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Courts, Jurisdictions, and Law in John Milton and His Contemporaries

John Milton is widely known as the poet of liberty and freedom. But his commitment to justice has been often overlooked. As Alison A. Chapman shows, Milton’s many prose works are saturated in legal ways of thinking, and he also actively shifts between citing Roman, common, and ecclesiastical law to best suit his purpose in any given text. This book provides literary scholars with a working knowledge of the multiple, jostling, real-world legal systems in conflict in seventeenth-century England and brings to light Milton’s use of the various legal systems and vocabularies of the time—natural versus positive law, for example—and the differences between them.

Surveying Milton’s early pamphlets, divorce tracts, late political tracts, and major prose works in comparison with the writings and cases of some of Milton’s contemporaries—including George Herbert, John Donne, Ben Jonson, and John Bunyan—Chapman reveals the variety and nuance in Milton’s juridical toolkit and his subtle use of competing legal traditions in pursuit of justice.

Author Information

Alison A. Chapman is professor of English at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She is the author of The Legal Epic: Paradise Lost and the Early Modern Law and Patrons and Patron Saints in Early Modern English Literature.


“Chapman’s work is both highly original and exceptionally readable, bringing together imaginative engagement with legal language, convincing arguments, and refreshingly forthright responses to other scholars. She presents unfamiliar legal matters in lucid, sometimes witty prose and cautions her readers against importing modern assumptions into early modern English literature. Students and scholars of Milton will benefit enormously from her carefully developed contextualization of Milton’s assumptions regarding jurisprudential fields, specific legal terms, and his own rhetorical practices.”
— Mary Nyquist, University of Toronto

“With careful attention to legal language, Chapman pulls at the tensions between libel and defamation, convincingly showing Milton’s continued interest in such questions. These are valuable new readings that explain several apparent tensions, and they show that Milton’s legal orientation can account for many of the most oddly vituperative moments in his prose. This is a very welcome addition to Milton studies.”
— Christopher Warren, Carnegie Mellon University

Audience: Professional and scholarly;