Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Law Enforcement in Anglo-Saxon England

Anglo-Saxon ideas of justice were not as idealistic as our own.




On this topic, there is not much to say. Mostly, because, the idea of both ‘laws’ and ‘enforcement’ were largely separate constructs. So, the conception of a group of people to enforce laws simply did not exist for much of the Anglo-Saxon period.

                Even so, if we were to take a stretch and account for tribal customs, then perhaps we might arrive at a deeper understanding. Unfortunately, our understanding of Anglo-Saxon tribes is lacking (or at least my moment of research it is, anyways). We know that Anglo-Saxon tribes operated along values which stressed honor and vengeance; in a certain sense, we could describe this code of conduct as pseudo-laws. After all, the failure to avenge the death of a loved one would result in dishonor, hence it has a kind of legal aura to it in the sense that such it was a codified mode of behaving associated with custom and social formations.

                Going a bit deeper along this train of thoughts, we perhaps could classify religious structures, such as monasteries, and their accompanying dogma and theology, as a kind of laws; enforcement could be seen both in the ‘less than actual’, as arrests and imprisonment, since beliefs in Hell swayed behavior, but also in the concrete ‘actual’ sense since the disseminators of such faith would need to be controlled by a centralized holding. But if we were to entertain this conceptualization then we must also admit that it is a kind of law enforcement only relevant to a small minority of the population.

                But when we think of laws and enforcement as we do in the contemporary sense, it is not until late in Anglo-Saxon history that positions were created which we in modernity might recognize. Not until the mid-tenth century, around the time of King Edgar’s reign, when a great deal of land was ruled by a single house and the idea of a English identity began to emerge, that we see laws specifically targeting thieves. Under King Ó”thelred, such laws would be augmented by empowering bailiffs (‘reeves’), those who often collected taxes in the shires; a position such as this eventually became known as a ‘sheriff’ and extends well into our present day as the legal role was enforced and refined to include more and more specific duties. Though, it should be said that the original template for this position originated earlier in the Anglo-Saxon age with the existence of the alderman (Blair 63, The Anglo-Saxon Age: A Very Short Introduction).

                So, to conclude, though there is not much to say in regards to law enforcement in Anglo-Saxon England at this time, we have been able to extrapolate some take-away points from the scant bit of information we have probed at this moment in our research. We saw that maybe codifications of violence as well as theological work perhaps could be considered law enforcement in their own laws. But we also examined, briefly, the role of actual law enforcement officials and how they became empowered from a previous age’s form of social organization. Though hardly decisive, it is in the very least fascinating.

Works Cited
Blair, John. The Anglo-Saxon Age: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford U.P, 2000. Print.