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Embodying Dislocation: A Mirror for Magistrates and Property Relations [*].

This paper argues that A Mirror for Magistrates's fascination with the mutilated bodies of its subjects, and its compulsive retelling of ambition punished offer evidence of cultural trauma. The works of legal theorist Margaret Jane Radin and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan are combined to explore the subjective consequences of changing conceptions of property.

Over the past three hundred years, A Mirror for Magistrates has gone through a total of three printings of two editions; criticism written during this period shows a corresponding level of enthusiasm. In 1738, E. Cooper reported that it had already "sunk under the ruins of time" as a result of the uneven quality of the writing, and this judgement has never really been challenged (89). Accordingly, Paul Budra sums up the history of Mirror criticism as consisting of two basic positions: "either the individual tragedies are shown to be predictable stories of the schematic retribution inflicted upon the morally or politically corrupt, and are therefore consistent and tedious, or they are shown to be a haphazard assortment of tales mixing divine Providence with irrational Fortune, and are therefore inconsistent and tedious." [1] The work was, however, enormously popular and influential in its own time, spawning a whole host of imitators, and going through a number of printings of at least eleven different editions in its first fifty years. [2] The Mirror thus provides quite a spectacular example of change in literary taste, a change in fortunes that will be one of the concerns of this essay. How is it that the reception of a poem can shift so dramatically, or, to approach this question from a different angle, what did the Elizabethans find so fascinating about this poem that the rest of us have been missing?

The Elizabethan fascination with the poem, I will argue, has to do with a whole series of economic and cultural changes, which I will be looking at largely through the framework of property relations. Legal scholar Margaret Jane Radin has written extensively on what she calls the "personhood" perspective on property a perspective which focusses attention on the relations between people and things, looking in particular at such questions as what is and is not property and which kinds of property can and cannot be alienated. [3] Such a perspective allows us to see a continuum between, for example, such early modern phenomena as the enclosure riots, which are clearly about property rights; social mobility, which is at least partially a matter of changing conceptions of property; and social status, which does not at least initially seem to have to do with property, but rather with properties of the self. In this light, the various social and economic changes in the early modern period can be seen as challenges t o earlier conceptions of property and the value of Radin's approach is to show us that these changes necessarily must be accompanied by changes in the nature of the self. Although A Mirror for Magistrates does not often seem concerned with property in the more usual sense, it is intensely interested in the properties of the self, and it may well record some of the psychic turbulence caused by social change. It will be my contention in this paper that the poem is at some level struggling with changing properties of the self, most obviously in its obsession with the effects of social mobility. The alienated ghosts of the text may bear witness to more than simply their crimes: they are bearing witness to a shift in their society's relation to property and the trauma that such a shift might cause.

Both the Mirror and the Mirror's popularity are the products of trauma, a trauma that is the result of at least temporarily intolerable demands for an alteration of the ego. Critics of the Mirror have often noted both its lack of consistency, stylistic and otherwise, and its frequent internal contradictions. One of the more peculiar features of the Mirror is its fascination with the mutilated bodies of its subjects, and its compulsive return to the spectacle of the body in pieces. Rather than simply evidence of ineptitude, the poem's inconsistencies may indicate a relative lack of interest in the overt moralizing that goes on in its tales, and show instead that its real interest is in these mangled bodies, which represent an injury to and renegotiation of the limits of the ego.


In her essay "Property and Personhood," Radin discusses the relation between the two most common senses of the word "property": things which are owned, and the qualities or attributes of a thing. She argues that these two senses cannot, in fact, be so easily separated: "to say that property is a property of the self may be more than just wordplay" (1993, 55). Property that is sufficiently treasured or intimate may well act as a part of the self, and properties of the self, such as rights, body parts or body products, may well be sold. Liberal theories of property, however, tend to see these two things as distinct. Property which is regarded as essential to a sense of self is held to be inalienable and seems to be more protected than other kinds of property, at least in common opinion, if not actually in law. Property which is fungible or alienable, on the other hand, can be transferred without expense to the sense of self. One complication that immediately arises is the difficulty of distinguishing between th e two kinds of property; this is further complicated when a property of the self becomes a property in the other sense. Radin cites the example of human organs, which don't seem to be owned until they leave the body, or artificial joints, which cease being property when they are put into the body, and become rather a part of the self. In Contested Commodities, she explores a range of contemporary issues that hinge to some degree on commodifying things whose commodification disturbs our notion of personhood, such as surrogate motherhood, baby-selling, prostitution, pornography, and the market in human organs. An early modern parallel can be seen in the rape laws, which increasingly consider rape as a crime against the person rather than a property crime (Baines, 71).

My concern in this paper is a related one: what happens when, in a particular society, properties which were hitherto regarded as inalienable and thus essential parts of the self, become alienable or are alienated. Under this rubric we might consider the shifts in property relations that accompanied the agrarian revolution of the early modern period, and which tended to be denounced as "enclosure": while actual enclosure was relatively minor, "contemporaries used the term 'enclosure' for a variety of agricultural practices that resulted in depopulation, the decay of tillage, engrossing, encroachment upon wastes or overcharging common practices, or the assertion of absolute rights of private property that led to the extinction of common use-rights" (Manning, 33). At the heart of the enclosure controversies is a conflict over properties and rights. The loss of common use-rights such as pasture, estovers, and turbary had dire economic effects for some, who were consequently forced to abandon rural life and move to urban centres to take up wage labour. Lost too were properties of the self, such as the right to graze animals on common land or to participate in communal decision-making regarding land-use. This upheaval would occasion a large shift in the way in which the subject imagined herself: a whole set of properties (in the sense of material things) and activities which formerly defined the self would be lost. What is the effect of such losses to the self? As Radin notes, "people and things have ongoing relationships which have their own ebb and flow and ... these relationships can be very close to a person's center and sanity" (1993, 47). One possible result of a loss of these relations is trauma, which is a temporary forgetting of an assault on the self.

