The Myth of the Feud in Anglo-Saxon England


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The Myth of the Feud in Anglo-Saxon England

John Niles

The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 114, No. 2 (April 2015), pp.163-200.

“Every student of the Anglo-Saxons accepts the existence of feud as a feature of society before the Norman Conquest,” writes Paul Hyams in his 2003 book Rancor and Reconciliation in Medieval England. Emphasizing that “feud was quite central to Anglo-Saxon political culture,” Hyams identifies the Anglo-Saxons’ means of resolving disputes through private warfare—that is, through means grounded in the Old Germanic code of blood vengeance—not just as an essential feature of the society of that time, but also as a continuing legacy at least into the thirteenth century, before the ascendancy of a more modern-looking set of legal practices based on the state’s centripetal power. Such a conceptual framework nuances, without essentially changing, a deep-rooted historiographical tendency to distinguish the people of Anglo-Saxon England (often characterized as a fierce, independent people of Germanic stock) from their later medieval counterparts (often portrayed in terms of a civilization of powerful kings and mature feudalism). Though such a dichotomous view of the English Middle Ages rarely finds direct expression today, it has an undeniable basis in the shifts of power and perspective that followed the Conquest, and its influence is still strong. Thus it seemed natural to Richard Fletcher, as well, in his 2003 book Bloodfeud: Murder and Revenge in Anglo-Saxon England,to represent northern England at the end of the Anglo-Saxon period as locked in a culture of self-perpetuating, revenge-driven cycles of violence: of having been a feud culture, in short.

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