The Medieval Monk casts his eye over the new translation of King Æthelstan's laws
Æthelstan’s Grately Code. It begins with the title ‘Æþelstanes gerænesse’, ‘Æthelstan’s laws’, in red ink at the bottom of the left page (see detail below). Textus Roffensis, folios 32v-33r, Dean and Chapter of Rochester Cathedral. The Grately Code continues for a further eight pages, as far as folio 37r. Screenshot of digital facsimile, Manchester, John Rylands Library.
I bring you a bounteous supply of Old English laws. What more could you ask for? Don't answer.
The other Monk of this website, Dr Christopher Monk, has been busy transcribing and translating more material from Textus Roffensis, the fullest set of early medieval English laws written in the vernacular.
There are three new translations, the main one being the major set of laws by King Æthelstan, 'king of the Anglo-Saxons and Danes', 924/925-927, and 'king of the English, 927-939. This text is known today as the Grately Code.
The other two laws, produced around the same time as the Grately Code, are anonymous and much shorter: Be blaserum ⁊ be morðslihtum, which is all about dealing with nasty arsonists and murders; and Forfang, a fragment from a law concerning the reward for retrieving stolen property.
Now Dr Monk, in his introduction to the Grately Code, highlights a couple of important aspects of Æthelstan's foundational law. He talks about trial by ordeal and the phrase 'disobedience to the king'. Yes, yes, all very good. But to my mind there are two really important laws that seemed to have escaped his notice. So read on, beloved ones.
No person may sell any horse overseas, unless he wishes to gift it. (Grately Code)
Now, let me tell you a story. Our tenth-century 'king of the English' didn't mind accepting a gift horse, or even ‘many’ a gift horse, from over the gannets' bath, or whale road, or whatever you want to call the sea.
Indeed, according to William of Malmesbury, writing in the 1120s, Hugh the Great, ‘king of the Franks’ – well, actually, he was a duke, Willy – wanted to wed Æthelstan’s half-sister, Eadhild.
So to seal the deal with this princess, ‘in whom the whole mass of beauty, of which other women have only a share, had flowed into one by nature’ – you can see Willy Malmesbury setting things up here very nicely, can’t you? – Hugh sent an embassy across the swan road to the king to strike a bargain for the betrothal, not troubling himself in person, of course.
Well, Willy tells us his delegation ‘produced gifts on a truly munificent scale, such as might instantly satisfy the desires of a recipient however greedy’ – what’s he saying about our good king?
Well, anyway, what did Æthelstan get in return for handing over his beloved, all-too-beautiful sister?
... the fragrance of spices that had never before been seen in England; noble jewels (emeralds especially, from whose green depths reflected sunlight lit up the eyes of the bystanders with their enchanting radiance); many swift horses with their trappings, ‘champing between their teeth’, as Virgil says, ‘the tawny gold’; an onyx vessel so modelled by the engraver with his subtle art that one seemed to see real ripples in the standing grain, buds really swelling on the vines, men’s figures really moving, shining with such a polish that it reflected the face of the beholder like a mirror; the sword of Constantine the Great, etc, etc, etc, etc.’
And I thought I went on some times! But if you're desperate to know what else was given...
There was one of the nails of the cruxifiction, attached to the pommel of Constantine's sword; Charlemagne's lance; the banner of Maurice the martyr; a piece of the Cross enclosed in crystal; a bit of the crown of thorns; and a solid gold crown which was 'yet more precious from its gems, of which the brilliance shot such flashing darts of light at the beholders that the more anyone strove to strain his eyes, the more he was dazzled and obliged to give up'!
Oh, for Heaven's sake, Willy! We get it! Dazzling stuff.
Thankfully, Willy does eventually tell us that King Æthelstan was delighted with his gifts – though the horses did make a mess in his court, though no one noticed because of all the dazzling going on (I made that bit up).
In response, the king reciprocated ‘with gifts that were scarcely less’ – of course he did. And, moreover, he ‘comforted the passionate suitor’ – so passionate he couldn’t bear the journey himself – ‘with the hand of his sister’. Aw, lovely.
