What does that word mean, really?

All medieval historians engage with translation in some way to do research; whether it is simply to read primary sources or secondary literature, to write up research based on variations in translation, to edit translations already made, or to create new translations. Medievalists spend years honing their translation skills and I think it would be fair to say that translating, in its various forms, is one of the hardest parts of my job, not only because it requires significant skills but because it demands space in time and in mind – the two commodities hardest to juggle in my role as a lecturer in a busy history department.

'Oh great, this book's in cow.'

‘Oh great, this book’s in cow.’

My own experience with translation clearly began before I decided to go into research. As most of you will know, I’m a non-native speaker of English and this means that I continuously engage with translation by copying, editing and thinking about the way native speakers use English in speech and in writing. It has often been a process of trial and error – really, lots of errors (so many horror stories that are not suitable to write about here!). Nevertheless, by the time I started my postgraduate studies, this process had left me fairly confident that I could tackle any text with a good dictionary and patience. For several years, I felt that this worked like a charm – mostly – until my research took me in new directions and I had to make completely new translations of the sources I was working with. Honestly, my postgraduate training and a PhD had not prepared me for this. Even small practical things like whether to indicate variations in spellings in the word document using square or round brackets or footnotes became a matter to ponder for days, weeks and months. And, the more translations I did, the less I felt I knew.translation-is-a-puzzle It has resulted in me becoming more pedantic about words and phrases in general and those students and colleagues who know me well, can attest, with great exasperation, to the fact that I start almost every question or objection with “but what does that word mean in practice?”

Next week I, together with the Leverhulme-funded international network ‘Voices of Law: Language, Text and Practice’, will be hosting a postgraduate workshop on editing, translating and using medieval documents. I will be sharing some of the basic problems of translating (yes, maybe I’ll divulge some of those horror stories too), focusing on problems relating to purpose, time, knowing too much/too little, and logistics. I’ll be joined at the workshop by some more experienced colleagues from Cambridge, Copenhagen, Glasgow, and the Frisian Academy, who also grapple with translations. Afterwards, the papers from the workshop will be made available in an online booklet, which will, hopefully, provide postgraduates with some useful guidance on this topic.

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.

The sanctuary of Assange – a case of early medieval law

You would have had to have resided in the deepest darkest woods over the last five years not to have heard something about the ongoing saga of the attempts by Swedish prosecutors investigating sex crimes to question Julian Assange, the Australian journalist and founder of Wikileaks – an organisation that publishes secret and classified information from anonymous sources. Assange denies all charges and sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden fearing he would be sent on to the US and put on trial for releasing American documents through Wikileaks (a quick recount of events and links to some of the coverage is available here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-33907874 ; http://www.theguardian.com/media/julian-assange). My interest in this story is not about the various legal ins and outs of this case, but rather in how a case such as this might have played out in the period c.800-c.1300.

Firstly, it is important to point out that despite the fact that scholars often regard international law as having its beginning in the early modern period, 1648 and Westphalia is the date and place usually quoted, it is evident that there were some ‘international’ legal principles that had been in use much earlier than this date. We know this because some of the most frequently occurring provisions in treaties of the early medieval period regard those for men (and presumably women?) who had been accused of, or found guilty of, committing crimes or wrongdoings in one kingdom, and who had fled into exile, or been outlawed or banished, and had then sought shelter in another ruler’s territory. There are numerous references in treaties and in narratives describing agreements between rulers to how neither contracting party was to be allowed to shelter such men and occasionally also to the fact that they were to be actively sought and if caught shipped back to the ruler whose laws they had breached. The Anglo-French truce of 1215, the Anglo-Scottish treaty of Falaise (1174), the Anglo-Flemish alliance of 1101, the treaty between King Æthelred and the Viking leaders (994), the Franco-German treaty of Bonn (921), the treaty between Emperor Lothar and the Venetians (840), and the treaty between the kings of Mercia and Wessex (704/5) are just a few examples containing such provisions. We, furthermore, know that there are other pieces of evidence indicating that these provisions were implemented. For instance, in England both the treaty of Falaise and the legal document known as the Assize of Clarendon indicate that it was the responsibility of the sheriff to keep lists of such men, and to hunt them down and hand them over to the other side, while on the continent such men often turned up as mercenaries: the tenth-century chronicler Widukind of Corvey is just one writer to mention an army made up of such ‘criminals’. It is also possible that the attack launched by the English king, Æthelred II, against Normandy in c. 1000 should be seen in this same light, as the treaty of 991 specifically stipulated that the Norman duke was not to harbour any men or enemies of the English king without his say so.

Detail of a miniature of king Ethelred II attacking the Normans at the Cotentin Peninsula. BL MS Royal 20 E II f. 258v

Detail of a miniature of king Ethelred II attacking the Normans at the Cotentin Peninsula. BL MS Royal 20 E II f. 258v

So how might a medieval person end up being chased across borders, as it were? Much like today, once a crime had been committed, someone had to announce it and the name of the accused at a local assembly and appoint a day for when the accused would come to answer the accusation. There were a myriad of offences that might land you in serious trouble. For instance, being accused or convicted of a so-called ‘unemendable’ crime; that is, a crime which could not be atoned for with compensation. These crimes varied across kingdoms and regions but often included arson, coining false money, theft or robbery, witchcraft, failure to pay compensation, and betrayal of one’s lord. The last of these, betrayal of one’s lord, usually has a very wide definition in the laws of the period. Betrayal was evidently what the ruler deemed to be betrayal, which means that there were a whole host of offences which, if committed against the king, could in fact be ‘unemendable’. Most of these ‘unemendable’ crimes did of course not result in the accused being chased throughout several kingdoms; if found guilty they were usually punished corporally or with their life. Hence, being found guilty of theft often resulted in hanging, coining false money in the loss of fingers or hands, witchcraft in drowning, and treachery in beheading.

