Publication at Early English Laws of Papers Preparatory to the Making of English Law, vol. II, by Patrick Wormald.

Posted on 29 September 2014 by Bruce

The publication in 1999 of Patrick Wormald’s first volume of The Making of English Law changed unalterably the ways in which scholars approached the evidence of English law codes.  When Patrick died five years later, the second volume of Making, which was intended to consider the real life meaning and practices of English laws, was left unpublished.  Fortunately, Stephen Baxter and John Hudson have reconstructed as much of volume 2 as is possible and have offered it to Early English Laws for publication online, where it will serve as a reference work of tremendous importance for all who are interested in the legal world of the English up to the time of Magna Carta.  In their introduction to Papers Preparatory to the Making of English Law, Baxter and Hudson explain the genesis of the book and the nature of its parts.  You can find the volume at: <> The volume is freely accessible and only available at Early English Laws.

We are especially grateful for the privilege of publishing Papers Preparatory to the Making of English Law on the Early English Laws site because of a piece of our own history.  Our project started as an idea that arose at the memorial conference for Patrick held at St. Hilda’s College Oxford in 2006.  All recognized because of Patrick’s work how much could now be done with the texts of English law.  By the end of the conference, most of the literary board had been recruited, and soon thereafter the collaboration between the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London and the (then) Centre for Computing in the Humanities at King’s College London (now the Department of Digital Humanities) had been agreed.  Funding from the AHRC made this pious gesture intended to honor Patrick, and to extend his work, a reality.  It seems, then, particularly appropriate that we also are able to bring Patrick’s final work to those of you who are fascinated by the intricate and challenging world of early English law.

Bruce O’Brien

Editing the Instituta Cnuti 5: Peculiar witness or new code?

Posted on 14 December 2012 by Bruce

The most recent piece in this series dealt with distinguishing an original witness from a derivative copy, one of the problems which transcriptions put you in a position to solve.  Another result of accurate transcriptions is the identification of texts whose readings raise a question about whether the text is a copy of the text being edited, or represents an entirely new code.  Such a judgement is subjective, but most would agree that a text showing a significant number of revisions, including significant omissions, the rearrangement of derivative materials, and the incorporation of new materials, was probably thought by its creators and readers to be something quite different than another copy of an existing code.  Some later texts seem to be both: the fourth version of the Leges Edwardi Confessoris, for example, is both an enlargement and revision of the third version of the same code and a component of a completely new entity known to us as the Leges Anglorum.  This problem exists in preconquest Old English texts as well.  For quite some time the laws of Cnut in CCC 201 were considered a defective copy of Cnut’s Winchester code (I-II Cn); we now see it as a separate text representing a preliminary agreement between Cnut and the English after he became king of the whole kingdom, a text we call Cnut 1018 (  These two texts, Cnut 1018 and I-II Cnut, separate based on our current understanding of Archbishop Wulfstan’s working method and the politics of the year 1018.

A similar problem arises with one copy of a text very similar in the majority of its clauses to other copies of the Instituta Cnuti.  This copy, found in Paris, BnF lat. 4771 (MS Cb at, is unique in many of its readings where the readings are revisions, not errors, and such revisions appear throughout the text.  Its beginning (prologue and first chapter) and end (final chapters) have been borrowed from another Latin translation of Cnut, the Consiliatio Cnuti.  One could see this as a much revised copy of the Instituta Cnuti, and ignore the radical alteration of its beginning and end as well as the changes made throughout the text—this is indeed how it has been seen and used.  The alternative is to see it as a separate code, which is how I am treating it for the Early English Laws website.  I have four reasons for doing this.  First, the revisions change the substance of the law in many places.  Second, new chapters have been inserted into the body of the text, chapters which are unsourced and possibly composed for this text.  Third, the addition of new beginning and end radically change the explanation of the genesis of the text.  Fourth and last, the reviser has dropped or rearranged many chapters found in all other copies of the Instituta.  These reasons I feel justify treating the text in this manuscript as a separate code, and one that deserves to be edited on its own.  Of course the connections to the Instituta Cnuti are strong, and these links can be examined and identified in the commentary; it is a text built squarely on the base of a copy of the Instituta.  To distinguish this separate text, I have named it the Colbertine Cnut (with the abbreviation Cn Cb) from the fact that the manuscript was for some time in the Colbertine library before being acquired by the Bibliothèque nationale de France, and is still referred to on occasion as the Colbertine manuscript (hence Liebermann’s use of the abbreviation of Cb for it).  An extended and detailed study of this code, and in particular of the oddities of its contents and paleography, will appear in due course in an article entitled ‘Anglo-Saxon laws and lawmakers in the twelfth century’, which will be published in The Long Twelfth-Century View of the Anglo-Saxon Past, edited by Martin Brett and David Woodman.

