Feature Review

Law and Order in Anglo-Saxon England by Tom Lambert

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Matt Firth (Reviewer) – Journal of the Australian Early Medieval Association 13 (2017)

Anglo-Saxon law has traditionally been a fertile ground for scholarship and, considering that expansive corpus of legal discourse, Lambert’s book faces a challenge to stand out in the field. Yet the book is largely excellent. Born of his PhD thesis (University of Durham), Lambert has identified as his point of departure the dichotomy between the conceptual aspiration of written legislation and the actual function of law within communities. This is reflected in the volume’s division into two parts under the titles ‘Foundations of the Anglo-Saxon Legal Order’ and ‘Order and “the Stat” in Late Anglo-Saxon England’. Lambert asserts that, by rejecting modern frameworks of legal thought and focusing instead on identifiable priorities contained within Anglo-Saxon law codes, it is possible discover the ‘vision of order’ underlying royal legislation and, more importantly, identify a core continuity in the regional application of Anglo-Saxon law over the centuries (p. 1).

As Lambert lays out in his introduction, he takes a somewhat unique methodological approach to his sources, exhorting us to approach law codes not only with ‘sensitivity,’ but with ‘imagination’ (p. 13). It is an expectation to which Lambert holds himself throughout the volume, most notably in the fictive case-studies provided in chapters 1 to 3, designed to demonstrate the function of the law. However, Lambert is perhaps at his most innovative in establishing a theoretical framework for the study of Anglo-Saxon law which rejects the methodologies of his peers wherever they are susceptible to charges of anachronism.

Lambert identifies two key pitfalls. Firstly, the tendency to introduce modern concepts of ‘the state’ into analyses of legal codes, by which Lambert means that any assertion of a centralised legal culture is anachronistic. The conceptual division between royal legislation and community application of said legislation is a thematic concern that permeates the volume. Secondly, what Lambert terms back-projection—the practice of using perceived cultural precepts contained in the more robust corpus of later law codes to fill in gaps within sparse earlier records. Lambert’s approach to Anglo-Saxon law codes throughout the volume is fundamentally chronological, emphasising the continuity of Anglo-Saxon legal culture. However, it should be noted that, considering this continuity of legal culture, and the partial nature of the extant corpus of Anglo-Saxon legal texts, it is unsurprising that back-projection is a frequently used tool for legal scholars. Indeed, it is for this reason that Lambert does not completely reject the approach as a valid tool to conceptualise the contexts in which laws were created and applied. While Lambert must be applauded for seeking to contextualise law codes within their own social and political milieux, the intricacies of undertaking a chronological analysis of Anglo-Saxon law creates historiographical complexities that sees him at times transgress his own methodological critiques.

With aims and caveats thus laid out, part 1 begins Lambert’s chronological examination of Anglo-Saxon law. Inevitably, chapter 1 deals with the law code of Æthelberht of Kent and, while Lambert’s stated aim in this chapter is to examine Anglo-Saxon law predating this, our earliest extant written legislation, it is nonetheless primarily an analysis of Æthelberht’s code. Lambert posits that, by codifying regional legal traditions, Æthelberht aligned himself with Christian and Roman ideals of legitimate kingship. However, it does not necessarily follow that Æthelberht intended the code to create a centralised legal mandate, Lambert suggesting rather that the specific laws Æthelberht codified imply that they were designed as recommended, regionally administered, legal procedures. Chapter 2 turns to three law codes written between c. 680 and 694 (two Kentish, one of Wessex), and a more directly punitive turn in Anglo-Saxon legislation when compared to the primarily compensatory code of Æthelberht. However, Lambert argues that this apparent change in legislative procedure was neither a departure from existing tradition, nor an abandonment of a model of community-driven application of the law. The key change Lambert identifies in the seventh century is a distinction between personal and community offences, with the former still regionally administered under the compensatory model of justice, and the latter falling within the domain of the king’s punitive justice. Thus, where crimes such as theft transgressed both individual and communal rights, or where regional assemblies failed to enforce judgements of compensation, the performance of royal justice could augment the pursuit of personal justice. Chapter 3 draws the threads of the preceding chapters together, looking to assess the application of law, largely based on charter evidence from the eight to tenth centuries. The primary thesis herein is that royal governance primarily guided and benefitted from the regional administration of justice, rarely intruding directly.

With the foundation of legal order thus established, Lambert continues his chronological progression in section 2. Stressing the continuity of Anglo-Saxon legal traditions, section 2 expands the argument of chapter 3 across the breadth of tenth- and eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon England. The recognised and recognisable centralisation of Anglo-Saxon England to something approximating modern conceptions of ‘the state’ within this period is not in dispute. Lambert simply questions how a legal tradition that he has been characterising as containing a fundamental continuity fits within a society that seemed to be evolving a centralised model of royal governance. Lambert is not so wedded to his thesis as to deny change. Punitive legislation attained a degree of brutality, laws extended into new areas of community life, and the administration of royal justice became ever more lucrative. Yet he is also clear in his assertion that late Anglo-Saxon law is far more reminiscent of early Anglo-Saxon law than the codes of post-conquest kings—new laws augmented but did not replace pre-existing traditions, and though kings were more active in asserting their rights over regional justice, justice was still administered regionally. It is a convincing thesis and offers much to scholars not only of Anglo-Saxon law, but to Anglo-Saxon cultural studies far more broadly. Law and Order in Anglo-Saxon England is a worthy contribution to the corpus of scholarship on Anglo-Saxon law and does indeed stand out as an innovative contribution to its analysis.

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