Research Questions, Context, and Products

Initiated in the summer of 2006 and receiving major funding from the AHRC for 2009–2011, the project aims to produce new editions of all legal codes and treatises produced in England between the reign of Æthelberht of Kent and Magna Carta (1215).

This project addresses four principle research questions or problems:

  1. What are the early English law texts? The shape and contents of the texts are based on manuscript evidence but also on the judgement of researchers, notably that of Felix Liebermann in the early 20th century. Although the body of evidence has not increased significantly in recent times, our understanding of that evidence has, and this has called into question some of Liebermann’s editorial decisions. Since his edition, there has been significant work on the question of the form and contents of the texts, but not for all texts. Nor has this new research been used, except in a few cases, to create new texts. We are now well placed to utilise this recent work and new understandings to do precisely this.
  2. What do the texts say? Since Liebermann’s German translation of 1903 and the subsequent English translations of many of the texts (1922; 1925; 1953; 1955), work done on the three languages of the texts puts scholars in a much stronger position to produce translations that more closely convey the meaning of the originals. Major dictionary projects have been completed or almost completed in Old English, Anglo-Norman French and Latin, as used in British sources. There has also been a great deal of historical and philological scholarship on English, Germanic and Roman law, as well as developments in the understanding of customary legal systems and literacy by allied disciplines like anthropology, all of which again improves our ability to know what the texts are saying. This project will allow us to uncover the original voice of the texts, and to identify nuances in the language that will suggest new connections between them.
  3. What do the texts mean? Translating these texts into modern English is an interpretative act aimed at eliciting this. However, even if the translation is done well, there remains much room for debate and support for diverse opinions. This project will respond to this question in two ways. First, it will include commentaries by the editorial teams that will explain the laws more fully than the translations alone. These will include not only philological justifications, but also cross-reference the contents and form of the texts with other materials that explain their meaning. Second, the project will provide an online collaborative workspace for other scholars and users to register their own interpretations of the laws. This workspace will be moderated by the Project Officer, with the support of the project team and the Literary Board.
  4. Finally, the broadest of our four questions, what exactly was the law? Here the texts, translations and commentaries included on the website will lay a partial but critical part of the foundation for analyses of early English law. The collaborative nature of the project, drawing on the skills of a wide range of editors (at various stages in their careers and working in different geographical locations with different historical traditions), will ensure that the most up-to-date historical scholarship in this field is represented. The question of the precise nature of the law will be answered throughout the editions, but additional research will also be stimulated by the improved texts at the website. The ultimate goal will be to link this additional work via an online bibliography to the texts and commentary on the website and thus to create a central resource for all questions of early English law.

Research context

At present, our understanding of early English law – dependent mostly on the flawed and idiosyncratic edition of Liebermann – rests on unsure footing. New editions and translations will lay the foundation for all future work on early English law. They will answer questions on the structure of Anglo-Saxon society, the ideology of its kings, the impact of the Norman conquest on law and peoples, the rise of bureaucratic government, the course of Henry II’s reforms, and the origins of the common law itself. Their ability to do all of this is helped significantly by concurrent work on charters, literary sources, manuscripts and prosopography, all of which have major online components (e.g., the New Regesta Regum Anglorum, an edition of the corpus of Anglo-Saxon royal diplomas – www.trin.cam.ac.uk/chartwww/NewRegReg.html; the Fontes Anglo-Saxonici, a register of written sources used by Anglo-Saxon authors – http://fontes.english.ox.ac.uk; the C11 Database project, an inventory of script and spellings in 11th-century English – www.arts.manchester.ac.uk/mancass; the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England; and the Revised Catalogue of Anglo-Saxon Charters (E-Sawyer) project).

Research on the history and law of this period is going through a dynamic period, with both new broad interpretations (e.g., R. Bartlett, England under the Norman and Angevin Kings (2000); P. Wormald, The Making of English Law, vol. 1 and Legal Culture in the Early Medieval West (both 1999); and John Hudson’s forthcoming volume of The Oxford History of the English Law) and specialist studies appearing every year, mostly in the United Kingdom and the USA, but also in Germany, Austria, Italy and Japan.

A project such as this, which serves as a focus for international and interdisciplinary scholarship, has the potential to transform this research context, allowing scholars to collaborate formally, both as part of the project team and the extended editorial team, and informally, using the collaborative workspace provided on the project website. It will both add value to existing online resources through linkage and interconnection, and be enhanced in return. There will be three international workshops devoted to issues of editing the laws. The first will be held in London, in July 2009. The second will take place in the United States, while the third will be held on continental Europe.

Research products

All elements of the project contribute to a better understanding of English law and its context:

  • The translations, commentaries and introductory sections provide greater access for scholars, readers, students and interested members of the public.

  • The online collaborative workspace will allow dissent, as well as arguments for alternative reconstructions of texts, translations and interpretations. This in and of itself should stimulate further interest and study.

  • The universally cited and still useful editions of Liebermann and Stubbs (Select Charters 1913) will be scanned and included on the site to provide editions of most texts before they have been re-edited, as well as an important cross-reference once they are edited to link new scholarly citations with old.

  • The manuscript folios published as part of the online resource will provide the evidence on which the editions are based, enhance the ability of users of the site to test the conclusions of the editors, and offer palaeographers and codicologists the raw materials for their own studies.

Agenda

The online publication will include:

1. Felix Liebermann’s standard edition of Anglo-Saxon and post-conquest legal texts (Volume 1 of Felix Liebermann, ed., Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, 3 vols [Halle, 1903–1916]).

2. William Stubbs’ standard edition of assizes and other legislative texts from the reigns of Stephen, Henry II, Richard I, and John (William Stubbs, ed., Select Charters and Other Illustrations of English Constitutional History, 9th edn, rev. by H. W. C. Davis [Oxford, 1921]).

3. New editions of 149 texts (with more anticipated) extending chronologically from Æthelberht of Kent (c. 600) to the first issuance of Magna Carta (1215).

4. Digitized images of all manuscript folios copied before the early thirteenth century which hold the texts. In a few instances, later manuscript folios will be provided when they are singular witnesses to the text or provide the text of now destroyed or damaged manuscripts.

5. English translations of all editions.

6. Transcriptions and translations of all unusual or singular manuscript copies of these texts.

7. Introductions and commentary on all texts.

8. Essays addressing key aspects of the laws.

9. An interactive workspace where dissenting or alternative readings, translations, or interpretations can be offered alongside the work of project editors.

Schedule

The first three years of the project will bring some aspects of the plan to completion. Liebermann’s and Stubbs’ editions will be reproduced. These will be joined by digitized images of all relevant manuscript folios. Recently published and new editions will be provided for a significant proportion of the overall corpus. For a list of the texts that will appear during this period, see a list of first works to appear.

Completion of all of the project’s goals is expected to take ten years.