Women and law in the Anglo-Saxon period
By Carole Hough, University of Glasgow
Studies of women in Anglo-Saxon England draw on a range of sources, including literary texts, ecclesiastical writings, inscriptions and place-names.1 In all of these, women feature less prominently than men, but it is uncertain whether this reflects male control of society as a whole or of the sources themselves. Similar ambiguities apply to evidence from legal records such as charters and laws, used as the focus of individual studies2 and alongside archaeological and other data in the most comprehensive treatment of Anglo-Saxon women to date.3 In no extant law-code is the proportion of references to women consistent with Anglo-Saxon demographics.
Relevant legislation survives from the seventh through to the eleventh centuries, with women represented in early Kentish and West Saxon law, the domboc of Alfred the Great (c.887–893), and laws issued by Æthelred (c.978–1014) and Cnut (c.1020–1023). All seventh-century laws relating to women, and many of those within the domboc, are discussed by Hough.4 Most laws relating to widows date from the eleventh century, and are discussed by Rivers.5 Recurrent themes are physical and sexual assault, marriage customs and child custody; others include inheritance rights and legal responsibilities.
Laws concerning women tend to reflect broader trends in the development of Anglo-Saxon legislation. The emphasis on financial redress as an alternative to feud in the earliest extant code, issued by Æthelberht of Kent during the late sixth or early seventh century, encompasses compensation for various offences involving women, including sexual relations with someone else’s wife or slave (Æbt 10, 11, 14, 16, 31, 85) and assault committed by or against a woman or her dependant (Æbt 73–6, 82–4). A section on the marriage contract stipulates that the payment made by a prospective bridegroom is to be returned in the event of fraud, and sets out the woman’s inheritance and custody rights if she outlives him (Æbt 77–81).
The influence of the church on late seventh-century legislation is seen in the third series of Kentish laws, issued by Wihtred in 695, and in the laws of his West Saxon contemporary Ine, preserved as an appendix to Alfred’s domboc. Examples include the prohibition of idolatry by man or wife (Wi 12) and a provision for an abbess to stand as proxy for a foreigner’s kin group (Ine 23). Another reference to the marriage contract appears in Ine 31, again stating that a bridegroom’s money is to be returned if the marriage does not take place.
References to women in Alfred’s laws are predominantly concerned with unlawful intercourse, whether with religious or lay women (Alfred 8, 10, 11, 18, 25, 26, 42). The wider social implications of crime from the ninth century onwards are reflected in an increasing number of fines to the king for offences such as rape. It is striking that the fine of 60s stipulated in Alfred 25 for raping a ceorl’s slave is twelve times the compensation of 5s payable to her owner. Alfred 11 sets out a scale of compensation for assaults on a free woman, ranging from 5s for seizing her by the breast to 60s for rape, but again these sums would be dwarfed by fines of 60s and 120s respectively. The fine for removing a nun from a nunnery is also 120s, divided between the king and the ecclesiastical authorities (Alfred 8).
Like men, women are defined in the laws by social class. Indeed, the precision with which different classes of women are identified preserves unique information on the structure of Anglo-Saxon society. Only from a reference to four classes of widow in Æbt 75 do we learn that the Kentish nobility was divided into four ranks rather than the three reflected in other sources, while penalties for sleeping with three classes of slave in Æbt 10, 11 and 16 show that similar subtleties of gradation applied to the unfree.
Unlike men, however, women are also characteristically defined by marital status. The slave of Æbt 10 is identified as a mægdenman, probably ‘virgin’, and many other laws relate specifically to the mægþ, wif or widuwe. As a woman moved through these three states, she appears to have gained a growing level of independence. Whereas the unmarried girl was under the mund or protection of her closest male relative, and the wife under that of her husband, Æbt 75 indicates that a widow was herself able to exercise mund over her dependants. Financially, too, a married woman had some control over her morgengifu, property settled on her by her husband as part of the marriage contract, and which was augmented by a further share after his death. A widowed mother was entitled to half the joint property under early Kentish law (Æbt 78), and to the whole according to the late tenth- or early eleventh-century text Wifmannes Beweddung (‘Woman’s betrothal’). A childless widow received a smaller share. Extant wills indicate that there was some flexibility of practice, while II Cnut 70 directs that the property of a man who died intestate should be divided in a fixed (but unspecified) way between his widow, children and close relatives.
Child custody is a major theme. The widowed mother’s right to custody, implicit in Æbt 79, which allocates her half the property if she chooses to live with the children, is explicitly stated in later seventh-century Kentish and West Saxon law (Hlothhere and Eadric 6; Ine 38). Both clauses assign trusteeship of the child’s property to relatives. A widow who remarried would forfeit at least part of the inheritance from her first husband, and might also lose custody of her children. Late codes prohibit remarriage within a year, presumably to ensure that the paternity of a posthumous child would not be in doubt, but emphasize that the widow is then to have freedom of choice (V Æthelred 21; VI Æthelred 26; II Cnut 73). So too, although references to the marriage contract in seventh-century law leave it unclear whether the bride had right of refusal, II Cnut 74 directs that neither women nor girls were to be coerced into marriage.
