The wonder of the vernacular

Occasionally it is nice to be reminded of just how lucky we are to have such a large collection of English law codes and legal treatises surviving from the period before 1215. In particular, the large number of legal texts available in the vernacular continues to amaze and interest scholars and students across the world. In Scandinavia law codes were also taken down in the vernacular and as a consequence they provide a particularly good match for points of comparison and contrast with the early English material.

One example of this is Äldre Västgötalagen (the Elder Westrogothic Law), the earliest text written in Swedish. This particular law is known to have been written down already in the 1220s by the law man (or possibly law speaker?) – Eskil Magnusson. Eskil was a member of a large noble family with an almost mythical history called the Folkungar (lit. ‘folk kings’), whose landholdings seem to have been focused in the areas of Östergötland and Västergötland  (east and west Götaland), spanning the southern parts of the kingdom of Sweden. Ironically, Eskil is not best remembered for his importance in preserving the landlaw, but rather he is known as the older half-brother of Birger jarl, regent of the kingdom in the 1240s and 1250s and credited as the founder of the capital Stockholm.

Although the law code was put down in writing in the 1220s, the oldest exemplar now extant is a book from c. 1290, which may have been a working copy actually used at the law assembly (the thing). The book may have been one of an original 30 or so similar copies made for use at the various local assemblies in the region covered by the law. Now, the law book usually resides in the Swedish royal library (Kungliga biblioteket) in Stockholm but it is currently on tour in Skara, Västergötland – its county of origin. 

Like many of the Anglo-Saxon law codes, compensation to victims stood at the heart of Västgötalagen. For instance, if one killed a free man (that is one from Västergötland) one would pay a fine (bøtæ) of 21 marks. The fine for killing a Swede (a man from Svealand) was 131/3 marks, and for killing a Dane or a Norwegian it was 9 marks. The similarities with Anglo-Saxon law codes are apparent. For instance, according to the laws of Æthelberht, king  of Kent c.560-c.616, the killing of a free man resulted in having to pay compensation of 50 shillings. Similarly, in the treaty between Alfred, king of Wessex 871-899, and Guthrum, Viking king of East Anglia (d. c. 890), the price for killing a man (Dane or English) was set at 8 half-marks.

It is hoped that our forthcoming conference in Copenhagen in September will continue to explore some of the similarities and contrasts between the English and Scandinavian laws. In the meantime, if you happen to be able to read one of the Scandinavian languages, you can find out more about the tour of the Västgötalagen through this link:

Tags: , , ,

Leave a Response