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Adultery in early Anglo-Saxon society: Æthelberht 31 in comparison with continental Germanic law

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 September 2008

Theodore John Rivers
Rego Park, New York


As in other societies, adultery was a punishable offence among the Germanic peoples. Although it is a topic which has commanded considerable attention, it has been given attention not so much because it deals with family law and its significance to social history, as because it concerns the treatment of women. But closely related to the question of women, of course, is that of how men view each other. Even as early as Tacitus, evidence exists that Germanic women were treated with respect, and were subject to the protection or mundium of male relatives. Although exaggerated, the account in the Germania gives us some understanding of the role of Germanic women in respect of betrothal, marriage and family life. But it also leaves us with questions to which we most likely will never find answers.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1991

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1 Germania, trans. Hutton, M., rev. E.H. Warmington, Loeb Classical Library, rev. ed. (Cambridge, MA, 1970), chs. 18–20.Google Scholar

2 Brunner, H., Deutsche Rechtsgeschichte, ed. von Schwerin, C.F., 2nd ed., 2 vols. (Berlin, 19061928) II, 854.Google Scholar

3 Lex Visigothorum (hereafter L. Visig.) III. 4. 1 and III. 4. 3, in Leges Visigothorum, ed. Zeumer, K., MGH, Legum sectio I: Leges nationum Germanicarum 1 (Hannover, 1902), 147–8Google Scholar. L. Visig. III. 4. 9 (Leges Visigothorum, ed. Zeumer, pp. 150–1) required the adulteress to be delivered to a husband's wife for punishment if the wife's husband was convicted of adultery, and seems to contradict the view expressed by Brunner (above, n. 2).

4 L. Visig. III. 4. 4 (Leges Visigothorum, ed. Zeumer, p. 149). Leges Burgundionum (Liber Constitutionum) LXVIII. 1, in Leges Burgundionum, ed. de Salis, L. R., MGH, Legum sectio I: Leges nationum Germanicarum 2. 1 (Hannover, 1892), 95Google Scholar; Drew, K.F., The Burgundian Code (Philadelphia, 1949), p. 68Google Scholar. Edictus Rothari 212, in [Leges Langobardorum, ed. Bluhme, F. and Boretius, A.], MGH, Leges (in Folio) 4 (Hannover, 1868), 51–2Google Scholar; Drew, K. F., The Lombard Laws (Philadelphia, 1973), p. 93Google Scholar. See also Alfred 42. 7, in Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, ed. Liebermann, F., 3 vols. (Halle, 1903–16) I, 77Google Scholar. There are parallels to Roman law, notably Lex Romana Visigothorum XXVII. 1 (Pauli Sent. II. 27. 1), in Lex Romana Visigotborum, ed. Haenel, G. (Leipzig, 1849), p. 372Google Scholar, and Leges Burgundionum (Lex Romana) XXV, in Leges Burgundionum, ed. de Salis, p. 146.

5 Lex Baiwariorum VIII. 1, in Lex Baiwariorum, ed. von Schwind, E., MGH, Legum sectio I: Leges nationum Germanicarum 5.2 (Hannover, 1926), 353Google Scholar; Rivers, T.J., Laws of the Alamans and Bavarians (Philadelphia, 1977), p. 138.Google Scholar

6 Likewise, Bullough, V. L. and Brundage, J., Sexual Practices and the Medieval Church (Buffalo, NY, 1982), p. 132Google Scholar, add that the church tried to replace justified homicide, when a spouse was caught red-handed, with monetary payment.

7 Leges Langobardorum, ed. Bluhme, and Boretius, , pp. 94 and 162–3Google Scholar; Drew, , The Lombard Laws, pp. 134 and 201–2Google Scholar. However, Liutprand 130 adds that if a husband encouraged his wife to commit adultery so that he could kill her in flagrante delicto as a scheme to possess her property, the husband, if convicted, was compelled to pay her wergeld.

8 Assuming, of course, that the adulteress or the adulterous couple was not killed in flagrante delicto. For the Bavarian law, see above, n. 5.

9 Similar views are expressed in Wallace-Hadrill, J.M., Early Germanic Kingship in England and on the Continent (Oxford, 1971), p. 39.Google Scholar

10 It is common to many of the Anglo-Saxon laws, in addition to the Alamannic and Bavarian.

11 We must question the overly optimistic view regarding the influence of Christianity upon Æthelberht's laws taken by Imbert, J., ‘L’influence du christianisme sur la législation des peuples francs et germains’, Conversione al cristianesimo nell’ Europa dell’ alto medioevo, SettSpol 14 (1967), 365–96, at 367.Google Scholar

12 Liebermann, Gesetze der Angelsachsen I, 5.

13 ‘Her’ is not explicit in Whitelock's, translation, but is included in the earlier translation in The haws of the Earliest English Kings, ed. Attenborough, F.L. (Cambridge, 1922), p. 9.Google Scholar

