Seminar CLXII: feud and punishment in Anglo-Saxon England

We now reach a point in my seminar backlog where before I get one version of a paper written up I have already seen a later version, but I don’t know what to do about that that isn’t do what I would do anyway, so, let me tell you about the work of Tom Lambert. Tom definitely counts as one of the friends I made in Oxford, so this is a friendly write-up, but that’s not hard, as Tom’s stuff is really sharp,1 and, on 4th February 2013, he was performing it to the Medieval History Seminar in Oxford under the title, “Crime, Community and Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England”.

Troston Mount, nr Honington, Suffolk

One place where we can be reasonably sure Anglo-Saxon justice got given, Troston Mount, near Honington, Suffolk, the old meeting site for Bradmere hundred

You could tell very early on this paper that Tom is possessed of an uncommon brain, because as I recall (this not in my notes, but I’m fairly sure) he began by saying that he had been thinking about crime and punishment in Anglo-Saxon England for some years now and had recently realised that it was all much simpler than we’ve been inclined to think. I tell you, one does not often hear an academic tell you their subject could be simpler. But by the end he had me convinced, with one or two minor reservations. The thing is that, since Patrick Wormald and even before, if you follow thinking on law in Anglo-Saxon England the idea has been that it started with a system that was basically feud, where social order is kept if at all by the threat of vengeance, and finish up with a system where the kings have imposed themselves in almost all arenas and the system has been, well, nationalised.2

The first page of the Laws of King Æthelberht as preserved in the Textus Roffensis at Rochester

The first page of the Laws of King Æthelberht as preserved in the Textus Roffensis at Rochester, image from Wikimedia Commons

However, as Tom pointed out, even the earliest Anglo-Saxon laws we have, those of King Æthelberht of Kent, have some areas of action reserved to the king, things for which he takes fines.3 That’s what makes something a crime in this thinking, rather than just an injury deserving vengeance, the declaration of a public power that it needs public action. This is the area of jurisdiction that expands, but why is it there at all? Tom’s answer was that these things, largely failures of religious observance or breach of peace, are things for which there is no obvious victim. The community as a whole may be offended, they may even be punished by God collectively (because this is a thing that is well-known to happen to Anglo-Saxon England) but there is no specific person whose responsibility it clearly is to take vengeance. For that kind of offence, you need someone who represents everyone, i. e. the king.

LAte Anglo-Saxon manuscript depiction of a hanging

An apparently-eleventh-century manuscript depiction of the outcome of some Anglo-Saxon justice

The concomitant of this, however, is that for everything else, feud was considered an adequate mechanism of restraint. This is not to say that Anglo-Saxon England was a simmering cauldron of violence: compensation was probably the rule—it’s certainly what most of the, well, rules, in the earliest Anglo-Saxon laws are about—and it could be demanded at a public assembly, indeed; the system is still a vengeance one, though, in which adequate reprisal and restoration of offended honour has to take place when a person suffers injury at another’s hands. What the laws did here, here, again as Tom sees it, is assure people that a certain level of compensation was in fact adequate for a certain injury. Otherwise, as Tom pictured eloquently for us, the offended party would always be encouraged to escalate, for fear that by accepting too little compensation his ability to defend those whose protection was his affair would be cast into doubt and his honour among his peers diminished. A lawcode, by setting tariffs that could be agreed as reasonable and adequate, might avert that doubt and its over-compensation, as well as making the king look like a Roman ruler and other things like that as identified by Wormald.

Burial 34 from the Sutton Hoo execution cemetery

Burial 34 from the Sutton Hoo execution cemetery, copyright Martin Carver & The British Museum, used by kind permission

For Tom, and this was one of the things that got questions going afterwards, this system was very long-lived; there are already execution burials that date to before 597 (though some arguments might have been raised about that had John Blair not been finishing his next Ford Lecture and thus not present4) suggesting, as for some has the nature of Æthelberht’s laws, that the system represented in them is fundamentally pre-Christian, and Tom argued that it did not change, but only intensified, before the Norman Conquest: kings added punishments, set up new procedures, but all of this can be seen as maintenance and improvements in enforcement of this basic division of injury, for which compensation was and remained adequate, and crime, where someone had to act for the community. The main argument in questions was about whether conversion to Christianity acted as a lever for the kings to insert themselves in community action, as many would see them doing later on (Ros Faith raised the issue of the hundred court, which was good because of similar things I remember saying about George Molyneaux’s theories on tenth-century shifts in royal action). Now that I write this up, too, I remember other issues I had with the argument, but I had them with its second iteration in London some months later, and I’ll save them for when I get to that. For now, you have to admit, I think, Tom’s got a point; maybe it is actually simpler than we thought…

1. Even at this point his stuff was also in print as T. Lambert, “Theft, Homicide and Crime in Late Anglo-Saxon Law” in Past and Present no. 214 (Oxford 2012), pp. 3-43 and idem, “The Evolution of Sanctuary in Medieval England” in Paul Dresch & Hannah Skoda (edd.), Legalism: anthropology and history (Oxford 2012), pp. 115-144.

2. Paul Hyams, “Feud and the State in Late Anglo-Saxon England” in Journal of British Studies Vol. 40 (Chicago 2001), pp. 1-43; Patrick Wormald, The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the twelfth century. 1: Legislation and its limits (Oxford 2001).

3. Printed in full and translated in F. L. Attenborough (ed./trans.), The Laws of the Earliest English Kings (Cambridge 1922, repr. New York City 1963, Felinfach 2000).

4. John Blair, “The Dangerous Dead in Early Medieval England” in Stephen Baxter, Catherine Karkov, Janet Nelson and David Pelteret (edd.), Early Medieval Studies in Memory of Patrick Wormald (Farnham 2009), pp. 539-560.

3 responses to “Seminar CLXII: feud and punishment in Anglo-Saxon England

  1. Pingback: Seminar CLXXXIII: community law enforcement in early medieval Britain | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  2. Pingback: Leeds 2013 report part 2 | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  3. Pingback: Seminar CXLV: more Anglo-Saxon feud and punishment | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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