Reasoning Rebellion and Reformation: Natural Law and the Ethics of Power and Resistance in Late Medieval English Literature

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2021

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Reasoning Rebellion and Reformation: Natural Law and the Ethics of Power and Resistance in Late Medieval English Literature argues that the natural law was a vital ethical, political, and literary discourse in England amid the social rebellions that comprehensively shook communal bonds in the 1380s and 90s. It illuminates the centrality and complexities of this natural law discourse through analysis of the works of two fourteenth-century writers, Thomas Usk and Geoffrey Chaucer. Twice branded a traitor and finally executed for treason in 1388, Usk held a resolute faith in the political power of the natural law, interlacing his own tumultuous political history with the natural law in an effort to save his life and reform his culture. Unlike Usk, and indeed unlike many of his contemporaries, Chaucer foregrounds in his poetry the possibility that effective resistance through the natural law may be impossible in vicious and tyrannical societies. Chaucer questions the view that the natural law is an unshakeable foundation for effective resistance, demonstrating in major poems like Troilus and Criseyde and The Knight’s Tale that the natural law can be obfuscated and indeed appropriated by corrupt forms of power. In response to his culture’s debates about natural and unnatural forms of resistance, then, Chaucer posed a more fundamental question which is often marginalized within the natural law tradition itself: are the definitions of natural and unnatural determined by the dominant powers in a culture?

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Fry, Chandler Thomas (2021). Reasoning Rebellion and Reformation: Natural Law and the Ethics of Power and Resistance in Late Medieval English Literature. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/23094.

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