The breaking of a body is a powerful act. In the medieval world, it was a matter of life or death. A mutilated body marked out its victim for social censure and, critically for a labour-based society, if the injury impacted the ability of the victim to work, it marginalised their social function and forced them to rely on communal charity. Thus, such an act was both a punishment of great impact when performed within the context of law, and a matter demanding compensation of money or blood when performed outside of the law. With that in mind, today I am going to home in on the body in law and in particular the dichotomy of mutilation as a transgression of the law and as a tool of the law. In doing so I am going to focus on Anglo-Saxon law, and the Icelandic Grágás as representative of Scandinavian law. I promise to try keep it interesting and provide some feuding, some torture, and some storytelling (alongside wergild legislation and evolving legal cultures) – look out for men being hung by holes cut into their heels toward the end! Fun right?
Now, this will not be an exhaustive article on the topic – if I brought in all extant Anglo-Saxon law-codes, not to mention those Germanic codes that fall outside the English and Scandinavian traditions, this would be a very long article. When combined with the evidence of narrative sources such as Anglo-Saxon hagiographies and the Íslendingasögur (Icelandic family sagas), the depth of the material is quite daunting! Check out our source list (and our bibliography on law codes) if you want to get more in depth – there is a lot written on the topic.
I should also note that I will also be using the terms ‘wounding,’ ‘injury,’ and ‘torture’ interchangeably with the term ‘mutilation’ to denote an intentional injury (inflicted either within or outside of the law) that leaves a permanent disfigurement or disability. Pay particular attention to the word ‘intentional’ – in this article I won’t be exploring execution, murder, battle wounds, or unintended injury in which the primary intent is not to torture or mutilate.
The surviving law codes of Anglo-Saxon England are a unique corpus of written, vernacular legislation that extends from the earliest surviving code of Æthelberht of Kent (c. 602) through to the Norman Conquest. The broad period they cover allows for an understanding of evolving societal values, with the caveat that, while codified laws reflect the desired behavioural norms of a ruling administration, the existence of a law does not demonstrate its practical application. Contrasting with our wealth of material for Anglo-Saxon law, Scandinavian law remained largely unrecorded until the eleventh century, reflecting the literacy that came with Scandinavia’s relatively late conversion to Christianity. However, despite the gap in time and place between recorded Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian law, there are some significant parallels between the Icelandic Grágás and their earlier Anglo-Saxon counterparts, including in matters of legal and illegal injury to the body. This is because, broadly speaking, both Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic law fall under the Germanic tradition of law-making.
The Germanic law codes, often termed ‘barbarian codes,’ are an independent legal tradition from that of Rome and Romanised Germanic tribes. Within this Germanic tradition, laws that address the treatment of the body either mandate compensation for extra-legal damage to the body, or legitimise legal damage to the body as a criminal sentence. We’ll start with the former. The code of Æthelberht of Kent is an example of legislation compensating illegal injury, delineating monetary penalties (wergild) for acts of mutilation, with little consideration given to the intent of the perpetrator, and no systematised provision for reciprocal mutilation. As an early piece of Anglo-Saxon legislation, the legal culture is not far removed from those of the continent where the Anglo-Saxon settlers originated and, as such, it is fairly typical of early Germanic legislation, and the attitudes to mutilation on display are not culturally unique. However, it is of note that Æthelberht’s Code is one of the earliest extant codifications of a wergild and, in the ninth-century, the law-codes of Alfred the Great continued to promulgate the system, though it had been progressively abandoned on the continent over previous centuries. Not so Scandinavia though! The Icelandic Grágás, first committed to writing in the twelfth-century, are explicit in their provision of a wergild, and are likely the last written promulgation of wergild in western Europe. The Grágás represent a difficult legal tradition to conceptualise. in their written form, they represent a three-century long oral legal code that, while likely Norwegian in origin, evolved in the isolation of Iceland without the guidance of a royal administration. Nonetheless, the late date of their recording demonstrates that, much as the Anglo-Saxons, the compensation for mutilations through the use of wergild long remained the cultural norm in Scandinavia.
