Crime, Exiles and Ordeals

(Recent Cardiff graduate, Naomi Maher, writes about her placement researching crime, exiles and ordeals, and what it’s like to trawl through 600+ pages of primary source material!)

For five weeks I have researched Anglo-Saxon exiles and trial by ordeals. I examined sources such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Bede, Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne and A. O. Anderson’s Early Sources of Scottish History (all 604 pages of this latter work is simply a compilation of lots of other sources – making it a very long and repetitive account!). Despite some of the challenges these sources posed, this placement provided me with a great opportunity to read and attempt to get a better understanding of the contemporary accounts of Anglo-Saxon life.

Understanding the reasoning behind the ordeal trial and punishment by exile or outlawry was half the challenge. There were a number of different ordeals that could either convict or free an accused. For instance, the ordeal of fire required that the accused walk a certain distance, over red-hot ploughshares or holding a red-hot iron. In theory, if you were innocent you would come out of this completely without injury. However, more commonly the wound was bandaged and re-examined three days later by a priest, who would pronounce that God had intervened to heal it, or that it was festering, in which case you were guilty and then exiled or executed. According to various law codes, exile could be ordered for an individual in cases such as repeat offences, wizardry and prostitution. My research, however, seemed to suggest that the most common reason was simply that the individual posed a threat to the king and it is not always clear if these underwent the ordeal. For example, Symeon of Durham records that in 944 Anlaf and Reignold were expelled from Northumbria by Edmund who later subdued it to his own authority- no further information is provided but it seems pretty clear that they were simply a threat that was dealt with. In regards to trial by ordeal, various law codes suggest that the practice was used in instances such as coining of false money, treachery and theft. In particular, it was this latter crime which seems to have been one of the most common for having to undergo a trial by ordeal. As theft was a crime that could affect the whole community it would stand to reason that the Anglo-Saxons would not only want to make an example of the accused in order to reassure the community but also to deter would-be thieves.

Ordeal by fire from a German manuscript of the late twelfth century

Ordeal by fire from a German manuscript of the late twelfth century

Overall, whilst today we would see a painful trial and social ostracism as bizarre and extreme we have to remember that, in reality, these penalties were perhaps rarely enforced. Most crimes were compensated rather than punished. During my placement I looked at a range of sources and expected to find many instances of ordeals and exiles/outlaws but was surprised by the lack of evidence for this. Whether this was because they weren’t always recorded or whether they just didn’t happen that often we’ll never really know but, in my opinion, these harsh penalties were effective scare mongering tactics enforced throughout the centuries. These kingdoms were constantly changing and were regularly threatened by external forces, including neighbouring kingdoms and the Vikings, and these strong punishments seems to have been a way of limiting the internal threats that were posed to law and order.

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