Hanging of the baker. Detail from the Old English Illustrated Hexateuch, BL Cotton Claudius B. IV fo. 59

Hanging of the baker. Detail from the Old English Illustrated Hexateuch, BL Cotton Claudius B. IV fo. 59

On occasion, a person found guilty was sent into exile or was outlawed. The exact distinction between the two is not always clear in the primary sources but both sentences at their basic premise ensured that the guilty fell outside the protection of the king and society, with no one being able to aid him, and should they come across him within the king’s lands he would be killed instantly. Usually the sentenced person was allowed a day to reach a port and take himself overseas or into a neighbouring kingdom. Exile was more commonly pronounced as a sentence on someone found guilty of a crime than outlawry and across Europe the length of exile could vary. We know that in Iceland, for instance, you could be exiled for three years for minor wrongdoings or permanently for more serious crimes, but many early medieval laws did not specify how long the period of exile could or should be. Outlawry was occasionally meted out as a punishment for a serious crime, much like exile, but across Europe it was also commonly a sentence pronounced because the accused had fled without answering his accusers in court. Exile and outlawry were probably in many cases a permanent status that ceased only upon the death of the guilty or accused, though it is important to note that both could often be reversed upon the payment of a fine or compensation to the king or the victim’s family.

Exile and outlawry was not the only alternative to corporal punishment in the medieval period. One could seek sanctuary, not at an embassy but in a church. Many of the legislative traditions in Europe provided for a wrongdoer who had fled to a church the protection from forcible removal as well as immunity from capital or corporal punishment. The fugitive might be required to pay a fine, forfeit his goods, perform penance, or go into exile, but mostly his body and his life were to be preserved. For instance, the eighth code of King Æthelred II promulgated in 1014 stated that if a man reached sanctuary the king would grant him his life in return for full compensation ‘both to God and to men’.

Detail from the roll of Edward the Confessor, once an exile in Normandy, holding a crown. BL Royal 14 B VI Membrane 4

Detail from the roll of Edward the Confessor, once an exile in Normandy, holding a crown. BL Royal 14 B VI Membrane 4

The case of Julian Assange has attracted widespread media attention as well as capturing the public imagination over the last five years. The phenomenon is not new, even if the details differ from case to case, and indeed the medieval period is littered with examples of individuals who for one reason or another found themselves on the wrong side of a ruler’s laws: Robin Hood, Hereward the Wake, Fouke Fitz Warin, Eustace the Monk. And, we should not forget the many European kings who had indeed been exiles before coming to the throne; Edward the Confessor of England (11c), Louis IV of West Frankia (10c), Harald Hardrada of Norway (11c), Æthelred I of Northumbria (8c) to name but a few. Hence, the principle of one ruler not sheltering enemies or wrongdoers of another king, found in many treaties, is not only a very old principle of international law but also one that has been hotly debated, today as much as in the Middle Ages.

International law and the Middle Ages

The troubles in Syria have re-opened the debate about the legality of military intervention by the international community and have made me think again about what international law is and its history, especially (obviously) in the Middle Ages. As one BBC correspondent has summed up the current problem: ‘The words “international law” convey the sense of a set of established international rules and authorities agreed by all nations, and easily understood and applied by them. Sadly that is far from the case, and in practice, it is difficult, if not impossible, to get definitive rulings in international law involving military intervention. There is no international court on hand to give the legal go-ahead to intervene.’ (For the full story, see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-23855428)

This may seem far removed from the Middle Ages. For instance, most historians agree that there were no such thing as ‘international law’ in the medieval period, particularly since there were no clearly defined nation states between which a law could be agreed and implemented. This is of course a simplification of what international law is; a combination of treaties (bilateral as well as unilateral), legal practice (or custom) and general principles of law (usually considered to be those that apply in all major legal systems). It is this combination of what international law is that perhaps give rise to the many interpretations of the ‘law’ and the difficulties of applying it, in modern times as well as in the Middle Ages.

For the medieval period, when historians write or talk about ‘international law’, they tend to look to canon law as something that was understood and applied across the medieval west – that is, canon law was one of those general principles of law. But what about treaties and legal practice? Those have attracted significantly less research by historians of the medieval period, especially the early and high medieval periods, and hence two-thirds of what we consider international law in the contemporary world is largely missing for the Middle Ages, and not because there are no treaties or legal practices but because historians have not really investigated. I would argue that this means that the history of international law in the medieval period is currently misunderstood because historians are looking to canon law because of its, supposed or otherwise, universality, although, as stated at the beginning, universality is not easily achieved or expected even in 2013.

For more about treaties and international law and the problems and possibilities of applying modern concepts to the study of the Middle Ages, my article ‘Law or treaty? Defining the edge of legal studies in the early and high medieval periods’ has just been published in Historical Research, vol. 86, no. 233 (August 2013) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/hisr.2013.86.issue-233/issuetoc