Today, I'm going to ask you to put aside your twenty-first century misplaced compassion and that overarching let-the-punishment-fit-the-crime sense of justice you have and, instead, get into the spirit of Anglo-Saxon England!
You see, when you listen to the readings about thievery (please follow the link below), I think you might just wonder what would have happened had you been an Anglo-Saxon struggling to make ends meet.
What if the reason you helped yourself to your neighbour's sceats (Old English currency) or, God forbid, the bishop's blessed belongings, was because you were struggling to feed your six kids?
Well, mercy isn't a word mentioned in these legal texts, though it has to be said that the London ruling by King Æthelstan (video 4) represents an emendation to the age of accountability.
Ah, God bless him: he obviously thought age 7 was a bit too young for slaying a thief, so he was compassionate enough to raise it to 12.
I hope you enjoy the sample readings in the video link below. They are not all about thievery. They were produced as promotional material for the Rochester Cathedral's 'Hidden Treasures, Fresh Expressions' project, for which I'm the academic research consultant.
The first is an introductory film to the Textus Roffensis, the manuscript that contains all the texts from which I read.
Video 2 has a few lines from Æthelberht's Code, written around the year 600, and surviving only in the Textus Roffensis. So this law code is actually a copy of the earliest surviving piece of written English! A monastic WOW!
As well as its opening decrees against thievery, I also give you a few on sexual crimes.
The third video is a reading of part of King Alfred's preface to his famous Domboc (Book of Judgements). It might surprise you that it owes a great deal to the Old Testament, which suggests Alfred wanted his people to be thought of as God's people.
Video 4 is the opening of Æthelstan's London Code, mentioned above.
The fifth video is also about thievery, but specifically what Anglo-Saxons should do if livestock is stolen. You needed a strong voice and plenty of spare candle wax, apparently.
And to round off the selection, we have none other than Michael Wood reading out a rather earthy excommunication curse. My sincere apologies if your sensibilities don't quite stretch to religious profanity ...
I reckon this curse would have been a good one to shout at those nasty little thieves who nicked your maniple, bishop!
Well, who'd have been a thief in Anglo-Saxon England? Whether paying back twelve-fold for filching from the bishop in the seventh century, or paying with your life for pinching twelve pennies in the tenth, it was tough being a crook ...
Justice tempered with mercy isn't all that obvious in Anglo-Saxon laws against thievery.
Advertisement: Hic Dragones