In This Article Anglo-Saxon Law

  • Introduction
  • Editions

Medieval Studies Anglo-Saxon Law
by
Andrew Rabin
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0269

Introduction

A larger body of law survives from Anglo-Saxon England than from any other early medieval community. The standard edition of early English legislation, the Gesetze der Angelsachsen of Felix Liebermann (Liebermann 1903–1916), contains roughly seventy pre-Conquest texts, to which can be added well over a thousand Charters, Writs, and Wills. If one also includes the numerous surviving quasi-legislative texts, legal formularies and rituals, and homilies derived from legal sources, it is possible to gain a sense of both the diversity of Anglo-Saxon legal composition and the centrality of such texts to pre-Conquest culture. Yet the importance of the Anglo-Saxon legal corpus lies in more than just its size. Linguists observe that the legislation of Æthelbert (c. 604) is the earliest substantial text to survive in Old English, while monastic charters of the 11th and early 12th centuries are among the latest. Historians of the English Renaissance point out that the editio princeps of Anglo-Saxon law, William Lambarde’s Archaionomia (1568), was one of the first publications to result from the 16th-century revival of Old English scholarship and that a copy now held by the Folger Shakespeare Library even contains what may be a signature of Shakespeare himself. Americanists note the influence of Old English law on the thought of Thomas Jefferson while scholars of 19th-century literature see its traces in the writings of Henry Adams. Nonetheless, this material has yet to attract the scholarly interest given to either the literature of the period or the legal developments of the later Middle Ages. The centuries before the Norman Conquest rarely feature in courses on legal history and introductory Old English students receive only the most cursory exposure to pre-Conquest laws and charters. Despite its comparatively low profile, however, the study of Anglo-Saxon law offers valuable insight into early English concepts of Royal Authority and political identity. It reveals both the capacities and limits of the king’s regulatory power, and in so doing, provides crucial evidence for the process by which disparate kingdoms gradually merged to become a unified English state. More broadly, pre-Conquest legal texts shed light on the various ways in which cultural norms were established, enforced, and, in many cases, challenged. And perhaps most importantly, they provide unparalleled insight into the experiences of Anglo-Saxon England’s diverse inhabitants, both those who enforced the law and those subject to its sway.

Editions

The corpus of pre-Conquest law principally consists of two kinds of texts: royal legislation and charters. The former category includes the codified rules issued by the king in consultation with the royal council, while the latter is comprised of writs, wills, contracts, deeds, and other documents composed for the purpose of transferring property and prerogatives from one party to another. The forms each of these categories took could vary considerably, as did the means by which they were produced and the kinds of legal practices they recorded. While royal legislation reflects the political priorities and ideological aspirations of the ruling court, the evidence of the charters suggests that the law could look very different in practice. Although as of this date approximately a century old, Liebermann 1903–1916 remains the most authoritative edition of early English law. The result of more than twenty-five years of research and covering more than 180 manuscripts, not only is it the most complete edition of early law, but it must also be ranked among the greatest achievements in the history of scholarly editing. Unfortunately, however, both its size and the linguistic facility it requires (German, Latin, and Old English) means that its use poses considerable challenges for all but the most advanced student. More accessible English-language editions are Attenborough 1922 and Robertson 1925, neither of which compare with Liebermann 1903–1916 in authority or comprehensiveness but which are far easier to use. The royal legislation of the 7th-century Kentish kingdom has also been reedited in Oliver 2002, a volume which reveals the considerable advances in our understanding of this material since the work of Felix Liebermann. The corpus of charters is currently being reedited in the Anglo-Saxon Charters series published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the British Academy. These volumes demand considerable expertise, though, and the editions are not accompanied by translations. Those seeking more accessible, yet still authoritative editions should consult Whitelock 1930, Robertson 1956, and Harmer 1952. Beginning students and advanced scholars alike will also find invaluable The Electronic Sawyer Database, a massive resource containing texts, notations, and bibliographies for the entire corpus of pre-Conquest charters. Finally, a broader sense of the evolution of early English government can be gained through the texts edited in Whitelock 1979 and Whitelock 1981. Designed to complement one another, each volume offers a selection of legislation, charters, and ecclesiastical documents that illustrate the development of English political and religious institutions during the Anglo-Saxon period.

  • Attenborough, F. L., ed. and trans. The Laws of the Earliest English Kings. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1922.

    E-mail Citation »

    English edition and translation of Anglo-Saxon legislation produced between c. 604 and c. 939 (the reigns from King Æthelberht to King Æthelstan).

  • The Electronic Sawyer Database.

    E-mail Citation »

    A searchable open-access database containing texts, bibliographies, and in certain cases translations for the corpus of Anglo-Saxon charters. Although not updated as frequently as it ought to be, still an essential resource for charter studies.

  • Harmer, Florence E, comp and ed. Anglo-Saxon Writs. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1952.

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    English edition and translation of the surviving corpus of royal, aristocratic, and ecclesiastical writs. The commentary is extensive and valuable.

  • Liebermann, Felix, comp. and ed. Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen. 3 vols. Halle, Germany: Scientia Aalen, 1903–1916.

    E-mail Citation »

    Foremost edition of early English law. Includes royal legislation from Æthelberht to Henry I as well as Norman compilations such as Quadripartitus. Three volumes containing text and German translation, glossary, and commentary.

  • Oliver, Lisi. The Beginnings of English Law. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.3138/9781442680531E-mail Citation »

    English edition and translation of the laws of the kings of Kent, with extensive commentary. Offers a significantly revised view of the texts based on modern scholarship.

  • Robertson, A. J., ed and trans. The Laws of the Kings of England from Edmund to Henry I. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1925.

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    English edition and translation of royal legislation from the 10th through the 12th century. Intended to complement Attenborough 1922.

  • Robertson, A. J., ed. and trans. Anglo-Saxon Charters. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1956.

    E-mail Citation »

    English edition and translation of selected Old English charters, with extensive notes.

  • Whitelock, Dorothy, ed. and trans. Anglo-Saxon Wills. Cambridge Studies in English Legal History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1930.

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    English edition and translation of the surviving corpus of Old English wills. Particularly valuable for the extensive notes and lengthy introduction.

  • Whitelock, Dorothy, ed. and trans. English Historical Documents. Vol. 1, C. 500–1042. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

    E-mail Citation »

    Anthology of translations of Anglo-Saxon legal and ecclesiastical texts. Texts selected to illustrate the evolution of English legal institutions, church hierarchy, and cultural identity.

  • Whitelock, Dorothy, ed and trans. Councils and Synods with Other Documents Relating to the English Church: 871–1066. Oxford: Clarendon, 1981.

    E-mail Citation »

    Editions and English translations of legal and ecclesiastical documents illustrating the development of the English church during the later Anglo-Saxon period. Crucial resource for the emergence of English governing institutions.

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