Saturday, May 20, 2017

Brief Thoughts on Anglo-Saxon Law Codes



Reading the various edicts and declarations in the “Laws” section of the Anglo-Saxon World Anthology was a bit of an experience. I am no legal expert, but it is as the section introduction makes clear: “One does not need to be in the legal profession to find the Anglo-Saxon law code fascinating” (24). There is a lot of minutia which reinforces the fact that these law codes were the basis for our modern code. While obvious much is different, we can see similarities in how property was treated and regarded and how religious practices intertwined with political necessity.

                What I saw was a great emphasis on monetary payments as a form of punishment; whether one was laboring on the holy day, breaking the church’s protection, or stealing food, or even defaming the king, the punishment was usually either a fine or flogging; one can almost see how things like this evolved into contemporary fines for all sorts of minor violations. Combined with the insights on foreigners and marriage, it is eerie how direct one can chase the path from the past to today.

                Since this section is so short, and the other two sections do not deal with much that I find fascinating, I wanted to share one or two noteworthy articles from “The Laws of Wihtred”.

                Point #3 says: “Men living in illicit cohabitation are to turn with a right life with repentance of sins, or to be excluded from the fellowship of the church”. 

                I wonder what this means. Specifically, if it is a pot-shot at same-sex relations in addition to incestuous and adulterous relations. I feel that it is but that may also be giving the law too much credit. I actually have a book on homosexuality in the Anglo-Saxon period, so I should read it to find out.

                Point #12 says: “If a husband sacrifices to devils without his wife’s knowledge, he is to be liable to pay all his goods and healsfang; if they both sacrifice to devils, they are to be reliable to pay healsfang and all their goods” (27).

                This stood out the most out of all the points. Since I have been studying a bit up on witchcraft lately in the ancient, medieval, and early modern periods, and know a bit of the religious hoopla around devils and Satan, I find this odd.

Now, I have no idea what “healsfang” is but the edict does not seem to condemn the sacrifice to devils. This actually makes sense; after all, the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity was a fraught process and even when those who convert did adhere to Christianity, it was not uncommon for them to still maintain pagan alters and practices (so it was essentially a hybrid theology, though not a condoned one by the Church officials). I am just curious on the idea of ‘devils’, which, though I assume is an encoding of the old, pagan Gods, is still a loaded term without it being used in an exclusively condemnatory manner.

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