In the discussion that follows, I will be exploring changes in property relations connected with the rise in social mobility and the decline in the status categories of the law. These are to some degree connected with property in the narrow sense: the increase in land sales and the growth of a commodity culture made social mobility possible. The decline in status categories seems to have more to do with properties of the self, although through the sumptuary laws status was connected to the ability to enter into certain property relations. The crisis that both the anxieties about social mobility and the sumptuary laws speak to is precisely about the line between the two kinds or classes of properties Radin discusses: is status, or more particularly, the properties attached to certain status categories, alienable or not? Does the rise of social mobility mean the decline or disappearance of certain properties of the self? These are some of the questions that haunt A Mirror for Magistrates.

A Mirror for Magistrates was written around 1555 by a group of writers organized by William Baldwin, and was first published in 1559. It was commissioned by the printer John Wayland as a companion piece to Lydgate's translation of Boccaccio's De Casibus Virorum Illustrium, The Fall of Princes. That the Mirror should be at some level concerned with property relations makes sense given its cultural context. The writers associated with it were for the most part connected with the Inns of Court, the schools for learning common law in England. The legal historian J. H. Baker observes that during this period the "abstract principles" of property law "were often discussed in the inns of court" (315); it might also be argued that the Elizabethan fascination with the law and the unprecedented explosion of litigation in the second half of the century were a response to changing conceptions of property in the period.

The Mirror is structured by a frame narrative written in prose, in which a group of writers agree to tell in verse the stories of various English historical figures. These stories generally illustrate the due reward of ambition, which is almost invariably a gruesome death. One of the Mirror's chief innovations in the complaint genre is to have the historical characters speak for themselves. A further, perversely thrilling, innovation is that these figures are often presented to us in a prose introduction as they appeared at the point of death, so that their fortunes are graphically inscribed on their bodies. The verse narrative that follows is a first-person account of the rise and fall of the figure's worldly fortunes, followed by death and a moral, all of which is typically told by a mutilated corpse.

In order to fully understand what these corpses are saying, however, it is necessary to delineate the changes in subjectivity which must have taken place in the sixteenth century. Richard Helgerson has written that the generation of writers who came to prominence in the reign of Elizabeth "shared an unusual social, economic and psychic mobi1ity... [they were] men uprooted by education and ambition from familiar associations and local structures, men who were free -- and compelled by their freedom -- to imagine a new identity based on the kingdom or nation" (13). An even greater psychic mobility was required of the writers of the Mirror, who Campbell notes "were adroit enough not to suffer from a change of rulers" (21); they served under four rulers, in fact, living through what Wallace MacCaifrey calls the "near anarchy" of mid-century England (25). Psychic change is not necessarily experienced pleasurably, and even those who most benefitted from the social and economic changes of the sixteenth century could not have been immune to their unsettling effects. The question to be asked, then, is where or how might the alterations in the social order, and the subject's relation to that order, be expressed in the constitution of the subject?

In The Sublime Object of Ideology, Slavoj Zizek draws attention to Marx's argument that the transition from feudalism to capitalism is characterized by a shift from a fetishization of intersubjective relations to a fetishization of commodities. This shift can be imagined as moving from an emphasis on properties of the self (in relation to others), to properties owned by the self; or rather, from a self that is determined more by inalienable properties (essences), to a self largely constituted by alienable ones (commodities). Whereas in capitalist societies we believe we are free and equal individuals, in feudal societies the relations of submission and domination are both more visible and more determinant. These intersubjective relations come to be reified as status, which is experienced by the subject not as a relation, but rather as a property of the self or the ego. As Zizek describes it,

'Being-a-king' is an effect of the network of social relations between a 'king' and his 'subjects'; but -- and here is the fetishistic misrecognition -- to the participants of this social bond, the relationship appears necessarily in an inverse form: they think that they are subjects giving the king royal treatment because the king is already in himself, outside the relationship to his subjects, a king; as if the determination of 'being-a-king' were a 'natural' property of a king. (1989, 25)

In such a society as Zizek's comments indicate, social position is necessarily more determinant of identity. In medieval England, we can see this reification of relations in such material practices and social rituals as the status categories of the law, which governed people in different social categories with different laws, or, to take a more specific example, the sumptuary laws, which dictated what clothes could be worn or food consumed according to where one was located in the social order. [4] In such a system, the subject is encouraged to experience social position as a part of the ego, and social relations as constitutive of identity. Thus social position, along with all of its attendent rights, privileges, rituals, and obligations, becomes in Radin's terms personal property, or inalienable properties of the self.

One of the most basic forms of personal property that Radin focusses on is the body: "If it makes sense to say that one owns one's body, then in the embodiment theory of personhood the body is quintessentially personal property, because it is literally constitutive of one's personhood. If the body is property, then objectively it is property for personhood.... Certain external things, for example, the shirt off my back, may also be considered personal property if they are closely enough connected with the body" (1991, 41). Radin's discussion of the potentially variable limits of personal property and the body come interesting dose to Jacques Lacan's description of the bodily ego, the image of the body upon which one bases one's sense of self. Turning to Lacan's theory will allow us to explore the implications of Radin's argument at the level of the self, particularly with regard to the psychic cost of alienating inalienable property.

