(Breaking) the Law: Social Control, Self-Help and Violence in the Tale of Gamelyn

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Fourteenth century England experienced social changes which influenced the attitude to crown law and triggered a growing distrust to law and its representatives. The progressing development of the gentry complicated the defining of offences, and diversified the means of punishing them. The Tale of Gamelyn presents a conflict between two brothers, sons of a knight, which went beyond the confinements of the household, transforming itself into a conflict between law and justice. Their feud is a cross-complaint concerning land, which soon turns into a spiral of violence in which one brother uses law to control and punish, and the other uses crime and violence to achieve justice. Using Donald Black’s theory of the sociological geometry of violence (2004) and of crime as social control (1983), this article will analyze the law in the tale as a tool of social control represented by Johan, and justice acquired with the use of self-help by Gamelyn. The article will attempt to prove that the story presents a complex relation between justice and law pinned across the varied spectrum of social classes, which Gamelyn changes a number of times, and will argue that the tale is an affirmation of violence as an underlying force of both law and justice, differing in presentation and realization according to social class.

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