English Professor Publishes Essay

Napoleon Crossing the Alps (105)

Stefan Jurasinski (Professor of English) published “Making or Declaring Law? Legislative Intent and Privileged Speech in Anglo-Saxon England,” in a special issue of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies whose essays challenge the prohibition on regarding authorial intent as a valid category of literary or legal analysis.

The reign of Napoleon I had profound effects on European thought, some of which are only now becoming apparent. This essay shows how the study of early English law as we know it today was born in the immediate aftermath of the Napoleonic Code, which created a craze for similar national codifications elsewhere in Western Europe. German scholars recoiled in disgust from these developments and created a novel theory of the origins of law. Under this new theory laws were, like language itself, the spontaneous outgrowths of the popular will rather than the products of deliberation by kings, councils or even legislative assemblies: no person or group of people could be given credit for the existence of anything we call “law.” These scholars and their students went on to produce the first modern editions of laws issued by Anglo-Saxon kings.

In the 200 years since, commentary has rarely failed to repeat their view that even kings such as Alfred the Great had no significant role in making their own laws (even as the texts of these laws insist otherwise). The essay goes on to explore what pre-Norman Conquest legislators actually thought they were doing when they devised and issued laws.

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Stefan Jurasinski (sjurasin@brockport.edu)

Posted: November 14, 2023