Although psychoanalysis is frequently criticized as an ahistorical endeavor, a number of theorists have shown how the work of Lacan can be used to explore the historical dimensions of subjectivity. [5] In a footnote to his Discourse at Rome, Lacan remarks on "the growing dominance that the function of the moi has taken on in the lived experience of modern man, beginning from a set of sociotechnological and dialectical conjectures, whose cultural Gestalt is visibly constituted by the beginning of the seventeenth century" (1968, 134). It is precisely this shift in the prominence of the ego or moi, and the various "sociotechnological and dialectical conjectures" that prepare for the historical appearance of the individual that concern us here. According to Lacan, the ego receives its initial structuration in the mirror stage, which takes place when the infant is eight to sixteen months old. The infant sees its image in the mirror and is captivated by it. It identifies with the image of bodily coherence in the mi rror, which contrasts with the (retroactively constructed) experience of incomplete mastery of its own body, imagined as a body in pieces. Images of the fragmented body will recur in fantasy or dreams, says Lacan, when the ego imagines itself to be under assault from within or without. Lacan stresses that "the mirror-stage is not simply a moment in development. It also has an exemplary function, because it reveals some of the subject's relations to his image, in so far as it is the Urbild of his ego." In this early stage of development, the ego can be imagined as both a boundary and a container: "the image of the body gives the subject the first form which allows him to locate what pertains to the ego and what does not." [6] In The Ego and the Id, where Freud first fully elaborated his concept of the ego, he argued that "The ego is first and foremost a bodily ego; it is not merely a surface entity; but is itself the projection of a surface" (1953, 19:26). The ego's boundaries are modelled on the form of the s urface of the body, although this surface is itself a projection, which is perhaps what leads Lacan to remark upon the "ambiguous, uncertain character of the limits of the ego" (1991, 151). This image of the body, which is further elaborated during the development of the subject, follows what Lacan calls an "imaginary Anatomy" which "varies with the ideas (clear or confused) about bodily functions which are prevalent in a given culture" (1953, 13). As Lacan half-facetiously remarks, "Surely false teeth are not a part of my ego, but to what extent are my real teeth?" (1991, 151). What is to be emphasized here is the interrelation between the image of the body and the ego: what belongs to the ego and what does not is related to and dependant on what the subject believes is a part of the body and what is not. As both Lacan and Radin argue, the limits of the body are more variable than might be expected; this can be seen in the case of Robert, a child whose analysis is discussed in Lacan's first seminar. Robert b elieves for a time that his clothing is part of his body and thus a part of his self, and he fears he will cease to exist if he disrobes: "His clothes were for him his container, and when he was stripped of them, it was certain death" (1991, 96). A roughly analogous understanding of the limits of the body can be seen in the medieval sumptuary laws, which are premised on another misrecognition of the connection between clothing and self.

The ego, which is first formed according to the image of the body, is continually reformed through its identifications with the images of others, who act as mirrors or ideal egos for it. Lacan follows Freud in arguing "that the ego is constructed out of its successive identifications with the loved objects which allowed it to acquire its form" (1991, 171). Or, as he writes elsewhere, "the ego is the sum of the identifications of the subject, with all that that implies as to its radical contingency" (1988a, 155). Freud further argues that identification can take place with a person or with a relation, and these two types of identification cannot be rigorously distinguished. Once we recognize this, it becomes easier to imagine how the medieval subject could misrecognize as essence social status, which is nothing more than a reification of a certain aspect of intersubjective relations. V. G. Kiernan notes that feudal "western Europe had acquired a greater richness of forms of corporate life, a greater crystalli zation of habits into institutions, than any known elsewhere. It had a remarkable ability to forge societal ties, more tenacious than almost any others apart from those of the family and its extensions, clan or caste." The "fixity of personal relationships" that Kiernan notes in feudal Europe as the result of this "crystallization of habits into institutions," is precisely the reification of social relations through the codification of social rituals (Kiernan, 27).

To return, then, to Marx's comment on the fetishization of social status in the feudal economy: one major difference between the medieval subject and the modern subject is a misrecognition by the medieval subject of social position as essence, which is to say, social position is experienced as part of the ego, and thus related to the integrity of the self. This psychic economy is put into question when, in the early modern period, certain social practices change and begin to put an emphasis on the individual without respect to the social position which that person occupies, as, for example, William Holdsworth demonstrates happening in the legal system. In his monumental History of English Law he argues that "All through this period the mediaeval common law was creating the idea of the normal person -- the free and lawful man of English society." [7] The social crisis surrounding the sumptuary laws illustrates perfectly this transition: are clothes markers of status and thus intimately related to the identity of the wearer, or are they simply properties to be bought by anyone who can afford them? What was formerly integral or essential to the experience of the self (and thus to the ego) becomes extrinsic and potentially alienable, which perhaps accounts for the sense of freedom and/or chaos experienced by early modern subjects.


Although the tales told in The Mirror for Magistrates do not explicitly represent the turbulence of the times in which its authors lived, we can see an unconscious response to the times surfacing in the appearance of the poem's talking corpses. What is communicated by these mangled figures bemoaning their downfall, and how might this be related to the renegotiation of the ego I have been discussing? The poets' extraordinary interest in the fate of the body is first indicated by the table of contents, which identifies many figures with the moment or method of death: "How George Plantagenet Duke of Clarence, brother to K. Edwarde the fowerth, was cruellye drowned in a vessell of malmsey"; "Collingbourne cruelly executed for making a foolish ryme"; "Thomas of Woodstocke murdered"; "Owen Glendour starved"; "Tresilian and his felowes hanged." [8] These titles are often greatly fleshed out by the prose introductions to each poem. Here is a fairly spectacular example from the tragedy of Richard, Duke of York:

Me thought there stode before vs, a tall mans body full of fresshe woundes, but lackyng a head, holdyng by the hande a goodlye childe, whose brest was so wounded that his hearte myght be seen, his louely face and eyes disfigured with dropping teares, his heare through horrour standyng vpryght, his mercy cravyng hands all to bemangled, & all his body embrued with his own bloud. And whan through the gastfulnes of this pyteous spectacle, I waxed afeard, and turned awaye my face, me thought there came a shrekyng voyce out of the weasande pipe of the headles bodye, saying as foloweth. (prose 12, 60-68)