So, there you go. Gifting and receiving gifts of horses was fine. But no horse trading overseas. Why exactly, we are not told in the Grately Code. Possibly it was something to do with the importance of horses to the internal economy of England; or it was that horses were in short supply and needed by the army (Cronenwett, p. 109).
And [we declared] that there be no trading on Sunday. If then anyone does this, he should forfeit the goods, and pay 30 shillings as a fine. (Grately Code)
Now, there are the crimes of arson, murder by witchcraft, and treachery to one’s lord, but Sunday trading! Well, that really takes the biscuit, as the other Monk would put it. I do hope his biscuits weren’t bought on the Sabbath day. He didn't say.
You see, what could be more unchristian than labouring – nay, trading – on the Lord’s day? Never mind treachery to one’s earthly lords, I think that such behaviour amounts to far worse. And if I had written the Grately Code for Æthelstan, I would have sent all offenders straight to the threefold ordeal (you can learn more about that from Dr Monk’s introduction).
That’s all I have to say on the matter. Now, where did he put those biscuits? Chocolate, gluten free, they were.
Cronenwett, Philip Nathaniel, 'Basileos Anglorum: a study of the life and reign of King Athelstan of England, 924-939' (Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Massachusetts Amherst, 1974); available here.
William of Malmesbury, The Deeds of the English Kings, edited and translated by R. A. B. Mynors (London: The Folio Society, 2014).
New translation of the king's modification of the death penalty now available
King Æthelstan (‘king of the English’ 927-939) is known for his severe treatment of those caught red-handed as thieves. They were executed.
The king, however, had second thoughts about the age at which a thief could be put to death, and also about the minimum value of the property stolen which could lead to execution. As a result, he modified a previous law of his own to reflect his change of mind on the matter.
But don’t go thinking Æthelstan was some big soft-hearted ruler. Blessed ones, I really don’t think you good folk of the twenty-first century would detect much in the way of compassion in this powerful king’s soul.
After all, even after the modification had been made, you could still be executed as young as 15, and for as little as 12 pennies, if you were caught in the act of stealing. And if you were younger than this, and the amount was smaller, you could still yet lose your life if you resisted arrest or attempted to flee.
It really was, as the legal historian Tom Lambert puts it, ‘a distinctly merciless order’ that Æthelstan ushered in.
A copy of Æthelstan’s modification for theft, originally written probably between 930-939, is uniquely preserved in Textus Roffensis, the ‘book of Rochester’, which was compiled around the year 1123 and is cared for by Rochester Cathedral.
Now, for the first time, there is an accessible modern English translation of this particular text within Æthelstan’s laws. This translation, along with commentary and notes, has been authored by the other Monk of this website, Dr Christopher Monk.
All you need to do in order to read the new translation is follow the first link below. And if you want to catch up with the ongoing programme of translations of and interpretative articles about Textus Roffensis, you can follow the second link.
New TranslationsRead Now
'Concerning a woman's bretrothal' & a charter of Edmund I
The other Monk of this website has been busying away with translating Textus Roffensis ('the book of Rochester'). Here are the latest texts:
This is a particularly fascinating text. It will let you know what had to happen when a man wanted to marry a woman in England in the decades leading up to the Norman Conquest. Lots of pledging, I can tell you. And when it came to the officiating priest at the wedding, he had to make sure the couple were not too closely related. Oh, just the thought of such scandal!
This is a somewhat spurious charter, as Dr Monk's introduction makes clear, but nonetheless of great interest because of its Old English boundary clause which directs one around the piece of land being gifted by Edmund to the bishop of Rochester. As you read it, you can imagine someone perambulating from landmark to landmark. Also, the charter's witness list is noteworthy for its inclusion of both the queen mother and the queen consort of Eadmund.
Standing up to the kingRead Now
New translations from Textus Roffensis
I am aware of the great sadness many feel at the loss of Queen Elilzabeth II, so I will not dwell on my subject today, that of the eleventh-century monarch William II (aka Rufus, r. 1087-1100), in my normal freewheeling way.
