Saxon Laws

Like men, women are defined in laws according to social class. Indeed, the precision with which the different classes of women are identified retains unique information about the structure of Anglo-Saxon society. It is only from a reference to four classes of widows in Æbt 75 that we learn that the Kenyan nobility was divided into four ranks and not three reflected in other sources, while the punishments for sleeping with three classes of slaves in Æbt 10, 11 and 16 show that similar subtleties of gradation applied to the unfree. Women`s studies in Anglo-Saxon England draw on a number of sources, including literary texts, ecclesiastical writings, inscriptions, and place names.1 In all these areas, women play a lesser role than men, but it is not certain that this reflects male control of society as a whole or of the sources themselves. Similar ambiguities apply to evidence from legal acts such as statutes and laws, which are used as a focal point for individual studies2 and with archaeological and other data in the most comprehensive treatment of Anglo-Saxon women to date.3 In no preserved code of law, the proportion of references to women corresponds to Anglo-Saxon demography. Among the existing Anglo-Saxon laws, those of Ethelbert, Hlothere and Eadric, Wihtred, Ine, Edward the Elder, Athelstan, Edmund and Edgar are mainly of the nature of changes of habits. Those of Alfred, Ethelred, Canute and those described as Edward the Confessor aspire to the character of the codes; but English law, from its first to its last phase, has never possessed an authoritative, constructive, systematic or almost exhaustive declaration, as the great authors of civil and canon laws, Alfonso the Wise or Napoleon Buonaparte, have attempted. The following excerpts are translated by Mr. Benjamin Thorpe, in the Ancient Laws and Institutes of the Anglo-Saxons. Over time, natural associations dissolved and mixed, giving rise to the elaborate legislation of later Anglo-Saxon kings.

Rules are laid down for the sale of cattle in the presence of witnesses. Regulations that prosecute thieves and use guarantors to justify the sale of movable property are further expressions of the difficulties of having peaceful sex. Personal guarantee groups appear to complement and substitute for greater collective responsibility. The Hlaford and its employees are not only an institution of private patronage, but also of surveillance to get their hands on criminals and suspects. The Landrica occupies the same part in a territorial constituency. Finally, the laws of the 10th and 11th centuries show the beginnings of the Frankenpfandvereine, which influenced a significant part of the feudal period. 3. Even with a general overview of the case-law available to us, one can only be astonished at the peculiarities of the division of legal subjects. The questions that seem to us to be of paramount importance and that occupy an important place in our legal books are almost completely absent from Anglo-Saxon law or take a back seat. If it is impossible here to give even a complete or precise overview of the field – a task made almost impossible by the arbitrary way in which the paragraphs are divided, by the difficulty of inserting ordinances in Old English into modern titles and by the need to count certain paragraphs several times on different subjects – a brief statistical analysis of the content of royal codes and laws as can be looked at with insight. Anglo-Saxon law consisted of three components: laws and collections promulgated by the king, authoritative statements of habit found in the Norman Domesday Book, and private compilations of legal rules and decrees.

The emphasis was on criminal law rather than private law, although some documents dealt with problems of public administration, public order, and ecclesiastical affairs. The oldest Anglo-Saxon legal systems, particularly those of Kent and Wessex, show a close relationship with the laws of the North Sea peoples – the Saxons, Frisians and Scandinavians. We thus find a division of social ranks that recalls the triple gradation of neighboring peoples (cf. OE eorl “noble”, ċeorl “free”, þēow “serf”, Nordic jarl, karl, þræll, frisian etheling, friling, lēt), and not the double Frankish (baro “free”, lætus “serf”), nor the easy distinction between the High Germans and the Lombards. In later history there is a great similarity between the legislation of the capitulars of Charlemagne and his successors on the one hand, and the acts of Alfred, Edward the Elder, Æthelstan and Edgar on the other, a similarity caused less by direct borrowings from Frankish institutions than by the similarity of political problems and conditions. Frankish law became a powerful modifier element in English legal history after the Conquest, when it was widely introduced into the royal and feudal courts. The Scandinavian invasions brought with them many northern legal customs, especially in densely populated areas with Danes. The Domesday survey of Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire, Norfolk, etc. shows remarkable variations in local organization and justice (lagmen, sokes) and great peculiarities in terms of status (socmen, free men), while we learn from laws and some charters a certain influence on criminal law (nidings-vaerk), special uses in fines (lahslit), peacekeeping, certification and guarantee of acts (faestermen) can recognize.

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