear of an emptiness in texts, and also questions whether written language has, or can have, any authentic source. The final chapter argues that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight challenges the thesis of the certainty of the oral oath by deprivileging the determinacy of oral communication.