Patrick Wormald

Historian of Anglo-Saxon England
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The Independent Online

Charles Patrick Wormald, historian: born Neston, Cheshire 9 July 1947; Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford 1969-84; Lecturer in Medieval History, Glasgow University 1974-89; Lecturer, Christ Church, Oxford 1989-90, Student and Tutor in Modern History 1990-2001; married Jenny Brown (two sons; marriage dissolved); died Oxford 29 September 2004.

Patrick Wormald was the author of one of the most important books written by an English historian in recent years: the first volume of his The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the twelfth century, published in 1999.

He came from a learned background. His father, Brian Wormald, was an historian and a Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge. His school was Eton College (though his recognisable "Etonian" characteristics were scant). A very successful career at Balliol College, Oxford, where he read Modern History, was crowned by a first class degree and election to a Prize Fellowship at All Souls College which he held until 1974. There he began, but never formally completed, a thesis on Anglo-Saxon law. (His career plainly refutes the notion that a doctorate is the only gate to intellectual salvation.)

From 1974 to 1989 he was a Lecturer at Glasgow. There he proved himself an inspiring teacher, widely admired by his students. He lectured with conviction and aplomb, sometimes allowing zeal to carry him over the time limit. He returned to Oxford and was from 1990 to 2001 a Student of Christ Church. Here again he taught well and was a major source of stimulus not least for research students.

Throughout his academic career he wrote good articles, combining qualities not always combined: solid learning and provocative argument. (They are published in his Legal Culture in the Early Medieval West: law as text, image and experience, 1999.) His scholarly reputation in England and abroad became high.

How well deserved this was made clear in 1999 by the publication of his masterpiece: The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the twelfth century, Volume I. This book is a monument of learning.

The study of Anglo-Saxon law had stood still for nearly a century after the publication of Felix Liebermann's Gesetze (1903-16). Not that there was not quite a lot of writing on the subject: there was; but most of it was limited or even superficial. This was because it was extremely difficult to know what to make of the "codes" scattered over more than 400 years.

To do so would have required a remarkable union of qualities. First, the equipment to analyse in detail the very difficult manuscripts in which laws survive and the very difficult language in which they are written. Second, the scholar concerned has to be a trained historian and a very good one. Significant contributions have been made by those with the philological/literary background of "Anglo-Saxonists", but they lack the third requirement. A knowledge of European law and laws over many centuries is essential for comparison and the establishment of context. To provide a complete account of Anglo-Saxon law (and of its essential complement, Anglo-Norman law and legal writing) is a daunting task. Wormald had the capacity, and the courage, to face it.

Early among the questions which he posed for himself was this. In what sense were the Anglo-Saxon laws legislation in something like a modern sense of the term, granted that, for example, they are not referred to in any record of a lawsuit? The answer he gives is a subtle one. Whatever else the laws may or not be they are productions representative of the contemporary cultures of power. Thus he brilliantly demonstrated how far Alfred's laws, with their long preface largely based on the Book of Exodus, are infused by a sense of royal mission of reform and regulation, which associates them with the royal translation programme and takes them beyond (and it may be away from) "ordinary" legislation.

In something of the same way the large part of the legislation of Æthelred II and of Cnut known to have been from the pen of Archbishop Wulfstan at York should be regarded as in a continuum with his homilies. At the same time some legislation, for example in the earlier 10th century, had less explicit ideological content.

A second question. How far has Anglo-Saxon legislation survived? Some, he proves, has been lost. Maybe a great deal? After all, the three earliest codes have survived only by the skin of their teeth: in one 12th-century manuscript. Certainly some have gone. Here, as in facing the first question, Wormald deployed great skill, and it must have been hundreds and hundreds of hours, in close analysis of the manuscripts in which those laws which do survive, survive.

Thus the case for the essentially ideological drive of the Alfredian laws is strengthened by their appearing in manuscripts in association with The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The complications and associations of the Wulfstan material are mightily assisted by the presence in some manuscripts of annotations in his hand. Assessment of the number of early texts which may once have existed depends on very close consideration of the likely ancestry of those which survive. Wormald argues that, at least in some periods, laws were circulated on loose sheets, or bundles of sheets of parchment, which would have a poor chance of survival.

The quantity and quality of Anglo-Saxon legislation present many and curious contrasts with that from other countries. Why does so much more eighth- and ninth-century legislation survive from the Continent than from England? Why does so much more survive in the 10th century from England than from the Continent? Wormald made many fruitful suggestions, always emphasising a fundamental contrast between the north and the southern/Mediterranean lands of written law where the shadow of the Roman Empire fell, as it did not fall in England.

Studies such as this have great weight and interest. It has become increasingly apparent that late Anglo-Saxon England was a nation state with a sophisticated administration (another matter on which Wormald wrote well). Much that determined life and rule in England, for centuries, was in place by 1066. We have long been taught that the law in England was transformed under Henry II (1154-1189) when, to oversimplify, the considerably rational replaced the considerably archaic. Wormald indicates the possibility of a different tale. This is one of the themes which he would have dealt with in his intended second volume. He had taken Volume II a long way; let us hope far enough for it now to be published in some form.

Very numerous historical monographs are published nowadays. Most of them are all very well in their way; but many are written to the demands of a ludicrous thing, "The Research Assessment Exercise", and their existence matters to few indeed, apart from their authors. But every so often something different appears: a monument of detailed learning which almost re-creates its subject. (Lewis Namier's The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III, 1929, is a case in point.) The Making of English Law is in this class. Its scholarship, brilliance and integrity remain as a lasting memorial to Wormald and a reminder of how much his too early death has cost the world of learning.

Like many eminent scholars Patrick Wormald was not always an easy man. He could be very stressed and his reactions to stress could be sad. He was unwilling to admit that he had ever been wrong; though pleased to explain how the critic had come to misunderstand him. This might be taken as expressive of a certain narrowness. Rather was it a foible. Actually he had a generous mind. This can be seen in two ways, among others. He was always ready to help fellow scholars. Very few people can have been thanked in the prefaces to so many books. And he was also (unlike some) most scrupulous and generous in citation.

He was married to Jenny Brown, also a distinguished scholar. They later divorced; she and their two sons survive him.

James Campbell