Living Outside the Law: "Justice" for Foreigners and Criminals in Anglo-Saxon England

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This paper addresses the attitudes toward foreigners and criminals in Anglo-Saxon law-codes and Old English literature, including the Old English poems Maxims II, Wulf and Eadwacer, and Beowulf. These attitudes derive from definitions of humanity very different from those held by modern readers. Thus the law-codes, far from protecting the entire population from illegal acts, protected only a very small number of people from a particular range of crimes. These edicts are also remarkable for their suspicious and harsh approach not only toward those who had transgressed in the past but also toward those from abroad: foreigners and criminals alike were guilty until proven innocent. Poetic texts reveal a similar hostility to those outside the bounds of society and suggest that the boundary between outsiders like the Wanderer and monsters like Grendel were extremely thin. A human being could become a monster, not through magic or supernatural means, but through legal processes. That is, the category of ‘the human’ in Anglo-Saxon England was not determined by species but by a network of social codes which underlie both the poetry and the law codes of the period.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationJustice et Injustice au Moyen Age
EditorsLeo Carruthers
Place of PublicationParis
Publication statusPublished - 1999

Publication series

NamePublications de l'Association des Médiévistes Anglicistes de l'Enseignement Supérieur

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