15.01.24, Owen-Crocker and Schneider, eds., Kingship, Legislation and Power in Anglo-Saxon England

Main Article Content

S. Jay Lemanski

The Medieval Review 15.01.24

Owen-Crocker, Gale R., and Brian W. Schneider. Kingship, Legislation and Power in Anglo-Saxon England. Publications of the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies. Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2013. Pp. xii, 306. ISBN: 9781843838777 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
S. Jay Lemanski
Missouri Western State University

Kingship, Legislation and Power in Anglo-Saxon England, edited by Gale R. Owen-Crocker and Brian W. Schneider, is a publication of papers presented at the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies (MANCASS) during its Easter conference of 2006, each paper comprising one of the seven chapters of the book. Naturally not all of the papers are presented in this volume. Others will be published in a subsequent book, Royal Authority in Anglo-Saxon England. Those that are published here are the ones that in the minds of the editors explore "...the manifestations of royal authority at its most effective" (x).

Unlike Americanists, who have an embarrassment (if not an uncontrollable flood) of primary sources, medieval historians have limited materials from which to work. This necessitates mining each source for all it can give, trying to wring the blood out of the proverbial turnip. Such necessity often calls for not only the closest possible reading of the text, but also a degree of reconstructive speculation. These speculations and the facts upon which they are based may not pass as proven evidence by some standards, yet they are coherent theories that fit the known facts. Readers will see an excellent example of this process in the papers (some more than others) collected in Kingship, Legislation and Power. Even though examples of the subjunctive are on parade in many of these articles, they do provide thought-provoking and enticing theses as well as insights into the nature of royal power as touching on: definition of ownership of land; the management of information; the implementation of royal law-codes; how these codes impacted the self-perception of their subjects; the use of burial sites as statements of royal ideology; the political significance of the imposition of a night's farm; and the empowerment of local officials in kingdom administration. As long as one is aware of such speculative limitations, these articles provide important direction for further studies and exploration.

The first chapter, and the lion's share of the book (the first 166 pages of the book proper) is an article by Simon Keynes, which is based on the keynote address of the MANCASS conference. The basic question addressed in this article is the role of royal assemblies in the production of diplomas. Keynes begins with discussion about the role of writing during the proceedings of ecclesiastic assemblies, and suggests that kings modeled the ceremonies of their royal assemblies on those of the ecclesiastic, including the ideological importance of writing. His subsequent discussion of the history of diplomatic production is informed by the presumption that these documents were regarded as title-deeds, whose possession was important for the legitimization of ownership. Consequently, he posits that the physical bestowal of the diploma was a central ritual, which necessitated the document's existence by that stage in the royal assembly. His discussion of the history of diplomatic production is one that only a scholar of his experience and acquaintance with the sources could write, and the article is worth reading even if only for that. Yet the implications of his conclusions regarding royal performance and the legitimization of ownership are equally profound. His article stresses the importance of royal performance and the role that writing plays in it. To be in control of the production of the written word is a manifestation of power and control, and the production of diplomas, even forgeries, is part of that performance.

This first chapter is followed by three appendices that supplement Keynes' contribution. The first is an alphabetized listing of the meeting places where royal assemblies were held. Under each heading Keynes provides information about the site and lists what legislation or diplomas were issued at that assembly. The second appendix provides a catalogue and description of thirty-eight single-sheet diplomas issued between 925 and 975. More than a simple listing, this appendix also discusses the nature of these sources, the script, parchment, format, and even how they are folded. The third appendix is a handy overview of the important sources for Anglo-Saxon diplomas as well as listing of the abbreviations used in Sawyer's Anglo-Saxon Charters. These appendices will be helpful to both the novice in diplomatic studies as well as the experienced scholar.

The second chapter is Alexander Rumble's article dealing with the question of royal archives. Trying to strike a middle ground between the centralized registry of Cyril Hart, and the absence of a document-oriented bureaucracy as proposed by Michael Clancy, Rumble argues for the existence of various types of records kept by the king and the royal family. While there are no artifacts of such archives that have survived, Rumble convincingly argues that texts such as the Domesday Book and the Burghal Hidage have to be based off of some collection of records. He notes instances where the documents record the existence of copies, some of which were held by the king for safe keeping. Less clear are Rumble's conclusions regarding the significance of these archives for royal power, and so the reader is left to draw his/her own conclusions regarding the implications of royal control of information.

Much clearer on this point is Carole Hough's contribution regarding place names and the impact of royal law-codes in the everyday practice of the courts. She ingeniously uses place names with the word "king" in them to argue that these were lands or elements of the landscape that had fallen into the king's control. Hough points out that this would be in keeping with laws such as Ine 51 and II Cnut 77, which stipulate the forfeiture of property to the king in the event that one could not pay a fine. Lawsuits such as are reflected in S 362, S 1211, and S 926 indicate that those forfeitures were indeed applied. The number of these place names, then, would suggest that the law-codes and the forfeitures that they proscribe were in fact implemented locally. While not presuming to conclude that the entirety of royal law-codes were operational in local courts, the ubiquity of such place-names suggests that at least this provision was routinely applied. As a matter of writing style, however, one might fault Hough on the fact that she is not forthright with her thesis at the beginning of her article. She dives directly into her evidence, and through much of the article the reader is not quite certain where it all leads, or how to evaluate the evidence presented.