Clifford also appears headless, as does William de la Pole; Richard II appears "al to be mangled, with blew woundes" (prose 4, 22); Tresilian "full of woundes, miserably mangled" (prose 1, 14); Collingbourne arrives "holdinge in his hand, his owne hart, newely ripped out of his brest" (prose 22, 25-26). [9] Even when the prose introduction has not provided us with an image of the body, the title of poem proper will intervene to supply the moment and method of death. The tales that follow almost always conclude with another spectacle of the mangled body. In the case of Jack Cade, for example, this description goes far beyond the poem's chief source, Hall's Chronicle, which simply notes that Cade was killed, brought to London, and had his head stuck on a pole. [10] In the Mirror, Cade is killed and his corpse is dragged to London behind a horse, where it is quartered, parboiled, set on poles and consumed by vermin. In a perverse way this attention to the body follows humanist historiography's demands both to sh ow those parts of the body which are readable and to adjust the facts of a life to the truth of that life, as when, for example, Thomas More draws a parallel between Richard III's (fictional) bodily deformities and his moral failings. [11] In Jack Cade's story and those of the other figures of the Mirror, the whole body is made to act as a sign. It is important that the character's history and the moral lesson thereof is demonstrated on the body, that the body is forced to tell the story, much as in Foucault's account of public executions. [12] The bodies become, like Barthes' mythic signifiers, garrulous in the service of ideology, but silent on behalf of themselves.[13] In an orthodox reading, then, the bodies present the demonstrated truth of causality and the point at which life becomes meaningful and thus transmittable. It is at the point of death when a life can become an exchangeable narrative, when the character can act like a character or signifier.

The vision of the headless but speaking body is reminiscent of a comment of Lacan's: "If there is an image which could represent for us the Freudian notion of the unconscious, it is indeed that of the acephalic subject, of a subject who no longer has an ego, who doesn't belong to the ego" (1988a, 167). The connection of the Mirror's subjects with the headless, ego-less unconscious suggests that the recurring visions of traumatized bodies are telling a different story than the more obvious morals about ambition leading inevitably to downfall which conclude each tragedy. Like the mythic signifier, these bodies have a different tale to tell than the official story that comes to be attached to them, and in the case of the Mirror, this tale has to do with a profound disturbance at the level of the ego. For Lacan, such a disturbance comes to be represented through images of the fragmented body: "images of castration, mutilation, dismemberment, dislocation, evisceration, devouring, bursting open of the body," a virt ual catalogue of the Mirror's obsessions (1977, 11). The recurring visions of corpses suggest that the poem is itself a working through of some sort of trauma. Certainly the form of the poem attests to this: visions of the dead, followed by a tale which attempts to moralize this ghost our of existence or into knowledge by providing a meaning for that person's life, and a story for the mangled body, only to compulsively return to another vision of another traumatized body. Concentrating in this way on the form, rather than the content of the individual poems, is almost encouraged by the poem's own confusion about its aims or its theory of history. One of the more persistent critical cliches about the Mirror is its inconsistencies, inconsistencies that may point to the poem's relative lack of interest in who or what causes the tragedies. Or even in how they happened: the prose section following the tragedy of Lord Mowbray notes that the chronicles differ on the roles of the participants, but that the authors of the poem don't really care either way. This inconsistency concerning causality, and casualness concerning historicity is matched by the ease with which Sackville's alternate induction, describing a poet's descent into Hell, is simply absorbed into the frame story without any apparent disturbance in the second and subsequent editions of the Mirror. In the editions which include Sackville's poem we thus have two frame stories competing to be the controlling fiction, which again suggests that something else entirely absorbs the writers.

The poets' overriding concern with form is in fact consistent with the nature of trauma. Whether we fixate on traumatic experiences and are compelled to repeat them in some form, or avoid them with a similar compulsion, all traumas have a compulsive quality, argues Freud (16:273-76). Generally speaking, these compulsions take the form of a ritual, which refers to the traumatic event but does not comprehend it. It is thus to the form of the ritual that we must look to read the meaning and ontology of the trauma. The repetitive quality of the tales in the Mirror could point to a cultural fixation, which might also provide some explanation for why its initial audience found it so enthralling, while every subsequent audience has found it as tedious as another person's dream. As I have argued, the poem seems relatively unconcerned with theorizing causality. It is concerned more with its recurring visions of talking corpses narrating their stories of dismemberment or disarticulation, a compulsive replaying of ambi tion and catastrophe which points to the social catastrophe of ambition and social mobility. As long as this pattern is fulfilled, the poem cares little how it gets there. The obsession with visions of violated bodies is telling: for Lacan, this perennial human fascination is linked to the subject's hostility to its own ego. What this suggests, then, is that the Mirror's fascination with mutilated bodies has to do with a profound disturbance at the level of the ego, and that the ritual that the poem performs is an attempt to deal with this disturbance, this threat to the integrity or the economy of the ego.

As for the nature of trauma, Freud states in the Introductory Lectures that "The term 'traumatic' has actually no other meaning but this economic one. An experience which we call traumatic is one which within a very short time subjects the mind to such a very high increase of stimulation that assimilation or elaboration of it can no longer be effected by normal means, so that lasting disturbances must result in the distribution of the available energy of the mind" (16:275). Faced with the prospect of its own dissolution or a vision of the world that exists without it, the ego refuses to cognize the information or the experience facing it, and this experience enters the unconscious uncognized. Thus, although the experience can be said to have happened, the ego has not experienced it. [14] Nonetheless, it remains part of the subject's experience, and can return at certain moments, pressuring the ego to recognize it. This, I would suggest, is precisely what has happened with the social and economic changes witne ssed by the poem's writers, as well as its initial readers. The changes experienced were too profound not to demand a fundamental reorganization of the structure of the ego, a reorganization that would certainly be read as a kind of death by the ego. This, then, is at the heart of the trauma.

