The Medieval Review 17.02.12

Snook, Ben. The Anglo-Saxon Chancery: The History, Language and Production of Anglo-Saxon Charters from Alfred to Edgar. Anglo-Saxon Studies, 28. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2015. pp. xvi, 234. $99.00 (hardback). ISBN: 978-1-78327-006-4 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

M.J. Toswell
University of Western Ontario

In the acknowledgments for this book, Snook declares himself to be a distant relative of John Mitchell Kemble, the first editor of the Anglo-Saxon charter texts. He demonstrates himself in this volume to have Kemble's enthusiasm and scholarly energy, but to lack his ill-will and general unhappiness with many other scholars. Instead, Snook brings to bear an unfailing helpfulness. He presents here the Anglo-Saxon charters for the unchartered, explaining what they are and how they function, along with the scholarly business of arguing for the development of a genuine chancery in Anglo-Saxon England. This is impressive stuff. His major conclusion might be that "it is absolutely clear that there can no longer be any serious argument over the existence of an Anglo-Saxon chancery in the tenth century" (191). This contrasts markedly with the statement from some forty years earlier by Nicholas Brooks that "no scholar has succeeded in proving the existence of a centralized chancery in the later decades of the tenth century" ("Anglo-Saxon Charters: The Work of the Last Twenty Years," Anglo-Saxon England 3 (1974): 211-31, at p. 219). Presumably Snook's opening aim in this assessment is to render nugatory Brooks's argument that evidence about local monastic and episcopal scriptoria, not a centralized royal scriptorium, would be adduced from the publication of the many volumes of Anglo-Saxon charters projected into the future after Volume 1: Rochester in 1973. Fully nineteen volumes of that project are now published, just over half of the projected thirty-five or forty volumes. That is to say, enough charters are now very well published, and enough more available on the Kemble website run by Simon Keynes and on several other websites, that scholars in the field can indeed start to write the synthesizing books to demonstrate the ways in which fuller knowledge of the charters will alter our perspective and understanding of Anglo-Saxon England. And clearly, enough material has been published for Snook's synthesizing claim, following in the footsteps of Keynes, to be substantiated. Equally, Snook's major claim could be that the charters differed greatly in Anglo-Saxon England, showing vanishingly few similarities with those of the Continent, and especially that they differed according to the king, and especially according to the ecclesiastical leaders who seem to have established themselves over the course of the tenth century as the producers of these documents. Along the way, Snook tentatively identifies two of the more individual producers of charters, and also argues at least twice that clauses were being copied from a formulary. The charters themselves, wherever prepared (and some were prepared in a geographic centre, but most appear to have been prepared where the king was), were sent to a local ecclesiastical archive for safekeeping in the area in which they were relevant. Snook dances delicately around the issues of fraud raised by specific charters, provides excellent references and very impressive scholarship in the footnotes, and generally makes the charters of tenth-century England a fascinating subject of study.

Snook focuses on the charters issued from the accession of Alfred the Great in 871 through to those dating from 975, the year of the death of Alfred's great-grandson Edgar. His charters and diplomas span just over a hundred years, and they are, as Snook argues, an exceptional lot. The writers of these charters used hermeneutic Latin--Aldhelmian prose--taking the opening proem and sanction of each charter as an opportunity for an extravagant lexicon, imagery, circumlocutions and wildly difficult expressions. The ensuing sections of the charter--the dispositive section, the boundary clause, the dating clause, the royal style and the witnesses--could be in plain and clear legal style, but the opening sections were often flamboyant, even baroque. They demonstrated, as Snook puts it, "the scholarly supremacy of the royal court" (7). However, as becomes clear in the individual chapters, each devoted chronologically to a king or set of kings, the study is really a stylistic analysis of the charters issued by each Anglo-Saxon king of the tenth century, demonstrating the specific features of the drafters of the day and, by extension, of the reigning king. Snook draws useful conclusions about how the business of producing charters reflected particular concerns of the king, and demonstrates how in some reigns the bishops developed a grand sense of their priority in decision-making, and in others the king was pre-eminent. At one point there are hints of continental usage, after a visit by members of the Anglo-Saxon court to Henry the Fowler in Germany. Snook teases out these historical connections, and very cautiously avoids drawing the conclusions that his research would suggest (at least the first time: sometimes, for example, in later chapters he slips and announces that the drafter known as "Æthelstan A" is Ælfwine of Canterbury, where in the chapter itself he is much more conservative). He also disentangles the complicated history of editing the charters, especially the modern complications of there being several websites with charter editions, each working from different principles and for different purposes.