The article entitled "Witness Kingship" by Andrew Rabin makes a rather sophisticated argument. Instead of focusing on what degree Anglo-Saxon law-codes sought to define royal ideology (i.e., how the king wished to present himself), he looks at how these codes seek to define its subjects (in the dual senses of "subjects" of legal pronouncements and of the kingdom). To explore this question more specifically, Rabin focuses on the legislative regulations regarding witnesses. From Alfred's law mandating certain circumstances when a man must have a witness, to Eadgar's establishment of royally sanctioned panels of witnesses, concluding with the Wulfstanian threats of mutilation for those who swear falsely, Rabin discusses how these laws sought to impact the way in which witnesses perceived their own legal identity, not only establishing the criteria of their law-worthiness, but ultimately redefining them as physical extensions of the royal presence itself.

The semiotics of royal burials is the topic of Barbara York's chapter, "The Burial of Kings." Her article does not so much address the actualization of royal power on the ground as much as royal ideological aspirations in the ground (so to speak). She begins by examining the archaeology of pre-Christian burials, and notes how the earliest of Anglo-Saxon rulers sought to connect themselves to the land and to local monuments of power by emulating the barrows and using the burial spaces of preceding political authorities (such as the Briton kings or even the Romans). In this way, she argues, these kings sought to create "significant ancestors" that linked them with the land and with power. She then sees a similar dynamic at play during the conversion period, when kings were using the same method to link themselves with a Christian ancestry through burial in Rome or in monasteries. Finally, she notes that as certain Christian institutions came to be identified with specific branches of royal families, their choice as a burial site further identified an individual with a specific lineage or loyalty in the midst of political rivalries. York insightfully recognizes a similar dynamic playing out throughout the Anglo-Saxon period, including Cnut's choice to be buried in the Old Minster, Winchester, linking him with the house of Cerdic and creating his own "significant ancestry."

The thesis of Ryan Lavelle's article on Ine 70.1 is unfortunately not immediately apparent, since he, like Carole Hough, does not state his conclusions up front, merely contending that they are significant. As the reader progresses through the article, one finds that Lavelle compares Ine 70.1, which details the provisions that ten hides of land were to provide for the king, with a similar list of provisions found in I Kings 4:22-23. Among his observations, Lavelle points out that the Biblical provisions were from subject territories, which coincides neatly with Maitland's conclusion that Ine 70.1 refers to land newly settled and allotted. Lavelle further surmises that if 10 hides of land provided provision for one day and night, than it naturally follows that an area comprising 3,650 hides would provide a full year's provision, an area similar in hidage (according to the figures of the Burghal Hidage) with the 3,900 hides of Devon, Somerset and western Dorset. Hence, Ine 70.1 was likely to have been as much ideological as a practical policy, not only asserting an Old Testament notion of kingship, but also defining those who pay such obligations as members of a tributary and subject region. Of course, many of these conclusions rest on the assumption that I Kings 4 provided a model for Ine 70.1, though the reader may not reach that conclusion when comparing these lists for himself.

The seventh and final chapter, entitled "Being Everywhere at Once," by Alaric Trousdale addresses the administrative policies of King Edmund (939-946) at a period when Wessex was trying to institutionally integrate the former kingdoms of Mercia and the regions previously under Danelaw. By examining I, II, and III Edmund Trousdale notices two interconnected trends: that there is a traceable increase in the exaltation of royal status and power (especially in the sanctity of his person), and an equally progressive empowerment of local officials and institutions. Much of these laws emphasizes the cooperation of the ecclesiastic authorities with the king in the governance of the kingdom. As Edmund extends his authority over this recently enlarged kingdom, he relies on bishops and the hundred, an institution is first mentioned in the sources during his reign. Yet Trousdale is clear that the empowerment of these authorities must be understood as an extension of royal power. Hence, this process is not one of decentralization, but of an extension of royal presence and authority.

There is, of course, the current dialogue in the field as to the real nature of Anglo-Saxon kingship. Do the sources that we have--primarily the law-codes and diplomas--actually reflect the extent of royal power and influence on the legal system (the so-called maximalist view), or do these sources testify only to the aspirations of kings, ideological statements of what royal authority should be, though was not? One would think that a book entitled Kingship, Legislation and Power might confront this question head on. The reader will, in that case, be disappointed. Each of the articles almost studiously avoids directly addressing that question. Ann Williams, who wrote the introduction, acknowledges that "this question itself is not directly addressed in this volume" (2). When one considers the conclusions of most of the articles in this work, one could argue that they lean more toward the maximalist, or, at least, a moderate view of royal power as espoused by Paul Hyams. Nevertheless, one must be cautious; such impressions may be more apparent than real, since the goal of this volume is to explore "...the manifestations of royal authority at its most effective."

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Author Biography

S. Jay Lemanski

Missouri Western State University