Lawson Lecture Room, Kennedy Hall, School of English
‘Milton, Deliberative Liberty, and the Law of Spousal Privileges’
Placing John Milton’s divorce tracts within the broader context of both seventeenth-century marriage manuals and modern rules regarding spousal testimony at law, this paper argues that Milton’s particular interest in maintaining the privacy of marital conversation illumines not only the course of legal and familial history but also the fundamental—and potentially flawed—assumptions of contemporary political liberalism. While the arguments of Milton and other seventeenth-century advice writers helped spur courts to exclude spousal testimony on the basis of marital harmony rather than just masculine headship, an examination of modern legal scholarship on spousal privileges also reveals a fundamental tension in Milton’s tracts regarding the expression of self-interest, one that demonstrates the difficulty both Milton and modern theorists such as Jürgen Habermas have in accommodating distinctions of gender within not only early modern marriage but also constructions of the modern liberal subject.
Todd Butler is Associate Professor and Chair at the Faculty of English, Washington State University.
His main area of publication and research involves early modern literature, religion, and political theory, but he maintains an active interest in early modern crime and law, and how classical rhetoric in particular can help us understand—if not challenge—processes of judicial decision-making. His publications include Imagination and Politics in Seventeenth Century England (Ashgate, 2008) and ‘Swearing Justice in Henry Goodcole and the Witch of Edmonton‘ (Studies in English Literature 50:1, 2010).