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18 September 2014
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Anglo-Saxon Law and Order

By Michael Wood
The oath of loyalty

Image of Anglo-Saxon kings
Anglo-Saxon kings were prolific law-makers ©
So how did such early societies create an allegiance? How do you create a sense of mutual obligation and responsibility in a people? It is of course a frequently asked question even today - the question of the balance between rights and duties.

In any state you need law, a written statement of the social norms that society, as represented by a governing body, seeks to enforce. And the Anglo-Saxon state produced lots of law - legal texts are among its most distinctive and most characteristic productions.

Of course, to govern a medium-sized state (in early medieval terms) you had to meet rather different concerns from those for which law had previously provided. Early English law had been framed for tribal societies, and was based on the feud, on redress of injury, rather than on a mutual sense of responsibility to the community. In the Viking era, law-making begins to change to reflect new social conditions.

'Crime is no longer only an injury to the victim, but a crime against society at large.'

Although no innovator himself, Alfred laid the foundation for a lawful society, making his principal parallel with the Biblical law of Moses. As he saw it, the English could - and should - be a chosen people, answerable to God. In the tenth century, when the English state was created, that perception became the underpinning of the king's law. Crime became no longer an injury to the victim only, but a crime against society at large, against the English nation - the same nation we read of in Archbishop Wulfstan's sermons, or in the 'Anglo-Saxon Chronicle'.

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