Because of the flexibility of digital editing on Early English Laws, I have the freedom to respect eccentric texts such as the Colbertine Cnut as objects worth examining in their own right and to represent each text either with a separate transcription (with its own translation and commentary) as part of an edition, or with its own edition.  For my edition of the Instituta Cnuti, I will have to ignore the witness provided by MS Cb’s text.  Because of the level of revision of the ‘Instituta’ in that manuscript, I cannot use its readings or errors to reconstruct the text of the Instituta Cnuti.  I do intend, however, to include copious cross-references between the editions of the Instituta and the Colbertine Cnut.

The Strange Case of Early English Law

Posted on 21 June 2012 by Jenny

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.

Editing the Instituta Cnuti 4: Original witness or derivative copy? The case of Textus Roffensis and the Rawlinson manuscript.

Posted on 24 March 2012 by Bruce

The first use of transcriptions is to identify derivative copies of the text.  Such copies are no longer witnesses to the archetype, whether directly or through one or more hyparchetypes, and so are of no value in the reconstruction of either archetype or hyparchetypes except in the rare instances where an original witness has been damaged and a copy of it can be used to recreate what has been lost or what is no longer clearly legible. Usually derivation of one copy from another is clear.

For the Instituta Cnuti, the derivative manuscripts are easily identifiable.  In one case, however, this has not been recognized and this error has spawned a hypothetical manuscript and suggested some of its contents.  The case involves the copies of the Instituta Cnuti in Textus Roffensis and in Oxford, Bodleian Library, Rawlinson C.641.  Both have been said to be independent witnesses to a no longer extant copy—a lost legal encyclopedia used as the exemplar for Textus Roffensis.  That there probably was just such an exemplar seems clear.  However, the Rawlinson manuscript (MS Rl) provides no evidence of it as it is a faithful copy of text of In Cn in the Textus (MS H).

The case for derivation of Rl from H is straightforward, and was offered in a footnote in my 2003 Anglo-Norman Studies piece on the Instituta—a location (in the footnote) that virtually ensured no one would see it!  The following expands on that note.

The key are the interlinear glosses shared for the most part by H and the Rl.  Patrick Wormald, in his ‘Laga Eadwardi: the Textus Roffensis in context’, Anglo-Norman Studies 17 (1994/95), pp.  260-2, n. 29, cited the placement of fieri (In Cn II 69) in different places in H and Rl as evidence of Rl’s independence.  He had trusted, it seems, Liebermann’s critical apparatus, but that apparatus was in error.  A closer examination of the manuscripts shows that fieri is placed in both H and Rl in essentially the same place: in H above the line with an insertion mark after uolo, and in Rl in the text after uolo.  Other copies vary, some agreeing, some disagreeing with what is in H and Rl.  For instance, MS T (BL, Cotton Titus A . xxvii) places it in the text after uolo while MS Cb (Paris, BnF, lat. 4771) inverts fieri omni populo to omini populo fieri, which therefore sheds no light.  More broadly, a comparison of readings throughout the entire text of the Instituta reveals no errors that would prove either that Rl is independent of H or that Rl is a copy of H, except perhaps at II 49, where H’s triple insertion of patientis (reduced to two by erasures) is copied by Rl, where it is also  nonsensical.  What makes it likely that Rl is a copy of H is the lack of evidence of independence (principally, there is nothing in Rl that supplies a passage shared with other witnesses, but omitted from H) and the evidence for derivation found in the structure of the texts, where H and Rl share an almost identical pattern of capitals, initials, and rubrics.  Of the 123 capitals that begin chapters in H, Rl lacks only one, at I 6.3; of those initials which extend beyond a single line, Rl’s are almost always the same size as those in H.  Out of the hundreds of smaller capitals that mark the beginnings of clauses in the text, in only seven instances do H and Rl make different choices on what to capitalize.  Thus, to have Rl and H remain independent would require the belief that two teams of scribes and rubricators were exceedingly careful to copy their shared exemplar in exactly the same way.  In textual criticism, the simplest solution is always preferred over the complicated.  To my eyes, it is simpler to conclude that Rl is a faithful copy of H, than that both, copied half a century apart from one another, derive from a lost manuscript.