Is it possible that a poem, especially one written collaboratively over a period of years, could be the product of trauma? Is it possible that a group of writers, and subsequently, a large body of readers, could share some form of trauma? Although virtually all accounts of trauma concentrate exclusively on the individual, Freud deals with the possibility of a traumatized society to a certain extent in Moses and Monotheism, where he attempts to construct a historical narrative for the origins of Judaism. Freud uses as an example of a cultural trauma the history of the reception of Darwin's theory of evolution, and he describes it at the level of the individual: "Such would be the case if a person learnt something new to him which, on the ground of certain evidence, he ought to recognize as true, but which contradicts some of his wishes and shocks a few convictions which are precious to him ... What we learn from this is that it takes time for the reasoning activity of the ego to overcome the objections that ar e maintained by strong affective cathexes" (23:67). What I am suggesting then, is that the substantial reorganization of property relations (in every sense) in the English state presented a similar problem to the early modern English subject as Darwinism caused for the Victorians: a changed vision of the world that was at least temporarily intolerable. What the ritual attempts to do is to overcome the objections of the ego, to make the knowledge of this social change conscious.

The ritual performed in the Mirror is directly at odds with the poem's own manifest ideology, which may be a consequence of the traumatic scene being a compromise formation, or a symptom, in other words. The manifest ideology of the poem states that ambition is the supremely anti-social act. Baldwin's dedication begins a meditation on one of Plato's "notable sentences concerning the government of a common weale ... Well is that realme governed, in which the ambicious desyer not to beare office" (Preface 1, 1-4). Although many of the tales that follow have relatively specific lessons for magistrates (avoid flattery, uphold the laws as they are written), virtually all of the poems contain some reflection on the evils of pride, greed, and, above all, ambition. This is the one thing the poem is clear on: ambition equals death. But the real situation may not be so simple. Rather than ambition leading to social catastrophe, ambition is more likely a sign of social catastrophe. Ambition is not the cause but rather simply a product of the shift away from a social order that was based on a more or less stable hierarchy, or as Marx described it, a society based on the fetishization of intersubjective relations, or the belief that social position was an inalienable property of the self. The emerging economic and political order threatened precisely that form of identification on which the pre-modern ego was predicated, and the sign of that threat is ambition, which denies that social place is based on essence.

The poem repeatedly attempts to tell the story that the ambitious will be destroyed, although it cannot manage to say why this is so with any kind of consistency. These stories say, over and over, that social relations are essential or inalienable properties of the self. But what the mangled corpses of the Mirror are really talking about is the violence to the ego that the altered state of England occasioned. This fascination with images of mutilated bodies speaks to the poets' response to the times in which they lived, and to the violence to their own egos that the reorganization of the state occasioned. In transferring this violence to the bodies, and thus the egos, of the ambitious, they attempt to ward off the knowledge of this social change, of which ambition is merely the sign, rather than the cause. The ritual, like any compulsive ritual, attempts to bind this knowledge, to make it somehow assimilable. Although the poem insists that all social disorder is attributable to ambition, the ritual the poem performs knows differently.


I have been arguing that it is to the form of the ritual that we must look to find the meaning of the Mirror's trauma, but the same contradictions that are embodied in the ritual can be found in the verse narratives themselves. The story of the Welsh rebel Owen Glendower, best known to students of literature from his appearance in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part One, contains quite glaring contradictions as it tries to sort out the meaning of his history. Like many of the figures in the Mirror, Glendower tries to articulate some theory of social place and ambition that can accommodate both the poem's stated belief in the lethal consequences of ambition and the manifest contradictions that history offers to that belief. And, like many others, Glendower fails to persuasively moralize his demise in the context of a coherent world view. Glendower's tale is especially interesting, however, for the things it clearly knows but will not acknowlege (Henry IV's more or less successful reign) and for the ways in which prop erty relations of all kinds permeate the narrative.

The tale of Owen Glendower, and indeed that of any subject from the reign of Henry IV, is told with some reluctance by the poets of the Mirror. The narrator asks the assembled company, "what my maysters is euery man at once in a browne study, hath no man affeccion to any of these storyes?" (prose 5, 13-14). Likewise, after Glendower's tale is concluded, they uncharacteristically offer no reflection on it whatsoever, and consider skipping forward to the reign of Henry VI (they do, however, decide to tell the tale of Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland). This reluctance may well be caused by the figure of Henry himself, who furnishes spectacular counter-proof to the argument that ambition inevitably leads to disaster, and that "whosoever rebelleth agaynst any ruler either good or bad, rebelleth against GOD, and shalbe sure of a wretched ende: For God can not but maintein his deputie" (prose 12, 9-12). The prose introduction rather coyly notes that Henry was "a man more ware & prosperous in hys doyngs" than Rich ard, whom he deposed, "although not vntroubled with warres both of outforth and inward enemies" (prose 5, 4-7). This is as far as the text can go in suggesting that Henry was in some way punished for rebelling against God, since he died at home.

Perhaps in order to avoid dwelling too much on the parallels or similarities between the careers of Henry and Glendower, Glendower's primary crime, at least according to the title of the tale, is listening to prophesies, rather than opposing a rightful king. Aside from the unavoidable parallel that both are traitors, there are a host of other similarities between the men, sometimes acknowledged by the text, sometimes unacknowledged. According to Hall's accounts of their careers (one of the sources of the Mirror's history), both used disputes over inheritance to justify illegal actions (Glendower to attack Lord Grey, Henry to return prematurely from exile), both depended on French support, both were charismatic figures who drew widespread popular followings, both seized titles for themselves (Prince of Wales, King of England), both were at one point or another faced with starvation in battle when fighting the other. Even Glendower's principle crime, believing in prophecies, was also committed by Henry, if Holi nshead's account of Henry's death is to be believed. The text uses a variety of means to distract attention from these parallels, including the emphasis on Glendower's reliance on prophecy (a fault endemic to Wales, according to the text), a suppression of details that would point to parallels, and an abundance of metaphors drawn from natural history that attempt to establish a natural order in the political world.

