15.11.30, Rabin, ed. and trans., The Political Writings of Archbishop Wulfstan of York

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Richard Keyser

The Medieval Review 15.11.30

Rabin, Andrew, ed. and trans. The Political Writings of Archbishop Wulfstan of York. Manchester Medieval Sources Series. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015. pp. x, 254. ISBN: 978-0-71908-974-9. (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Richard Keyser
University of Wisconsin-Madison

This very useful and well-produced book presents a collection of Anglo-Saxon sources in English translation, all of them by or closely associated with the monk and reforming bishop Wulfstan, who was Archbishop of York from 1002 until his death in 1023. Serving as an adviser to kings across the rupture of the Danish Conquest of 1014-1016, Wulfstan was clearly an influential and adroit political actor. Numerous texts attributed to him survive in many manuscripts of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, making him also one of the most important authors of late Anglo-Saxon England. Full appreciation of Wulfstan's role as an author has emerged only relatively recently, however, as over the course of the twentieth century scholars gradually attributed more and more texts to him. Today Wulfstan is best known as the author of two different types of works. On the one hand, scholars of literature and religion may be most familiar with his homiletic writings, the most famous of which is the "Sermon of the Wolf to the English," which, though written in Old English, is usually known by its Latin title, Sermo Lupi ad Anglos. On the other hand, legal historians now recognize him as the author of some of the most substantial surviving Anglo-Saxon royal legislation, including law codes issued by both Æthelred (978-1016) and Cnut (1016-1035).

The current edition instead focuses on a third category of texts, one that has in a sense fallen between the cracks of the other two, namely what Andrew Rabin terms Wulfstan's "political" writings. I will return in a moment to the problematic character of this category, but there can be no doubt of the need for easier access to these texts given that many of them were last edited more than a century ago, often before their attribution to Wulfstan, and in now-obscure publications that lack any translation into modern English (2). Not surprisingly, this collection of translated texts is intended primarily for readers without direct access to Anglo-Saxon, including, as Rabin puts it, those who may be interested in "medieval political theology" and "medieval legal and political history more generally" (vii). But I would venture that the convenience of this compilation may also render service even to Anglo-Saxonists. Certainly scholars and students in all fields will welcome this book's inclusion of extensive annotations to the texts, an excellent, fifty-one-page introduction to Wulfstan and his works, a fourteen-page appendix listing all the manuscripts known to contain the texts edited here, a bibliography, and an index.

The translated texts are divided into three sections, one each for "political tracts," for "homilies," and for "sources and analogues." Rabin readily acknowledges the overlap between these categories, which reflects among other things Wulfstan's tendency to rework his own writings for different contexts (50-51). Thus after a first section containing seven political tracts (55-124), the second translates eleven homilies that seem closely related to these tracts or that rework them for the purposes of preaching (127-170). The six items in the "sources and analogues" section (173-206) provide additional examples of borrowing and repurposing, including a sample of legislation written under Wulfstan's supervision that was reworked several times for homilies, in one case by Wulfstan himself (184). Similarly, a set of ecclesiastical regulations draws heavily from some of the archbishop's works, but was probably penned by his successors at York (197).

As noted above, the use of the term "political" in the book's title and its first section of translated texts may seem problematic, certainly for readers not familiar with the heavily religious and ecclesiastical nature of texts penned by early medieval prelates, and perhaps even for some of those versed in such literature. This compilation might rather be considered to include texts that combine the homiletic and legislative approaches noted above, but in ways that do not easily fit either genre. These texts' anomalous characteristics--at least with respect to Wulfstan's other writings--no doubt help to account for their relative neglect by previous editors and translators. Perhaps Rabin could have devoted more space in the introduction to clarifying the nature of these texts and his criteria for selecting them, thereby placing into a broader context his pertinent but usually rather brief comments on these matters in his prefaces to the individual texts.

