The Medieval Review 12.08.06

Jurasinski, Stefan, Lisi Oliver, and Andrew Rabin. English Law Before Magna Carta: Felix Liebermann and Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen. Medieval Law and its Practice. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2010. Pp. 329. $168. 978-90-04-18756-6. . .

Reviewed by:

Alison Lewin
Saint Joseph's University

The lovely, intense portrait of Felix Liebermann before the table of contents emphasizes that, while many issues of Anglo-Saxon law arise in this stimulating compilation, the man who first assembled, transcribed, published, and contextualized Anglo-Saxon law was the foil for contemporary authors to examine further exactly what he brought to light, and in what manner he did so. His exemplary talents as an editor, philologist and legal historian, combined with his independent means, allowed him to devote himself completely to re- editing the flawed 1832 edition of Reinhold Schmid. After a stint working on various volumes of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica under its director, George Waitz, Liebermann was finally able in 1887 to begin work on what became Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen. The death of his dear friend William Maitland in 1906, World War I, and Liebermann's own statements during that war offended his English readers (4-5), who largely ignored the complete edition, finished in 1916. After the war, he was able to establish new friendships with noted English scholars and early on "to attack the complacent anti- Semitism so common among early twentieth-century (especially British) academics" (6). Tragically, in 1925 he was struck by a car and died (8).

After this brief but compelling introduction, the book proceeds with a select bibliography (necessary because of his more than 650 publications!) listing his most significant works. From this point, the work falls into four sections: Felix Liebermann; Language and Dating; Anglo-Saxon Texts and Manuscripts; and Beyond Anglo-Saxon England. Of these, all but the second are accessible to those acquainted with England before the Conquest, but I am certain that those learned in the Anglo-Saxon language as well as in the earlier literature about some of the fine points addressed in that section will find them rich and rewarding.

Section One contains two lively articles that situate Liebermann culturally. The first, Daniela Fruscione's "Liebermann's Intellectual Milieu," explores with great clarity not only Liebermann's own scholarly development but also more general issues of great import then being hotly debated in Germany and beyond--for example, the correct relationship between scholarship and nationalism (19). The second, "The Liebermann Library in Tokyo," by Hideyuki Arimitsu, reveals that Liebermann's personal library ended up in Japan; the author examines with great care how this came to be, what the history and methodology of its classification were, and what the contents of the library were, especially the notes Liebermann himself made in his copy of his magnum opus. Arimitsu here suggests a theme taken up in the following essay, namely the ways in which classifying and ordering information can harm or at least affect the integrity of a work or works.

Jürg Rainer Schwyter brings great erudition to bear in his "Interference in the Editing Process: Felix Liebermann, the Gesetze and the German Language" at the opening of section two. He states: "Looking at examples of punctuation, capitalisation and emendation as well as at some of Liebermann's translations and linguistic explanations in the Gesetze, I claim that, due primarily to his German-language background, particular meanings were created in the edition--meanings that are not linguistically encoded in the Old English original" (43). He argues that modern editors should become "more linguistically aware of the role that their native language (L1)...plays in the editing process" (43). Beyond Liebermann's presentation of separate texts, distinguished from one another by elaborate signals highlighting their differences, and his retention of the flawed division of the texts into chapters following Schmid's 1858 edition, Schwyter explores "an editor's underlying ideological and cultural assumptions about the language data he or she is dealing with; and the second, possible interference of the editor's native language, or L1, with the editing process" (47). The arguments he presents are dense but rigorously logical and persuasive--a challenging and highly informative presentation. Robert D. Fulk's "Localizing and Dating Old English Anonymous Prose, and How the Inherent Problems Relate to Anglo-Saxon Legislation" and Richard Sharpe's "The Dating of Quadripartitus Again" are--I assume from the excellent quality of the collection--equally compelling, but less accessible to those not versed in Anglo-Saxon or the dense manuscript tradition of this Latin legal compilation. Each author's points and logic flow smoothly, however, and even non-specialists can appreciate the significance of the argument and the conclusions drawn therefrom.

The third section contains five essays, of which "The Old English Penitentials and the Law of Slavery" by Stefan Jurasinski and "Ritual Magic or Legal Performance? Reconsidering an Old English Charm Against Theft," by Andrew Rabin (chapters 8 and 12 respectively) are provocative and engaging enough that they would make interesting additions to even an undergraduate course on medieval English history. While the focus of each is on close readings of specific texts, each author manages to introduce gracefully the questions and problems that have arisen from Liebermann's work, thereby again reminding even undergraduates of the perils and slipperiness of translating and editing. I would also include T. B. Lambert's "Royal Protections and Private Justice: A Reassessment of Cnut's 'Reserved Pleas'" (chapter 11) as an excellent choice for undergraduate reading, perhaps for a more specialized course.