The poem opens with Owen Glendower's discussion of the nature of nobility. Glendower remarks that nobility has to do with upbringing and character, and not entirely with blood:

A Welshman borne, and of a gentle blud,

But ill brought vp, wherby full wel I find,

That neither birth nor linage make vs good

Though it be true that Cat wil after kinde:

Fleshe gendreth fleshe, so doeth not soule or minde,

They gender not, but fowly do degender,

When men to vice from vertue them do surrender.


Later he comments that

vertuous lyfe doth make a gentleman

Of her possessour, all be he poore as Iob,

Yea though no name of elders shewe he can:

For proofe take Merlyn fathered by an Hob.


Glendower thus apparently endorses what Greenblatt would call "self-fashioning," by uttering the quite radical notion that birth does not make a gentleman. His comments are perhaps more mundane than that, however, since Glendower really seems to be intent on proving that nobles are not always noble, rather than that anyone can be a gentleman. Unless the gentry educate their children to virtue, they will degrade to vice. Ascham offers a similar warning in The Scholemaster, when he criticizes the aristocracy's habit of spending more on the care of their horses than on the education of their children: "God that sitteth in heaven laugheth their choice to scorn, and rewardeth their liberality as it should; for he suffereth them to have tame and well-ordered horse, but wild and unfortunate children" (30). This should be read less as a tribute to education than as a wake-up call to an aristocracy in danger of becoming redundant. In his study of conduct literature, Frank Whigham argues that the conduct books which became popular in the sixteenth century were initially intended to show the true signs of courtly behavior, in order to embarrass those social climbers who were not truly noble, and had the secondary covert aim "to teach the members of an endangered aristocracy how to reascribe to themselves the self-evident ascriptive status their forebears had enjoyed" (18). Like the sumptuary laws, the conduct books were intended to promote an ideology of social position as an essence that expressed itself visibly, an ideology that was becoming increasingly precarious as the merchant classes seized or imitated the signs or properties of the nobility. And, as Whigham's account indicates, a knowledge of this precariousness haunts the margins of these texts.

While gentle birth is no guarantee of gentility for either Ascham or Glendower, it would seem to be a prerequisite: "Who therfore wil of noble kind be knowen / Ought shine in vertue like his auncesrors" (45-46). Nobility has to do with performance, but only the noble born are capable of performing it. This double standard is frequently illustrated in The Faerie Queene, where noble peasants inevitably turn out to be the lost children of aristocrats, as Spenser cannot imagine gentlemanly qualities springing forth just anywhere. This crucial class distinction becomes quite clear at the end of the poem when Glendower warns "all men to beare / Theyr youth such loue, to bring them vp in skill" (234-35) and, more importantly, "not presume to clime aboue their states" (237), the example of Merlin, "fathered by an Hob," notwithstanding. The example of Merlin is a problematic one anyway. Glendower, after all, first got into trouble "Entiste therto by many of Merlines tales" (70). His other example of how lineage is no t everything is drawn from natural history and is equally problematic: "How would we mocke the burden bearing mule I If he would brag he wet an horses sunne (36-37). This contradicts the earlier claim that aside from man, "Ech thing by nature tendeth to the same / Whereof it came, and is disposed like" (15-16). The difference between mule and horse illustrates the central contradiction that Glendower tries to smooth over. Neither by deeds nor by essence can the mule be a horse, although the horse's line can degrade into muledom. The example neatly illustrates the double-standard that Glendower skirts around, and wards off any anxieties about social climbers. Mules can never be horses, and any attempts are doomed to derision.

The opening discussion of blood and upbringing segues nicely into the tragedy proper of Glendower, which is introduced as a failure of education:

Well thus dyd I for want of better wyt,

Because my parentes noughtly brought me vp:

For gentle men (they sayd) was nought so fyt

As to attaste by bold attemptes the cup

Of conquestes wyne, wherof I thought to sup:

And therfore bent my selfe to rob and ryue,

And whome I could of landes and goodes depryue.


This discussion of Glendower's bad upbringing, which interestingly conflates consumption, conquest, and theft, suggests that identity is to some degree the product of one's relations to properties. It follows directly statements in the earlier section that

who so settes his mind to spoyle and rob,

Although he cum by due discent fro Brute,

He is a Chorle, vngentle, vile, and brute.


This repeats the early sentiment that "He is a Churle though all the world be his, / He Arthurs heyre if that he live amys" (48-49). Immediately following the discussion of Glendower's education is the statement that "Henry the fourth did then vsurpe the crowne, / Despoyled the kyng, with Mortimer the heyre" (64-65). Henry is, as king of England, at least symbolically the heir of Brutus and Arthur, and therefore his despoyling of the king should make him a churl. This is an acknowledgement the text seems to want to make, especially in its use of the parallel terms "spoyle" (54) and "Despoyled" (65). It is, however, an acknowledgement it cannot make, which is probably why the account of Glendower's upbringing intervenes. Glendower rather than Henry becomes the churl who degrades from his ancestors. Henry's activities, while a necessary part of the story, are introduced as economically as possible, with little comment on their justice.

The failure of upbringing is one of the many reasons that are offered for Glendower's downfall. The prose introduction offers the theory that he was "one of fortunes owne whelpes" (11) or "one of fortunes darlinges" (17). Glendower at times agrees with this medieval view of the role of Fortune in his life, arguing that his victories in Wales are examples of how "prosperously doth Fortune forward call / Those whom she mindes to geue the sorest fall" (90-91). The title of the tale, however, contradicts this reading; according to it, Glendower was "seduced by false prophesies." Elsewhere Glendower concurs with the title, although he complicates matters by making prophesy a tool of divine retribution:

False prophesies are plages for divers crymes

Whych god doth let the divilish sorte devise

To trouble such as are not goodly wyse.


