The corpus of law texts surviving from tenth-century England reveals a society that sought to maintain public order without anything resembling a police force. Rather than envisioning order as the product of state coercion, the kingdom’s upper-elite legislators understood society to attend to its own ordering on a local scale through a mix of individual action and communal self-regulation. This tenth-century idealized legal order is unlikely to hold much appeal today; it combined alarmingly libertarian assumptions about the legitimacy of lethal male violence with a harshly punitive communitarian approach to theft, involving both routinized execution and theft-prevention measures that intruded heavily on the lives of the ordinary people. Yet there is much to suggest that this vision of order was rarely realized, and that communal control meant this culture’s cruel fantasies of retributive justice often ended up yielding in the face of the more humane sentiments embedded in local interpersonal networks.

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