In some cases the similarity of this volume's texts to Wulfstan's other writings is quite clear. Thus the first of the "political tracts," The Laws of Edward and Guthrum, poses as royal legislation of the early tenth century, but is now known to have been authored by Wulfstan, probably in order to lend authority to the kind of legislation promoted by the Church reform movement of his own day (55). A number of other texts included in the book can easily be categorized as compilations of canon law or synodal decrees. This is clearest for the sixth text in the "political tracts" section, The Canons of Edgar. Although Wulfstan falsely attributed this text to King Edgar (d. 975), he dropped this attribution in some of his later revisions of the work in favor of the more general rubric "Synodal Decrees." Rabin accurately describes this work as "a synthesis of Church doctrine on pastoral care and clerical behavior for use by diocesan priests" (85). Although much of this text focuses rather narrowly on priestly behavior and the regulation of mass and other church rituals, it also, like many other texts in this volume, ranges widely in terms of subject matter. For example, many clues about socio-legal practices emerge from decrees that entitle well behaved clergymen to "full wergild and honor," that allow a priest to clear himself from an accusation of wrongdoing "through the Eucharist," and that stipulate that if a clergyman "lacks friends and supporters for his oath, he is to undergo the ordeal of the consecrated bread" (99). Occasionally this text strikes a more philosophical note, as when highborn priests are told not to disparage those of lower birth because, "if one understands it properly, then all men are of equal birth" (89).

Perhaps the greatest value of these texts, at least from the perspective of a non-Anglo-Saxonist like myself who is interested in "medieval legal and political history more generally," lies in what they show us about the interactions between the religious and secular spheres. The ways in which Wulfstan's writings illuminate these interactions were of course shaped by his dual role as both prelate and statesman. Although the close partnership between rex and ecclesia on which such a combination of roles was based will not come as a surprise to medievalists (6), these sources merit attention because of the light they shed on particular aspects of this relationship in late Anglo-Saxon England and because they do so--almost uniquely in early medieval Europe--in the vernacular (1). Three aspects of this relationship emerge with particular clarity from these texts.

First and most obviously we may note with Rabin just how thoroughly the religious and secular spheres interpenetrate each other in Wulfstan's writings. On the one hand, most of the precepts for laypeople are moral and religious in character. Some of these are very general, such as the notice "to the nobles, generals, judges, and reeves that they have the obligation to zealously renounce injustice and embrace righteousness before God and the world" (146; cf. 111). Other norms for the laity are more specific, such as those that: prohibit any Christian from marrying "anyone of his own family within six degrees of kinship" (150); "forbid trade and public meetings" on "holy days and fasts" (151); and recognize that it is "proper that slaves work for their lords according to the guidance of the confessor and under his own supervision throughout the entire shire in which he hears confession" (63). On the other hand, the clergy are charged with many aspects of secular governance. Not surprisingly, the clergy provide guidance for laypeople in the areas covered by the penitential literature, on which Wulfstan often draws, such as sexuality, marriage, acts of violence, religious observances, and the payment of tithes and other dues to the Church (36-42). As the above example of the confessor's role in supervising slave labor suggests, the archbishop thought that such guidance should shape even the master-slave relationship. In Wulfstan's view bishops in particular assume a very active role in the secular world. He assigns them the duties of "participating in shire and hundred courts," "supervising the standardization of weights and measures," and, through the "penitential component of secular justice," playing a central role in the legal process (37, 42).

Secondly, the close relationship between clergy and laity advocated by Wulfstan is grounded in a profoundly moral and religious outlook. As Rabin explains, in all his works, whether legislative, homiletic, or political, Wulfstan sought to advance his vision of a "holy society" in which all ranks and types of people would play their proper roles (2, 31-35). Turning people from sin to righteousness was a matter of great urgency for him in part because he felt that the apocalypse might be at hand. It was only through sincere moral regeneration and correct religious observance that individuals and the kingdom as a whole might be able to mitigate God's wrath (40-41). While rooted in the need for individual reform, this vision also asserts that social and political stability depends on just governance (43). And it is the Church, led by its bishops, that is best placed to guide secular leaders in their efforts to rule with justice (37-38). It is from this perspective that Wulfstan lays down norms for secular society and rulership.

