18.03.07, Lambert, Law & Order in Anglo-Saxon England

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Andrew Rabin

The Medieval Review 18.03.07

Lambert, Tom. Law and Order in Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford, UK:Oxford University Press, 2017. pp. xvi, 390. ISBN: 978-0198786313 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Andrew Rabin
University of Louisville

Between 1977 and his untimely death in 2004, Patrick Wormald pioneered the most extensive and ambitious reassessment of Anglo-Saxon law and legal culture since the days of Felix Liebermann and Frederic William Maitland. Reacting against a historical consensus that largely viewed early royal legislation as primitive and pre-Conquest government as fragmented and ineffective, Wormald argued that Anglo-Saxon England coalesced as a recognizable and sophisticated state with a centralized administrative apparatus far earlier than had been hitherto realized. Although the ambitious reach of Wormald's claims did not go unchallenged--with the most important criticisms being raised by Paul Hyams--over the last twelve years the so-called "maximalist" approach to early English law has supplanted the old consensus and laid the foundation for a series of important studies by such scholars as Stephen Baxter and Andrew Reynolds. More recently, however, scholars have sought ways, if not to overturn Wormald's arguments, then to better integrate his views with other evidence suggesting that the impression of a unified Anglo-Saxon state might sometimes have been more aspirational than actual. It is this task taken up by Tom Lambert in the volume under review, a revision of his 2009 Durham dissertation. As such, though marketed by Oxford University Press as a history of Anglo-Saxon law, Lambert's monograph might be better understood as a summation of and response to the last few decades of English debates over the nature of Anglo-Saxon law. In this sense, Lambert offers an important reassessment of the way in which notions of statehood, royal power, and social order have been understood by Wormald and his intellectual heirs.

Lambert's principal argument has two components, one methodological and the other substantive: his methodological claim is that early law must be understood with reference to its own values and priorities, and thus scholars "must try our utmost to avoid imposing conceptual frameworks derived from other places and periods" (1). This is not to say that Lambert abandons either the anthropological approach that informed the work of Wormald and his fellow Bucknell historians or the retrospective analyses undertaken by Common Law scholars since Maitland; rather, he is careful to treat such external models as analogous or suggestive rather than definitive. For Lambert, such outside scaffolding might shed light on the conceptual world of Anglo-Saxon law, but it is not in itself sufficient to explain it. The volume's substantive claim, which grows directly out of its proposed methodology, suggests that "law"--that is, both legislation and the governmental structures that produce and sustain it--should be seen as an expression of societal concepts of order, not the other way around. As a result, the evolution of the Anglo-Saxon "state"--a term Lambert rightly critiques--should be understood, not as the desired product of a series of activist monarchs or an effectively centralized political hierarchy, but as the end result of a long period of social change in which cultural norms and legal practices worked largely in tandem to develop a functional government apparatus. In Lambert's words, "ideological motivated kings made efforts to bring about legal change, and with some success, but these changes worked with the grain of the established legal order, not against it" (348). Lambert's narrative thus suggests that Anglo-Saxon law emerged more as a reflection of ideological continuity than as a response to social disruption.

In pursuing this argument, Lambert traces the history of Anglo-Saxon royal legislation chronologically from the reign of Æthelberht early seventh century through that of Cnut in the eleventh. In his earlier chapters, which are grouped under the rubric "Foundations of the Anglo-Saxon Legal Order," Lambert examines how the early laws of Kent and Wessex might be read as evidence for early English notions of social order. Lambert opens with a discussion of the compensation clauses in the laws of Æthelberht (chapter 1), suggesting that they reflected pre-existing legal practices, before turning to the later seventh-century laws (chapter 2) to examine how legislation integrated emerging governmental forms with established communal expectations. According to Lambert, "New royal punishments emerged in the late seventh century, but only in areas where punishment already made sense within native legal culture" (66). In chapter 3, Lambert considers how his claims concerning the interaction between royal power and established norms shaped the emergence of a governing bureaucracy, with particular attention to the role of reeves and thegns in the administration of local justice. Running through these chapters is a focus on early feud practices, which provide Lambert with a touchstone upon which he can ground his argument as well as differentiate his views from those of his predecessors. To do so, Lambert proposes that feuding should not be seen as a "bloody and essentially extra-legal alternative to formal assembly procedures; rather it ought to be understood as an integral part of legitimate legal practice" (47). For Lambert, feud serves as the point at which "horizontal" notions of social order come into contact with "vertical" conceptions of royal authority. In so doing, it illustrates how established communal notions of proper social behavior coincided with the formal administration of justice to produce a workable legal order.

The second half of the book, "Order and 'the State' in Late Anglo-Saxon England," asks whether the "major shift in England's political and administrative structures" of the tenth century "was accompanied by a comparable transformation in its legal order" (163). Lambert begins in chapter 4 by demonstrating the essential continuity between later and earlier Anglo-Saxon legal practices, arguing (in opposition to the current consensus) that "in its approach to wrongdoing, late Anglo-Saxon law resembled early Anglo-Saxon law much more than it did the common law of the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries" (200). He then goes on (in chapter 5) to examine the particular role occupied by the king in justice administration, finding (contra Wormald) that both the expectations and horizons of royal action were far more limited and inconsistent than often recognized. Finally, chapters 7 and 8 consider how the broader issues of royal power and social order were expressed in the operation of local courts and the collection of revenues. In both instances, he attempts to move beyond longstanding questions regarding the efficacy of royal law in order to suggest that the more important issue is the extent to which written legislation functioned as a considered response to the needs, problems, and desires produced by emergent sense of an ordered English community.

This is an ambitious book that makes a number of significant contributions to the study of Anglo-Saxon law. In its breadth and scope, it is the most wide-ranging analysis of pre-Conquest legal practices in more than a decade, and this enables Lambert to develop a convincing critique of the "maximalist" view of early English government. More importantly, his claims regarding developing notions of social order are the result of nuanced and persuasive readings that build productively on the work of those like John Hudson who have argued for the importance of social norms in the exercise of medieval law.

That said, Lambert's argument is not without its frustrations. Though a minor point, it must be said that the volume is overlong and that too much space is given to rehearsing the arguments of other historians. A more serious quibble is that, with a few notable exceptions, Lambert's volume, like so much other English scholarship on this topic, largely overlooks or underplays recent contributions to the study of Anglo-Saxon law by American scholars, many of whom have written insightfully on topics discussed here and anticipated some of Lambert's more significant conclusions. This is hardly a new problem or one unique to this volume, but it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the claims here would have been deepened and enriched by a greater attentiveness to a broader range of research. A more serious omission is the absence of any sustained discussion of the manuscripts within which the laws circulated. The great anthologies of Anglo-Saxon law--Textus Roffensis& and Cambridge, Corpus Christi College [henceforth CCCC] MS 383--may have been compiled in the twelfth century, thus outside the scope of Lambert's argument, but the compilation and circulation of earlier manuscripts such as CCCC 173 or CCCC 201 undoubtedly played a crucial role in the way in which royal legislation was received and understood. Given the centrality of manuscript analysis to Wormald's arguments, this seems a bit of a missed opportunity.

Criticisms aside, however, Lambert's book marks a welcome addition to the growing corpus of Anglo-Saxon legal scholarship. As a corrective to some of the more extravagant tendencies of early medieval legal historiography, it maps out a compelling approach to pre-Conquest law that will certainly be mined by future scholars. In both the broader arc of its argument and the particularities of individual readings, it provokes, challenges, and persuades. This is, indeed, a very fine book that will continue to be of use for years to come.

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