King Athelstan presenting a copy of Bede's two lives of St Cuthbert to the saint in his shrine at Chester-le-Street in 934. This is the earliest surviving royal Anglo-Saxon portrait (Corpus Christi Cambridge MS 183, fol. 1v)

Anglo-Saxon Law Codes and Legal Norms

Law codes and legal norms in later Anglo-Saxon England
Levi Roach, University of Exeter
In: Historical Research, Volume 86, Issue 233, pages 394–407, August 2013
DOI: 10.1111/1468-2281.12001


The article seeks to provide a fresh perspective on long-standing debates about the role of the written word in later Anglo-Saxon legal culture. Using the Anglo-Saxon law codes of King Æthelstan’s reign as a ‘case study’, it argues that many of the unusual features of early English law are not so much products of orality, as of a fundamentally different approach to legal norms than is prevalent in the modern Western world. It thus seeks to move beyond recent literacy-orality debates, suggesting that it is more profitable to investigate the attitudes shown towards legal norms (both written and oral) within Anglo-Saxon society. “The crucial distinction, writes Levi Roach, lies less between “oral” and “literate” legal cultures, than between two fundamentally different approaches to legal norms: one according to which these are treated as flexibly, more like guidelines and rules; and another according to which they are regarded as prescriptive regulations” (p. 468) This is demonstrated through a careful reading of Æthelstan’s laws which is finally compared to recent research into the comparable Frankish laws as well as some ethnographic case studies. The article represents a good introduction to the scholarly debate concerning how to understand the context of Anglo-Saxon law codes and legal norms

The article is part of a collection of papers presented at a conference in Copenhagen in 2011 organised in collaboration between three digitisation projects: “Early English Law“, “Nordic Medieval Laws” and “Relmin”.


Read also about the context of the article in “Medieval Law” in Medieval Histories


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