Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Imagining the Anglo-Saxon Past

Imagining the Anglo-Saxon Past: The Search for Anglo-Saxon Paganism and Anglo-Saxon Trial by Jury

Eric Gerald Stanley
Copyright Date: 2000
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 174
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Imagining the Anglo-Saxon Past
    Book Description:

    ‘E.G. Stanley has an international reputation as a leading Anglo-Saxonist, and his perceptive and original contributions to the field continue to be sought after by Anglo-Saxon scholars. The two topics included in this book are just such studies. `The Search for Anglo-Saxon Paganism' traces an attitude among writers on Anglo-Saxon literature which exalts whatever is primitive and supposedly pagan or crypto-pagan in the surviving Old English texts of the early Christian middle ages, as demonstrated in the work of such luminaries as Jacob Grimm and J.R.R. Tolkien, as well as a swarm of minor figures. Students of Old English literature will find some of their cherished views on individual texts challenged in the process of tracing them to their foundations; but the book has wider implications as a case-history of how scholarly predilection becomes prejudice and orthodoxy. Although written some years ago, the arguments, with some updates and corrections, remain fresh and invigorating. The second part of the book deals with the search for trial by jury among the Anglo-Saxons. Its beginnings have been sought by some in Germanic legal institutions, by others in institutions brought in by King Alfred to whom much that is great and good in the governance of England was ascribed. The author argues that the idealism that characterized advocates of political and legal reform guided them to a few facts about the origin of jury and to many simplifications and errors in which the Anglo-Saxons appeared as shining forerunners. E.G. STANLEY is Professor Emeritus of Anglo-Saxon, University of Oxford.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-328-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-xii)
    Eric Stanley
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
    E.G. Stanley

    It is difficult to recall a writer who, faced with doubts whether to publish or no –

    Some said, John, print it; others said, Not so:

    Some said, It might do good; others said, No –

    came down on the side of ‘No’, but then it is in the nature of the evidence to reveal only those who acceded when asked to publish, not those who forbore. When the material, here reprinted in the form of a monograph, first appeared in Notes and Queries ccix (1964) and ccx (1965) as a series of articles I had no doubt that it was right...


    • 1. The Romantic Background
      (pp. 1-6)

      A READING OF the past is at best a selective reading, at worst a reading into the past. For the earliest period of Germanic literature, sentiment makes the reader expect to find a noble and ennobling Heroic Age, rude but grand, a world not unlike that which Bishop Hurd associated with Chivalry and Romance:¹

      I Look upon Chivalry, as on some mighty River, which the fablings of the poets have made immortal. It may have sprung up amidst rude rocks, and blind deserts. But the noise and rapidity of its course, the extent of country it adorns, and the towns...

    • 2. The English Branch of the German Tree
      (pp. 7-9)

      FROM THE POINT of view of Germany, English is German except to the extent to which it has been corrupted by alien elements. Count Friedrich Leopold zu Stolberg, who in his youth, in order to forget an incomparable English lady, had been Goethe’s fellow-traveller to Swit-zerland, wrote lovingly still of the English language in his old age:15

      The German language became the language of England, and remained fairly pure though from the ninth century on the Danes introduced some alloy, till it was totally corrupted in the eleventh century through the Normans and French with whom William the Conqueror sub-jugated...

    • 3. Christianity Puts an End to Folk-Poetry
      (pp. 10-13)

      AS IN GERMANY so in England the national poetic heritage was withered at the blighting touch of Christianity. That is how Jacob Grimm saw it:²²

      After the introduction of Christianity the art of poetry took a religious turn, to which we owe many remarkable poems. But the freedom of the poetry and its roots in the people had perished.

      Scholars from the first half of the nineteenth century to the present day have followed, in varying degrees of ferocity, Grimm’s relatively mild disparagement of the Christian element in the extant Germanic poetry. Throughout, the assumption is made, explicitly or implicitly,...

    • 4. ‘Half-veiled remains of pagan poetry’
      (pp. 14-23)

      In the early nineteenth century the critical attitude of Anglo-Saxon scholars determined the selection of texts which they thought worthy of attention; rude rocks, blind deserts, and dark caverns were what they loved most, and when a textbook provided them with extracts that seemed to them too far removed from their favourite haunts, they protested and attacked the compiler of the book. In 1838 Leo published his book of selections, including religious as well as secular texts. He was savagely attacked for it by Ettműller, especially for including Ælfric’s preface to Genesis, ‘Surely such things could today only end acceptance...

    • 5. English and German Views of the Conversion of the English
      (pp. 24-28)

      WE MUST NOW turn to England. English opinion in the early nineteenth century was not anti-Christian. Wordsworth’s Ecclesiastical Sonnet ‘Glad Tidings’ (1821) on the conversion of the English is probably typical in recognizing the benefits of Christianity and in thinking that the Anglo-Saxons were barbarians:59

      By Augustin led

      They come – and onward travel without dread,

      Chaunting in barbarous ears a tuneful prayer,

      Sung for themselves, and those whom they would free!