Ambition, of course, is cited frequently as a contributing cause of his downfall, and several of these explanations (excluding Fortune, which is now rejected) are combined in his final pronouncement on his life:

Wherby (O Baldwin) warne all men to beare

Theyr youth such loue, to bring them vp in skill

Byd Princes flye Colprophetes lying byll:

And not presume to clime aboue their states,

For they be faultes that foyle men, not their fates.


Another explanation, not included in the final summation, bursts into the middle of the poem seemingly out of nowhere, when Glendower is discussing the refusal of the Percy clan to hand over their prisoners to the king:

But see how strongly Luker knits her knottes,

The king will haue, the Percies wil not yeeld,

Desire of goodes soone craves, but graunteth seeld:

Oh cursed goodes desire of you hath wrought

All wyckedness, that hath or can be thought.


While the condemnation of filthy lucre and the evil that comes of desiring "cursed goodes" is hardly an unusual sentiment in a medieval or an early modern poem, and does not necessarily contradict the other explanatory narratives, this outburst is strangely passionate and categorical in a tale that otherwise does not seem to have much to do with money or goods. It can be read, however, in connection with Glendower's earlier comments on consumption, property, and identity.

If the poem cannot decide finally among the various causes of Glendower's tragedy (God, greed, gullibility, ambition, education, or fortune), it is clear throughout that it is a tragedy of consumption, which may explain the outburst about money and goods. The writers take their cue, as always, from the particularities of the death of the figure: it was presumed that Glendower starved to death in the hills of Wales, although his body was never found. He thus appears in the prose introduction "cumming out of the wilde mountaynes like the Image of death in all poyntes (his dart onely excepted) so sore hath famine and hunger consumed hym" (prose 5, 19-21). The title notes that "he miserably dyed for lacke of foode," and the prose section following the tale refers to it as a "hungry exhortacion" (prose 6, 1). Political matters in this tragedy are often figured by metaphors of consumption: Owen attempts to drink from "the cup / Of conquestes wyne" (60-61); when the rebels are overconfident they are compared to "fy sh before the net" which "Shal seldome surfyt of the pray they take" (183-84); Owen is chased by Prince Henry into the hills "as the dogges pursue the selly doe" (213) and is later "the hartles hare" (216); finally, he is faced with either capture or starvation,

like as the litle roche,

Must eyther be eat, or leape vpon the shore

Whan as the hungry pickrel doth approch,

And there find death which it eskapte before.


These metaphors set up a scheme of natural and unnatural consumption. Whereas the king's pursuit of Glendower is figured as hunter and hunted, Glendower's rebellion is figured as gluttony.

Due to the poem's unswerving practice of poetic retribution, Glendower's gluttonous conquests are inevitably answered by his starvation in the hills of Wales, when hunger "made me eat both gravell, durt and mud, / And last of all, my dung, my fleshe, and blud" (230-31). This is a rather gruesome elaboration on Hall's account of Glendower's end, who reports that Glendower "beyng destitute of all comforte, dreadyng to shewe his face to any creature, lacking meate to sustain nature, for pure hunger and lacke of fode miserably ended his wretched life" (31). (There is, of course, no suggestion that he began to eat his own body.) By eating the dirt of the hills of Wales, Glendower is forced to reenact his own attempt to swallow the country by naming himself prince. His consumption of his own flesh and blood is perhaps poetic retribution for feeding on his own gentle lineage. In the opening stanza of the poem he apostrophizes: "Oh Fortune, Fortune, out on her I crye, / My body and fame she hath made leane and slende r" (5-6). His self-consumption is a parodic reverse of ambition, which is often portrayed as a self-creation.

The poem's interest in consumption, and consumption of the body, can be related both to the sumptuary laws and to the violence to the ego that these laws try to ward off. The sumptuary laws were concerned with consumption in at least two important ways: the consumption of English-made goods, in order to support the economy, and the consumption of types and quantities of food, which was also regulated according to status by these laws. [15] Violations of the sumptuary laws upset two economies: the national and the psychic, the latter of which was predicated on a belief in status as an essential part of the self, and thus of the ego. Glendower's ambition is figured as gluttony and his punishment as self-consumption in order that the poem may assert that ambition results in the mutilation of the body of the ambitious, not the egos of the writers. The violence that Glendower's ambition causes to the egos of the writers is thus returned to the body of Glendower in the end which they invent for him. Lurking behind this emaciated figure, however, is the body of Henry IV, which was similarly infected by ambition but left curiously unpunished, a fact the writers seem to find so unsettling that they would sooner not have to deal with his reign or that of his son at all.

I argued above that the ghosts are telling two stories: the clearly articulated one about ambition causing social catastrophe, and a covert one, in which ambition is merely the sign of a social shift that has already occurred and whose effects are readable in the visions of the mangled bodies. These bodies work as a defense against the knowledge that this change has taken place, by transferring the assault on the ego to the body of another, a body which stands as a sign for this change itself. The Mirror for Magistrates can be read then as a symptom, in the strict psychoanalytic sense, of a shift in thinking in early modern England about which properties were alienable and which were not. Zizek defines the symptom as "a certain formation that exists only insofar as the subject ignores some fundamental truth about himself; as soon as its meaning is integrated into the symbolic universe of the subject, the symptom dissolves itself" (1991, 44). The Mirror's success, its power to fascinate, remained as long as th is knowledge of social and economic change remained potentially disruptive. As long as England remained poised between an emergent capitalism and a residual feudalism, and the wrench of this change was felt by certain of its subjects, the Mirror continued to fascinate its readers. When the state's subjects had undergone a corresponding alteration, however, the need for the poem's ritual vanished, and the ghosts have not been heard in any meaningful way since.

(*.) This essay has benefitted greatly from suggestions made by Ian Sowton, Kim Micasiw, Elizabeth Harvey, and the two readers for RQ Frank Whigham and Paul Budra. Thanks are also due to Mary Chan for introducing me to the work of Margaret Radin.

