Renaissance Tool Abuse and the Legal History of the Sudden

  • Luke Wilson
Part of the Language, Discourse, Society book series (LDS)

Abstract

The past decade has seen an increasingly programmatic critical interest in Renaissance objects as such, a development explained in the introduction to the recent collection Subject and Object in Renaissance Culture as both a dialectical response to several decades’ preoccupation with subjects and as an outgrowth of a concern with material culture. The editors also attempt to offer an alternative to traditional histories of the relation between subject and object,2 and yet despite a searching account of the early modern history of objects the reorientation promised through a displacement of the subject ends up conceptually constrained in familiar ways, especially in a recourse to the principle of mutual causation, in which subjects and objects are inevitably seen to constitute one another. Perhaps the problem lies in the editors’ implicit assumption that all things are objects, that is, inescapably involved with subjects; perhaps the displacement of the subject requires the acknowledgment of things as things. In any case, in an attempt to think about the relation between object and thing, and about how things may become objects and objects things, I want to consider here a special class of objects — tools — and a special case of use — misuse — in early modern legal and literary texts.

Keywords

Europe Rubber Brittle Tate Topo 

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Notes

  1. 2.
    M. de Grazia, M. Quilligan and P. Stallybrass (eds), Subject and Object in Renaissance Culture (Cambridge University Press, 1996), 1–13.Google Scholar
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    B. Brown, ‘Thing Theory’, Critical Inquiry 28.1 (Autumn 2001), 5.Google Scholar
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    See M. de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. S. Rendall (University of California Press, 1984).Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    The best-known example of this combination is in act V of Hamlet. See W.W. Skeat, ‘Cain’s Jaw-Bone’, Notes & Queries ser. 6 (1830), 2. 143; R.R., ‘As if it were Cain’s Jaw-Bone’, Notes & Queries, ser. 6 (1830), 2. 162. Such abuse occurs, of course, in relation to a divine rather than human toolmaker.Google Scholar
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    P. Sidney, The Countess ofPembrokes Arcadia (The Old Arcadia) (henceforth OA), ed. J. Robertson (Oxford University Press, 1973), 128. The passage is almost identical in the The Countess of Pembrokes Arcadia (The New Arcadia) (henceforth NA), ed. V. Skretkowicz (Oxford University Press, 1987), 292.Google Scholar
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    J.S. Cockbum (ed.), CalendarofAssizeRecords, 11 vols (HMSO, 1975–85). All translations from the Latin are Cockburn’s. Words and phrases in quotation marks are in English in the calendars. Hereafter cited parenthetically by the abbreviation CAR followed by the volume title (county and reign) and number of the entry.Google Scholar
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    J.H. Baker, Manual of Law French, 2nd edn (Scolar Press, 1990), s.v. chance medle, defines the term as ‘sudden quarrel or fight’ and notes that the corresponding Latin was ‘ex subito casu’. Compare the phrase ‘ex casu subito vocato chauncemelle’ in a 1530 King’s Bench case (Baker, Reports of Sir John Spelman, 305). According to Baker, chaud melle, chance medle, and chaumedle all meant the same thing. But chaud usually meant hot in a figurative sense, as in chaudes paroles, a heated verbal exchange (Manual s.v. chaud). Despite the manifest mixing of heat and chance this range of variants shows, the OED makes no mention of a connection to chaud and offers the explanation that the phrase implies mixed or ‘meddled’ chance, that is, chance and intent mixed, adding that some have misread it as ‘fortuitous meddling’ (implying pure chance). This view is supported by J. Cowell’s Interpreter (1607) (s.v. Chawnce medley; sig. O1°) but conclusively contradicted by other sources. Chance-medley was a hot or hasty mixing not of negligence and accident but of two combatants.Google Scholar
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    [Manslaughter is where two fight together suddenly, without precedent malice, and the one kills the other, there he will have [benefit of] clergy.] R. Crompton, Loffice et aucthoritie de Justices de peace (1584), sig. C4; fol. 20. Compare the very similar definitions of manslaughter in M. Dalton, The Countrey Justice (1618), 217; and F. Pulton, De pace regis et regni (1609), fol. 123v.Google Scholar
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    Dalton, The Countrey Iustice (1618), 214, 209. Coke does not mention suddenness, saying only that ‘si un tua auter sans ascun provocation & sauns ascun malice prepence quo poet estre prove, le Ley adiudge ceo murdre et implye malice’ (La Neufe Part des Reports (London, 1615), 67). Dalton is inferring the suddenness of the crime from the absence of evidence of prior planning or immediate provocation. Similarly in Crompton, Loffice (1584) suddenness under certain circumstances is understood to imply malice prepense; see generally his account of murder (fol. 16–19b, sig. B8-C3°).Google Scholar
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    It is possible that Powell’s addition, ‘mariner’, is fictitious, shaped to conform to the circumstances in which the crime is represented to have occurred; since the indictment was required to specify the occupation of the accused, it would have been invented if unavailable. On fictitious names and additions, see Cockburn, CAR Introduction, 77–9. On the difficulty of extracting facts from the assize records see also Cockburn, ‘Early-Modern Assize Records as Historical Evidence’, Journal of the Society of Archivists 5 (1975), 215–31.Google Scholar
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    Well before the sixteenth century ‘noon’ had come to designate the hour at which workers stopped to eat or rest. See J. Le Goff, Time, Work and Culture in the Middle Ages, trans. A. Goldhammer (University of Chicago Press, 1980), 44–5.Google Scholar
