skip to main navigation

JESUS RODRIGUEZ VELASCO: Search this website 

Type key words to search this website in real time. 

Poetry and Punishment

I was invited to give a presentation for a panel on “Satire in Medieval Law” for the 2014 Conference of the American Society of Legal History [1]. The title of my paper is “Poetry and Punishment.” The event will take place on November 7, 2014, past Noon.

In a manuscript inventorying and defining juridical concepts, now preserved at the Biblioteca Complutense (Madrid), one can find a long list of concepts made for the use of lawyers in the circle of a Pero Díaz de Toledo [2]. Along with some entries with clearly legal concepts, like conditio or fideicomisio one can also find others less likely to be there, like poetria. Stop and meditate about it.

It’s not that poetry does not belong in legal thought and allegations. The question is why and how “poetry” became a legal subject and a juridical concept.

This question plays a significant role in my general project, in which I study the process of codification of Alfonso X’s Siete Partidas. In this codification Alfonso does not only discuss and translate juridical problems from roman law and the marginal glosses of Accursius’ Glossa Ordinaria. Indeed, he also translates, comments, and otherwise discusses other many important sources coming from non-legal traditions, like Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics, narratives of many different kinds and origins, both Occidental and Oriental, or poetry [3].

In the Siete Partidas there are two special sections where poetry becomes an important subject. The first one resides in the political and administrative legislation of the second Partida; the second one, in the penal regulation of the seventh Partida. I will delve into this question —how and why poetry became a subject of the law and a juridical concept— focusing on these two parts, and in particular in the laws regarding libel and satire [4].

Alfonso, in fact, singles out poetry as a clear vehicle for libelous defamation, giving us, in the relevant laws, an idea about the creation and dissemination of poetry. The legal code offers as well a definition and extent of satirical writing, and locates it in different spaces –the court in the Segunda Partida and urban spaces in the Séptima Partida. On the other hand, satirical poetry contemporary to the codification of the Partidas –at the time, the poetic language was Galician, also known as Galician-Portuguese–, known as cantigas d’escarnho e maldizer constitutes an exploration of the language of defamation codified in the law [5]. Poetry and law share a language, while, at the same time, the Partidas acknowledges, with the Glossa Ordinaria, that “verba legis debent intelligi secundum propriam significationem, non secundum comunem usum loquendi” [6]. Law and poetry explore the language of satire and defamation from two different epistemological stances, exploring, as well, different meaning of the same semantic field of punishment.


  1. The Association was founded in 1956, and the purpose of its yearly conference is to create “an opportunity for historians, law professors, graduate students, lawyers, and judges from around the world to gather and meet fellow travelers and to present and discuss their scholarship.”
  2. Last year, in Magdalen College, Oxford University, I presented a paper on this manuscript in relation to Pero Díaz de Toledo’s glosses to Iñigo López de Mendoza’s Proverbios. This is part of my always ongoing project on glossed manuscripts (I have published a number of articles and a short book on this, as well as two graduate seminars).
  3. …and this is one of the reasons why the Partidas, unlike most legal codifications, are emphatically not boring…
  4. I normally prefer to quote directly from the original sources, manuscripts and early editions. In this case I will be using Scott’s translation of the Siete Partidas, which needs urgent update.
  5. Here I will enter into a discussion with Benjamin Liu’s Joke Poetry, an extremely enlightened and enlightening, elegant book.
  6. “Legal words must be understood according to their technical meaning, not according to regular speech.” See, for this, my “Political Idiots.”

Unless otherwise specified, all the contents of this website are for your personal and non-commercial use. You may not modify, copy, distribute, transmit, display, perform, reproduce, publish, license, create derivative works from, transfer, or sell any information or services obtained from this website. All content © 1990-2014 Jesús Rodríguez Velasco. All rights reserved. Designed by Miguel Ripoll. Log in