Guilty as Charged? Subjectivity and the Law in La Chanson de Roland and “Lanval”

Guilty as Charged? Subjectivity and the Law in La Chanson de Roland and “Lanval”

Kong, Katherine

Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 17 (2000)


La Chanson de Roland and Marie de France’s lai “Lanval,” both seminal French texts of the twelfth century, touch on aspects of legitimacy, legality and the power of the sovereign. As such, they provide excellent opportunities for exploring the bounds of subjectivity in the law, especially in their trial scenes. In examining the figures of Ganelon, “who has committed treason,” and Lanval, “accused of felony, but also of lying,” one sees two roles developing: that of traitor and that of felon, identities delimited by transgression of the king’s law. I will examine these categories of traitor and felon more closely, and read the scenes of trial in La Chanson de Roland and “Lanval” with the following questions in mind: how are guilt and crime configured, and what are the implications of these formulations for medieval subjectivity? What does it mean to be outside of the law, and what kind of subject position might this enable? More to the point, how does literature imagine this subject position? These questions give rise to an exploration of an individual subjectivity, how one comes to bear guilt, and even an identity and subjectivity under the law of the sovereign. I propose to examine the relationship between an individual and a culpable subjectivity created by the legal systems represented in these two texts. While it would be beyond the scope of this essay to establish a link between these two stories and medieval French law of the period, I do not mean to employ “law” as merely a figure of speech, or to reduce it to the status of metaphor; for it is the dominant discourse of power in these stories, and it is as such that I reference it here.

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