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Law-codes

Anglo-Saxon law-codes come in a variety of forms, from the royal laws whose promulgation was attributed to specific kings -- although it is unlikely that the laws were actually drafted by them (Richards 1986, 172) -- to treaties, (now) anonymous codes, and regulatory material defining the rights and duties of people of different social stations. The standard edition of the Anglo-Saxon law-codes is currently that of Felix Liebermann, Early English Laws project. From the initial promulgation of the laws -- whether as unofficial records of lawmaking or as part of a literate legal system (Wormald 1977, 1999a, 279-80, Keynes 1990, 226-57) -- into the twelfth century, manuscripts containing Old English copies of law-codes were produced as the law-codes were repeatedly copied and re-copied, updated and adapted. In the manuscript contexts in which the law-codes were copied, they are transmitted with other law-codes, histories and lists, and in association with ecclesiastical preaching materials (Richards 1986, 171-87; Wormald 1999b, 162-263).

A large number of the surviving Old English versions of the Anglo-Saxon law-codes are copied in twelfth-century manuscripts, the majority of these in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College (henceforth CCCC) 383, a collection of law-codes and related texts, and Medway, Rochester Cathedral A. 3. 5, the Textus Roffensis, which comprises a collection of law-codes and historical lists coupled with the Rochester Cathedral cartulary. In addition to these, London, British Library, Harley 55 contains a copy of I-II Cnut and three law-codes are included in CCCC 190. For many of the law-codes -- such as the laws of Æthelbert, Hloþere and Eadric, and Wihtred, the treaty between Ælfred and Guðrum, Rectitudines Singularum Personarum and Gerefa -- the copies contained in the twelfth-century manuscripts are the only surviving witnesses. Other law-codes, such as the Ælfred-Ine Domboc, have a broader manuscript tradition, and the fluidity of the textual tradition and the changing manuscript contexts in which they were copied can be directly examined in order to understand the changing legal, scholarly and social contexts in which they were produced and used.

The larger collections of law-codes and related texts (CCCC 383 and the Textus Roffensis along with the mid-eleventh century collection, London, British Library, Cotton Nero A. i. (A) and the twelfth-century Latin translation of the Anglo-Saxon laws known as the Quadripartitus) have been described by Patrick Wormald as 'legal encyclopaedia'. He defines this category of manuscript as containing 'nothing but laws' [original emphasis] and arising as a result of 'circumstances that the conquest had created' (Wormald 1999b, 224). Mary P. Richards interprets CCCC 383 and the Textus Roffensis in a similar fashion, arguing that they were a 'practical necessity', produced as 'tools to govern a people with alien customs' and which ultimately 'assisted the rulers in [the] transition from Anglo-Saxon to Norman institutions' (1986, 187). Wormald's argument that these collections are exclusively legal can be tempered by the historical lists and cathedral charters incorporated into Textus Roffensis and of CCCC 383, if the legal status is queried of the final items in the manuscript and the additions of the second quarter of the twelfth century.

The motivation for these collections as primarily post-conquest responses to governing an alien legal setting must also be critically assessed: The earliest of the so-called legal encyclopaedias, BL Cotton Nero A. i (A) almost certainly predates the Conquest (and is early enough even to be omitted from the Production and Use of English Manuscripts 1060 to 1220 catalogue). CCCC 383 and Textus Roffensis were copied from exemplars that were themselves mini-collections of law-codes ((Wormald 1999b, 232-48). The tendency to collate law-codes into single manuscripts therefore predates Norman influence and cannot be a direct response to it. Likewise, recent trends in the interpretation of Old English -- exemplified by this project -- demonstrate how widespread the production and use of a wide variety of Old English texts was throughout the twelfth century. In light of this, the copying of Anglo-Saxon law-codes does not seem primarily to be a new and confused elite trying to manage their newly acquired populace, but instead a part of a larger cultural phenomena. The historical associations in the manuscript contexts are still present as are the ecclesiastical connections -- Textus Roffensis being produced and used at Rochester Cathedral, and CCCC 383 possibly being produced at or for St Paul's Cathedral, London. What can be added to these manuscript contexts is the collation of larger numbers of law-codes to a single point of reference, and the amending of the manuscripts' mise-en-page to facilitate reference and study. Again these transitions are not uniquely legal, but reflect some of the broader movements seen in the production and use of manuscripts in the twelfth century (Parkes 1991, 35).

Thom Gobbitt, Leeds

 

Select bibliography

Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, ed. by Felix Liebermann, 3 vols (Halle: Numeyer, 1903-1916)

Keynes, Simon, 'Royal Government and the Written Word in Late Anglo-Saxon England', in The Uses of Literacy in Early Medieval Europe, ed. Rosamond McKitterick (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 226-57

'Laws', in Early English Laws http://www.earlyenglishlaws.ac.uk/laws/index.html [accessed 27 August 2010]

Parkes, Malcolm B., 'The Influence of the Concepts of Ordinatio and Compilatio on the Development of the Book', in Scribes, Scripts and Readers, ed. M. B. Parkes (London: Hambledon, 1991), pp. 35-70

Richards, Mary P., 'The Manuscript Contexts of the Old English Laws: Tradition and Innovation', in Studies in Earlier Old English Prose, ed. Paul E. Szarmach (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1986), pp. 171-92

Wormald, Patrick, 'Lex Scripta and Verbum Regis: Legislation and Germanic Kingship, from Euric to Cnut' in Early Medieval Kingship, ed. P. H. Sawyer and Ian N. Wood (Leeds: University of Leeds Press, 1977), pp. 1-43

Wormald, Patrick,  'Laws', in The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Michael Lapidge, John Blair, Simon Keynes and Donald Scragg (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999a), pp. 279-80

Wormald, Patrick, The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the Twelfth Century (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999b)