After an elegant and extremely useful introduction, Snook begins with the messianic figure of Alfred, who is a disappointment for his charters. He does seem to bring production "in house" and there are signs of Aldhelmian prose in Mercia and in Kent but by individuals who, as Snook points out, "may not have fully understood what they were doing" (38). In this first chapter, Snook looks closely at some charters clearly drafted by one individual, and the use of the proem from the famous Breedon charter, Sawyer 197 (to use the standard charter terminology) for Sawyer 364 from Axminster in Devon in 901, and considers how the voice of the king--in this case Alfred's son Edward--was starting to develop in these documents, the ones that would have the most power and importance for his subjects in their daily life. He argues, against the scholarly current, that the charters of Edward the Elder "are among the most important documents to have emerged from the court of any Anglo-Saxon king" (55), as they demonstrate clear cooperation between Wessex and Mercia and offer a grand style, with Aldhelmian notes, establishing a tone of political unity in the nation. In chapter two Snook considers Alfred's grandson Æthelstan and his use of charters as ideological tools based firmly in his court, with fully seventy-four or so charters prepared centrally, granting land early in his reign and to a group of men who seem to have been his peers but not previously well-known. That is, he cemented his power with grants to secular individuals, evoking the past history of the land and using a highly sophisticated Latin style, filled with rhetorical flourishes. His charters, Snook argues persuasively, were public documents, for presenting and reading at court ceremonies, for communicating with his people and with posterity. In chapter 3, Snook examines the enigmatic figure of "Æthelstan A," arguing strongly that he deserves much greater recognition as a brilliant writer at the court, the producer of nineteen charters over seven years with formulaic similarities, clauses that resemble but never exactly copy one other, highly complex syntax and extraordinary vocabulary. From the hints of the vocabulary and the superb Latinity, Snook reconstructs the education of this writer, especially his knowledge of Aldhelm, and his ability to model his prose on the kinds of hyperbaton, hyperbole, and alliteration preferred by Aldhelm. He provides a long appendix to the chapter analyzing the unusual vocabulary used in these charters. He offers the case for this writer being bishop Ælfwine of Lichfield. Finally, along the way, Snook achieves some hyperbole himself, arguing that "it seems only right, then, that 'Æthelstan A' should take his place at the head of a long line of great literary names, including the likes of Shakespeare, George Eliot, W. H. Auden and Philip Larkin, to have hailed from the West Midlands" (106).

Chapters 4 and 5 are less clearly articulated, and could perhaps have used another round of revision. However, Snook continues to make excellent points. Chapter 4 looks at three ecclesiastical figures probably responsible for many of the charters in the unstable reigns of Edmund, Eadred, and Eadwig: Dunstan, Cenwald, and Oda. They worked at the court, and in some cases appear to have garnered a great deal of personal and political influence. Three distinct traditions exist from these years: "Dunstan B," which is very plain and straightforward, with very restricted vocabulary; the alliterative charters associated with bishop Cenwald of Worcester; and a group that Snook terms the "mainstream." To some extent the bishops seem to have been responsible, although they worked centrally where the king was, for charters in their sees or in the general geographic areas over which they exerted some authority. Snook works through these issues, and especially analyses the style and approaches of the charters generally and specifically. He proposes that the plainness of the "Dunstan B" charters was explicitly to reclaim the intellectual hegemony previously associated with the king's court for the Benedictine reformers and their church. Oda, however, as archbishop of Canterbury employed a different kind of approach in the mainstream charters, making sure that his attestation in the witness list, and those of the other bishops, were bigger and more elaborate than those of the secular witnesses, and of the king. Eadwig, however, did not permit Oda this license and reestablished charters as an instrument of the king during his reign. Chapter 5 closes the circuit with consideration of Edgar's charters, arguing that their greater variety in approach reflects the sophistication and settled power of the Anglo-Saxon administration. Snook argues that there are some groups in these charters, including more "Dunstan B" charters, mainstream charters, and the charters of "Edgar A," who may have some connection to Abingdon. Edgar's charters return to the past, picking up formulae from very much older charters, including those of Alfred, and recycling them with what Snook argues is a reinvocation of the past glory of England. Æthelwold appears, somewhat confusingly, not as a producer of charters but as someone writing the major texts of the Benedictine Reform in a florid and complex prose, harnessing the authority of the Anglo-Saxon past, and perhaps influencing the charters of the time with this call to the past. Snook concludes that the Anglo-Saxon charter always got the job done simply and clearly for the critical dating clauses and witness lists, with boundary clauses in a clear vernacular and the grant itself clearly stated in the dispositive clause. However, their remarkable diversity in other elements has made issues of authenticity difficult, and has made it difficult for people not steeped in the lore of charters to recognise their charms, and their importance.

I have two small complaints about the book. First, it is insufficiently proofread, missing at least one cross-reference (appearing in a footnote on p. 96 as pp. 000-000) and there are a surprising number of typographical errors given the usual care of Boydell & Brewer in such matters: my two favourites are "osetnatious," presumably for "ostentatious" (82), and "ordane," referring to the ordination of Oda, the second-generation Viking archbishop (148). There are 37 tables distributed through the text. These could have a separate listing at the beginning of the volume, as it can be difficult to find a particular one, and each should have its own title as it can be quite difficult sometimes to decode the individual table. The volume refers frequently in the first three chapters to three charters, each provided in appendices one to three, but the diplomatic edition is signalled only the first time charters S193, S346 and S225 are mentioned. It would have been kind to remind the reader of the existence of the edition, and it might have been a real kindness were Snook to have provided a translation of these texts. That is, this is the kind of thing I would have expected the press to notice and to smoothe out in the publishing process. Secondly, Snook is determined never to use the words "rhetoric" or "rhetorically heightened prose" to describe the style of these charters, and he also shies away from "hermeneutic" except when explicitly referring to Michael Lapidge's championing of the term as the right way to address the rhetorical flights of Aldhelm and the densely complex and excited style of Latin in the Aldhelmian manner in Anglo-Saxon England. The result is that he tends to use the term "literary," which is equally, possibly even more, awkward, bordering on invidious. That is, he ascribes a kind of genre-based distinction to the usage of the Anglo-Saxon chancery which is improper, even for the Latin texts that he is adducing. Anyone who has heard the florid language and ornate flourishes of a town crier even in present-day England will recognise the desire of the charter-drafters to make their work memorable and striking, particularly if, as Snook argues, the charters were made to be read out in public in the presence of the king, the beneficiaries, and the entire court. But his very odd distinction between, for example, "the Latin styles used for charters and literature in the 960s and 970s," when he is referring to the florid documents of the Benedictine Reform as "literature" and a group of somewhat plain and restrained charters, is just imprecise and unhelpful. These are minor quibbles, however, and the game here is well worth the candle.

Copyright (c) 2017 M.J. Toswell

Give Now

ISSN: 1096-746X | Administrator Login