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Crimcast is a virtual resource devoted to critical conversations about criminology and criminal justice issues. Our blogposts, twitter feeds, podcasts and other content provide an overview of trends, research, commentary and events of interest to criminal justice practitioners, academics and the general public. CrimCast is sponsored by The Center for Crime and Popular Culture, St. Francis College, Brooklyn, NY.

When Punishment Was a New and Remarkable Thing: Medieval Anglo-Saxon Responses to Crime

Staci Strobl

Crimcast caught up with Dr. Jay Paul Gates (John Jay College of Criminal Justice) to discuss his and co-editor Dr. Nicole Marafioti's (Trinity University) edited volume Capital and Corporal Punishment in Anglo-Saxon England (2014, Boydell & Brewer). In the Middle Ages, Anglo-Saxon authorities often punished lawbreakers with harsh corporal penalties, such as execution, mutilation, and imprisonment. Despite their severity, however, these penalties were not arbitrary exercises of power. Rather, they were informed by nuanced philosophies of punishment which sought to resolve conflict, keep the peace, and enforce Christian morality. The ten essays in this volume engage legal, literary, historical, and archaeological evidence to investigate the role of punishment in Anglo-Saxon society. 

What prompted your interest in Anglo-Saxon punishment and how did this volume come about? 

Our interest in the topic of capital and corporal punishment grew out of basic questions concerning how the Anglo-Saxons – who inhabited and ruled England from the fifth century through the eleventh – thought about bodies in a legal context and how the body came to carry and convey meaning. We both love Wulfstan, that quirky eleventh-century Archbishop of York. His assertion that mutilation was a merciful alternative to execution—that the law must be concerned with the soul rather than the body—kept nagging us for attention. From here, we found contributors whose interests coalesced around Anglo-Saxon England. Yet the essays in the volume go well beyond the limits of England and the Anglo-Saxon period. Early Germanic and ‘barbarian’ law provide foundations; Mosaic, Irish, and Frisian law offer sources and analogues; and post- Conquest views of Anglo-Saxon England and Anglo-Saxon history show that the Anglo-Saxons continued to have relevance and meaning well beyond 1066.

One of the most interesting ideas to come out of the volume is that the Anglo-Saxons, at least initially, didn’t have much of a concept of punishment. There were systems of law, compensation, and vengeance, but these were all concerned with the maintenance of social order and stability rather than with the desire to punish unacceptable behavior. And when we came to think about it, the very concept of punishment itself seemed odd. After all, what does it do? For example, if Nicole lops off my arm, I am far better off if she pays me compensation for it than if she is punished. I might even forego compensation to get the satisfaction of vengeance. But punishment would leave me seeming weak and certainly unsatisfied: knowing she is in prison or doing back-breaking labor on a chain-gang is not going to satisfy me the way retaliation would. I’d also be short both an arm and a cash payment.

So, how did notions of punishment develop in Anglo-Saxon societies? 

Punishment seems to have developed under the influence of two major forces, the systematization of ecclesiastical penance and the centralization of royal authority. Christian responses to wrongdoing were surprisingly consistent with secular ideas of compensation. The penance known as “sick-maintenance,” for instance, required a perpetrator to do his victim’s work for him until he recovered—regardless of whether the injury was intentional or accidental. This was certainly good for social stability (the injury is compensated, the attacker shows he’s sorry, and no one needs to take vengeance), but there was also a real incentive to perform penance because it was good for the soul. The centralization of royal power also aimed to discourage vengeance and socially destabilizing actions. In fact, the earliest Anglo-Saxon punishments were designed to give people a chance to cool off and accept compensation in place of vengeance. Punishment becomes a new and remarkable thing, and kings only gradually assumed the right and responsibility of fixing other people’s injuries. It was only toward the end of the Anglo-Saxon period that kings claimed the authority to act on the body of a subject—a development that would have an important impact on post-Conquest English law.

 

 
Jay Paul Gates, John Jay College of Criminal Justice  

Jay Paul Gates, John Jay College of Criminal Justice

 

What ideas about punishment described in the volume appear to be persisting into modern Anglo-Saxon-influenced societies?  

The first point to note is that Anglo-American law, at least through the twentieth century, was very much influenced by the laws penned by Archbishop Wulfstan in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries. They were first taken up by the Danish conqueror king, Cnut, and then by the Normans after the 1066 Conquest. In those early laws we see a real tension between the need for the threat of punishment as a means of deterrence and penitential punishment as a means of rehabilitating the criminal, except in the most extreme cases. Such attitudes toward the role of punishment in the criminal justice system seem still to be hotly debated. Similarly, the restrictions on felons in modern American law, even after they have served their sentences, recalls the Anglo-Saxon notion of the guilty as being permanently marked, whether through the elimination of their legal status (oath-worthiness) or through mutilation. However, what seems to have slipped into the background in the modern discussion, and which is very much worth foregrounding again, is the medieval concern not just with punishing the perpetrator but making whole the victim.

What can this volume, grounded in the humanities, teach social scientists and criminologists about approaching studies of contemporary punishment? 

As we hear the modern debate, there are three main functions of punishment: deterrence, vengeance, and rehabilitation. To the medieval mind, I don’t know that there was quite so great a distance between these functions as there is for us, and it is perhaps worth returning to the mutually supporting roles of these functions in modern discussions. An example of this may come in the form of compensation laws and “sick-maintenance.” These two related legal categories are fundamentally concerned with how to make whole a victim. That is, after one person wounded another, he had to pay compensation for the injury to the victim (the compensation tariffs of Anglo-Saxon law remain the foundation for workers’ compensation tables) and then do the work that the injured person was unable to do until he had healed sufficiently. Certainly there is a sense of vengeance enacted on the man who must do the work of the person he injured—it must be a slight to one’s honor and sense of self to serve someone whom he had wanted badly enough to attack. Yet there is a process for the injured party to see his attacker work for his benefit and make good the injury. Through such a process there is a real possibility of the cooling of tempers, of reconciliation between the two parties, and of rehabilitating the public peace that was broken as well. Something like this has been tried in the restorative justice after the genocidal violence in Rwanda. But perhaps looking to the medieval understandings of punishment would bring punishment and restorative justice into more regular discourse within less extraordinary criminal justice processes.

What avenues of future research will this volume open?

At least one suggestion has been that the idea of crime might need to be re-thought. After all, if penance is concerned with sin and if vengeance and compensation are concerned with injury, what defines crime? What makes crime its own category of wrong and how might it be punished? 

Additionally, there is a focus on men in this volume, simply because so many of our sources represent injury as a predominantly masculine concern. However, it is also important to consider women’s roles in punishment. How involved were women in imposing or mitigating punishment? How were they punished for offenses they committed, and what exactly were those offenses? Although evidence for female misconduct is more elusive, there is valuable work to be done in this area. 

Contributors to the volume include Valerie Allen, Jo Buckberry, Daniela Fruscione, Jay Paul Gates, Stefan Jurasinski, Nicole Marafioti, Daniel O'Gorman, Lisi Oliver, Andrew Rabin, and Daniel Thomas.