The Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library is doing early medieval English studies proud with its oh-so-handsome editions and facing-page translations in affordable hardbacks, featuring clear print on nice paper with golden-brown covers and a built-in bookmark. The contents are as impressive as the volumes that contain them, with compact, thoughtful editions and readable translations undertaken by appropriate experts. It is noteworthy that the series is including not just Old English poetry but also a wide range of Old English prose, making some of the less-accessible works from the period available to a broad audience. Andrew Rabin’s collection of the political and legal writings by Archbishop Wulfstan fits the latter category and does not disappoint.
The real treat of this volume lies in presenting the whole sequence of Wulfstan’s political and legal writings in such accessible form. Wulfstan’s obsession with the right ordering of his society becomes clear through the reiteration, including such intriguing details as what it takes to allow social mobility. Other recurring preoccupations are apparent, such as Wulfstan’s concerns with clerical conduct and episcopal obligations, his opposition to married clergy and clerical drunkenness, his concern with maintaining Sunday observance and with the rights of widows, his insistence on payment of tithes and church dues, and his opposition to heathen practices. His legislation occasionally features specificities of legal practice and punishment for crimes, even as the prevailing message is more of a homiletic requirement to be good. Rabin suggests that some of the pieces surviving in the most prominent Wulfstan manuscripts may represent Wulfstan’s copies for his own use, already moving from specific legislation to homiletic exhortation.
Whether Wulfstan’s prescriptions represent realities on the ground of the early eleventh century is hard to tell. The works collected here do, however, give good access to the pattern of thought of an influential reforming archbishop during the reigns of Æthelred and Cnut. Rabin has done a wonderful job of making those works newly accessible.