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English Medieval Legal Documents Database

A Compilation of Published Sources from 600 to 1535


Anglo-Saxon law was originally preserved in the form of oral traditions and customs. These customs varied according to the location, but there were three great systems in England; the Dane Law, the Mercian Law and the Wessex Law. The earliest recorded Anglo-Saxon laws to have survived are three pre-Alfredian Kentish laws; those of Aethelberht (ca. 600), Hlophere and Eadric (ca. 685-686), and Wihtred (695). For an extensive listing of various editions and translations of the Kentish laws (Oliver, Lisi, ed. The Beginnings of English Law. Toronto Medieval Texts and Translations, 14. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002 at pp.251-6) and for setting these editions in the context of legal scholarship, see Wormald.(Wormald, Patrick. The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the Twelfth Century. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999- at pp.1-28)

The principal laws issued after the Norman Conquest and before parliament was established, were the laws of William the Conqueror, the generalized charters of Henry I, Stephen, and Henry II, the assizes and constitutions of Henry II, and the Magna Carta, all of which are included in translation in English Historical Documents.(Douglas, David C., Dorothy Whitelock, George W. Greenaway, Harry Rothwell, A. R. Myers, and C. H. Williams, eds. English Historical Documents 10 Vols. in 11. New York: Oxford University Press, 1953-1977, vol. 2, at pp.431 ff.) There is no clear definition of statutory law for this period. As Breem points out,

The modern definition of a statute as being a legislative Act of the Crown, established since the time of Henry VII, was meaningless to medieval lawyers, for whom no theory existed regarding the division of power between executive, legislative or judicial bodies. Prior to the fourteenth century there was no clear distinction between statutes and ordinances and the terminology for early laws varied accordingly: an assize under Henry II, Richard (sic), and John, a provision under Henry III, and a statute under Edward I... Though the Statute Book commences with the Provision of Merton, 1236, a law passed in the absence of the Commons, the earliest statute rolls commence in 1278, cover the period 6 Edward I to 8 Edward IV (1468), contain the enrollments of statutes of public concern, and are held in the Public Record Office. ( Breem, "Historical Sources" in Moys, Elizabeth M. Manual of Law Librarianship: the Use and Organization of Legal Literature, 2nd ed. Boston: G.K.Hall. 1987 at pp.266-7)

Sessional, or annual volumes of the statutes have been issued continuously beginning with 1 Richard III, which was published by William de Machlinia in 1484.(Machlinia, William de, ed. Statuta: I Richard III . London: William de Machlinia, 1484.) Subsequently collections edited variously by Charles Runnington, Owen Ruffhead, Danby Pickering, and John Raithby have been published. For a good overview of these editions, beginning with the Nova Statuta, see Sweet and Maxwell.( Sweet and Maxwell's Guide to Law Reports and Statutes, 4th ed. London: Sweet & Maxwell, 1962 at pp.11-16) Details of early published editions can also be found in Maxwell.(Maxwell, William Harold, and Leslie F. Maxwell , comps. A Legal Bibliography of the British Commonwealth of Nations. 8 Vols. 2nd ed. London: Sweet and Maxwell, 1955- at pp.552-63) The final edited and printed texts of Acts prior to 1713 can be found in Statutes of the Realm.(Tomlins, Thomas E., William E. Taunton , and John Raithby, eds. The Statutes of the Realm. 11 Vols. London : History of Parliament, 1810.)


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