New Publication: The Old English Penitentials and Anglo-Saxon Law

After publishing last year ‘Penance in Medieval Europe 600-1200’ by Dr Rob Meens the Cambridge University Press has just published another very interesting book about the penitential literature: ‘The Old English Penitentials and Anglo-Saxon Law’ by Stefan Jurasinski, which is part of Studies in Legal History. This indicates that scholars are re-evaluating the importance of the penitential literature to understand several aspects of medieval societies and that it is a very fruitful field of research.


Some of the earliest examples of medieval canon law are penitentials – texts enumerating the sins a confessor might encounter among laypeople or other clergy and suggesting means of reconciliation. Often they gave advice on matters of secular law as well, offering judgments on the proper way to contract a marriage or on the treatment of slaves. This book argues that their importance to more general legal-historical questions, long suspected by historians but rarely explored, is most evident in an important (and often misunderstood) subgroup of the penitentials: composed in Old English. Though based on Latin sources – principally those attributed to Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury (d.690) and Halitgar of Cambrai (d.831) – these texts recast them into new ordinances meant to better suit the needs of English laypeople. The Old English penitentials thus witness to how one early medieval polity established a tradition of written vernacular law.

Table of Contents:

1. The Old English penitentials and their reception
2. Legal change, vernacular penitentials, and the chronology of Old English prose
3. The law of the estate: bishops, masters, and slaves
4. The law of the household: marriage and sexuality
5. Caring for the body: law, penitentials, and English ‘sick-maintenance’
6. Caring for the mind: pollution and mental liability
Conclusion: vernacular penitentials and secular lawmaking.

About the author:

Stefan Jurasinski, State University College, Brockport, New York
Stefan Jurasinski is Associate Professor of English at the College at Brockport, State University of New York. His work has appeared in Law and History Review, the Journal of Legal History, the Review of English Studies, and other periodicals. He is the co-editor of The Old English Canons of Theodore (with R. D. Fulk, 2012), which won the Publication Prize of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists for the best edition of the 2012–13 biennium. He was an American Council of Learned Societies fellow for the 2014–15 academic year.

Official information provided at the CUP webpage.

Old Enlgish Penitentials

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