15.12.06 , Gates and Marafioti, eds., Capital and Corporal Punishment in Anglo-Saxon England

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Patricia Skinner

The Medieval Review 15.12.06

Gates, Jay Paul, and Nicole Marafioti, eds. Capital and Corporal Punishment in Anglo-Saxon England. Anglo-Saxon Studies, 23. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2014. pp. xvi, 208. ISBN: 9781843839187 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Patricia Skinner
University of Winchester

Drawing from conference papers delivered at past medieval congresses at Kalamazoo and Leeds, this volume contains ten chapters (including one each from the editors) and a substantial introduction problematizing punishment as a theme in early medieval studies. The book's main contention, with which few would now in fact disagree, is that punishment in Anglo-Saxon England was not arbitrary or ad hoc, but emerged from and eventually replaced a culture of reciprocal violence designed to "save face." The processes by which it did so are explored through three connected themes: the shift away from direct responses toward third-party intervention; the increasing influence of the Church on legislation and the carrying-out of penalties; and the establishment of royal authority and its use of the threat of punishment to enforce obedience. Each of the following chapters, to a greater or lesser extent, engages with these strands.

Valerie Allen, influenced by the work of William Ian Miller and the late Lisi Oliver, examines the development of compensatory payments in the earliest law codes, the money functioning as an ersatz third party, intervening to prevent further bloodshed. The importance of coinage as a tool of royal authority features heavily in her discussion. She argues that the transition from horizontal vengeance to the vertical imposition (or seeking) of justice was not clear-cut, and the two probably continued to coexist uneasily. Later on, corporal punishments expressed the value of body parts through their marking or loss. Daniela Fruscione picks up this theme and traces the process from law without physical punishment under Æthelbehrt of Kent in the seventh century to the growth of physical penalties exacted under Wihtred and Alfred. The apparent lack early on is attributed to the needs of the early medieval war band--a mutilated warrior was no use to his community, and a king would be unwise thus to compromise his armed host. Ironically, the growing influence of the Church changed this perception. As Fruscione comments, at the heart of Alfred's laws was a "Mosaic severity" (41) that allowed Alfred to use bodily injury and death to punish transgressors.

Contrast is again the theme of Lisi Oliver's substantial contribution on genital mutilation. In Æthelbehrt's laws, she suggests, such injuries can be understood as "capital" in that they may deny future offspring to the mutilated man. In Alfred's laws, on the other hand, genital injury affects only its victim, and thus is to be understood as "corporal." Characteristically, Oliver then explores the early medieval legal world more widely, observing that other early lawcodes from the continent were also more concerned with present injury rather than future reproduction, and she reiterates in detail her conviction that Anglo-Saxon England enjoyed something of a shared culture with the Frisians, in particular, before the latter were subsumed within the Frankish world. Only later does the "capital" model of genital mutilation reemerge in later Frisian law, leading Oliver to the bold conclusion (71) that an archaic retention of Æthelbehrt's model, drawing on a common, early, continental heritage, had resurfaced in Frisia. One can only regret the untimely death of such an intrepid scholar. Her work and that of others on "sick maintenance" is scrutinized in Stefan Jurasinski's chapter, cautioning against making sweeping statements about shared inheritances of Indo-European laws from the distant past. Focusing on the version of sick maintenance presented in Exodus 21:18-19, Jurasinski highlights its echo, almost verbatim, in Alfred's prologue to his laws, and in the Old English Scriftboc, where it is elaborated on with further detail. In a close reading of this and scraps of evidence from penitentials, alongside parallel evidence from Irish laws, Jurasinski concludes that the "sick maintenance" demanded was less concerned with incapacitating injury, and more about the shame and humiliation that the victim had suffered. By forcing his assailant to labor for him, the victim inflicted similar shame; the term "sick maintenance" is therefore a misleading one.

