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The early Kentish ‘divorce laws’: a reconsideration of Æthelberht, chs. 79 and 80

  • Carole A. Hough (a1)


Evidence concerning the position of women in Anglo-Saxon England, particularly during the early period, is sparse and often difficult to assess. Surviving law-codes constitute an important source of information, but due to their cryptic phraseology and sometimes archaic vocabulary they are notoriously open to misinterpretation. Two clauses from the earliest extant code, issued by King Æthelberht of Kent towards the beginning of the seventh century, are commonly treated as evidence of the independent status of divorced women in early Kentish society. So far as I am aware this view has never been challenged, although it remains uncorroborated by other sources and is by no means the only possible interpretation of the text. In this paper I wish to put forward an alternative reading.



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1 Fell, C., Women in Anglo-Saxon England and the Impact of 1066 (London, 1984), p. 57, writes: ‘According to the laws of Æðelbert a woman had the right to walk out of a marriage that did not please her, though I do not find this particular freedom reiterated in the later laws. Since, if she took the children with her, she was also entitled to take half the property, she seems to have had reasonable independence and security.’

2 The numbering of clauses has no manuscript authority and therefore no significance. The only copy of Æthelberht's law-code is contained in the twelfth-century manuscript Textus Roffensis (Maidstone, Kent Archives Office, DRc/R1), where the whole code is written consecutively. However, it is convenient to refer to clauses by number, and I shall use the system found in the standard edition of the Anglo-Saxon laws, Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, ed. Liebermann, F., 3 vols. (Halle, 19031916).

3 Gesetze, ed. Liebermann, I, 78.

4 English Historical Documents c. 500–1042, ed., Whitelock, D., 2nd ed., English Hist. Documents 1 (London, 1979), 393.

5 Liebermann (Gesetze I, 8) takes ch. 81 to continue the theme of divorce, so that on dissolution of the marriage a childless woman's property passes back into the possession of her relatives. Lancaster, L., ‘Kinship in Anglo-Saxon Society: II’, Brit. Jnl of Sociology 9 (1958), 359–77, at 368, agrees that ‘a childless woman (who had left her husband?) had to hand over her possessions and her “morning gift” … to her paternal kin’. MacCormack, G., ‘Inheritance and Wergild in Early Germanic Law - I’, Irish Jurist ns 8 (1973), 143–63, at 153, argues that ch. 81 contrasts with 78 rather than with 79–80, and ‘should be taken as dealing with the situation in which the marriage ends through the death of the husband not through the departure of the wife’. Rivers, T. J., ‘Widows' Rights in Anglo-Saxon Law’, Amer. Jnl of Legal Hist. 19 (1975), 208–15, at 212, appears to endorse this view, claiming that ‘the paternal inheritance destined for widows was more a provision for the children than for the widows, since widows were not entitled to inherit from their late husbands if they had no children’. Fell (Women in Anglo-Saxon England, p. 75) suggests that ch. 81 may concern a woman who dies childless rather than one whose marriage has ended for whatever reason.

6 Hickes, G., Linguarum Vett. Septentrionalium Thesaurus Grammatico-Criticus et Archæologicus (Oxford, 17031705), pt iv [Dissertatio Epistolaris], p. 92; Leges Anglo-Saxonica Ecclesiasticæ: & Civiles, ed. Wilkins, D. (London, 1721), p. 7; Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, ed. Schmid, R., 2nd ed. (Leipzig, 1858), p. 9; Gesetze, ed. Liebermann, I, 8; The Laws of the Earliest English Kings, ed. Attenborough, F. L. (Cambridge, 1922), p. 15; Ancient Laws and Institutes of England, ed. Thorpe, B., 2 vols. (London, 1840) I, 9.

7 Pokorny, J., Indogermanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch, 2 vols. (Bern, 19591969)I, 149 and 153.

8 An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Based on the Manuscript Collections of the Late Joseph Bosworth, ed. Toller, T. N. (Oxford, 1898), pp. 132–3. Toller, T. N., An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary … Supplement (Oxford, 1921), p. 110

9 Amos, A. C. et al. , Dictionary of Old English: B (Toronto, 1991).

10 Gesetze, ed. Liebermann, I, 10.

11 English Historical Documents, ed. Whitelock, , p. 394.

12 Gesetze, ed. Liebermann, I, 104–6.

13 English Historical Documents, ed. Whitelock, , p. 403.

14 Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents Relating to Great Britain and Ireland, ed. Haddan, A. W. and Stubbs, W., 3 vols. (Oxford, 18691873) III, 173.

15 Ibid. III, 199.

16 McNeill, J. T. and Gamer, H. M., Medieval Handbooks of Penance (New York, 1938), p. 209.

17 Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents, ed. Haddan, and Stubbs, III, 199.

