Seminars LXXIII & LXXIV: downgrading homicide and upgrading women

Two brief notices of the next two seminars I went to after that last one just reported, which were both Oxford ones. I have, as you know, dithered about blogging these because they are more internal than the IHR ones or even Cambridge’s CLANS series; these are Oxford speakers talking to an Oxford audience. But, Tom Lambert is a sterling chap lecturing on the course I run and thoroughly deserves the publicity, and Emma Cavell is already sort of famous, so there seems no harm in it on this occasion.

Decapitated skeletons from the Anglo-Saxon execution cemetery at Walkington Wold

Decapitated skeletons from the Anglo-Saxon execution cemetery at Walkington Wold, from Wikimedia Commons

Tom was speaking on the 8th of November 2010, to the title, “Theft, Homicide and Crime in Late Anglo-Saxon Law”. The convenors at this seminar are unfailingly complimentary, but even so, invoking the ghost of Patrick Wormald, suggesting that he had thought that with his The Making of English Law written there was nothing more to say about Anglo-Saxon law, and then saying that it was Tom’s work that had convinced the convenor that this wasn’t true, that’s high praise. All the same, Tom gave a clear and interesting account of Anglo-Saxon legislation about theft and homicide, asking why the penalties for theft are so much more vicious (almost always capital) than for homicide, which is after all a capital crime but can be compensated, or at worst result in enslavement, whereas theft is impossible to pay off. Patrick Wormald was not the only person who has tried to explain this, but Tom gave convincing arguments, largely based on the tiny sample size and the fact that many cases Patrick used as evidence of an increasing royal ‘take-over’ of homicide punishment involved victims who would already have been under royal protection for other reasons, that these explanations would not really do. Tom’s alternative suggestion, which rested in part on the differentiation in the laws between simple homicide and morðor, hidden slaying, was that killing someone was an open act, not necessarily dishonourable, in which the killer was easily identifiable (and often turned himself in, in the cases we have), whereas theft and morðor alike were secretive things where no culprit could easily be found and which was therefore dishonourable and hateful for the society of the day in a way that open conflict, which had clear and well-known consequences and regulation that needed no intervention by the king, was not. This makes sense, as long as you don’t mind remembering that people of the past, even our Hardy English Yeomen Forebears(tm), in the case of those reading (and writing) who may have such roots, were not necessarily like us in the ways they thought and acted. This is the sort of thing that the work Tom’s doing can tell us, and it’s not a small thing.1

Whittington Castle in Shropshire

Whittington Castle in Shropshire, narrative home of Fulk le fitz Wareyn

As for Emma, she spoke on the 15th November, to the title, “Foulke le fitz Wareyn: literary space for real women?” This is a subject where I have far less of a handle, but the basics were that Emma, who did her doctorate on Anglo-Norman marcher lords on the Welsh border, had been asked at her viva whether there was any literary evidence she could have used for this enquiry, had not really looked at the stuff and was therefore now making good. She was anxious to stress, therefore, that she was out of her usual field, but she nonetheless gave a very clear account of a particular romance I’d not heard of, Foulke le fitz Wareyn, which involves a disinherited hero wandering a great many lands, seducing and converting a Muslim queen and so on, before returning as the greatest knight in Christendom, getting the girl, ousting the baddies (who are substantially King John, who is made to hand back Foulke’s inheritance) and experiencing various things as a person of importance before dying in his bed and so forth. The question Emma was asking was, are the women in this text anything more than romantic ciphers? Do they in fact relate to anyone historical, as certain of the other personages involved (not least the hero and King John) kind of do, with a certain amount of genealogical fiddling?2 They do have a certain amount of agency, but not very much; indeed, the woman with the most choice of her own fate in the text, who does anything other than what her male relatives want, is an unmarried noble girl who falls for a smooth-talking scoundrel and winds up betraying her lord’s castle and committing suicide. Despite this unprepossessing set of prospects, Emma argued, the (other) women in the story can still be associated with women who did exist, and the lifestyle and life options depicted here are probably not implausible, in which case while we may lament the patriarchy and so on, and not without reason, it may also be worth noticing that the author of the romance did give himself (I assume himself…) space to show his audience these women more or less happy in their successful and famous families, who listen to and love them. The fact that it’s possible to be happy while politically oppressed is obviously a dangerous thing to acknowledge if you want to remove the oppression, but the fact also surely has explanatory value when you want to know how the situation got that way at all…


1. If you want to read Tom at work you can try his “Royal Protections and Private Justice: a reassessment of Cnut’s ‘Reserved Pleas'” in Andrew Rabin, Stefan Jurasinski & Lisi Oliver (edd.), English Law Before Magna Carta: Felix Liebermann and Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, Medieval Law and its Practice 8 (Leiden 2010). The other thing that might be useful to put here is Patrick Wormald’s list of Anglo-Saxon lawsuits, called, fittingly enough, “A Handlist of Anglo-Saxon Lawsuits” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 17 (Cambridge 1988), pp. 247-281.

2. I have linked above to an online translation of the story into English prose by Thomas Kelly, from Stephen Knight and Thomas H. Ohlgren (edd.), Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales (Kalamazoo 1987) apparently, and there is a verse retelling by none other than Michael Rosen, with oodles of local photographs, here, if you can adjust to the rather different style, but the translation that Emma mentioned was Glynn S. Burgess (ed./transl.), Two Medieval Outlaws: Eustace the Monk and Fouke fitz Waryn (Woodbridge 1997). Emma’s paper is in fact already in print (since delivery), as “Fouke le Fitz Waryn: literary space for real women?’ in Megan Cassidy-Welch (ed.), Medieval Practices of Space and Place, Parergon (New Series) Vol. 27 (Perth 2010), pp. 89-110, so there you are if this is your sort of stuff and you’d like better than my inexpert summary.

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3 responses to “Seminars LXXIII & LXXIV: downgrading homicide and upgrading women

  1. Feliz año nuevo señor Jhonatan Jarrett y resto de intervinientes siempre es un placer leer sus artículos.

  2. Pingback: Seminars CXXXI & CXXXII: searching the margins of Anglo-Norman England | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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