My current research interests evolved from a suggestion that, as a masters student, I study sanctuary in late medieval churches as a form of legal privilege. I found that late medieval sanctuary practices were difficult to understand without an appreciation of their early medieval origins and was drawn back into the Anglo-Saxon period, when the protection offered by churches clearly seemed to have been just one aspect of a legal system in which the extension of protection was a major feature. My doctoral thesis initially focused on protections offered by late Anglo-Saxon churches, attempting to show how these were in an important sense the forerunners of later legal privileges that were more obviously "jurisdictional" in nature, but its scope rapidly expanded. It became a much broader attempt to explain the role of protections in late Anglo-Saxon law, and to argue that the disappearance of that role was a fundamental part of what separated this type of law from the more familiar Common Law of the later medieval period. Specifically, it argued that protections (which were obscure in existing scholarship) were the central means by which violence was deterred and addressed in Anglo-Saxon society. The approach late Anglo-Saxon law took to violent offences, particularly homicide, was thus very different not only from the state-punishment model of the later Common Law, but also from the ferociously punitive approach the Anglo-Saxons themselves took to other types of offence, particularly theft.
The central conclusions of my doctoral research suggested that there were some fundamental flaws in the way twentieth-century historians tended to think about early medieval English law. My initial response to this was to produce articles suggesting new approaches to issues where I thought these flawed assumptions had led to significant misunderstandings. Gradually, however, I came to realise this was inadequate: it wasn't good enough to criticise an existing framework of interpretation without offering a fully thought-through alternative. The book I am currently working on – Law and Order in Anglo-Saxon England – is an attempt to do this. It takes the straightforward but surprisingly novel approach of starting with our earliest evidence (the laws of Æthelberht of Kent, written c. 600) and working forwards, building up a picture of Anglo-Saxon legal culture and practice from scratch, rather than (as is traditional) beginning with the better-documented Common Law and working back. The theory is that doing so will reduce the risk of importing anachronistic assumptions.
The conclusions of this book, however, have only sharpened the questions that brought me to the period in the first place. Emphasising that there was a great deal of continuity between the Anglo-Saxon legal systems of the seventh and eleventh centuries makes the issue of why a this stable, well-established legal order was eroded and ultimately replaced after 1066 even more puzzling. Explaining that is next on my agenda, which will involve both picking up some lines of thought developed for my doctoral thesis and establishing some completely new ones. The issue is probably one of culture just as much as it is of law. What interests me most about this transition is the extent to which it was either driven by or brought about changes in the way relatively ordinary people thought about the world. Did people start thinking about their male relatives differently, for instance, when they no longer relied on them for protection in feuds, and indeed could no longer be held responsible for them? Eventually, I hope to develop a research project that will place the legal abolition of feuding in the context of long-term cultural change.
Though much of my work has focused on law in one way or another, I tend to resist the label "legal historian". My aspiration, at least, is to be a historian of medieval society and culture with a particular interest in law. For me, law is interesting primarily as a way of accessing a set of assumptions about the world that is in some important respects very different from our own. I've come to believe laws are a much richer source for historical enquiry than is usually recognised. It may be impossible because of the lack of appropriate source-material to ascertain how, or even whether, the laws that survive were implemented in practice, but that only matters for certain types of question. Laws are sources rich in cultural assumptions – in shared ideas about the world – and interpreted carefully they can tell us about much more than narrowly legal issues.
Since coming to Oxford I've spent a lot of time in the company of anthropologists, and as a result thought much more deeply about the possible roles and meanings law might have in a society. I've found myself becoming interested in periods and places far from medieval England; like most English medievalists I try to keep England's contemporary neighbours in view (particularly Ireland and Francia), but I've also found comparisons from later periods fruitful, from Icelandic sagas, through medieval and colonial India, to modern ethnography of, for example, Yemen, the Sahara and Tibet. I'm currently a co-convenor of an interdisciplinary seminar on the theme of Legalism, now a well-established venue for collaboration between anthropologists and historians with legal interests, to which my own work owes a great deal.
Though in some senses my work is rather limited – I study a single culture, albeit over quite a long period of time – I am hopeful that there is a broader context in the humanities in which this work might be viewed as significant. In the modern world we tend either to see law operating in the context of states or to find it in anthropological studies which touch on legal practice in essentially stateless environments. Early medieval England is very different: we find law operating in a society with a strong central authority conceived rather differently to the modern state. The Anglo-Saxon "state" is unlike anything familiar to the modern world, and it therefore seems to me that (as well as being interesting and worthy of study in its own right) it might have something valuable to contribute to broader debates about law, culture and statehood