Law, Literature, and Social Regulation in Early Medieval England

Edited by Andrew Rabin and Anya Adairt

In three sentences: what is your book about?

Law, Literature, and Social Regulation in Early Medieval England offers a collection of essays exploring pre-Conquest English law in and beyond its codified form. In their diverse methodologies and perspectives, the essays offer a range of new insights into the rich and multi-layered relationship between law and literature across the period. Examining law codes, liturgy, charters, homilies, poetry, and the lives of saints, the essays demonstrate the complex and close relationship of law, literature, and social regulation in early English society.

In what way was English law among the most sophisticated in early medieval Europe?

The legal system of early England has had a bad rap. To early commentators it looked primitive and rather illogical – and it certainly seemed to lack the intellectual foundation of sophisticated jurisprudential thought. But more recent assessments have disclosed a very different picture.

A large body of legal and quasi-legal text survives from the period. These law codes, charters, writs, and collections of canon law attest to sustained legal interest on the part of both church and state actors. Topics covered by codes and case records address (among many other issues) property rights, inheritance, family law, crime, compensation, justice, and legal procedure. Narrative and homiletic texts offer further evidence of broad cultural engagement with legal questions – and imply audiences capable of recognising and responding to a complex array of legal ideas.

In the secular sphere, the large surviving body of vernacular legislation stands out as an English peculiarity; and the recirculation of early laws in later codes suggests a strong sense of local legal tradition. The Old English language accommodated a sophisticated legal vernacular; equally, early English writers of Latin legal documents controlled an elaborate stylistic machinery to articulate a wide array of legal ideas.

As the essays of the collection show, these textual survivals attest to a busy and evolving legal culture – and to a legal system capable of precise and sophisticated thinking.

‘In 1098, the Norman King William II put 50 former members of the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy to the ordeal for poaching, a capital crime. Miraculously—and to the king’s fury—all were exonerated!’ Tell us more about this!

This story comes from the chronicler Eadmer. It is one of a handful of sources that records English resentment over the imposition of Norman “forest law”, which set aside extensive areas for royal pleasure and royal profit – and so granted the king exclusive hunting rights. As Eadmer tells the tale, the fifty freemen all had “some traces of wealth from the old English nobility”. Perhaps, therefore, they were inclined to assert traditional hunting rights in defiance of new Norman decrees. In any case, all were accused of having taken, killed and eaten the king’s deer. (Though Eadmer is very clear that the poaching charge was a stitch-up.) They denied the accusation, and sought to clear themselves by undergoing the ordeal of hot iron. This requires the accused to hold a heated iron bar of set weight: after a number of days, the visible progress of the burn signifies either guilt (a festering wound) or innocence (a healing hand). Three days after their ordeal, the fifty Englishmen, through the protection of God, appear with their hands miraculously uninjured. William II (according to Eadmer) is unimpressed by the news: “What is this?” he demands. “God a just judge? Perish the man who believes so after this!” God’s justice is untrustworthy, fumes the king, because it can be swayed by prayer. The modern sceptic might wonder whether the justice of this ordeal could also be swayed by the indulgent eye of a sympathetic local priest…

Your contributors form an international group, has this been especially important to the outcome of the research in this book?

Having an international group of contributors – as well as a balance of established and early career scholars – certainly brings diverse perspectives and expertise to the collection. The field of law and literature is inherently interdisciplinary, and often entails the recombination of disparate scholarly perspectives. Legal training, historical research methods, and literary theory all bring the potential for new insight. Varied cultural perspectives are vital too. There is a risk that scholars of the Anglophone West – whose intellectual and cultural experience is framed by an Anglo-American tradition of Common Law – may be constrained by a limiting set of assumptions about the workings of law. The nature of pre-Conquest English law (and the ways in which it might influence other cultural domains) may look very different from the perspective of other legal and cultural traditions.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

The volume offers a range of ways to understand the normative forces developed and deployed in early English text. Regulation seeks authority – a process seen here to be built and rebuilt though the alliance of law and literature, and the fictions and artifices of their evolving interaction. This is the first essay collection devoted to the collusions of law and literature in the pre-Conquest period; the view from this bridge is a revealing one, and future collections are sure to expand it.

Law, Literature, and Social Regulation in Early Medieval England

Edited by Andrew Rabin and Anya Adair

£85 / $125
Hardcover, 9781783277605,
February 2023
310 pages
Anglo-Saxon Studies
Boydell Press



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ANDREW RABIN is a Professor in the English Department at the University of Louisville.

ANYA ADAIR is Assistant Professor in law and humanities at the University of Hong Kong.