What do Superman and law enforcement have in common? That’s probably a “duh” moment for Superman fans, because of course our caped crusader stands for “truth, justice and the American way”!
Several actors have played Superman over the years, from Kirk Alyn to Dean Cain, but interestingly, it’s George Reeves and Christopher Reeve, two well-known Supermen, who give us a historical perspective on the superhero’s law-abiding roots. Keep in mind that George Reeves was born “George Brewer,” but for the sake of today’s connection, we’ll roll with his stage name.
We’re heading back to Anglo-Saxon England, the period of time from the end of the Roman occupation until William the Conqueror, the first Norman king, showed up in 1066.
According to “Exploring Government” a curriculum written by Ray Notgrass, Anglo-Saxon kings “utilized administrative districts called shires to give them greater control over local areas.” Representatives in these areas were called earls, landowners who commanded the local militia. Earls are still around – the late Princess Diana’s brother, Charles, is the 9th Earl Spencer – although their duties have changed considerably over the centuries.
Keeping a lid on things were peace officers called reeves.
When William the Conqueror showed up, he brought with him French ways, and decided that counts should act as local representatives instead of earls. Instead of an administrative district called a shire, the count was now in charge of a county. The reeves didn’t get a name change, but the pronunciation of their job changed. Over the centuries, “Shire-reeve” morphed, becoming “sheriff.”
And today, sheriffs are still generally in charge of a county – we have Anglo-Saxon England to thank for those terms.
And isn’t it interesting that Christopher Reeve, along with others having the surname “Reeves” or “Reeve” might well have had ancestors in law enforcement way back when?
Minus the cape, it seems we’ve always needed someone around to keep a lid on things. Give a friendly wave to your neighborhood reeve next time he drives by!