This past week I’ve been translating a set of laws from the year 600, the kind of thing the Anglo-Saxon Monk must do for his penance. Mind you, Æthelberht’s Code, as these laws are now known, has certainly thrown up some interesting stuff.
You see, King Æthelberht I of Kent – let’s call him Bert, for short – ruled over his south-eastern region of England at a time when the peoples of that land had barely cut their Christian teeth. In fact, it was only in 597, about three years before Bert had his lawcode written, that the Roman missionary Augustine arrived, with his commission from Pope Gregory the Great to convert the heathen English folk. And, low and behold, Bert was pretty much the first of them to convert.
Augustine probably didn’t have to try too hard, mind you, as Bert’s wife Queen Bertha (born c. 539) was already a Christian, in fact had only agreed to marry Bert if he allowed her to continue to practice her religion on arriving from her homeland in Francia.
So it would seem that she had some influence over Bert, and who’s to know how far her preaching and ideas of Christian forgiveness affected his handling of his subjects. And let me tell you, beloved readers, if the contents of his law are anything to go by, Bert’s people most definitely needed reigning in.
The way I see it is that this newly baptized king was trying his damndest to get his people to give up the idea of feuding as the only way to settle their differences. And I’m sure you can guess what England was like at the start of the seventh century. The old Germanic ways were still well and truly ingrained. You know: tit for tat, you kill my relative, and I’ll kill yours, a never ending cycle of bloody vengeance, that sort of thing. (Just read Beowulf to get the gist.)
What Bert did, however, was introduce the idea of financial compensation as recompense for acts of violence against the person: a way of terminating a feuding quarrel, and thus of preventing the typical testeronic escalations of death and destruction.
And you know what, if you played your hand well, you could make quite a few shillings and sceattas from your attacker.
So let’s imagine you’re a free man who’s been in a bit of a quarrel with a neighbour, and you’ve humiliated him in some way – maybe you’ve told him he smells like a pig, and that his wife is a pig – and so he seeks revenge. Consequently, he breaks into your house, knocks your screaming wife over the head, binds you up, kills your domestic servant who tries to come to your aid, nicks a few of your nice things, and then proceeds to bash you about a bit, sword in hand.
But there’s no need to get mad – or even. Once he’s gone, wake your wife and get her to untie you, and then run to the head men of your village in order to let them know what’s transpired. They’ll grab your nasty neighbour, before he flees and becomes an outlaw, give him some sort of trial, and then all you need to do is simply stand back, get your counting stones out, and watch all those sceattas and shillings mount up!
Before you work out how much it’s worth to you not to go on a retaliatory rampage, you need to know the following: the Kentish shilling was a gold coin, and a sceatt was a smaller gold coin, equal in weight to a barley grain. It took 20 sceattas to make one shilling.
Now, beloved, please don’t ask me what the currency exchange rate is. I don’t understand dollars, euros or pounds. Just remember its gold ... lots of gold!
Æthelberht’s Code, selected judgements:
25. If a person binds a freeman, he should pay 20 shillings.
26. If a person slays a ceorl’s domestic servant [literally, a ‘loaf-eater’, i.e. a dependent], that one should compensate with 6 shillings. [Note: a ceorl (‘churl’) was a freeman of the lowest class.]
28. If a freeman breaks into an enclosure, he should recompense with 6 shillings.
28.1. If the person takes property from within, the person should make good with a three-fold compensation.
33. If hair-pulling occurs, 50 sceattas as recompense.
34. If exposure of a bone occurs, one should compensate with 3 shillings.
35. If cutting of a bone occurs, one should compensate with 4 shillings.
36. If the outer skull* becomes broken, one should compensate with 10 shillings. [* ‘skull’ is a cautious rendering of Old English hion (‘outer-hion’); the meaning of hion is unclear.]
36.1. If both [perhaps meaning both ‘outer skull’ and ‘inner skull’] should be broken, one should compensate with 20 shillings.
37. If a shoulder is made lame, one should compensate with 30 shillings.
38. If either ear is made deaf, one should compensate with 25 shillings.
39. If an ear is struck off, one should compensate with 12 shillings.
40. If an ear is pierced (or ‘perforated’), one should compensate with 3 shillings.
41. If an ear is gashed, one should compensate with 6 shillings.
42. If an eye is gouged out, one should compensate with 50 shillings.
43. If a mouth or eye is made crooked, one should compensate with 12 shillings.
44. If a nose is pierced, one should compensate with 9 shillings.
44.1. If it [the wound] be on the cheek, one should compensate with 3 shillings.
44.2. If both cheeks, one should compensate with 6 shillings.
45. If a nose otherwise becomes gashed, one should compensate for any [gash] with 6 shillings.
46. If [the throat] becomes pierced, one should compensate with 6 shillings. [The scribe has missed out what it is that is being pierced; it has been suggested that throtu ‘throat’ was intended.]
47. He who breaks the jawbone, let him pay with 20 shillings.
48. For the four front teeth, 6 shillings each.
48.1. The tooth which stands to the side, 4 shillings.
48.2. The one which stands to the side of that one, 3 shillings.
48.3. Then each one after that, a shilling.
49. If speech becomes damaged, 12 shillings.
50. If a collarbone is broken, one should compensate with 6 shillings.
51. He who stabs through an arm, he should compensate with 6 shillings.
52. If an arm is broken, one should compensate with 6 shillings.
53. If one strikes off of thumb, 20 shillings.
54. If a thumbnail becomes detached, one should compensate with 3 shillings.
55. If a person strikes off a shooting finger [i.e. forefinger], that one should compensate with 9 shillings.
56. If a person strikes off a middle finger, that one should compensate with 4 shillings.
57. If a person strikes off a gold-finger [i.e. a ring finger], that one should compensate with 6 shillings.
58. If a person strikes off the little finger, that one should compensate with 11 shillings.
59. For each of the [finger]nails, a shilling.
60. For the least facial disfigurement, 3 shillings.
60.1. And for the greater, 6 shillings.
61. If a person strikes another in the nose with a fist, 3 shillings.
61.1. If it be a blow, a shilling. [Possibly meaning a hit without the fist.]
61.2. If he receives a blow from a raised hand [a slap with the palm, perhaps], one should pay a shilling.
61.3. If a blow becomes black [i.e. bruised] outside the clothing, one should compensate with 30 sceattas.
61.4. If it be inside the clothing, one should compensate each [bruise] with 20 sceattas.
62. If the belly becomes wounded, one should compensate with 12 shillings.
62.1. If he becomes pierced through, one should compensate with 20 shillings.
64. If a person destroys the genital organ [literally, genital ‘limb’], that person should pay him with three ‘man-prices’. [The high payment, i.e. the equivalent of the value of three men, suggests complete destruction of the genitals, and hence the injured man’s capacity to have children. Compare 64.1. and 64.2.]
64.1. If he stabs through it, he should compensate with 6 shillings.
64.2. If the person stabs into it, he should compensate with 6 shillings.
65. If a thigh becomes broken, one should compensate with 12 shillings.
65.1. If he becomes lame, then friends must arbitrate.
66. If a rib is broken, one should compensate with 3 shillings.
67. If a person stabs through a thigh, for each stab 6 shillings.
67.1. If a wound is over an inch, a shilling.
67.2. For two inches, two shillings.
67.3. Over three, three shillings.
68. If a welt-wound occurs, one should pay 3 shillings.
69. If a foot is cut off, one should pay 50 shillings.
70. If the big toe is cut off, one should pay 10 shillings.
70.1. For the other toes, one should pay half the amount decided above for the fingers.
71. If the big toenail becomes removed, 30 sceattas as recompense.
71.1. For each of the others, one should pay 10 sceattas.
So I think you get the idea, my beloved victims. And you can see now, can you not, that Bert’s law wasn’t such a bad way of settling things, was it now? Alright, I know you will be looking a bit worse for wear in front of the locals, but just think how rich you’ll soon be.
The only thing I’m really sorry about is if number 64 happened to you. You see, I need to remind you that up until this point you haven't managed to have any children, and so now if you should you die from all those injuries – probably quite likely, I would say – and if your wife decides to find a new man (who could blame her?), then you’ll have no one to inherit all your hard-earned compensation.
Ah, well, perhaps feuding is more fun after all!