So I was reading the Sunday paper and came across Ron Rosenbaum’s description of the infamous “Salic law speech” at the start of Shakespear’s Henry V and the way in which a director can use it to establish his approach to the whole play. Henry is thinking of invading France and wants the blessing of the Church; he calls in the Archbishop of Canterbury and asks him to explain “Why the Law Salique, that they have in France,/ Or should or should not bar us in our claim.” The Archbishop, doubtless thrilled to have a willing royal ear for the kind of detailed historico-legal exegesis which usually sends his auditors running for the transepts, begins “Then hear me, gracious sovereign, and you peers…” and continues for a mind-numbing (or enthralling, according to taste) sixty lines unraveling the tangled history of the kings of France, full of peppy bits like “In terram Salicam mulieres ne succedant” and “Of Blithild, which was daughter to King Clothair.” It can be played as farce or as conspiracy, or even straight. At this point Rosenbaum says:

The fact that those who take the Salic law sequence seriously need blackboards and placards on easels accompanied by illustrations to make sense of it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s nonsense. Read closely, the speech is a kind of spiraling black hole of self-cancellation.

This made me put down the paper and furrow my brow. A spiraling black hole of self-cancellation… what did that remind me of? Ah yes, of course, Finnegans Wake. (This recognition was a result not so much of my fondness for Joyce, extreme though it is, as of my youthful immersion in science fiction, believe it or not—in this instance James Blish’s A Case of Conscience.)

On page 572 of Finnegans Wake Joyce interrupts the stream of dreamtime worldspeech for the one passage of straightforward (not to say clinical) English in the book. It begins:

Honuphrius is a concupiscent exservicemajor who makes dishonest propositions to all. He is considered to have committed, invoking droit d’oreiller, simple infidelities with Felicia, a virgin, and to be practising for unnatural coits with Eugenius and Jeremias, two or three philadelphians…

and continues with a complex explication of the manifold immoral interrelationships among a group of people we have not met before and shall not meet again. At the end comes the simple question, “Has he hegemony and shall she submit?” This parallels nicely the King’s question at the end of the Salic Law speech, “May I with right and conscience make this claim?”

Blish’s protagonist, Father Ruiz-Sanchez, expends much anguish of mind and soul on the first question. The Archbishop, per contra, has a ready answer to the second, which boils down to “Sure!” But he has been bought off by the king’s favorable attitude to the quashing of a parliamentary bill imposing confiscatory tax rates, so we can hardly take his reply as representing an honest resolution of the problem. In fact, the passages that lead up to the questions are both of them spiraling black holes of self-cancellation, and I think it’s fair to say that both cases remain open. Therefore, any readers sending in a detailed analysis of both, with clear and convincing answers to both questions, will receive a certificate proclaiming them Doctor Philosophiae, Divinitatis, et Legis Salicae and a letter authorizing them to resolve any and all of life’s problems, by writ of Languagehat University. Or, if you prefer, you could always propound a fresh Gordian knot, your own case of conscience, and let it inspire plays, novels, or at the very least blog entries.


  1. Oh, my. As someone who is usually quite willing to wade through all those Shakespearian speeches, it’s becoming ever clearer that one of these days I’m going to have to overcome my Joyce-block and read both Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake. Now, why is it OK with me to have to sort through the annotations to Shakespeare, and not to Joyce? Is it that I think in a modern writer it’s pretentious to write that way on purpose?

  2. John Cowan says:

    My dad, being both legal philosopher and Waker, worked heavily on the Law Lecture passage, which is really two different lectures, one on canon law (from the passage you quote down through “Has he hegemony and shall she submit? Translate a lax, you breed a bradaun”, and the second on civil law, from “In the goods of Cape and Chattertone, deceased” (which is the title) down through “Will you, won’t you, pango with Pepigi? Not for Nancy, how dare you do!” Curiously, the first lecture sounds salacious but isn’t, whereas the second lecture sounds innocent but is loaded with sexual references, hence the “And whew whewwhew whew” at the end. As a small example, the case Hal Kilbride v Una Bellina refers to Henry VIII and his “terrible habit of changing his wife”.

    We have, by the way, heard of these people before under their Latinized disguises: Honuphrius = Humphrey, HCE; Anita = Anna Livia, ALP; Eugenius and Jeremias = Shem and Shaun; Felicia = Izzy: all of them in one family (“consanguineous to the lowest degree”).

  3. Have you been saving up all these comments for a decade, keeping them in a file somewhere against that hoped-for moment when all the doors would swing wide?

