I’ve been gemming up this week on Anglo-Saxon laws. This is because in a few weeks’ time I will be giving a public talk in the nave of Rochester Cathedral on the subject of its remarkable treasure, the Textus Roffensis. This manuscript, produced about 1123, contains amongst other things the only extant copies of the early Kentish laws, including the code of King Æthelberht of Kent (c.600). It also has a copy of King Alfred’s Domboc (after 893), a couple of rulings by King Æthelred, he of the unreadiness (997), and a translation of the great Winchester code of King Cnut (1020-21), the largest single Anglo-Saxon law code.
Today, though, I want to talk about one of the anonymous Anglo-Saxon laws found in the Textus Roffensis, one that I think will become a firm favourite of mine. This code is known as Wifmannes Beweddung (Woman’s Betrothal), and it can be dated to the early part of the eleventh century.
I plan to put a full translation of the law on a future blog, but in the meantime here are some of the key features should you be tempted by the idea of having a historically authentic Anglo-Saxon betrothal. (Are you mad?) I think, however, I should just warn you love birds that, assuming Wifmannes Beweddung reflects actual practice, betrothal/marriage in eleventh-century England had, well ... how to put it now ... a strong economic foundation.
The bridegroom-to-be had to make a promise to the advocate of the bride-to-be (who would have been a male member of her family) that he would maintain her as a man ought to – ‘according to God’s law’. This meant pledging remuneration to those who had brought her up, and proclaiming what exactly he would give her for keepsies should she outlive him.
The law actually states that the wife was entitled on the death of her husband to half the yrfe. Now, the sense here is she gets half the property, but if you want to be a bit more literal, half the cattle. Now if you really desire to reproduce an Anglo-Saxon betrothal ceremony, I reckon incorporating that into the proceedings might just give you that feeling of authenticity you crave.
There’s more: if a cild (a child) is born to the union, the wife is entitled to all the cattle/property should hubby pop his clogs. This bit’s not much use then if you’re not really into the idea of procreation; and I don’t know whether we should stretch it to cover adoption and surrogacy.
Finally – this is addressed to the bride-to-be – don’t even think of taking all that cattle if you plan to remarry on the demise of your beloved, regardless if you have a wee bairn, or not. (Sorry, I just slipped into my Scottish ancestry there, though another Old English word for child is bearn.)
After all these economic niceties have been established, then the family of the bride-to-be go ahead and arrange with her the betrothal, but not before the advocate or sponsor gets a security of some sort from the groom. (A cow, maybe? A small goat, perhaps?)
Now I know this part might suggest a slight hitch for your engagement plans. No, not the surety bit. Come on, groom-to-be! You can find some way of fulfilling the surety – maybe a guinea pig, or the neighbour’s cat, if you don’t fancy handing over a cow or goat. But what I’m really getting at is the probability that the woman may not need to be present at the betrothal. So ... a betrothal/engagement ceremony without the bride-to-be. Do you want authentic, or not?!
To the bit that really matters – the wedding plans. Wifmannes Beweddung says that the priest has to be involved, because he has to arrange things so that God blesses you in ‘all prosperity’. But what’s particularly important is that he has to find out how closely related you are. Now, it does depend on whose rules of consanguinity you’re going by, but if you happen to be first cousins, there’s no chance. Even a more distant relative might be an issue for the Church. (There were ‘degrees’ of relation forbidden, and these varied throughout the medieval period and in different traditions, but that’s for another time.)
So, there we have it, you would-be Anglo-Saxon betrothal re-enactors. I hope this little taster has whetted your appetite. I promise to provide a full translation of Wifmannes Beweddung in due course. Maybe I should take payments for this, especially if you wish to incorporate it into your engagement celebrations. I could make a killing. I like guinea pigs.