The text of the Instituta in Rl has, however, been included on the Early English Laws website because it does offer important evidence for the late-twelfth-century reception of the code.

Editing the Instituta Cnuti 3: Transcriptions

Posted on 2 March 2012 by Bruce

Transcriptions produce the raw data from which you calculate the text of the edition.  The purpose is not really to provide alternative readings of this or that passage.  The variants you find will, at times, do this.  Most, however, are errors that have intruded at some point in the transmission of the text, and it is as errors that they are extremely valuable.  Agreements of certain kinds of errors allow the reconstruction of families of texts descended, in a closed recension, from a common hyparchetype.  The errors will also allow you to identify any witnesses that descend directly from the archetype.  These independent witnesses and hyparchetypes together chart the transmission of the text and are the fundamental evidence for the reconstruction of the archetype.

In order to serve a purpose, however, they must be recorded with accuracy.  Errors in the recording of errors will cloud relationships that exist, falsely suggest relationships that do not, and undermine the reconstruction of the text.  Of course, we all make mistakes and will probably make some in recording the readings of each witness.  However, there are at least two safeguards that should be put in place, both common sense steps to reduce our own errors to, hopefully, nil.  First, when we see an error shared between otherwise unrelated witnesses, we go back to the manuscripts to check our readings.  These mistakes are easy to spot when the manuscript families are distinct and patterns of error consequently clear.  This check will help correct any recording error on our part.  Second, once the text has been reconstructed and the apparatus put in, it is a good idea to read the edition back against each of the witnesses, moving back and forth between text and apparatus as you move through the manuscript copy (more on this later).

The greatest weakness of Liebermann’s edition of the Instituta was created when he recorded the readings of his witnesses.  His rate of error with this text was spectacular (see O’Brien, ‘The Instituta Cnuti and the Translation of English Law’, Anglo-Norman Studies 25 [2003], 179-80).  This might seem  surprising since his transcriptions of the Old English texts in his Gesetze were so accurate.  The errors, however, are there, and their presence undermines the persuasiveness of his editorial decisions.

For the edition of the Instituta, I have transcribed 14 witnesses (nos. 1-4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 13, 15, 16, 21, 23, 25, as identified in the previous blog).  There are a few ways to do this.  One way is to use a copy of the standard edition as a kind of template on which to record the errors of each witness.  I could have printed out Liebermann’s edition and then noted on it the readings of each witness.  This is how I worked when I edited the Leges Edwardi.  For the Instituta, I decided not to do this partly because Liebermann’s edition nowhere occurs in one piece.  Instead, it is scattered throughout the Gesetze, wherever its Old English sources appeared, and then, at the end of volume one, the sequence of the chapters as a whole is presented, albeit in abridged form.  The other reason I decided not to do this was that there is a very early and relatively uncorrupt witness available, whose transcription could serve the purpose.  This is the copy in Textus Roffensis, written around 1123 and originally standing at the head of the entire collection.  It is the full text and not one of the witnesses that ends by some accident midway through what Liebermann called book 3.

