Domestic Peace and Public Order in Anglo-Saxon Law
By Rebecca Colman
The Anglo-Saxons, synthesis and achievement, edited by J. Douglas Woods, David Anthony Edgell Pelteret (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1985)
Introduction: The thread of our story winds back through legal records to that period of English history before the Norman Conquest, from which little has come down to us in descriptive writing. Old English literature has far yielded little to the probings of legal historians; but rich seams of information were discovered in the nineteenth century in the early law codes of Western Europe, once scholars like Wilda, Heinrich, Brunner, Maitland, and Maine, to name only a few, learned to unlock their secrets by comparative and interdisciplinary study.
It was these scholars, bred in an era of nationalistic scholarship, with every major country competitively publishing its own monumenta in extravagant folio editions, who demonstrated that their own fragmented and enigmatic source materials made most sense when grouped with similar materials from other countries within broad West European-Scandinavian legal tradition. Such is the case with the materials from which this paper is fashioned. By focusing on a particular significant crime of violence against the homestead, known in England as hamsocn, and familiar, under other similar names, to all West European and Scandinavian countries in the early Middle Ages, we shall be able to see to what extent security could be achieved in disordered times.
We shall also see how, in combating this and threats to domestic peace, the communal need for public order fostered political integration. And, finally, the principles which emerged to guide people in their centuries-long struggle to contain the crime are still apposite today, and indeed, are fundamental to most legal systems.