The purpose of Alfred’s Law Code
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Published: Tue, 02 May 2017
What was the purpose of Alfred’s Law Code?
Alfred’s Law Code, or Doom Book, was written sometime between the years 880-899 setting out a series of law’s and their punishments if broken. However, despite a lengthy preface Alfred at no point mentions the main purpose of his Law Code; one might assume at first glance that it was written primarily as a document composed to hold all the law’s in one single place alongside their punishments, however many of the laws Alfred had compiled already existed from his predecessors. This therefore raises the question of why Alfred felt the need to write the laws, as well as his alterations and a series of biblical translations, when the laws were not new. This essay will examine Alfred’s motivations for writing his Law Code, using evidence taken from the Doom Book itself in order to assess what the purpose of the Law Code truly was, and whether or not Alfred ever intended it to be a set of rules which must be followed.
One important purpose of Alfred’s Law Code was to promote Alfred as a just king. The Fonthill Letter demonstrates how Alfred was perceived as a king who took it upon himself to ensure justice throughout his reign. Gretsch argues that the letter gives the first example of ‘shire justice’ known in Anglo-Saxon times, and tells of Alfred’s justice system. Although Asser’s Life of Alfred does not mention Alfred’s Law Code, it does not ignore Alfred’s interest in the judiciary. According to Asser, Alfred took great interest in reviewing judgements and making a decision as to whether legal outcomes were just or unjust. Asser also insists that Alfred ensured all judges were literate in order to best study the law, as well as punishing those who were not by removing them from office. Therefore there is little doubt that Asser portrays Alfred as a just king with a keen interest in the legal system. However, although Asser’s ‘Life of Alfred’ is the key primary text when considering Alfred’s reign, it’s authenticity has come under scrutiny and so other sources must too be considered to validate the argument that the Law Code was written to promote Alfred as a just king. Therefore, clues must be found in the Law Code itself in order to establish its main purpose. Alfred’s Preface to the Law Code indicates that he had a strong interest in law; the fact that he composed the Law Code from pre-existing laws indicates that such a publication was not necessary (as the laws already existed) and therefore that Alfred embarked upon the writing of the Law Code due to a personal interest in justice. Similarly, Alfred discusses in the introduction to his Law Code how he has selectively chosen which laws to include based on what he deemed “most just”. This in itself shows how Alfred wrote the Law Code in order to promote himself as a just king with a keen personal interest in law.
One could also argue that Alfred wrote his Law Code as a manifesto of his kingship. Frantzen has argued that by writing his Law Code, Alfred enabled himself to express his ideology in a legal document, thus demonstrating how he envisioned England to be under his leadership. Wormald supports this view, claiming that the Doom Book “manifests a vision of kingship and authority”, and should not necessarily be considered first and foremost as a legal document. Wormald’s claim that the Law Code was not intended for “practical direction” certainly has some validity; several of the laws Alfred chose to include contradict the laws of Ine, which Alfred considered extremely important when writing his Law Code. This arguably demonstrates how Alfred did not intend his Law Code to be followed unfailingly, as there is little doubt a man of Alfred’s education did not realise these contradictions existed. However, there is little evidence in the Law Code itself to suggest that it was written as a manifesto by Alfred. The Law Code reads as a dictation; Alfred tells of the punishment which each crime shall entail, in detail. He does not, however, mention ways in which he will ensure his laws are abided by, nor does he envision within his writing a society in which the law is religiously obeyed; by setting out the punishment for each crime, Alfred’s Law Code itself reads as a Law Code should, and although there are arguments to suggest that Alfred has a hidden agenda in writing it, one would be hard pressed to find evidence of this within the written Law Code.
One can also argue that Alfred’s Law Code was written to encourage a link between human law and divine law, thus portraying Alfred as a pious king. This is best demonstrated through Alfred’s Preface to the law code, in which he attempts to strengthen his own authority through tracing it back to the Old Testament. Alfred chose the Bible quotations he would use selectively in order to support his writing, and as Griffiths has argued they read “rather like a set of proverbs”. This enabled Alfred to establish a sense of divinity about his writing, and therefore associate his Law Code with divine law, which in times when religion was deeply important would have helped establish law and order under Alfred’s reign. Alfred begins his Law Code with a set of forty-eight laws set down by the Lord to Moses, written in the same style as Alfred’s own laws thus once again creating a link between human law and divine law. The structure of the Law Code also suggests that it was intended to promote Alfred as a pious king; the code is set in 120 paragraphs, as homage to the age of Moses at his death. This is symbolically significant as the chapters are not divided logically; as Frantzen notes, “they do not correspond to logical divisions of the subject matter”. By going on to mention that he chose the laws wisely from the laws of those before him and adapted them to suit Anglo-Saxon society, Alfred enabled his Law Code to reflect both Christian values and his own will in one document with little to distinguish between them, consequently creating a Law Code which consolidated his authority as a king whilst still portraying himself as a devout leader who obeyed the word of his Lord above all else.