There are indications that all three groups of women had at least some degree of legal competence. The widow was fully accountable in law for her own actions, even to the extent of forfeiting her possessions if she had been married by force within the proscribed year unless she was prepared to leave her new husband (II Cnut 73a.2). Æbt 74 may indicate that an unmarried girl had to pay compensation for her own misconduct, but is so cryptically expressed that several alternative interpretations have been proposed. Alfred 18 states more explicitly that a betrothed woman is to pay compensation if she fails to remain chaste. Conversely, the phrase hire gebete (‘compensate her’) in Alfred 11 suggests that compensation for a sexual attack was paid to the victim herself. The same clause shows that an unmarried woman was able to defend herself on oath from false accusations. Compensation for rape is reduced by half if the victim was not a virgin (11.3), but she is allowed to refute such a claim by bringing oath-helpers (11.4).
Equally significantly, Ine 57 shows that a married woman was also considered oath-worthy, as she could dissociate herself from her husband’s theft of cattle by declaring on oath that she had not eaten the stolen meat. The same clause, however, states that hio sceal hire ealdore hieran (‘she must obey her lord’). Here and elsewhere, the limits of a married woman’s legal responsibility are carefully defined. Ine 7 stipulates that if a man steals without the knowledge of his wife and children, he is to pay 60s as a fine, but that if he steals with the knowledge of all his household, they are all to go into slavery. Similarly according to Wihtred 12, if a man commits idolatry unknown to his wife, he alone forfeits his possessions, whereas if she is complicit in the crime, the forfeiture applies to both. Laws issued by Alfred’s grandson Æthelstan also differentiate between a wife who is an accessory to her husband’s theft and one who is innocent (VI Æthelstan I). II Cnut 76 provides more detail on a married woman’s areas of responsibility by stating that she is not implicated in a theft committed by her husband unless the stolen goods are under lock and key in her storeroom, chest or coffer.
As with much Anglo-Saxon legislation, it is difficult to separate innovation from tradition. According to Alfred 9, a pregnant woman was protected by two wergilds: her own and half that of her unborn child. Parallels with continental law suggest that this may go back to common Germanic tradition, despite not appearing in English law until the late ninth century. With the majority of evidence for women preserved in laws from opposite poles of the Anglo-Saxon period, it is difficult to assess the level of continuity between them. For instance, although a woman’s control over her >morgengifu is evident from II Cnut 73a and Wifmannes Beweddung 3, as well as from two marriage agreements dating from the early eleventh century (S 1459; S 1461),6 it is unclear whether this situation already applied when the marriage settlement is first mentioned in seventh-century Kentish law (Æbt 81). Some aspects of legal procedure certainly appear to change, as in the area of adultery. According to Æbt 31, anyone who committed adultery with the wife of a free man in early Kent was to pay compensation in the form of wergild and to provide the husband with another wife. Similarly in ninth-century Wessex, Alfred 10 stipulates a financial penalty based on the wergild to be paid by the adulterer to the wronged husband. By the eleventh century, however, the punishment for adultery was incurred by the woman herself, who would lose not only her property but her nose and ears (II Cnut 53).
Damico, H. and Olsen, A. (eds.), New Readings on Women in Old English Literature (Bloomington, Ind., 1990).
Fell, C., Women in Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford, 1984).
Hollis, S., Anglo-Saxon Women and the Church: Sharing a Common Fate (Woodbridge, 1992).
Hough, C., ‘Alfred’s domboc and the language of rape: a reconsideration of Alfred ch. 11’, Medium Ævum, 66 (1997), 1–27.
Hough, C., ‘Women in English place-names’, in Hough, C. and Lowe, K. A. (eds.), Lastworda Betst’: Essays in Memory of Christine E. Fell with her Unpublished Writings (Donington, 2002), 41–106.
Hough, C., ‘Women and the law in seventh-century England’, Nottingham Medieval Studies, 51 (2007), 207–30.
Klinck, A. L., ‘Anglo-Saxon women and the law’, Journal of Medieval History 8 (1982), 107–21.
Okasha, E., ‘Anglo-Saxon women: the evidence from inscriptions’, in Higgitt, J., Forsyth, K. and Parsons, D. N. (eds.), Roman, Runes and Ogham: Medieval Inscriptions in the Insular World and on the Continent (Donington, 2001), 79–88.
Rivers, T. J., ‘Widows’ rights in Anglo-Saxon law’, American Journal of Legal History 19 (1975), 208–15.
Rivers, T. J., ‘The legal status of widows in late Anglo-Saxon England’, Medievalia et Humanistica 24 (1997), 1–16.
S = Sawyer, P. H., Anglo-Saxon Charters: an Annotated List and Bibliography (London, 1968).
- 1. ^ Damico and Olsen, New Readings; Hollis, Anglo-Saxon Women; Okasha, ‘Anglo-Saxon women’; Hough, ‘Women in English place-names’.
- 2. ^ Klinck, ‘Anglo-Saxon women’.
- 3. ^ Fell, Women in Anglo-Saxon England.
- 4. ^ Hough, ‘Women and the law’; Hough, ‘Alfred’s domboc’.
- 5. ^ Rivers, ‘Legal status of widows’.
- 6. ^ Sawyer, Anglo-Saxon Charters.
- 7. ^ Klinck, Anglo-Saxon women’; Rivers, ‘Widows’ rights’; Rivers ‘Legal status of widows’.
- 8. ^ Fell, Women in Anglo-Saxon England.