The surviving codes of law from Anglo-Saxon Britain give an amazing insight into the social structure of the English kingdoms. The levels of rule, between the King and the people are laid out in the system of punishments, decision making and legal standing.

One thing that we can't be sure of is whether the laws were documenting and formalising existing tradition, or establishing new governmental rules.

Archeological evidence reveals details of the spread of settlements, the power of individual kings (through the spread of their coinage), and domestic life. But no midden heap or burial treasure can reveal the penalty for fornication with nuns.

The legal and social codes of living, the details of treaties and the practice of the state can only come from written material. Sadly, little documentary evidence has survived from this time: some laws, some amazingly beautiful poetry, Alfred's translations of Boethius and of the Book of Genesis, Bede's history of the English people, some commercial documents, some diplomatic letters (including one from from Charlemagne to Offa), and, of course, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.

The Laws of Alfred and Guthrun, following the Danish king's invasion of East Anglia, his conversion to Christianity, and, finally, treaty-making with the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex show the level of agreement reached, and the institution of rules that worked for a mixture of the native people and the settled invaders. There are hints of the tensions: the number of laws covering theft and accusations are telling.

At the heart of the older law codes is the concept of blood-money, or wer-geld. Justice was still based on retribution and revenge, and the codification of a system of compensation reduced the need for feuds and family battles that upset the delicate balance of feudal loyalties. Everything from lost fingers to broken legs, damaged fingernails to maimed genitals is counted, and costed. The fear of violent revenge probably ensured that the guilty paid up pretty readily.

The endless references to shillings and pennies and scaets shows how widespread the idea of coinage or any fixed unit of value had become, even where there was little or no silver money. The concept of currency was already deeply rooted.

Some of the most interesting law codes are lost. Alfred the Great, for example, paid a great deal of attention and respect to the legislation instigated by Offa. But, there is no trace left of Offa's laws. (Which is a real pity, because he was the most significant of the early kings, unifiying the southern kingdoms into an internationally regarded nation.)

The Laws of Æthelberht
The Laws of Kings Hlothhære and Eadric
The Laws of King Wihtræd
The Laws of King Alfred
The Laws of King Edward the Elder
The Laws of Alfred, Guthrum, and Edward the Elder
The Laws of King Athelstan
The Laws of King Edmund I
The Laws of King Edgar

Anglo-Saxon Laws and Customs: glossary


note: This is taken from my slightly shaky memory of two years of studying Anglo-Saxon history. Other nodes will be properly researched as I dig out my old textbooks and essays, and blow off the 15 years worth of dust.

The surviving text of the laws noded up here are translated into modern english, though retain some anglo-saxon terminology (see the glossary for explanations). The translations are from 1905, and are very much out of copyright.

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