Posts Tagged ‘medieval law codes’

The Strange Case of Early English Law

21 June 2012

With the success of recent series such as Garrow’s Law or Silk, the subjects of law and legal history, which are often thought dry and dull, have been given an injection of colour and also a new, wider, audience. The Strange Case of the Law is the latest legal programme to hit our small screens and not only is it factual but it actually makes for good viewing.

Narrated by Harry Potter (no, not the wizard, the barrister!), the first episode traces the earliest history of English law and legal practice, from the reign of Æthelbert in the early seventh century through the reforms of Henry II and Magna Carta of 1215 to the end of the thirteenth century and the rise of the legal profession. It highlights documents such as the Textus Roffensis and, of course, Magna Carta, but also the language and landscape of law, and archaeological finds that reveal the more gruesome side of early English legal practice. The programme also features interviews with a number of well-known scholars – Carole Hough on compensation in Anglo-Saxon law codes; Andrew Reynolds on execution sites; John Hudson on the ordeal and Paul Brand on the financial exactions of Henry II.

There is nothing really strange in all of this, which did make me ponder the title of the programme, although I did find out about an unusual way of playing football. Nevertheless, the history of English law is the history of English society, as we’re told in one of the opening scenes, therefore, don’t miss the second instalment next Thursday on BBC 4 at 9pm.

Conference success

20 September 2011

There is nothing like reinvigorating your research by attending a conference with some high-quality and thought-provoking papers. I have certainly come back from Denmark and our conference, Early Medieval Law in Context, with lots of ideas for the project stemming from the papers I heard and the discussions I had with other delegates.

The standard of the papers was very high and they were also wide ranging. Perhaps the most pleasing part was to see the many interpretations of ‘ in context’, which included, to name a few, social, historiographical, codicological, palaeographical, and digital. We have already decided to publish some of these papers and more details about this will follow soon.

Just as important, the setting of the conference at the beautiful Carlsberg Academy in Copenhagen, formerly the family residence of the founder of the Carlsberg Breweries, provided a most congenial and conducive way to spend two days. The staff at the Academy were friendly, helpful and efficient, the food was great (can I especially mention the cakes and the dessert?!), the weather was fantastic, and, I think the open bar may have helped too. In any case, the Academy certainly lived up to its long tradition of supporting scholars of all subjects and, on a more personal note, I’ve made some interesting and, what I hope will be, long-lasting contacts. In short, as they say in the advert, “if Carlsberg made conferences…”

Making ends meet, or: can the Early English Laws fit into a database?

23 March 2011

Apart from the editing interface Jenny blogged about in December, and the collaborative nature of the resource we are building, one of the biggest challenges for the team at the Department for Digital Humanities at King’s College (formerly Centre for Computing in the Humanities) has been modelling a database which could be the basis for the complex set of relationships offered by the transmission of the Early English Laws, and the range of extra material each edition is going to offer.

One of the most complicated tasks was to create a common vocabulary for “everyday” philological terms, such as text, version, witness, and the different kinds of material offered by the resource, i.e. text and scanned images, into the structured reality of a relational database.
For example what constitutes a text? Is an Old English translation of a Latin law code to be considered independently or do they need to be considered part of the same nucleus, hence have the same basic database identifier? How can scanned images of medieval manuscripts be distinguished from scanned images of Liebermann’s nineteenth century editions?
We solved this problem by identifying each component of the text/image universe as entities, and from these building an entity-relationship model (an abstract and conceptual representation of the data). Our model borrowed elements from the FRBR (Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records) model, a conceptual entity-relationship model (developed by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA). This has proved to be very useful in our attempt to discover and separate off hidden conceptual layers.

The Early English Laws project represents an excellent example case study of an issue a digital humanist is often facing: how do you model critical editions from a conceptual point of view? The case study is so interesting that our experience with the Early English Laws will be presented at the international Digital Humanities conference (DH2011) in what we hope is going to be a visually exciting A0 poster.

More on the intricacies of our collaborative editorial tool coming soon.

The wonder of the vernacular

18 March 2011

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: