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The Prologue to Alfred’s Law Code: Instruction in the Spirit of Mercy

Michael Treschow

Florilegium: Volume 13 (1994)

Alfred’s law code tends to receive scant attention in discussions of the char- acter of his reign. It lacks the distinctive stamp of his other writings and acts. It is a conservative code that seeks not to distinguish itself from previous codes, but rather to show continuity with them. It is another among many lists of compensations, listing a variety of crimes and offences, providing the monetary value of their expiation, and also explaining oaths and ordeals, when they apply and how. Alfred’s law code makes a few changes and additions to what had gone before, but in no way sets itself apart. Felix Liebermann, the early twentieth-century editor of Anglo-Saxon law codes, explained that Alfred’s code lacked distinctiveness because Al- fred had to restrain himself; his councillors were far too conservative for a reformation of the law (Gesetze 3 36). Patrick Wormald’s modern view would seem to contrast sharply with Liebermann’s traditional understanding that real statutes were at stake here. Wormald virtually dispenses with the notion of law altogether when he argues that early mediaeval laws were little more than an exercise in image-making (“Lex Scripta” 125, 133). His position that Alfred’s law code is just another case of propaganda must, however, contend with the fact that the law code in itself makes such a weak impression in comparison with other literature of King Alfred’s reign. Surely if anyone knew how to use a document to make an impression, it was Alfred. To explain this difficulty Wormald has to argue that the law code with its appearance of a binding claim must soft peddle its authority: Alfred had political pressures not to assert his authority in any radical fashion (133). Wormald has not really moved far from Liebermann, but far enough to fall into an equivocation. Some still more recent scholarship, however, makes clearer why this law code lacks Alfred’s voice: the law of that time was essentially traditional; early mediaeval kings could not really conceive of a law code as individual and distinct in nature (Jenkins, Stacey). The same scholarship explains that such law codes were not properly statutory, but that they were indeed still a form of law.

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