Book linking English literature book with law wins distinguished award

English professor awarded for book written on the depth of legal knowledge within 17th-century literature.

Written by: Haley Herfurth

Media contact: Alicia Rohan

alison chapman 2018Alison Chapman, Ph.D., professor in and chair of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of English, earned the 2017 James Holly Hanford Award by the Milton Society of America for her book, “The Legal Epic: ‘Paradise Lost’ and the Early Modern Law.” The Milton Society of America aims to further scholarship on English poet John Milton both nationally and globally. It awards the James Holly Hanford Award for the most distinguished Milton book published every year.

Chapman teaches a class on English poet John Milton, where she has read his 1667 magnum opus, “Paradise Lost,” countless times. The more Chapman read “Paradise Lost,” the more legal terminology she found. Throughout, Milton uses legal terms such as “injunction,” “contract,” “accessory” and “felon,” among others, which is logical considering Milton’s personal legal involvements — for example, his father was a scrivener, his nephews and brothers-in-law were lawyers, and his brother was a judge.

While researching the subject, Chapman says, she discovered almost nothing had been written on Milton’s use of law in his famous epic poem.

“I was surprised to find that Milton himself is the single most litigious poet in English history, and there really has never been a book studying his legal involvement,” she said.

Her response was to write a book contending that “Paradise Lost” is uniquely representative of the period’s fascination with law and the judicial system. By exploring Adam and Eve’s disobedience and subsequent fall from grace, Milton attempts to “justify the ways of God to men” by appealing not only to reason and conscience but to core principles of early modern jurisprudence. Milton wanted to help human beings make sense of God.

“It was fun to fill this big gap in our understanding,” Chapman said. “One of the most canonical, central authors in the English literary tradition had extensive legal knowledge that has been overlooked. My goal was to show how those flow into ‘Paradise Lost’ and how seeing them for the first time can change our sense of what he was up to.”

To learn more about Chapman’s book, published in 2017 by the University of Chicago Press, read the in-depth UAB eReporter story Chapman explores Milton’s use of the law in ‘Paradise Lost.’