So, in the context of illegal wounding, how did a wergild work? Put simply, it is a fine system in which the severity of the fine is assigned to the severity of the wound. Severity seems to have been judge against two criteria: the detriment of physical capacity, and the detriment of agency or reputation as displayed to the wider community through the visual inscription of the wound upon the victim. Which is to say, compensation for disabling injuries is set substantively higher than for a minor wounding, and so too is compensation for visible mutilation more punitive than for discreet injuries. The overarching concern underlying a wergild compensation system was to avoid feud cycles that could become self-perpetuating and detrimental to wider communities. By assigning a compensation value to an injury, it theoretically allowed the family of the wounded party to receive monetary justice, rather than seeking to repay injury with injury.
Examples of wergild tariffs against injuries, Æthelberht’s Code (c.602)
|Hearing loss (one ear)||
|Cut (to the bone)||
It is an important factor to all of this that, in a society comprised of disparate agricultural communities, a wound that hindered an individual’s ability to profitably contribute to the daily function of their community was a wound that resonated throughout the whole social structure. The loss of the front teeth may be a personal embarrassment, but the laming of a shoulder impacted on communal productivity, and the disparity in the wergild tariffs for each injury therefore reflects the perceived gravity of the offences. The seeming legal preoccupation with recompense for wounding is thus a natural extension of the social milieu within which the law was operating. Yet the same factors that made mutilation such a grave crime also provided it with the potency to become an effective punishment in the law codes of the tenth and eleventh-centuries.
That Anglo-Saxon codes abandoned the wergild in the tenth-century, while it was still in effect in Scandinavia two centuries later indicates that Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon legal traditions evolved from a common origin, but did so under different cultural influences: parallel, but independent. In the tenth-century, it was the influence of Christianity that was the most distinct differentiator between the development of Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian social mores – England had been largely Christianised for centuries, while the process had only just begun in Scandinavia. It should be of little surprise then that where mutilation is a sanctioned, codified method of punishing criminals, the legislators founded the authority to mutilate in Christian practice.
The subtle tension between traditional Germanic law and a Christian legal ethic oriented towards England’s continental neighbours is present in Alfred’s domboc. Of all the extant Anglo-Saxon codes, the domboc most clearly displays a legal culture in transition from one of compensation to one of punishment. While it does contain extensive wergild provisions, it also declares that oath-breakers ‘must undergo whatever sentence the bishop prescribes for him,’ a statement that does not condone punitive mutilation, yet neither does it preclude it from the bishop’s authority. Written Anglo-Saxon law was undoubtedly a product of Christian literacy and all extant codes provide clauses designed for the protection of the church, yet the domboc is the first to bring the church forward as a functional partner in legislation. Interestingly, despite this innovation, the basic legislative procedures in Anglo-Saxon England remained virtually unchanged over five-hundred years from Æthelberht to Cnut. The societal concerns displayed within Anglo-Saxon law may have been altered under the influence of Christianity, yet the fundamental operation of the law remained rooted in a cultural inheritance shared with Scandinavian law.
Nonetheless, once the precedent of non-capital or financial punishment was set, it became a standard tool of Anglo-Saxon legislation. In c.930 the code II Æthelstan mandated the amputation of a hand from any dishonest moneyers; in 1008 V Æthelred provided a vague exhortation to ‘life-sparing punishments,’ in order that ‘God’s handiwork … not be destroyed for small offences’; while II Cnut, dated to c. 1020, allows for a recidivist thief to have his hands or feet removed, and for the incorrigible recidivist upon a third offence is to have ‘his eyes put out and his nose and ears and upper lip cut off, or his scalp removed.’ Domboc, II Æthelstan, and V Æthelred all provide markers to the shifting legal perceptions of the body that culminated in Cnut’s codification of mutilation as legal punishment, in order to ‘preserve the soul.’ Yet in Scandinavia the Grágás do not reflect this change in cultural attitude to the body, remaining a fundamentally secular wergild reflecting the same basic societal concerns as Æthelberht’s Code. It is important to note that, simply because the extant Scandinavian law codes are comparatively late and continue to prescribe wergild, this does not mean that Scandinavian laws were primitive expressions of static Germanic law. Indeed, the Grágás are remarkable for their breadth, detail, and sophistication. Ultimately, the basic process of evolution that social values and legal structure underwent was the same in England and Scandinavia – the differences in the resulting law codes simply represent the different external influences and internal pressures each society faced.
