English Law Before Magna Carta: Felix Liebermann and ‘Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen’. Edited by Stefan Jurasinski , Lisi Oliver and Andrew Rabin . Brill. 2010. xv + 329pp. €121.00/$168.00.
Article first published online: 20 MAR 2013
© 2013 The Authors. Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature © 2013 The Historical Association
Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature
Volume 96, Issue 1, pages 34–35, December 2012
How to Cite
Vincent, N. (2012), English Law Before Magna Carta: Felix Liebermann and ‘Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen’. Edited by Stefan Jurasinski , Lisi Oliver and Andrew Rabin . Brill. 2010. xv + 329pp. €121.00/$168.00. Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature, 96: 34–35. doi: 10.1111/1467-8314.12004
- Issue published online: 20 MAR 2013
- Article first published online: 20 MAR 2013
Felix Liebermann, brother of the painter Max, was one of those distinguished German intellectuals who before 1914 contributed so much to the history of England, Saxony's lost island colony. Wealthy from connections to the Manchester textiles industry, like Friedrich Engels, and in the wake of Savigny and Maine, Liebermann turned to law as a means of explaining much that passed for historical superstructure. The present collection of fifteen essays commemorates his masterly edition, the Gesetze, published between 1903 and 1916, in which was printed all, or nearly all, of the surviving evidence for pre-Conquest English law. ‘Stubbs' Jew’, to employ Edward Freeman's less than flattering sobriquet, remains both a towering influence over Anglo-Saxon history and a reminder of the path not taken by England's historians towards Germanic rather than French scholarly models. His expression, in 1916, of sympathy for the ‘justified determination’ of German aims in a world war brought about by the ‘heedless claims’ of Britain's maritime empire, damned him in the eyes of English contemporaries and signalled the decline of contacts between English and German medievalists into that permafrost which has persisted almost to the present day. Looming over the present collection is the shadow not only of Liebermann but of the late Patrick Wormald, Liebermann's most fervent yet most critical admirer. Many of the essays here develop themes first sketched by Wormald: that Liebermann's training in Germanic or Monumentist traditions (Daniela Fruscione) inclined him towards too neat a division of his materials into self-contained law ‘codes’, rendering him in some instances blind to the visual (Thom Gobbitt) or linguistic (Jürg Rainer Schwyter) peculiarities of the materials with which he worked. Some pay homage, through bibliography (Fruscione again) or by drawing attention to the books from Liebermann's personal library now in Tokyo (Hideyuki Arimitsu). Some point out significant corrections to detail. Richard Sharpe dates the Latin translation of Anglo-Saxon laws known as the ‘Quadripartitus’ pre-1108 rather than post-1113, and suggests, contrary to Wormald, that it cannot easily be divided into a succession of ‘editions’. Nicholas Karn considers the purpose of the ‘Leges Henrici Primi’, seen here not as an attempt to codify the whole of English law but as a more limited endeavour: the procedural manual of a hundred bailiff, closely linked to the collections that Liebermann edited as the ‘Leges Anglorum’. Janelle Greenberg (although confusing Henry II with Henry III), demonstrates the significance of the so-called ‘Laws of Edward the Confessor’ to constitutional debate from the twelfth to the eighteenth centuries. As in many conference proceedings, the inch worm is to be found burrowing out from the bottom drawer, suggesting that Kentish law was linguistically distinct from West Saxon (Robert D. Fulk), that we would be mistaken to attribute too much rationality to a society concerned with charms and ritual (Andrew Rabin), and that Laurence Nowell (last heard of in 1569) most certainly had read Cotton manuscript Titus A xxvii (Rebecca Brackmann). Likewise, Aunt Sally demands a hearing. The ‘codes’ written by Wulfstan and known as ‘Cnut I’ and ‘II’ are thus distinctive responses to legal issues and not to be viewed collectively as Wulfstan's ‘summa’ (Mary P. Richards). Against the inch worm and his relatives, three more profound essays serve as purgative. John Hudson argues that there was a significant shift after 1150, from arguments based upon the practicalities of customary procedure towards truly abstract legal thought. In particular, a dilemmatic approach to issues (if X then Y, if not X, then Z) characterizes a willingness by the common lawyers of Henry II's reign to embrace legal reasoning long familiar to experts in canon or Roman law but unknown to the authors of the ‘Leges Henrici Primi’. Hudson might also have pointed to a willingness, again familiar from canonists and civilians, to cover all eventualities from the possible to the truly improbable (if X is son of Y, yet pledged in marriage to Z, the widow of Y's wife's son). Stefan Jurasinski questions whether approaches, both by the Anglo-Saxons and by modern historians, leave us far from a complete understanding of Anglo-Saxon slavery, not least because of a reluctance by the modern English authorities to allow that Wulfstan tolerated so irredeemably ‘Germanic’ a phenomenon. Finally, in an essay that deserves wide debate, T. B. Lambert seeks to challenge not only Maitland but Wormald in their approach of those pleas before 1066 reserved to the crown. By denying that before 1066 homicide was specifically a ‘crown’ plea, Lambert suggests that the reservation to the Anglo-Saxon kings and their local officials of pleas involving assault and other breaches of royal peace was the principal means by which kings gained financial or jurisdictional authority over interpersonal violence otherwise regulated within the kin. As a result, such pleas were far more important than Wormald allowed. Yet both Maitland and Wormald erred in supposing that jurisdiction in such cases was widely alienated by pre-Conquest kings to monasteries let alone to private individuals. This is a very clever yet a very controversial line of reasoning. It depends, as does so much in Anglo-Saxon law, upon our profound and persistent ignorance even of such vital matters as the regulation of the crime of homicide. Liebermann himself was obliged to operate within a field of linguistic and textual confusion where Old English penitentials circulated in bowdlerized nineteenth-century Latin translations, and where Nowell and Lambarde's attempts to translate Latin laws into cod Old English were accepted as Anglo-Saxon rather than as sixteenth-century realities. His mastery of these materials remains unchallenged, whatever the individual dents and blemishes his Gesetze now displays. In this context, it is perhaps worth remarking that only two of the contributors to this collection, devoted to a German edition of largely Germanic laws, are scholars working in German or in Germany. In the present climate of anglophone monoglossia it has been deemed prudent to translate their papers into English.