Most ancient civilizations that influence our modern societies influence by trace. That is, if a society retains anything over centuries or millennia of time, it’s usually no more than a few core ideas cloaked in new rhetoric. The Anglo-Saxons, however, left much of their law system as the basis of the current English and American common law.
Some aspects of Anglo-Saxon law will sound ridiculous and naive to our cynical modern minds, but remember that the Anglo-Saxons were not stupid, “dark age", heathens. They show an amazing level of artistry and thought.
The invading tribes that became the English carried with them a well-developed legal system from their original lands on the Continent. All groups of freemen were divided into groups of ten people called a ‘tithing’ and it was expected to meet regularly. From those ten, one of the men was selected to be in charge of the tithing and was referred to as the ‘tithingman’.
A group of ten tithings was called a “Hundred" and the freeman that presided over the Hundred was called the “Hundredman". Hundreds were grouped again into Shires with a Shire Reeve presiding. After the Norman invasion the Shire Reeve’s title would modify slightly and become “Sheriff". The Reeve would represent the concerns of his constituents to the King and his Witan, or council.
There was no formal constabulary until after the Norman invasion, however, the Hundred was in charge of promoting legitimate trading and discouraging cattle theft. The Hundred could form something similar to a posse of men, taking one or two from each tithing, to pursue and capture cattle thieves. The Hundred could also order herdsmen that didn’t report suspicious cattle movements to be flogged.
Bringing suit in an Anglo-Saxon court was a highly formal affair. Any mistake could result in the suit being lost. However, most lawsuits took a fraction of the time lawsuits take now. Suits were generally handled in the Hundredcourt, the court set up by the Hundred. However, if the case involved more than the local area, or the local court couldn’t come to a decision, the case could be sent to the Shirecourt for the Shire Reeve to deal with.
The first thing the court tried to determine was whether or not the crime warranted the court’s time. The Hundredcourt dealt with many things to keep the shire running smoothly and lawsuits weren’t allowed to take up a lot of the court’s time.
Seeking justice was left up to the injured person or their family. Lawsuits themselves included a plaintiff (the one doing the accusing) and a defendant (the one being accused). Lawyers were nonexistent. The plaintiff started everything by swearing an oath, making the accusation and then having the defendant summoned to appear before the court. If the defendant didn’t show up, the plaintiff would have to repeat his oath and accusation and have another date set. The defendant could avoid appearing for a while doing this, but most likely the court would just lose their patience and declare that the defendant had lost the suit by default.
Denial was always considered stronger than accusation. In most cases, the defendant could bring “oath-helpers" forward to support his innocence. The severity of the charge determined how many oath-helpers were needed to prove innocence. Evidence didn’t need to be presented, however, only the honor and words of the oath-helpers involved. Realize, though, that evidence didn’t need to be shown because everyone probably already knew the evidence. Most likely they all lived within the same village or small area. And, if the defendant was actually guilty, finding oath-helpers to support his claims of innocence would be much harder.
During the trial, the defendant swore: "By the Lord, I am guiltless both of deed and instigation of the crime with which _____ charges me". The oath-helpers simply support that: "By the Lord, the oath is pure and not false that _____ swore". That was usually considered enough to prove innocence and the court would move on to the next bit of business.
There were times when the defendant wasn’t considered “oath-worthy"; like the defendant was a known troublemaker, or had been caught in the act. In this case, the oath (or burden of proof) would go to the plaintiff. The plaintiff would swear: "In the name of Almighty God, so I stand here by _____ in true witness, unbidden and unbought, as I saw with my eyes and heard with ears that which I pronounce with him".
If the oath went to the plaintiff, or the defendant had been given the oath, but didn’t find enough oath-helpers, then the defendant could choose to take the trial to ordeal rather than admit guilt.
Trial by Ordeal
Trial by Ordeal is probably the most entertaining part of the Anglo-Saxon legal system. However, the vast majority of suits did not go to Trial by Ordeal and it was not an early form of the Spanish Inquisition or judicial torture. Trial by Ordeal was considered to be bringing an unresolved issue to the highest court they had: God.
Actual Anglo-Saxon manuscripts aren’t known for their stick figure illustrations, of course. These were done by Sarah to illustrate the ordeals. The ordeals themselves would usually be accompanied by elaborate rituals and ceremony. We still have manuscripts describing many of the different ordeals. Two of the ordeals discussed here would take at least three days from start to finish, and, hey, there might be a hanging later! It was quality entertainment in a day without television, radio, or the internet.
Trial by Cold Water
The first ordeal depicted here is the Trial by Cold Water. Briefly stated, the accused was given holy water to drink and then tossed into a river, pond, or other fairly deep body of water. If the man was innocent of the crime he’d been charged with, he’d sink to the bottom. If he was guilty, he would float (apparently sin is very bad for the soul, but makes one hell of a life preserver.) Hopefully the innocent man would be pulled out of the river before he drowned. If not . . . well, his soul was clean. (Not to mention other parts of him, as it was probably the best bath he’d seen in a while)
Trial by Hot Water
Trial by Hot Water and Trial by Iron weren’t as likely to end in death of the innocent party. Unless, of course, you died of infection or failed the trial and they hung or beheaded you. In trial by hot water, a stone was placed in the bottom of a cauldron of boiling water. The accused would be required to reach his hand in and retrieve the stone, getting badly scalded while he was at it. The hand was then bandaged and examined in three days.
