In the past fifty years or so, it has become common for scholars of Anglo-Saxon England to (first of all) claim that Wulfstan’s Institutes of Polity is of central importance to the Old English canon, and (secondly) to complain that it is strangely neglected by the wider academic community. This dissertation traces the reasons for the neglect and attempts to correct it. Most of the neglect stems from the fact that no suitable modern edition exists; because of this, the first step in the process of remediation is to return to original manuscripts that contain it.
This return to the manuscripts provides valuable new information, and allows us to draw several new conclusions about the genesis of the text and the broader social project contained therein. In the first place, we can see the Polity is not a stand-alone text: it is part of a wider project of social renewal. This project was rooted in clerical and liturgical reform, and looked forward to the later eleventh-century clash between regnum and sacerdotium. Even more importantly, the texts in the manuscripts help to connect Wulfstan’s writings with the two most important developments in social theory from the continent: namely, the Three Orders of Society and the Peace of God movement. Comparison with the continental developments allows us to view Polity as yet another sub-Carolingian response to the crises of the early eleventh century.
The dissertation opens up three prospects for future research. The connections with continental political thought should be pursued in order to gain a fuller understanding of the interdependency of English and continental thought. Moreover, the dissertation reveals the need for a new edition of Polity: this should be completed as soon as possible. Finally, once Polity is revealed as a coherent and unified text, specialized studies can be made to analyze it as a literary text — rather than simply as a historical curiosity.