But if you would like to read the story of how Bishop Gundulf of Rochester and Archbishop Lanfranc withstood, with much zeal, the royal negotiations regarding the manor of Haddenham (which was the single most important manor held by the monks of Rochester), then follow the links below.
Here are three new translations of texts relating to the Haddenham narrative; the records are preserved in Textus Roffensis, the Book of Rochester.
The first is a revised translation by Dr Monk, with new commentary, of the Rochester monks' record of events surrounding the argy-bargy over Haddenham. Let's call it their version of the story.
The second and third translations are published together, and are a result of Dr Monk collaborating with Jacob Scott of Rochester Cathedral. Dr Monk provides the introduction and notes and the transcription and translation of the second text; Jacob, the transcript and translation of the first text, which Dr Monk has edited. Their thanks go to Elise Fleming for proofreading duties.
The two texts are the confirmation by William II of Lanfranc's grant of Haddenham to the monks of Rochester; and Lanfranc's own sanctioning of the king's confirmation. There's a rather nice anathema at the end of Lanfranc's sanction, if you're into that kind of thing, I should say!
Laws of WihtrædRead Now
New translation of the law code of King Wihtræd of Kent
It has not yet been a week and yet I am returning with the news of another translation by Dr Monk – the less than virtuous fellow with whom I share this blog. This time, beloved souls, it is the third and final law from the Kingdom of Kent: the Laws of Wihtræd.
Even I don’t know that much about King Wihtræd. But I can say that he ruled Kent for quite a long time, from either 690 or 691, of the year of our Lord, to his death on the 23rd April 725.
For the first couple of years, or so, he was having to share the throne with a certain Swæfheard, an impertinent invader from the kingdom of the East Saxons, whose father ruled part of that kingdom and, as it happens, became a monk after 30 years of rule. A decent fellow, obviously. But I don’t much care for his son.
Anyhow, back to King Wihtræd… And what I have to say is that the laws of this good king reveal to us that he was very concerned about the Church and the practice of the Christian faith among his people. May we all be like good king Wihtræd!
We find right at the outset of his decrees that the Church was to be free from taxation. Did that really need to be written down, I ask? And then there are rulings against worshipping ‘devils’ – oh my! - and judgements concerning the breaking of Church laws on fasting and the Sabbath day. Oh, Heaven preserve us!
King Witty – I’m sure he would forgive my mildly impudent familiarity – even goes as far as to encourage folk to dob in their neighbours! Should someone actually ‘discover’ their neighbour has been working on the Sabbath – the Lord’s day of rest – then, if he does the dobbing in, he gets to keep half of the fine that was destined for the public coffers.
I reckon I would be shillings in if we had that rule in and around my monastery. But I digress.
The final fascinating thing I wish to share with you about this set of laws comes from Dr Monk, and really there’s no surprise that it relates to fornication! Yes, he knows more than he should about this subject (see the link, below).
Leaving that aside, I should say that Dr Monk kindly informed me that Wihtraed’s laws are the first among the surviving early English laws to (attempt to) regulate the unriht hæmed – that’s ‘unlawful sexual union’ to you.
That would have meant that folk who married someone to whom they were too closely related were in big trouble – no marrying of cousins, that’s for sure, and maybe not even your second cousin once removed! I don’t even know who my second cousin first removed is.
And as for those who dared to commit bigamy – sending their spouse away just because they wanted a new one – well the fires of Gehenna were not sufficiently hot for them. Alright, Wihtræd didn’t quite put it like that, but you know what I mean.
Well, before I tell you everything that is in this set of Kentish laws, I should direct you to where you can find Dr Monk’s translation. Included is a transcription-edition of the text and numerous notes. There are always loads of those.
May you all be blessed – and no unlawful unions, now! I will find out!
Oh, if you fancy reading more about unlawful sexual unions, a free journal article by Dr Monk is available here.
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