If you have made it this far, well done! Let’s have some stories and look at all of this in practice, turning first to Iceland and the hero/villain Hrafnkel Freysgoði.
Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða tells the story of an arrogant man whose arrogance leads him into the unenviable position of being hung upside-down with his men by a rope threaded through holes cut into their heels by their enemies. Don’t overthink it – I don’t know if the achilles could takethat sort of weight either. Hrafnkel had killed a young man, been taken to court and, as a powerful chieftain, had surprisingly lost his case. Even more surprisingly, he had not prepared for the judgement to be carried out, and so it was that his enemies found him in bed and strung him up. This passage is unique as Hrafnkel survives to later take revenge. It is unusual within saga narrative that an act of mutilation is definitive within an inter-family revenge cycle and, as such, torture is highly unusual within these texts. Further, even when the act seems justified within the interchanges of feud, punitive mutilation is not (generally) a codified punishment within Icelandic law, and so the reader is rarely asked to empathise with the torturer. Thus the author of Hrafnkels saga seems to be implying judgement upon the perpetrators of the act; however, the sentence that had been passed on Hrafnkel was a three year outlawry and having caught such an outlaw, it is not clear that the men undertaking the retribution are acting outside juridical provision. By which it can be seen that the line between juridical and extra-juridical mutilation is not necessarily as clear as a modern reader would expect. With no recourse to justice as an outlaw, Hrafnkel did not seek compensation for his injuries, but bided his time until he took his own revenge (perpetuated the feud cycle).
So now we will have a look at an example where mutilation is a legal recourse, contained in the Translatio et miracula S. Swithuni. As this is a hagiography, the passage in question is likely intended as an exemplum and as such should be regarded as most truthful where it shows evidence of societal values. Unfortunately, I don’t have much narrative to impart here. A man is wrongly accused of a crime and convicted, his punishment was to have ‘his eyes put out, his hands cut off, his ears torn off [and] his nostrils carved open.’ This is in line with the provisions we saw in II Cnut. However, it is interesting to note that the author displays a discomfort with the punishment, providing commentary on the harsh nature of such laws, in his declaration that it was enacted by ‘wicked executioners,’ and his emphasis not only the man’s physical incapacity, but the burden and punishment he represents as a non-functioning member of his household. You will be happy to know that our anonymous torturee was the recipient of some divine healing.
Though the events leading to mutilation, the methods of mutilation, and the authority to mutilate vary greatly between Hrafnkel and the unnamed man, in both cases the punishment of physical torment was both retributive and intentional. However, while the unnamed man, living in a post-feud culture, mutilated under the auspices of law, had no claim or right to compensation, Hrafnkel operated within a feud culture that allowed him to enact revenge as compensation.
Now I was going to finish up with a brief example of a feud that got out of hand, demonstrating why wergild was an important concept in cultures with feud paradigms. But in the end, I have gone on for long enough, and that would take us away from our focus on the body in law. So I promise a future article on feud and wergild in the sagas and end this article here, hoping that you know a little more about Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic law!
- Feature image: Johannes Flintoe – Egill Skallagrímsson fights a holmgang with Berg-Önundr.
- L. Attenborough, trans. The Laws of the Earliest English Kings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1922.
- Andrew Dennis, Peter Foote and Richard Perkins, eds. and trans. Laws of Early Iceland: Gràgas, the Codex Regius of Gràgas. 2 vols. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1980.
- Jay Paul Gates and Nicole Marafioti, eds. Capital and Corporal Punishment in Anglo-Saxon England. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2014.
- Guy Halsall, ed. Violence and Society in the Early Medieval West. Woodbridge: Boydell, 1998.
- Susanne Kries. ‘English-Danish Rivalry and the Mutilation of Alfred in the Eleventh-Century Chronicle Poem The Death of Alfred.’ Journal of English and German Philology 104 (2005): 31 – 53.
- Lisi Oliver. The Body Legal in Barbarian Law. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011.
- University of London, Early English Law Codes (Online).
- Dorothy Whitelock, ed. and trans. English Historical Documents, C. 500 – 1042. 2nd edn. 10 vols. Vol. 1. London: Eyre Methuen, 1979.
- Patrick Wormald. The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the Twelfth Century. 2 vols. Vol 1. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999.
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Categories: History & Analysis