The most comprehensive account of Wulfstan's vision of the "holy society" is the somewhat disjointed text that is now known as the Institutes of Polity, a title given to it in the nineteenth century. Taking up twenty-two pages in this translation (103-124), this text is divided here into twenty chapters of varying length that, because of complexities in the manuscripts, are not numbered consecutively. Eight chapters address the laity or at least issues of lay governance, including three initial chapters on kings and kingship (ch. 2-4), and five others that focus on, respectively, nobles (ch. 9), reeves (ch. 10), widows (ch. 15), laymen (ch. 21), and Christian people in general (ch. 36). The remaining twelve chapters all focus on the religious sphere, including a brief chapter on God or the "Heavenly King" (ch. 1), another on the Church as a whole (ch. 35), and ten chapters on the clergy, treating first bishops (ch. 5-8) and then priests and various types of monastics (ch. 11-14, 17, and 22). As Rabin notes, this work is an example of medieval "estates literature": it addresses various classes of people in hierarchical order, beginning with God and the King, then bishops, then proceeding to other, lesser groups (102). Many of this text's specific precepts are reiterations of those made in earlier writings and most are consistent with the moral and religious emphases described above, but here Wulfstan's points are placed into a more structured context, and in many cases receive expanded discussion. Also more frequent here are comments that go beyond Wulfstan's concerns with ecclesiastical rules, clerical behavior, and individual morality to address more general, "political" matters of how society is or ought to be governed.

Wulfstan's most famous political statement is the Institutes' passage that describes the division of society into three orders, which begins with the line: "Every just throne...stands on three pillars: first those who pray; second those who labor; and third, those who fight" (106). As Rabin notes, this idea was drawn from earlier formulations by Alfred the Great and Ælfric of Eynsham, and it would become better known after its elaboration by the mid-eleventh-century French bishops Gerard of Cambrai and Adalbero of Laon. But Wulfstan offers its fullest expression at a relatively early phase of its development (43-45).

Somewhat paradoxically a third salient feature of the relationship between the religious and secular spheres in Wulfstan's writings is the strong emphasis put on the distinction between them. For a prelate whose task it was to help direct the Crown-Church partnership, and who would make the Church its dominant partner, sharply delineating the clergy's role may have helped to accentuate its importance. But whatever his precise motive it is clear that Wulfstan, as Rabin notes, frequently draws a broad distinction between the religious and secular spheres in lines such as: "it is proper for a bishop to offer guidance in all things, both in religious (godcundan) and secular matters (woruldcundan)" (62; similarly 87); "[kings] are to be diligently steadied...with God's wise teachings and with just worldly law" (106); and (in Cnut's promise that) "[he] will be a gracious lord, devoted to the rights of the Church and to just secular law" (193). This distinction is also applied to more concrete matters, including sanctuary: "ecclesiastical sanctuary within church walls and protection received from the king's hand shall remain equally inviolable" (57); oaths: "a mass-priest's oath and a secular thegn's are considered equal in English law" (72); and dispute settlement: "no dispute between priests is to be submitted to the adjudication of laymen" (88).

There is much more of interest that can be gleaned from these texts. Scholars of social, cultural, legal, religious, and political phenomena will find many clues to the early history of such topics, to just name a few, as penance, marriage, tithes, wergild, oaths, sanctuary, and slavery. And for those interested in broader social and political ideas, Rabin is undoubtedly right that Wulfstan's writings offer one of the most ambitious attempts to describe a coherent "political theology" known from Anglo-Saxon England (vii). The clarity of the translations and the relatively modest length of the book will also make it appropriate for use in the undergraduate classroom. These texts will allow readers to come to their own conclusions about Rabin's claims that Wulfstan was "a political thinker of the first order," and that his Institutes of Polity "represents the most sophisticated work of English political theory before John of Salisbury's Policraticus" (15-16).

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