The Medieval Review 16.10.05

O'Brien, Bruce, and Barbara Bombi, eds. Textus Roffensis: Law, Language, and Libraries in Early Medieval England . Studies in the Early Middle Ages, 30. Turnhout: Brepols, 2015. pp. xiv, 419. €100.00 (hardback). ISBN: 978-2-503-54233-1 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Rory Naismith
King's College London

The manuscript known as the Textus Roffensis (now Strood, Medway Archive and Local Studies Centre, MS DRc/R1) is among the most precious survivals from twelfth-century England. Written in Rochester in the 1120s, it forms part of a remarkable surge of antiquarian interest which saw new energy applied to copying and reworking older materials. The book consists of two sections: an assemblage of legal texts extending from the seventh century to after the Norman Conquest, and a collection of charters relating to Rochester Cathedral priory, again beginning with documents from the Anglo-Saxon period. Its legal content especially makes it a critical resource for pre-Conquest English history: Textus Roffensis is the sole source for the three seventh-century Kentish laws, and for much more besides.

The present volume contains seventeen chapters which stem from papers delivered at a conference held at the University of Kent in 2010 on aspects of this manuscript and the milieu of medieval Rochester in which it took shape. The first, written by one of the editors (Bruce O'Brien), offers a general overview of the manuscript and the interpretive challenges it presents. These are formidable. Parts of it were disbound and rearranged in the course of its history; its selection of laws, while large, is probably carefully tailored; and the prior history of its contents is often obscure. The sixteen remaining chapters in the volume broach these and other issues, grouped under four general headings: The Book, Laws, Charters and Context.

Four chapters are devoted to the manuscript itself, taken broadly as a route into uses of Textus Roffensis and similar volumes. Mary P. Richards offers a survey of the background to it, looking at Rochester's library and literary interests of the early twelfth century. She pays particular attention to the interplay of Latin and Old English in the scriptorium, which at this time forged an important role as a centre of writing in the vernacular. Nicholas Karn presents an intriguing argument that Textus Roffensis was, as he terms it, a "public book" used extensively in legal rituals. He cites a letter of Bishop Herbert Losinga (d. 1119) which appears to verbally enact an excommunication ritual as an illustration of how writing could play a ritualistic role, and relates this to some of the texts (particularly ordeals) found in the Textus Roffensis. The book thus acted both as a practical guide to the form such ceremonies might take, and also as a symbol of the authority and antiquity of the church of Rochester. Thomas Gobbitt compares Textus Roffensis to another volume of similar character (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 383) written in London at approximately the same time. Stefan Jurasinski keeps the focus on CCCC 383 and shows how a twelfth-century emendation to a passage in Cnut's laws concerning murder has broad ramifications for our understanding of Anglo-Saxon legal practice. He goes on to examine Anglo-Norman Latin translations of Anglo-Saxon law in Quadripartitus to reinforce the highly mediated nature of surviving sources for early English legal thought.

The next seven chapters concern the legal content of the manuscript. The late Nicholas Brooks moves to the early part of the Anglo-Saxon period to discuss the laws of Æthelberht, written at the beginning of the seventh century and uniquely preserved in the Textus Roffensis. He looks at a range of themes, most relating to the seventh-century background of the text: its relationship to the establishment of the church, other early medieval laws, and the circulation of gold. Brooks ends with the bold proposition that some form of written law in a pre-Christian runic form may have existed before Æthelberht's extant law-code, explaining its surprisingly early use of Old English. Carole Hough expertly assesses the language of the early Kentish laws in Textus Roffensis, suggesting that they had a complex transmission history involving multiple Old English dialects before being enshrined in this sole surviving copy. The early laws are certainly not an unmediated relic of seventh-century Kentish dialect. Another linguistic crux (drihtinbeag, literally "lord ring") is the focus of Daniela Fruscione's contribution. She connects it with the archaic, militaristic society in which the law-code originated around AD 600, and highlights that this is the only surviving non-literary Old English text to describe a lord as a drihtin.