      Wordsworth based his Ecclesiastical Sonnets on wide reading, for which his editor, Professor de Selincourt, held fast in a critical attitude which Wordsworth had outgrown, takes him to task.⁶⁰...

    • 6. J.M. Kemble
      (pp. 29-32)

      IN THE NINETEENTH century Germany was the centre of the world of Germanic philology, including Anglo-Saxon philology. Wulker, writing the history of Anglo-Saxon scholarship, very properly divides Old English grammars up to that time into Old Grammars and New Grammars.78 Effectively, the old grammars begin with Hickes in the late seventeenth century.79 They end, pathetically, with J.L. Sisson’s The Elements of Anglo-Saxon Grammar, 1819;80 pathetically, because 1819 is the year when the first edition of the first volume of Grimm’s Deutsche Grammatik was published.81 Sisson’s Grammar was the feeble last descendant of a line whose founders had not been ignoble;...

    • 7. The Views of the Founders Seen through the Writings of their Lesser Contemporaries
      (pp. 33-37)

      THE GERMANIC SCHOLARSHIP which has been considered so far was the work of scholars, in the case of Grimm, Gervinus and Kemble, of very great scholars. Before leaving the formative period of modern Germanic scholarship it may be worth looking at the writings of men of less standing. Often they put more bluntly what seems to be implied in the works of men of greater sensitivity or more profound learning. The few quotations given here, and far more could have been relevantly quoted, are extreme statements.

      J.P.E.Greverus, head master of the Gymnasium at Oldenburg, recommends in the Supplement to the...

    • 8. English Views of the Late Nineteenth Century and After
      (pp. 38-39)

      WE MUST TURN now to the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. It was a time when many of the ideas on Anglo-Saxon literature initiated in the first half of the nineteenth century were more fully exploited and coarsened in a vast number of doctoral theses and programme supplements which poured forth from the German universities and schools. The study of the Old English language was served in the same way, as is shown clearly by Henry Sweet’s complaint:105

      it became too evident that the historical study of English was being rapidly annexed by...

    • 9. Stock Views Disintegrating Old English Poems and Finding Germanic Antiquities in them
      (pp. 40-76)

      THE VIEWS on Old English poetry held by Sweet, who had a full and first-hand knowledge of the material, and also by J.R. Green, who did not, correspond to the preconceptions underlying the two principal activities on which the writers of dissertations and school programmes trained in the universities of Germany spent their immense energies. The first of these two activities was disintegration: poems held to be pagan (among them Beowulf, the Old English elegies, and the Gnomic Poems) were freed from what were thought Christian accretions, the genuine was freed from the spurious. The second activity was the reading...

    • 10. The Gods Themselves
      (pp. 77-84)

      THOSE WHO SEARCH Old English literature for evidence of the Germanic past can have no greater reward for their labours than to find references to the pagan deities themselves. We have seen how Grimm and his followers were often led to pagan deities by fanciful etymologies.217 An example, similar in effect though even less controlled in method, is M.B. Price’s comment on sigorcynn on swegle (Elene line 754) and on engla peatas sigeleo sungon (Guthlac lines 1314—15);218

      May not this conception of the angels as a victorious host, a triumphant race, which has overcome the machinations of evil and...

    • 11. Wyrd
      (pp. 85-109)

      IN THE DISCUSSION of the surviving paganism in Anglo-Saxon literature wyrd occupies a central place; views on wyrd epitomize the views on the wider issue. There is no need to cite here at length the occurrences of the word in Old English. R. Jente has devoted a whole chapter to the subject.255 In view of the range of meanings of the word it may, however, be desirable to illustrate this range briey.

      First, in the early Glosses wyrde (uuyrdae) renders ‘parcae’ (thus, EÂpinal and Erfurt 764, Corpus 1480); in the later Glosses ‘parcae’ is rendered by gewyrde (thus, in Napier’s...

    • 12. Conclusion
      (pp. 110-110)

      IN THIS MONOGRAPH I have sought to anatomize a prejudice which turned into a predilection. Some kind of chronological order has been followed, but I make no pretence that the deliberate selections presented here amount to a chapter in the history of the scholarship of Anglo-Saxon literature. In one view, however, the history of scholarship is a history of error, and looked at that way the search for paganism comes near the centre of any historical account of the Anglo-Saxon scholarship of the last hundred and fifty years. In that period the unknown – as I think, the unknowable unknown was...

  6. PART II ANGLO-SAXON TRIAL BY JURY: Trial by Jury and how Later Ages Perceive its Origins perhaps in Anglo-Saxon England

    • 1. Jury: this palladium of our liberties, sacred and inviolate
      (pp. 111-122)

      The striving for liberty has been regarded as the special endeavour of the English, vigorously pursued from time immemorial, and liberty was achieved, it has been thought, by the Anglo-Saxons, and assuredly by the time of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and thereafter. So it seemed to Voltaire, who said of the English:¹ ‘They are not only jealous of their own Liberty, but even of that of other nations.’ That striving for liberty was founded on a legal system based on truth, and bound in conscience as its constant and sure foundation. This is a model of which England herself...