  4. No, but I’m on vacation and I’ve been spending a lot of it reading old LH posts. I’ve gone back to mid-2012 and now I’m rereading the ones you opened then for the tenth anniversary to see if I have more to say, now that they aren’t hopelessly cluttered with spam.

  5. Ah, well then I’m glad your vacation coincided with the grand opening! It’s a real delight to revisit these old threads.

  6. Here’s the full text of the canon law lecture (FW 572-73, reparagraphed):

    Let us consider.

    The procurator Interrogarius Mealterum presends us this proposer.

    Honuphrius is a concupiscent exservicemajor who makes dishonest propositions to all. He is considered to have committed, invoking droit d’oreiller, simple infidelities with Felicia, a virgin, and to be practising for unnatural coits with Eugenius and Jeremias, two or three philadelphians. Honophrius, Felicia, Eugenius and Jeremias are consanguineous to the lowest degree.

    Anita, the wife of Honophrius, has been told by her tirewoman, Fortissa, that Honuphrius has blasphemously confessed under voluntary chastisement that he has instructed his slave, Mauritius, to urge Magravius, a commercial, emulous of Honuphrius, to solicit the chastity of Anita.

    Anita is informed by some illegitimate children of Fortissa with Mauritius (the supposition is Ware’s) that Gillia, the schismatical wife of Magravius, is visited clandestinely by Barnabas, the advocate of Honuphrius, an immoral person who has been corrupted by Jeremias. Gillia, (a cooler blend, D’Alton insists) ex equo with Poppea, Arancita, Clara, Marinuzza, Indra and Iodina, has been tenderly debauched (in Halliday’s view), by Honuphrius, and Magravius knows from spies that Anita has formerly committed double sacrilege with Michael, vulgo Cerularius, a perpetual curate, who wishes to seduce Eugenius.

    Magravius threatens to have Anita molested by Sulla, an orthodox savage (and leader of a band of twelve mercenaries, the Sullivani), who desires to procure Felicia for Gregorius, Leo, Vitellius and Macdugalius, four excavators, if she will not yield to him and also deceive Honuphrius by rendering conjugal duty when demanded. Anita who claims to have discovered incestuous temptations from Jeremias and Eugenius would yield to the lewdness of Honuphrius to appease the savagery of Sulla and the mercernariness of the twelve Sullivani, and (as Gilbert at first suggested), to save the virginity of Felicia for Magravius when converted by Michael after the death of Gillia, but she fears that, by allowing his marital rights she may cause reprehensible conduct between Eugenius and Jeremias.

    Michael, who has formerly debauched Anita, dispenses her from yielding to Honuphrius who pretends publicly to possess his conjunct in thirtynine several manners (turpiter! affirm ex cathedris Gerontes Cambronses) for carnal hygiene whenever he has rendered himself impotent to consummate by subdolence. Anita is disturbed but Michael comminates that he will reserve her case tomorrow for the ordinary Guglielmus even if she should practise a pious fraud during affrication which, from experience, she knows (according to Wadding), to be leading to nullity.

    Fortissa, however, is encouraged by Gregorius, Leo, Viteilius, and Magdugalius, reunitedly, to warn Anita by describing the strong chastisements of Honuphrius and the depravities (turpissimas!) of Canicula, the deceased wife of Mauritius, with Sulla, the simoniac, who is abnegand and repents. Has he hegemony and shall she submit?

    Translate a lax, you breed a bradaun.

    Note that Honuphrius is HCE (note his initials in the first few words) and so Anita is ALP. Felicia is their daughter Issy, and Eugenius and Jeremias are their sons Shem and Shaun (and perhaps their shadowy third son Jeff, cf. Shem, Ham, and Japhet). We know this because they are said to be consanguineous to the lowest (first) degree. Gerontes Cambrenses are the twelve old men who are at once the jury and the speakers of the mot de Cambronne (viz. merde) mixed up with Geraldus Cambrensis, whereas Gregorius, Leo, Vitellius and Macdugalius are the Four Masters.

  7. Very useful, thanks! But why do you consider “Translate a lax, you breed a bradaun” part of the passage? (I know “lax” and “bradaun” both mean “salmon,” but that doesn’t shed much light.)

  8. I can’t be sure, of course. But “In the goods …” seems pretty clearly to be the title of the following civil-law case.

  9. True, but I would treat the “bradaun” line as a transitional passage, because it breaks from the ostentatiously normal/formal language that is the defining feature of the canon law lecture.

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