So my first task was to make an accurate copy of the text in the Textus.  Because I was interested also in the structure of the whole, I incorporated into my transcription all large colored initials, capitals or any kind, and all punctuation.  This transcription then became my base text for recording the errors or variants in all the witnesses.  To keep the process as clean as possible, I recorded the readings of only one witness on each copy of the transcription.  With some texts, you might be perfectly fine to record (with different colored pencils) the variants of a couple of witnesses.  The danger with this is that you might find yourself pulled to resolve illegible bits or suspensions found in the second witness in the same way you did with the first witness.  In my case, the witnesses to the Instituta were sufficiently messy—especially with their spellings of vernacular terms embedded in the Latin—that combining witnesses was impracticable.

When there are too many witnesses, and the text is very long, you would want to take a series of samples as a first stage rather than record all errors in all witnesses for all of the text.  This exploration of the patterns of error might allow you to identify derivative copies which can then be ignored for the edition.  The Instituta, while popular, was not that popular, and the whole was less than 40 pages long (A4 or Letter).

I did eliminate some of my 25 witnesses and brought the total down to 14.  In some cases, early modern copies stated explicitly that they were copies of manuscripts which are still extant.  In some, comparisons of sources and their copies as identified by Diana Greenway confirmed her judgments about which copies were derivative.  All of these, along with the now lost manuscripts, reduced the pile significantly.

Conference success

Posted on 20 September 2011 by Jenny

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…”

New events and projects

Posted on 10 May 2011 by Jenny

The conference season is beginning. Those of you who are heading to the International Congress on Medieval Studies at the Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo this week will be able to meet members of the Early English Laws team at both the digital medievalist poster session on Friday 13 May and also at our session on editing (no. 385) on Saturday 14 May.

In June, my good self will be off to the conference on Law, Violence and Social Bonds at St Andrews University to talk about the Early English Laws project and also about law and rebellions in England and Denmark. The programme for the conference, which looks very exciting, has recently been published and can be found here To find out more about the conference and to register, see

In addition, I have recently come across two projects that might be of interest to those following this blog. First up is the Relmin project, which has received funding for five years from the European Research Council to investigate the legal status of religious minorities in the Euro-Mediterranean world between the 5th and the 15th centuries. The principal investigator, John Tolan (professor of history at L’Université de Nantes) will be giving a paper about the project at our conference in Copenhagen in September (more details here soon). In the meantime if you want to find out more about this exciting project, see, particularly if you are looking for a new research opportunity, as Relmin currently has available positions for doctoral students and post-doctoral researchers.

The second project, Landscapes of Governance, is a three-year interdisciplinary venture bringing archaeology, place-names and written sources together in a national study of early medieval assembly sites. The project is based at University College, London, and headed by Professors Andrew Reynolds and Barbara Yorke. To find out more about this project, please see

More anon.

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

Posted on 23 March 2011 by Eleonora

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

Posted on 18 March 2011 by Jenny

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:

Going Global

Posted on 10 February 2011 by Jenny

There is a distinctly international flavour to our activities in 2011.

We will be holding a session at the 46th International Congress on Medieval Studies, which takes place 12-15 May 2011 at Kalamazoo, Michigan, in the United States. Our session (no. 385) will be held in the morning of Saturday 14 May and features Bruce O’Brien (IHR/University of Mary Washington and Chair of Early English Laws), Lisi Oliver (Louisiana State University), Stefan Jurasinski (SUNY – Brockport) and Eleonora Litta (Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King’s College London). The session will explain the project and highlight editorial issues raised by Old English and Latin texts, as well as explore the process of creating online editions.

In September, we will be jetting off to Copenhagen for a two-day conference entitled ‘Early Medieval Law in Context’. This conference, which is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of the Early English Laws project, is a collaboration with the Nordic Medieval Laws project and will feature Professors Bruce O’Brien (IHR, London/University of Mary Washington), Stefan Brink (Aberdeen), Ditlev Tamm (Copenhagen) and John Hines (Cardiff) among the speakers. We are hoping that the conference will bring together both established academics and postgraduate and postdoctoral scholars to present research, exchange ideas, and participate in discussion of laws, law-making and legal interpretation in Western Europe in the early middle ages. A call for papers has just gone out and registration details will be available on the news and events section of our website soon.

Hope to see as many of you as possible there.