(1.) Budra, 1988, 303. For an earlier survey of Mirror criticism, see Mills.

(2.) In the introduction to her edition of The Mirror, Lily Campbell details the various sixteenth- and seventeenth-century editions of the work. All references to the Mirror will be to this edition. Citations refer first to the prose section or verse tragedy, and then to the line numbers. Subsequent Elizabethan additions to the poem that cover other historical periods can be found in Campbell's Parts Added... (1946). Other works published in direct response to the Mirror's popularity, but less closely linked than Higgins's and Blenerhasset's editions, include Anthony Munday's Mirrour of Mutabilitie, or the Principall part of the Mirrour for Magistrates (1579), and, for those without a taste for poetry, The Mirrour of Mirrours, or all the tragedies of the Mirrour for Magistrates abbreviated in briefe histories in prose (1598). Budra argues that the successive editions of the work become less and less political: "the text metamorphized from an ideologically guided poetic history into a sentimental, patriotic h istorical poem" (1992, 11). He concludes that this is the reason for the decline in the work's popularity, but this does not explain why the earlier editions also failed to retain any interest.

(3.) See Radin, 1993 and 1996.

(4.) Holdsworrh writes, That there were different classes of society which should be governed by different laws would have appeared as a truism to the mediaeval legislature.... The king, the peer, the knight, the yeoman, the villein, the merchant, the labourer, the artisan, the various sorts of persons in orders, all occupied definite and legally fixed places in the hierarchy of society" (2: 464). Holdsworth discusses the sixteenth-century enactments and proclamations of the sumptuary laws in volume 4, pages 405-6. For more recent discussions, see Harte; Jardine; Dollimore. Stallybrass, 1993, offers an elegiac meditation on the meaning of clothes in pre- and post-Cartesian societies.

(5.) The locus classicus for this objection to psychoanalysis is Stephen Greenblatt's essay "Psychoanalysis and Renaissance Culture," which is answered by Elizabeth J. Bellamy, 4-22. See also Davis; Skura. On Lacan and history, see especially Teresa Brennan, 26-75 and Ellie Ragland-Sullivan, 7-16.

(6.) Lacan, 1991, 74, 79. The fullest account of this process is Lacan's essay on the mirror stage, 1977, 1-7.

(7.) Holdsworth, 3: 457. Holdsworth's "free and lawful man" was certainly gendered male: the status category of "woman" was an exceptionally durable one, arguably lasting well into this century.

(8.) The first two entries are from the 1578 edition, which expanded the tides somewhat. The latter three are from the original 1559 edition. Some titles were further expanded in the 1587 edition.

(9.) About half of the introductions in the first edition of the Mirror invite us to imagine the corpse. In the second edition, six of the eight tales added are prefaced by such descriptions, and subsequent editions revise some of the earlier prose introductions to include a vision of the speaking corpse.

(10.) "One Alexander Iden, esquire of Kent found hym in a garden, and there in his defence, manfully slewe the caitife Cade, & brought his ded body to London, whose hed was set on Londo[n] bridge" (Hall, 222). The authors of the Mirror may be following Fabyan's chronicle, which says that Cade's "deed corpse was drawen thorugh the hyghe stretes of the cytie into Newgate & there hedyd and quarteryd, whose hede was than sent to London brydge, & his .iiii. quarters were sent to .iiii. so[n]dry townes of Kent" (625). If they are following Fabyan, clearly they are not following him too closely.

(11.) For example, Thomas Blundeville's True order and Methode of wryting and reading Hystories (1574), one of the first historiographic works in English, dictates that a biography should note of its subject "the qualities of his bodye, wether they were signs and token of his mynde, or else helps to his actions" (26-7). Writing of the obvious error which opens More's life of Richard, Judith Anderson argues that his "opening signals that he treats historical fact but that he treats it very much as a subject rather than an inviolable object. He primarily masters its essential truth, whether ideal or otherwise, rather than recording its data" (84).

(12.) See especially chapter 1, "The Body of the Condemned," 3-31.

(13.) See Barthes' discussion of the black French soldier on the cover of Paris Match (116-23).

(14.) Lacan describes this process in his seminar on the psychoses: "prior to all symbolization -- this priority is not temporal but logical -- there is, as the psychoses demonstrate, a stage at which it is possible for a portion of symbolization not to take place. This initial stage precedes the entire neurotic dialectic, which is due to the fact that neurosis is articulated speech, insofar as the repressed and the return of the repressed are one and the same thing. It can thus happen that something primordial regarding the subject's being does not enter into symbolization and is not repressed, hut rejected" (1988b, 81).

(15.) In the earlier statutes, it is the preservation of the national economy that is stressed, although the very intent of the law shows that they are meant to preserve visible status distinctions as well. The preamble to the first enactment of the law, issued in 1363 by Edward III, argues that the laws are necessary to control "the outragious and Excessive Apparel of divers People, against their Estate and Degree, to the great Destruction and Impoverishment of all the Land" (37 Edw. III c. 8). The 1463 statute is more specific, saying that the status violations contribute to "the great Displeasure of God, and impoverishing of this Realm and to the enriching of strange Realms and Countries, to the final Destruction of the Husbandry of this said Realm" (3 Edw. IV c. 5). The proclamations made during the reign of Henry VIII increasingly stress the status issue. The preamble now speaks of "the necessary repressing, avoiding and expelling of the inordinate excess" which works "to the great manifest and notorious detriment of the commonweal, the subversion of good and politic order in knowledge and distinction of people according to their estates, preeminences, dignities and degrees, and to the utter impoverishment and undoing of many inexpert and light persons inclined to pride, mother of all vices" (24 Hen. VIII c. 13, spelling and punctuation altered). The sumptuary laws were all repealed in 1603.


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