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    This transaction may be illuminated, in another idiom, through a recent account of how early modern gloves become fetish objects in being unpaired from their mates; pairing, writes Derrida, ‘inhibits, at least, if it does not prevent, the “fetishizing” movement; it rivets things to use, to “normal” use’ and can thus function to ‘exclude the question of a certain uselessness, or of a so-called perverse usage’; to insist on pairing two objects is to ‘bind them to the law of normal usage’. Quoted in P. Stallybrass and A.R. Jones, ‘Fetishizing the Glove in Renaissance Europe’, Critical Inquiry 28.1 (Autumn 2001), 120. The dis-pairing of the tool from its ‘normal usage’ initiates, similarly, its movement toward the condition of the fetish as a thing mysteriously in excess of its status as a purely instrumental object, a thing with a will of its own.Google Scholar
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    See especially G. MacCormack, ‘On Thing Liability (Sachhaftung) in Early Law’, Irish Jurist 19 (1994), 328. The deodand first appeared during the period following the Norman invasion; it is first referred to in Bracton (mid-thirteenth century). For its later history see especially T. Sutton, ‘The Deodand and Responsibility for Death’, Legal History 18.3 (December 1997), 44–55. See also the references cited in L. Wilson, Theaters of Intention: Drama and the Law in Early Modern England (Stanford University Press, 2000), 175–6, 303 n.24.Google Scholar
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    For the statue as an artefact that moves, for example, see K. Gross, The Dream of the Moving Statue (Cornell University Press, 1992), and, on body parts invested with agency, D. Hillman and C. Mazzio (eds), The Body in Parts: Fantasies of Corporeality in Early Modern Europe (Routledge, 1997), esp. xix.Google Scholar
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    There were complications, especially as a result of the contrary iconographies of an apostolic Christianity that inverted the stigma of implements whose biblical resonances qualified them as quasi-populist emblems: sheep hooks, ploughshares, and so on. Langland’s Piers Plowman, in whose title character there seems to be an allusion to Luke 9:62 (‘No man having put his hand to the plow, and looking backe, is fit for the kingdome of God’), is the most obvious medieval example. At least in the Judeo-Christian scriptural tradition pastoral implements were ennobled from the start, but with the Reformation calls for a return to apostolic religious practice brought with them a more thematic inversion of signification. Thus for example Calvin, in Thomas Norton’s 1562 translation of the Institutes, paraphrasing Bernard, distinguishes between secular lordship and the ministry: ‘Therefore how much soeuer we thinke of our selues, let vs remembre ye there is a ministerie layd vpon us, not a Lordship geven vs. Learne that thou hast need of a wedehoke, not of a scepter, that thou mayst do the worke of a Prophete.’ J. Calvin, The Institution of Christian Religion (1562), IV.xi.11 (fol. 404). This is the context that instructs us to detect an irony in Polixenes’ metonymic condemnation of his son’s choice of a mate — ‘thou art too base / To be acknowledg’d: thou a sceptre’s heir, / That thus affects a sheep hook!’ (The Winters Tale IV.4.419–21) — where the language of social distinction is all too enmeshed in a Christian ethic of service, all too double-edged and ready to reflect unfavourably on the father — even if, as it will turn out, the sheep hook is really a sceptre’s heir herself. The principle that tool abuse marked social inferiority is differently inflected yet again in the allegorical figure of Talus, in Book 5 of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, who wields a flail of the agricultural rather than martial variety: a ‘strange weapon, never wont in warre’ (V.4.44); ‘strange’ encoding the abuse involved in weaponizing an instrument normally used for threshing grain. Talus is typically deployed against undifferentiated crowds usually identified as of inferior social status; yet his flail marks him as the appropriate instrument to handle those too base for Artegall’s sword.Google Scholar
  19. 39.
    J.L. Sutton, Jr, ‘A Historical Source for the Rebellion of the Commons in Sidney’s Arcadia’, English Language Notes 23.4 (June 1986), 6–11. The strategy behind the revision was first proposed by W.G. Zeeveld, ‘The Uprising of the Commons in Sidney’s Arcadia’, Modem LanguageNotes 43 (1933), 209–17.Google Scholar
  20. 40.
    R. Holinshed, The Third Volume of Chronicles (2nd edn; 1587), sig. Rr3. (‘A Lathing Staff of Iron, in the form of a Cross, to stay the cross Laths while they are nailed to the long Laths, and also to clinch the Nails’ (OED)). Although this account is not in itself implausible, it seems to be unique to Holinshed and is so characteristic of his treatment of the rebels throughout as at once dangerous and comical that it has the feel of a myth of origin. Holinshed’s narratives of rebellion rarely otherwise emphasize use-against-design; and certainly, at least once a rebellion was under way, rebellious commoners cannot often have been so ill-equipped as Sidney’s account suggests.Google Scholar
  21. 41.
    E. Berry, ‘Sidney’s “Poor” Painter: Nationalism and Social Class’, in V. Newey and A. Thompson (eds), Literature and Nationalism (Liverpool University Press, 1991), 7–8.Google Scholar
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    Ovid, Metamorphoses, ed. and trans. F.J. Miller, 2 vols (Harvard University Press, 1939), vol. 2, 12:210–536.Google Scholar
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    R.M. Berrong, ‘Changing Depictions of Popular Revolt in Sixteenth-Century England: the Case of Sidney’s Two Arcadias’, Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 19 (1989), 21.Google Scholar
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    On the relation between fore-conceit and the oracle, see M. McCanles, ‘Oracular Prediction and the Fore-Conceit of Sidney’s Arcadia’, ELH 50 (1983), 233–44.Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2005

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  • Luke Wilson

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