The 878 Alfred-Guthrum Peace Treaty

Go to http://www.earlyenglishlaws.ac.uk/laws/manuscripts/b/?tp=s&nb=4791MS 383 ff 12v-13r for close reading.

Reproduced here by kind permission of the Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

 

MS 383 leftMS 383 right

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A near-original copy of this remarkable 300 word manuscript exists in the Parker Library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (Manuscript 383). It is the agreement made after Edington and it defines the boundary of the Danelaw. It is written in Old English and the prologue reads:

This is the Peace which King Alfred and King Guthrum and the witan of all the Angelcynne and all those nobles of East Anglia have agreed on and confirmed with oaths, for themselves and their subjects, both those living and those yet unborn.

Another copy, thought to have been more carefully edited, reads:

This is the Peace which King Alfred and King Guthrum and the witan of all the Angelcynne and all those nobles of East Anglia have agreed on and confirmed with oaths, for themselves and their subjects, both those living and those yet unborn, who wish to have God’s mercy or ours.

This document, being a pragmatic and finely crafted legal agreement, is devoid of bias and aggrandisement of Alfred in the Chronicle. It has therefore been the source of much linguistic study. In particular I refer to that of Paul Kershaw of the Concoran Department of History, Virginia University who, in 2000, produced the fascinating paper The Alfred – Guthrum Treaty: Scripting Accommodation and Interaction in Viking Age England. He says that ‘ the text was the first to recognise the social standing of, and to give the legal identity to, the Scandinavian settlers’ and was that the Treaty was the first bearing the  authority of a Scandinavian king. But a major theme in his paper is that the Peace Treaty exemplified the way that justice was seen as being most effectively administered through the concept of God’s miltse (mercy), and it is interesting to speculate on how this could be absorbed into the Danish culture of the time.

In the post on Morality and Honesty I have touched upon the possibility of the Danish outlook being more aligned with craftiness than honesty. In today’s ‘Western’ society, this is manifested in the lovable rogue concept; or it can be seen in a grudging respect that is often afforded to a Machiavellian (or even cruel) leader who is nevertheless perceived as being ‘successful’. But in our present-day society no-one loves a dishonest banker who carries on defrauding ‘honest’ taxpayers, so why should we assume that the ninth century Danes were so radically different? And the lack of an over-riding philosophy of forgiveness and magnanimity in an Odin-worshipping culture would surely have produced opportunities for extreme hatreds to develop for feuding to flourish.

Perhaps this Odinistic acceptance of duplicity would part explain the high turnover rate of Danish army generals and their kings, who seemed to be murdered or otherwise killed at an alarming rate (Foundation for Medieval Geneology). Might it be the case that Guthrum and his people were attracted by an alternative way of thinking (Christianity) that underpinned an evidently more stable and sensible legal system, viz. one based not upon rude vengeance (an eye for an eye) but upon honesty, especially if that honesty could be strengthened with written laws and agreements. 

The remained of the Treaty reads along the lines:

  1. Concerning the boundary of the lands of the two kings, it will run along (or up on) the Thames, then the Lea to its source then straight to Bedford where it will follow the Ouse to Watling Street.
  2. The weregeld for the killing of a noble of the Angelcynne or Danes is eight half-marks of pure gold (the equivalent of 1200 shillings) and for killing an Angelcynne carl who has possession of land or any free Dane shall be 200 shillings.
  3. A king’s thegn accused of killing must be tried under oath by twelve other king’s thegns. Any lesser one who is so accused must be tried by eleven of ‘his’ equals and one king’s thegn. The same shall apply in all disputes over thirty pence In value; the maximum penalty being three times the value.
  4. All trades in slaves and horses and oxen must be with known moneyers of coin.
  5. No slaves or freemen may cross to the armies of the other king, save that trade in cattle and goods will be permitted if pledges of peace with hostages accompany the transaction.
'Temple' motif coin bearing Guthrum's baptismal name Aethelstan. Found at Hoxney, Suffolk in 1986. Reproduced from The British Numismatic Journal 2005, plate 1, item GT1, by kind permission of the Trustees of the British Numismatic Society

‘Temple’ motif coin bearing Guthrum’s baptismal name Aethelstan. Found at Hoxney, Suffolk in 1986. Reproduced from The British Numismatic Journal 2005, plate 1, item GT1, by kind permission of the Trustees of the British Numismatic Society

These carefully selected clauses carried immense consequence and portrayed not an outright victory by Alfred – as we have come to believe from the one-sided reporting of the AS Chronicle – but a truly equal sharing of land and responsibility.

It is clear that high in the minds of its authors are the terms of trade – perhaps because this is seen as the potential tinder for future flarings of violence. Could it be that the previous absence of honest dealing was at the heart of the past wars?

 

 

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