18 McNeill, and Garner, , Medieval Handbooks of Penance, p. 209.

19 Wallace-Hadrill, J. M., Early Germanic Kingship in England and on the Continent (Oxford, 1971), pp. 33–7, discusses the interdependence of the barbarian codes: ‘We need to place Æthelberht's laws where they belong, within the body of a legal tradition that goes back to the codex of the Visigoth king Euric, composed in southern Gaul between 466 and 484’ (p. 33); ‘Æthelberht's legislation must be seen in its place among other Germanic laws, and we must suppose that its inspiration was not unlike theirs’ (p. 36).

20 Leges Burgundionum, ed. de Salis, L. R., MGH, Legum sectio I: Leges nationum Germanicarum 2.1 (Hanover, 1892), 107.

21 Drew, K. F., The Burgundian Code (Philadelphia, PA, 1949), p. 78.

22 Leges Burgundionum, ed. de, Salis, p. 73.

23 Drew, , The Burgundian Code, pp. 50–1.

24 Leges Burgundionum, ed. de, Salis, p. 92.

25 Drew, , The Burgundian Code, p. 65.

26 Leges Burgundionum, ed. de, Salis, p. 93.

27 Drew, , The Burgundian Code, p. 66.

28 Leges Burgundionum, ed. de, Salis, p. 98.

29 Drew, , The Burgundian Code, p. 71.

30 Leges Visigothorum, ed. Zeumer, K., MGH, Legum sectio I: Leges nationum Germanicarum 1 (Hanover, 1902), 130.

31 Scott, S. P., The Visigothic Code (Boston, 1910), p. 81.

32 Leges Visigothorum, ed. Zeumer, , pp. 190–1.

33 Scott, , The Visigothic Code, p. 132.

34 Leges Visigothorum, ed. Zeumer, , p. 178.

35 Scott, , The Visigothic Code, p. 123.

36 Leges Visigothorum, ed. Zeumer, , pp. 178–9.

37 Scott, , The Visigothic Code, pp. 123–4.

38 Leges Visigothorum, ed. Zeumer, , p. 182.

39 Scott, , The Visigothic Code, p. 125.

40 Leges Visigothorum, ed. Zeumer, , p. 133.

41 Scott, , The Visigothic Code, p: 83.

42 Lex Baiwariorum, ed. von Schwind, E., MGH, Legum sectio I: Leges nationum Germanicarum 5.2 (Hanover, 1926), 426–7.

43 Rivers, T. J., Laws of the Alamans and Bavarians (Philadelphia, PA, 1977), p. 159.

44 Lex Baiwariorum, ed. von, Schwind, p. 429.

45 Rivers, , Laws of the Alamans and Bavarians, p. 160.

46 Leges Alamannorum, ed. Eckhardt, K. A., MGH, Legum sectio I: Leges nationum Germanicarum 5.1 (Hanover, 1966), 112.

47 Rivers, , Laws of the Alamans and Bavarians, p. 84.

48 Leges Langobardorum, ed. Bluhme, F., M G H, Leges 4 (Hanover, 1869), 200–1.

49 Drew, K. F., The Lombard Laws (Philadelphia, PA, 1973), p. 234.

50 Gesetze, ed. Liebermann, I, 242.

51 English Historical Documents, ed. Whitelock, , p. 445.

52 Gesetze, ed. Liebermann, I, 254.

53 ibid I, 360.

54 English Historical Documents, ed. Whitelock, , p. 465.

55 Gesetze, ed. Liebermann, I, 442.

56 English Historical Documents, ed. Whitelock, , p. 465.

57 In references to Anglo-Saxon charters, S = Sawyer, P. H., Anglo-Saxon Charters: an Annotated List and Bibliography, R. Hist. Soc. Guides and Handbooks 8 (London, 1968).

58 Select English Historical Documents of the Ninth and Tenth Centuries, ed. Harmer, F. E. (Cambridge, 1914), pp. 3 and 40–1 (no. 2).

59 Select English Historical Documents, ed. Harmer, , p p. 13 and 47 (no. 10).

60 Keynes, S., ‘A Lost Cartulary of St Albans Abbey’, ASE 22 (1993), 253–79, at 275–6.

61 Ibid. p. 277.

62 I also revise Whitelock's translation of Æthelberht, ch. 77, since I accept Fell' arguments concerning the use of the verb bicgan in marriage contexts: ‘there is a vast range of evidence … for the fact that the money the bridegroom had to pay (the morgengifu) was payment to the woman herself, intended to guarantee her financial security and independence within marriage. Bicgan has the meaning “to pay for” and there is evidence that it could be used in the sense of paying money within a contractual framework’ (Women in Anglo-Saxon England, p. 16).

63 I am very grateful to Christine Fell, Simon Keynes and Patrick Wormald for their advice whilst this paper was in preparation.

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Anglo-Saxon England
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