    • 2. Delivering the truth not the same as judging
      (pp. 123-128)

      Not all commentators on trial by jury took so idealistic a view of that institution as Blackstone. Pope, with characteristic cynicisms whenever he adverted to some hallowed organization of supposed virtue, enshrined his doubts in the oft-quoted couplet:³⁰

      The hungry Judges soon the Sentence sign,

      And Wretches hang that Jury-men may Dine;

      a couplet in which Pope, in fact, ascribes to the judges of his time a greater concern for the welfare of jurymen than seems warranted, makes it appear, mistakenly, that judge and jury are acting together as if a combined magistracy operating against the interests of the accused,...

    • 3. Guilt and innocence a matter of conscience
      (pp. 129-131)

      A little later,43 KÖstlin considers

      ...the Germanic, fundamental principle of evidence in criminal cases. That proceeds from the idea that establishing the truth concerning a committed crime has of course to draw on sources revealing their history, such as the statements of witnesses, circumstantial evidence, etc., but that indeed the main point, the criminal’s guilt, being a purely inward matter, can only be established by an inward method. We must refer to the treatises cited above44 for how this view was expressed even in the earliest, crude systems of evidence (with oath-helpers, duel, and ordeals), naive and barbaric though they...

    • 4. ‘England’s great and glorious Revolution(1688), its debt to Henry II’s revival of ancient institutions fostering liberty
      (pp. 132-135)

      Shortly before the events of 1848, Josef Ignaz Gundermann published a treatise on the origin of the jury in England.⁴⁹ He outlines a more single-stranded development than KÖstlin’s ‘Combinationstheorie’, a development that breaks at the Norman Conquest, unlike the gradual emergence from the oath-helpers of Germanic antiquity to the jurors of the age of Henry II to modern times described by G.L. von Maurer. Nevertheless, like KÖstlin and Maurer, Gundermann looks to developments in the laws of Anglo-Saxon and Norman England as relevant to the legal situation of modern Germany, and, in a spirit of Germanic nationalist superiority, involves the...

    • 5. Trial by jury not a Proto-Germanic nor perhaps an Anglo-Saxon institution; but what of the twelve leading thegns of the Wapentake?
      (pp. 136-139)

      It appears that for a considerable time now the Proto-Germanic origin of trial by jury has been insisted on less than long ago, and that bulwark of English liberty cannot be comfortably traced back to Anglo-Saxon times, nor, of course, to the statecraft of Alfred the Great to whom it was once so readily ascribed. Perhaps it is wiser to say that one knows what, at various times in the history of legal historiography, the scholarly consensus has been on the origin of trial by jury, than that one knows what the facts are. That is how Sir Frank Stenton...

    • 6. Why promulgated at Wantage?
      (pp. 140-141)

      The laws, III Æthelred: zu Wantage 3, 1—3,67 were promulgated at the very end of the tenth century in the north of Wessex near the border with Mercia, at Wantage celebrated for a thousand years and more as Alfred the Great’s birthplace. The evidence for the place of promulgation goes back to the manuscript of the twelfth century.68 The evidence for the date rests on áthelred’s charter to the Old Minster, Winchester.69 That is now regarded as authentic by those competent to judge.⁷⁰ The evidence that Alfred was born at Wantage goes back ultimately to the single statement at...

    • 7. The twelve of the wapentake probably an institution for the Danelaw only
      (pp. 142-145)

      Liebermann is good on the Scandinavianisms in this part of this code of Æthelred II, which is designed for the Danelaw or a part of it, namely the Five Boroughs:75

      The region where III Æhelred is effective is the Danelaw (or part of the Danelaw), at any rate the district of the Five Boroughs and perhaps that only. The currency is Anglo-Scandinavian, in hundreds of silver (= 8 pounds),76 the healfm(e)arc and ora; the lowest court is called wñpentac, the reeve at one point eorl; the vocabulary sounds strongly Norse: grið, lagu, bicgean lage, lahcop, landcop, sammñle, ‡rinna XII, costas,...

    • 8. Conclusion
      (pp. 146-148)

      Trial by jury is important in the historical perception of English law. In that perception civil liberty was for a long time regarded as the supreme political aim of the English over the centuries. The meaning of ‘civil liberty’ has not been static since the term was first used in the seventeenth century. Milton’s well-known use in the opening paragraph of Areopa-gitica almost amounts to a pragmatical definition of the concept:84

      when complaints are freely heard, deeply consider’d, and speedily reform'd, then is the utmost bound of civill liberty attain’d, that wise men looke for.

      Perhaps what Milton has in...

  7. I. Index of sources
    (pp. 149-151)
    (pp. 152-154)
  9. III. General index
    (pp. 155-158)