Daniel Thomas moves away from direct bodily injury to reassess the evidence for incarceration as a punishment in Anglo-Saxon England. In a wide-ranging chapter that mines continental penitentials alongside the Alfredian domboc, Thomas underlines that the only unambiguous evidence for the use of imprisonment comes in the post-Conquest Anglo-Saxon chronicle. Further, the emphasis in Alfred's and Athelstan's laws on procedures for incarceration speaks rather of those kings' aspirations than of the provision of facilities. After a substantial focus on the recipients of punishment in earlier chapters, Nicole Marafioti shifts focus to who inflicted such penalties. Noting that much legislation operates in the passive voice without a punishing agent ("let his hand be cut off;" "let her lose her nose"), she explores the role of the judge as set out in chapter 38 of the Old English Consolation of Philosophy). This employs the familiar topos of the doctor curing the sick, and offers an alternative view to the laws that the guilty should be subjected to penance rather than physical punishment. "Righteous justice" for serious offences should be left to God, rather than judges themselves. The Alfredian setting--if not authorship--of the text highlights the ways in which royal justice was being worked out in the latter part of the ninth century, with a move toward mercy and penance being uppermost in the king's mind.

How then are we to interpret archaeological evidence of apparent corporal and capital punishment? This is the question posed by Jo Buckberry's reappraisal of the so-called "execution cemetery" evidence gathered by Andrew Reynolds. Buckberry's concerns centre around both the dating and understanding of the skeletal remains at these sites, pointing out that apparent beheadings, for example, must be distinguished from decapitation after death. Furthermore, the earliest extant law excluding the burial of criminals from consecrated ground is tenth century, undermining the idea that the rise of Christianity was responsible for separate burial sites. Buckberry calls for more work on older osteological samples, and concludes that whilst capital punishment is visible in the archaeology, there is little direct evidence of corporal punishment being carried out, and suggests that such measures in the laws were effective deterrents.

The theme of visible mutilation is taken up by Daniel O'Gorman, who examines Athelstan's Grately laws as evidence of a move to punish but preserve the soul of the criminal (in this case, unauthorized minters of coin) by removing the offending hand and displaying it at the mint itself. This early example of Foucauldian spectacle is neatly analysed not from the point of view of the body lacking the hand, but the hand itself. Whilst losing a hand was, he shows, a fairly common punishment across European laws (the influence of Frisian law, posited by Oliver, reappears here), the display of the hand itself seems uniquely Anglo-Saxon and finds a parallel in Beowulf. O'Gorman points to the archaeological evidence of decapitation to suggest, as Buckberry does, display of severed heads, but these may not have been shown in quite such a central place as the hand at the mint, and it is suggested that Athelstan's law represents a precocious example of thinking about punishment as spectacle.

Jay Paul Gates moves the chronological focus later with the case and post-Conquest memory of Eadric Streona, executed by Cnut in 1017/18. It is the rarity of such executions that attracts attention, and Gates explores how Eadric's case, memorialized in many Anglo-Norman texts as an example of repeated betrayal, is in fact expunged from memory in texts emanating from Worcester. Gates's careful reading of Hemming's cartulary highlights that whilst the Worcester community wanted to preserve the memory of their landholdings, Eadric's role as a depredator of property did not help their case, so he is written out. In the Worcester Chronicle, his utility as a "perfidious" man is to demonstrate how kings had failed to protect Worcester, and to call for better protection in the present. Execution also figures in the final chapter by Andrew Rabin, which reexamines the laws to find that Athelstan's are exceptionally draconian and that capital sentences were probably, at best, "discursive instruments" (186), capable of negotiation. Building a gallows did not necessarily end in a hanging, and execution cemeteries are capable of reinterpretation. Rabin illustrates how this negotiation emerged from opposition to the death sentence from Archbishop Wulfhelm of Canterbury and Theodred, bishop of London, and produced an appendix to Athelstan's legislation mitigating some of his more severe penalties. The move away from capital punishment, however, was not linear, and continued to be subject to local conditions.

The image of the strong "Anglo-Saxon state," then, is rather more contested than the evidence at first sight might suggest. This, essentially, is the consensus reached in the volume as a whole. Whilst each chapter is self-contained and provides a nuanced reading of its own particular body of evidence, the centrality and legitimacy of capital and corporal punishment in Anglo-Saxon England is not contested. There is some evidence of editorial intervention in the footnotes to ensure cross-referencing of linked themes, and an index to assist the reader in following up specific cases. If I had one minor criticism of this collection, it is that a volume on Anglo-Saxon England organized roughly chronologically might have included a further chapter on capital and corporal punishment under Cnut and his successors, alluded to but not explicitly explored. But perhaps that requires another whole volume to itself.

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