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‘hwonne habbe we ðonne ne gemotad?’; Narrative Strategies in Tenth- and Eleventh-Century English Property Disputes



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Hanlon, Brittany 


This thesis examines the language and narrative strategies employed by tenth and eleventh- century charter draftsmen in the composition of vernacular lawsuit documents. It poses the question: on what authority did late Anglo-Saxon property disputes close or remain closed, arguing that the document that preserved the details of the lawsuit itself formed a key strategy in the pursuit of victory. Building on Patrick Wormald’s handlist of Anglo-Saxon lawsuits and Simon Keynes’ checklist of vernacular records associated with processes of litigation, this study categorises and conceptualises lawsuit documents as a corpus of Anglo-Saxon diplomatic records in their own right, to be set alongside contemporary wills, writs, diplomas. The approach taken is a close reading of the narratives contained within lawsuit documents in order to understand how these texts fit into the broader body of early English legal documentation. Chapter One introduces the vernacular corpus, which dates approximately to 900–1040. It provides a definition of the corpus by outlining the commonalities shared between lawsuit documents and a historiographical overview, as well as a breakdown of the lawsuits’ contents and form, and a discussion of their preservation and provenance. Chapter Two moves on to discuss the common formulae of the lawsuit documents’ opening lines and main text. It compares them to contemporary wills, writs and law codes with the aim of understanding how lawsuit documents were perceived and how their draftsmen intended such documents to be received in a legal setting, such as the shire meeting. This chapter also seeks to understand the extent to which charter draftsmen appealed to the same terminology as contemporary law codes, with implications for the degree of lawsuit documents’ ‘legality’. Chapter Three examines lawsuit documents through the lens of memory, analysing the charter draftsmen’s emphasis on elite individuals’ names and localised historical events that helped to form partisan micro-histories of disputed estates. Chapter Four focuses on the charter draftsmen’s frequent use of the language of consensus and friendship, demonstrating how literary descriptions of the amicable closure of lawsuits often served to reinforce the practical methods used by litigants and members of the witan when closing a dispute. Chapter Five assesses the lawsuit documents’ references to violent acts committed by iii

the Libellus Æthelwoldi, contemporary hagiography, and Æthelredian diplomas. This chapter firstly examines the meaning and function of the Old English noun reaflac and suggests that this term constituted a vernacular counterpart to the Latin rapina. The remainder of the chapter considers other common tropes, such as the image of violent criminals ‘being caught in the act’ as a justification for land forfeiture. The conclusion stresses that lawsuit documents were directly inspired by and constructed with a wide range of ‘legal’ and ‘non-legal’ language, formulation and rhetorical strategies in mind, but nonetheless followed a coherent enough set of models to set them apart from other contemporary charter forms.





Naismith, Rory


Charters, Early Medieval Europe, Law, Narrative Strategy, Ritual, Tenth-century England


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge