The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

VI. Alfred and the Old English Prose of his Reign

§ 4. Codes of Law

There is no external evidence to enable us to decide the date of Alfred’s code of laws. The historical introduction, based on the Vulgate, shows considerable independence and cannot be dated very early. The composition of the code may be assigned, provisionally, to the close of Alfred’s first translation period (c. 893), without, however, attaching much importance to Malmesbury’s statement that it was undertaken “amid the clash of arms.” The code is of a somewhat composite character, and has usually been arranged in three sections—the introduction, the laws of Alfred proper and the laws of Ine. In his monograph entitled The Legal Code of Alfred the Great, Turk points out that this arrangement is not justified by the MSS. The introduction consists properly of two parts—the historical introduction based on the Mosaic law and the introduction proper. The insertions from the Mosaic law give a universal character to Alfred’s code. They are rendered somewhat freely, large portions of the Latin text being omitted and other portions altered. One of the Mosaic laws ran as follows: “If a man shall deliver unto his neighbour money or stuff to keep, and it be stolen out of the man’s house, if the thief be found, he shall pay double. If the thief be not found, then the master of the house shall come near unto God (or the judges), to see whether he have not put his hand unto his neighbour’s goods.” This passage Alfred renders as follows: “If any one entrust his property to his friend: if he shall steal it, let him pay double; if he know not who has stolen it, let him excuse himself.” Another Mosaic law—“If men contend, and one smiteth the other with a stone or with his fist, and he die not, but keep his bed: if he rise again, and walk abroad upon his staff, then shall he that smote him be quit; only he shall pay for the loss of his time, and shall cause him to be thoroughly healed”— has been much altered in Alfred’s version:

  • “If a man strike his neighbour with a stone or with his fist and he may nevertheless go about with a staff, let him provide him a leech and do his work during the time that he is not able.”
  • The law concerning the first-born—“the first-born of thy sons shalt thou give unto me”—naturally finds no place in the West Saxon code. Another alteration is the substitution of two oxen five in the Mosaic ordinance, “If a man shall steal an ox, or a sheep, and kill it, or sell it, he shall pay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep.” A remarkable addition, intended to counteract the severity of the Mosaic code as a whole, is that of the apostolic letter, at the close of which Alfred continues in his own words—“From this one law a man may learn how we ought to judge aright. He needs no other law-books; let him bethink him that he do not to another what he would not have done to himself.”

    Alfred’s code is, as we have indicated, of a composite character. He links himself with the church not only by his insertions from the Mosaic code but by his reference to “the many synods throughout the world and throughout England, after they had received the faith of Christ, of holy bishops and other distinguished counsellors.” Some of the synodical laws may have been embodied in the West Saxon code. Further we find alongside Alfred’s own laws those of Ine, of Offa and of Aethelbriht. The Mercian laws ascribed to offa are unfortunately lost, but the Kentish laws of Aethelbriht, the earliest “dooms” we have, though in a late copy, can be traced in Alfred’s code, where they have been inserted in a revised form. Bede refers to the original Kentish laws as “written in English and still preserved. Among which the king in the first place set down what satisfaction should be given by those who should steal anything belonging to the church, the bishop and the other clergy” (II, 5). The prominence given to the church seems to have appealed forcibly to the historian. Aethelbriht’s code is mainly taken up with the penalties payable for the infliction of personal injuries. The compensation for the loss of an ear is fixed, tariff-like, at 6s., of an eye at 50s., of a nose at 9s. “If one man strike another with the fist on the nose—3s.” Alfred carefully revised each of the penalties before inserting Aethelbriht’s code in his own. The laws of Ine date back to the eighth century and are the earliest of West Saxon laws. They are more comprehensive in character than the laws of Kent, but seem by Alfred’s date to have received large accretions. Alfred adopted the developed code of Ine apparently without subjecting it to revision. But he connects his own particular code with the earlier one in such a way as to make the one supplementary to the other. One of Ine’s laws as it appears in Alfred’s text is worth quoting:

  • If a man burn a tree in a wood and it is made clear who did it, let him pay the full penalty of 60s., because fire is a thief. If a man fell many trees in a wood, and it is found out, let him pay for three trees, each with 30s. He need not pay for more, however many they be, because the axe is an informer and not a thief.