Thom Gobbitt's "I AEthelred in Felix Liebermann's Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen and in the Mise-en-Page of Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 383" plunges again into the intricacies of manuscript analysis. As in Sharpe's essay, while the particulars are difficult to follow, this chapter argues that the edition Liebermann produced significantly changed the historian's understanding of the creation of the texts he examines. Specifically, Gobbitt presents evidence that it would be just as logical, if not more so, to state that despite the impression Liebermann's edition made, his failure to mention emendations of various texts ignored "the changing manuscript contexts of the law-code...Ideally, as well as faithfully replicating the law- code, an edition should express the mise-en-page of the manuscript and the stratigraphy of the changes made to it over time" (134-135). Mary P. Richards also considers the genesis of manuscript in "I-II Cnut: Wulfstan's Summa?" Her focus is not on Liebermann's edition but rather whether the true author (of Cnut I) and compiler (of Cnut II) was Archbishop Wulfstan summarizing, in the first part, his own ecclesiastical pronouncements and, in the second, earlier legal materials and, following M. K. Lawson, some new legislation that could actually be the product of Cnut's administration (138). She argues convincingly that Wulfstan's mastery in part I contrasts significantly with the rather patchwork nature of part II, and disagrees with those "who treat I-II Cnut as one composition" (140).

The final section moves us forward in time to analyze the reception of aspects of Anglo-Saxon legal history by later generations. Like Gobbitt, Nicholas Karn invites us into "Rethinking the Leges Henrici Primi" by moving away from Liebermann and subsequently, L. J. Downer's rather flat presentation of the text, because "it ignores the very considerable internal evidence for modification and addition over time" (200). For example, rubrics sometimes fail to reflect content accurately, suggesting either an imperfect or changed understanding of the text (201). His close examination aims "to recover some sense of what the original tract looked like, and, most importantly, what its content, purpose and argument may have been" (210). Karn's conclusions are that first, the LHP focuses on pleas in which the crown had a stake (214), and second, it was part of a living legal tradition and of great importance because of modern debates about the expansion of the jurisdiction of the king's court and the subversion of local law..." on which the LHP has rather little to say" (218).

John Hudson follows with an illuminating essay, "From the Leges to Glanvill: Legal Expertise and Legal Reasoning." He takes us into the culture of the law in the twelfth century and examines the way in which different elements of legal expertise evolved and came to bear different weights over time. In part because of the influence of canon law, reason, logic and consistency slowly gained ground over practical experience in the courts (243). This clear and engaging essay will also appeal to a wide audience.

Rebecca Brackmann moves us far forward in time with "Laurence Nowell's Old English Glossary and his Study of Quadripartitus." Nowell's problematic editions of Old English law codes offer clues to the early transmission of medieval manuscripts, but were reproduced in error by Liebermann, "who did not realize that Nowell had sometimes translated into Old English from Quadripartitus" (252). Brackmann turns to Nowell's brief legal glossary, showing he saw the most complete version of this crucial text, and also the extent to which he was willing to intervene in his texts (253). Like Jurasinski and Rabin, she reveals the inherent difficulties of transcribing and editing in both the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries, and concludes by rehabilitating Nowell both in terms of his careful research and his knowledge of Old English (267). Following the essay is a transcription of Nowell's glossary, a useful addendum.

Finally, Janelle Greenberg brings Anglo-Saxon legal history into the present with "St. Edward's Ghost": The Cult of St. Edward and his Laws in English History." Revered as an ecclesiastical hero, Edward was also renowned as a great giver of laws (274). During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, he and his laws were invoked, in part because of "their association with an historical construct called the ancient constitution" (275), which was not overturned by the Conquest. Although Liebermann had demonstrated that the story that King William had collected and preserved Edward's laws was untrue (277), the Leges Edwardi Confessoris nonetheless carried great authority during the medieval and early modern period and were often appealed to, most notably in John Foxe's Actes and Monuments (284) and in Parliament's objections to the Stuarts (288). Greenberg concludes by echoing Antony Back in arguing that great shifts in European political thought occurred in the eleventh and eighteenth centuries, and that the intervening centuries were "essentially a single epoch" (300).

Stefan Jurasinski, Lisi Oliver and Andrew Rabin deserve hearty congratulations for producing such a superb collection, one which engages the neophyte and challenges the experts. Unlike many such compilations, English Law Before Magna Carta contains no weak link; every chapter's thesis is clear, the arguments rigorous, the conclusions compelling. Brill too deserves praise for producing such an elegant and carefully edited volume. I recommend this book for any college library; it is certain to prove useful on many levels.