If the hand was healing cleanly, then the man was presumed innocent. If the burn was infected or not healing cleanly, then he was guilty and remanded for punishment.
Trial by Iron
Trial by Iron was very similar to Trial by Hot Water. An iron rod was heated until it was glowing and the accused carried it for 9 feet. Again, the hand was bandaged and inspected for infection after three days.
If you consider the hygiene (or lack thereof) in Anglo-Saxon times, it really would take an act of God for a second or third-degree burn to not get infected.
Anglo-Saxons didn’t have incarceration on the list of punishments. They did, however, use slavery if the guilty party had no way to pay his debt. Slavery was generally for a set period of time, even if it was a long period of time, and the man would be considered innocent after the time had expired. Since they didn’t have jails and jailors, the Anglo-Saxon list of “nasty things to do to a person outside of battle" were restricted to fines, slavery, mutilation, and death.
Most punishments, however, were in the form of fines. In the sample laws listed lower on this page, you’ll see that the laws assigned monetary worth to just about everything. Even killing someone could be covered by a fine if there were mitigating circumstance. There are even lists detailing how much a person’s life is worth based on his position in society.
“Bootless Crimes", however, were crimes against the King or crimes that were considered without compensation. House-breaking, open theft, arson, treachery to one’s lord, and murder were all bootless crimes. The punishment for these was death and forfeiture of all property and land to the king. However, the church advocated mutilation so the wrong-doer would live on and have time to save his soul.
The death sentence could be reprieved if the man’s family and friends could raise his wergild. Otherwise, death sentences were usually carried out by hanging. Beheading and drowning were also used.
-If there be an injury of the bone, let /bot/ be made with four shillings.
-If a shoulder be lamed, let /bot/ be made with thirty shillings.
-If an ear be struck off, let /bot/ be made with twelve shillings.
-If an ear be pierced, let /bot/ be made with three shillings.
-If an ear be mutilated, let /bot/ be made with six shillings.
-If an eye be (struck) out, let /bot/ be made with fifty shillings.
-If the mouth or an eye be injured, let /bot/ be made with twelve shillings.
-If the nose be pierced, let /bot /be made with nine shillings.
-If the nose be otherwise mutilated, for each let /bot/ be made with six shillings.
-Let him who breaks the chin-bone pay for it with twenty shillings.
-For each of the four front teeth, six shillings; for the tooth which stands next to them four shillings; for that which stands next to that, three shillings; and then afterwards, for each a shilling.
-If a thumb be struck off, twenty shillings. If a thumb nail be off, let /bot/ be made with three shillings. If the shooting [i. e. fore] finger be struck off, let /bot/ be made with eight shillings. If the middle finger be struck off, let /bot/ be made with four shillings. If the gold [i. e. ring] finger be struck off, let /bot/ be made with six shillings. If the little finger be struck off, let /bot/ be made with eleven shillings.
-For every nail, a shilling.
-For the smallest disfigurement of the face, three shillings: and for the greater, six shillings.
-If any one strike another with his fist on the nose, three shillings.
-If the bruise be black in a part not covered by the clothes, let /bot/ be made with thirty /scaetts/.
-If it be covered by the clothes, let /bot/ for each be made with twenty /scaetts/.
-If any one destroy (another's) organ of generation, let him pay with three /leud-gelds/; if he pierce it through, let him make /bot/ with six shillings; if it be pierced within, let him make /bot /with six shillings.
-If a thigh be pierced through, for each stab six shillings; if (the wound be) above an inch, a shilling; for two inches, two; above three, three shillings.
-If a foot be cut off, let fifty shillings be paid.
-If a great toe be cut off, let ten shillings be paid.
-For each of the other toes, let one-half be paid, like as it is stated for the fingers.
-If the nail of a great toe be cut off, thirty /scaetts/ for /bot/; for each of the others, make /bot/ with ten /scaetts/. . . .
This glossary contains definitions for the Old English words found on this page. It is not even close to a full dictionary, word-list, or glossary of Anglo Saxon legal terms. However, it will help you get some idea of the terms we've used here on the page.
/Aewda/: oath-giver, compurgator.
/Angylde/: price fixed by law.
/*bot*/ remedy, relief, compensation
/Fore-ath/:, preliminary oath;
/Frumgeld/: first payment of /wer/.
/Frumtyhtle/: first accusation.
/Gemot/: meeting, court.
/Hadbot/: compensation for injury, to a person in holy orders.
/Lahslit/: fine for offences committed by Danes, corresponding to Anglo-Saxon /wite.
/*leod*/ man, people; wergeld for manslaughter
/*leodgeld*/ wergeld for manslaughter
/*leud-gelds*/ variant of leodgeld
/Rim-ath/: oath by accused and compurgators together.
/*scaetts*/ probably derived from "sceatt" = coin, money, twentieth part of a shilling
/*wer*/ man, money value of a man's life
/*wer-borh*/ pledge for the payment of wergeld
/*wergeld*/ money value of a man's life
/Wita/: member of supreme council.
/*witan*/ royal council
/*wite*/ punishment, penalty, fine, contribution to the king
Regia Anglorum - The Law in Anglo-Saxon England
The Avalon Project Anglo-Saxon Law - Extracts From Early English Laws
Medieval Sourcebook The Anglo-Saxon Dooms, 560-975