Law as Literature?

Simon Petch


In March 1617 Marius Muta, a Judge of the Supreme Court of Sicily, sentenced a certain Leonardus to seven years in the galleys. It seems that Leonardus had lured his unfaithful wife outside the city walls, where he killed her, and where her body was later partially eaten by dogs. Over eighty years later, this case was cited twice by Desiderius Spreti in his defence of Guido Franceschini, a Tuscan nobleman on trial in Rome for the murder of his wife. More than two and a half centuries later the case found its way into English literature in Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book (1868-9),4 a poem based on the Franceschini trial as recorded in contemporary legal documents discovered by the poet. Browning's defence lawyer, Dominus Hyacinthus de Archangelis (in the actual case Spreti had been his junior), cites the case of Leonardus:
For pregnant instance, let us contemplate
The luck of Leonardus, - see at large
Of Sicily's Decisions sixty-first.
This Leonard finds his wife is false: what then?
He makes her own son snare her, and entice
Out of the town-walls to a private walk:,
Wherein he slays her with commodity.
They tmd her body half-devomed by dogs:
Leonard is tried, convicted, punished, sent
To labour in the galleys seven years long:
Why? For the murder? Nay, but for the mode! (VID. 809-19)
Just as Spreti gave Muta's judgment new life by citing it in the context of a new case, so Browning's version brings the case to life again, and gives it new discursive and linguistic vitality by translating it, not just from Latin into English (for Browning did not have the benefit of Gest's translation), but also from legal discourse into poetry. The poem pushes the citation in the general direction of narrative fiction, and in so doing it brings law and literature into mutually illuminating relationship. The two citations, in the Franceschini trial and in Browning's poem, tell the same story in different ways, and to look at them in relation to each other is to observe law and literature grappling and communicating with each other.

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