Moving onto the later Anglo-Saxon period, Andrew Rabin presents an elegant study of a small collection of texts relating to status (sometimes known as the Geþyncðu group), generally thought to have been assembled and partially reworked by Wulfstan, archbishop of York (d. 1023). Rabin argues that the Textus Roffensis version shows a later stage of revision by Wulfstan than other surviving copies, and goes on to make a case for the collection reflecting an attempt to reframe society by means of law, a process Wulfstan would take much further in his later writings. In a similar vein, Tracey-Anne Cooper reassesses the "Cattle-Theft Charm", also known as "the Fugitive-Thief Rite", in the Textus Roffensis. She points out that it occurs as part of a cluster of several texts, and that this group in turn is found in several manuscripts. The texts illustrate one dimension of the Church's role in property transfer, particularly involving the performative power of bishops. Julie Mumby also tackles a specific text, indeed an especially troublesome word in a single text: fæderan which occurs in the text known as Wergeld. Mumby weighs the possibilities judiciously (coming down on the proposition that it is an erroneous expansion of fæder, meaning simply "father"), and effectively illustrates how small details can have significant interpretive consequences. The final chapter in this section, by the late Lisi Oliver, takes up a hot potato of recent scholarship: the authorship of the "Alfredian" texts, in this case with reference to the laws. Her conclusion is that there were probably several contributors to Alfred's law-code, including some material that may long pre-date Alfred and derive from links across the North Sea with Frisia.

The final two short sections of the book address more discursive issues arising from consideration of Textus Roffensis: "charters" and "context". The first of these consists of two chapters. Ben Snook's brings together and augments the evidence for charters having been introduced to England by St Theodore of Tarsus, archbishop of Canterbury (668–90), rather than St Augustine of Canterbury (d. 604). He draws on parallels in formulation between late seventh-century charters from several sources to suggest a common and perhaps fairly recent influence, and sets these alongside the decrees of early councils held during Theodore's archiepiscopate in order to link them more closely to Theodore. The case remains complex, but Snook's assessment is an important contribution, taking the English evidence as far as one might hope: comparisons with other traditions in early medieval Europe, already broached to some extent here, offer the best prospect for further development. David Pelteret presents a refreshing meditation on the religious dimension of Anglo-Saxon charters, prompted by one case-study from the eighth century and a passage of Bede. He calls attention to the liturgical dimension of charter texts, often viewed by diplomatic scholars and historians as a weakness in that there was little other sanction for infraction or protection against forgery, and suggests that in fact this element of the documents lent them long-term strength as a demonstration of co-operation between Church and secular society, grounded in ceremonial as well as writing. The first of the final three chapters on the context of Textus Roffensis is a lengthy and nuanced assessment of the tenth-century Church of Rochester by Simon Keynes. Centred around a selection of charters and the bishops behind them, Keynes's study brings out the tensions and complexities of west Kent with characteristic sensitivity and attention to detail. Richard Sharpe's chapter is in many respects similar, though it moves on a century to focus on the complex negotiations surrounding a manor at Haddenham, Buckinghamshire; negotiations which involved Lanfranc as well as Gundulf, bishop of Rochester (1077-1108), and the eventual construction of Rochester castle, and which allow (by means of an account in Textus Roffensis) a glimpse of the machinations that went on behind the scenes of any royal act. The final chapter in the volume by Sally N. Vaughn sticks with Bishop Gundulf, discussing his intellectual background and circle as one of several students of Lanfranc trained at Bec who made their careers in England.

There is a great deal to praise in this volume. It brings the diverse contents of the Textus Roffensis to life vividly. Perhaps inevitably in a collection which spans the seventh to early twelfth centuries, the focus comes and goes. Some individual contributions veer quite far from the manuscript at the heart of the volume. There is also scope for a fuller descriptive account of the manuscript itself, though this is done competently elsewhere (not least in a full facsimile) [1]. But this gathering of essays effectively and significantly contributes in a number of areas (law, diplomatic, manuscript studies and regional history to name just a few), loosely associated by a critically important manuscript. It is a valuable addition to the arsenal of any scholar interested in law and society of Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman England.



1. P. H. Sawyer (ed.), Textus Roffensis: Rochester Cathedral Library Manuscript A.3.5, Early English Manuscripts in Facsimile 7 and 11, 2 vols. (Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1957-62).

Copyright (c) 2016 Rory Naismith

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