One primary purpose for Alfred’s Law Code was to preserve Lordship. Abels has argued that Alfred saw Lordship as “the force that held together the political world and…connected the temporal world with the spiritual”, and as has already been discussed, Alfred’s spirituality was deeply important to him. Evidence of Alfred’s attempt to preserve Lordship lies in the Law Code itself, the King places emphasis on the punishments for treachery against a Lord or a King, thus demonstrating the importance he places on these roles. Treachery against a Lord is the only crime that is not compensated for in monetary terms; this therefore demonstrates the importance Alfred placed upon Lordship, as it is arguably the worst crime one could commit. Alfred saw himself as above the bonds of Lordship, however as Abels notes, each man is responsible to another man, “free or slave”. Alfred therefore entrusted the responsibility of slaves unto their Lords, and in doing so “was moving toward the system of tithings that would emerge in the tenth century”. Alfred also included within his Law Code the notion that one must love their Lord as they would Christ, thus consolidating the importance of Lordship under Alfred’s rule. The evidence from within Alfred’s Law Code itself would therefore conclude that the preservation of Lordship was of high importance to King Alfred, and that it is arguably one of the main reasons for his writing the Law Code.
It can also be argued that Alfred’s Law Code was written for a purpose other than to advocate law and policy; it has been suggested that Alfred embarked on the writing of the Doom Book as a literary endeavour. The extended prologue and biblical translations suggest that Alfred wrote his Law Code as a piece of literature intended to demonstrate his scholarly ability as opposed to merely setting out a series of laws. Frantzen argues that Alfred renewed a tradition of law following the chaotic Viking invasions; however the fact that Alfred’s Law Code was composed almost entirely of previously existing laws demonstrates how Alfred was motivated by the idea of writing out the laws for himself and creating a document to which his name would forever be attached. Of course, there is little evidence within the Law Code itself to suggest that this is what Alfred is doing. However, the biblical translations included in the preface indicate that Alfred, in effect, was showing off his translation skills; however, one could argue that the translations were included to add to the religious context of the Law Code. Griffiths raises the question of whether Alfred included the translations and their edits for “decorative” purposes or whether they were included for a reason; although he does not answer this, one might conclude that Alfred included a vast amount of his own writing and opinion in the preface to his Law Code in order to personalise the document, and in doing so was in effect creating a piece of literature whose sole purpose was not to encourage law and justice, but to demonstrate the King’s own scholarly achievement.
It can therefore be concluded that there are a number of possible motivations for Alfred writing his Law Code. The idea that it was written to promote Alfred as a just king is certainly plausible, especially when the text is considered alongside Asser’s ‘Life of Alfred’ and his comments on Alfred’s interest in justice. Similarly, there is every possibility that Alfred wrote his Law Code to endorse his laws as divine laws, and in doing so create an image of himself as a pious king. However, there is little evidence to suggest, as many have, that Alfred write his Law Code as a manifesto of his kingship, and therefore the validity of this argument is questionable. Yet the most likely conclusion is that Alfred wrote his Law Code not only as a set of laws and their punishments, but also to promote his image as a King; as a deeply religious man, who was above Lordship and held a keen interest in the justice of his people.
– Lapidge, M., Anglo-Saxon England, Volume 23 (Cambridge University Press, 2007)
– Asser, J., Keynes, S., and Lapidge, M., Alfred the Great, Asser’s Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources
– Frantzen, A., King Alfred (Twayne Publishers Inc., 1986)
– Wormald, P., The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the Twelfth Century (Wiley-Blackwell, 2001)
– Griffiths, B., Early English Law: An Introduction (Anglo-Saxon Books, 1995)
– Abels, P., Alfred the Great: War, Culture and Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England (Longman, 1998)
 Gretsch, M., ‘The Language of the Fonthill Letter’ in Lapidge, M., Anglo-Saxon England, Volume 23 (Cambridge University Press, 2007) pp. 57
 Asser, J., Keynes, S., and Lapidge, M., Alfred the Great, Asser’s Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources (Penguin Classics, 1983) pp. 109
 Frantzen, A., King Alfred (Twayne Publishers Inc., 1986) pp. 11
 Wormald, P., The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the Twelfth Century (Wiley-Blackwell, 2001) pp. 427
 Griffiths, B., Early English Law: An Introduction (Anglo-Saxon Books, 1995) pp. 43
 Ibid. pp. 44-53
 Frantzen, King Alfred pp. 13-14
 Griffiths, Early English Law pp. 43
 Abels, P., Alfred the Great: War, Culture and Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England (Longman, 1998) pp. 275
 Asser, Keynes, and Lapidge, Alfred the Great, Asser’s Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources pp. 39
 Abels, Alfred the Great pp. 276
 Ibid. pp. 250
 Frantzen, A., King Alfred (Twayne Publishers Inc., 1986) pp. 11
 Griffiths, Early English Law pp. 44
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