14 English Historical Documents, c. 500–1042, ed. Whitelock, D., 2nd ed., Eng. Hist. Documents 1 (London, 1979), 393.Google Scholar

15 The reference in Bede, HE 1.26, is ambiguous regarding the year of Æthelberht's conversion: Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, ed. Colgrave, B. and Mynors, R.A.B. (Oxford, 1969), p. 76.Google Scholar

16 See my A Reevaluation of Æthelberht 31’, Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung für Rechtsgeschichte, Germanistische Abteilung 93 (1976), 315–18Google Scholar. Hill, R., ‘Marriage in Seventh-Century England’, in Saints, Scholars and Heroes: Studies in Medieval Culture in Honour of Charles W. Jones, ed. King, M.H. and Stevens, W.M., 2 vols. (Collegeville, MN, 1979) I, 6775, at 70Google Scholar, also considers this interpretation.

17 This interpretation is an old one. See, for example, Ancient Laws and Institutes of England, ed. Thorpe, B., 2 vols. (London, 1840) I, 11Google Scholar, and Wilda, W.E., Geschichte des deutschen Strafrechts (Halle, 1842), p. 827Google Scholar. Much scholarship has followed, including such well-known historians as Sohm, R., Das Recbt der Eheschliessung aus dim deutschen und canonischen Recht (Weimar, 1875), p. 76Google Scholar, and Roeder, F., Die Familie bei den Angelsachsen, Studien zur englischen Philologie 4 (Halle, 1899), 136–7.Google Scholar

18 That the wife's wergeld is paid is also an old interpretation. See Grimm's, J. review of Ancient Laws and Institutes of England, ed. Thorpe, , in Göttingische gelehrte Anzeigen (1841), 345–60, at 353–4Google Scholar, to which we should add Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, ed. Schmid, R., 2nd ed. (Leipzig, 1858), p. 5Google Scholar, as well as his footnote to ch. 31, and Rosenthal, E., Die Rechtsfolgen des Ehebruchs nach kanonischem und deutschem Recht. Eine rechtsgeschichtliche Abhandlung (Würzburg, 1880), p. 55Google Scholar. This interpretation is also upheld in Laws of the Earliest English Kings, ed. Attenborough, , p. 177, n. 31.1Google Scholar. More recently, Fell, C., Women in Anglo-Saxon England and the Impact of 1066 (London, 1984), p. 64Google Scholar, also subscribes to this interpretation, but her discussion presents no analysis of Æthelberht 31 and makes no reference to the law's complexity and ambiguity.

19 'If anyone lies with the wife of a man of a twelve-hundred wergeld, he is to pay to the husband 120 shillings; to a man of a six-hundred wergeld 100 shillings is to be paid; to a man of the ceorl [common freeman] class 40 shillings is to be paid.’ Gesetze der Angelsachsen, ed. Liebermann I, 56. English translation in English Historical Documents, ed. Whitelock, p. 411. The same compensatory ratio in Alfred 10 is also evident in Alfred 18.2 and 18.3. The direct relationship linking the atonement for adultery with the value of an individual's wergeld in Alfred 10 is considered meaningless by Rosenthal, Die Rechtsfolgen des Ehebruchs, p. 56, n. 1.

20 See above, n. 3.

21 Lex Baiwariorum VIII. 1 (Lex Baiwariorum, ed. von Schwind, p. 353).

22 Grimwald 7, in Leges Langobardorum, ed. Bluhme and Boretius, p. 402.

23 Leges Burgundionum (Liber Constitutionum) XXXVI (Leges Burgundionum ed. de Salis, p. 69). See also Lex Frisionum IX. 10, in Lex Frisionum ed. Eckardt, K. A. and Eckhardt, A., MGH, Fontes iuris Germanici antiqui 12 (Hannover, 1982), 48.Google Scholar

24 The church also remained silent when the husband, desiring to stay with his wife, reprimanded her. Penitentiale Theodori, II.xii.11, in Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents Relating to Great Britain and Ireland, ed. Haddan, A.W. and Stubbs, W., 3 vols. (Oxford, 18691878) III, 200 (II.xii.12Google Scholar in McNeill, J.T. and Gamer, H.M., Medieval Handbooks of Penance, Columbia Univ. Records of Civilization 29 (New York, 1938), 209).Google Scholar

25 Bede, HE 1.27 and II.5, in Bede's Ecclesiastical History, ed. Colgrave, and Mynors, , pp. 84 and 150 respectivelyGoogle Scholar. Also see Asser, , De rebus gestis Ælfredi, ch. 17Google Scholar, in Keynes, S. and Lapidge, M., Alfred the Great: Asser's ‘Life of King Alfred’ and Other Contemporary Sources (Harmondsworth, 1983), p. 73.Google Scholar

26 See Schultze, A., ‘‘Das Eherecht in den älteren angelsächsischen Königsgesetzen’, Berichte über die Verhandlungen der Sächsiscben Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Leipzig, phil.-hist. Klasse 93.5 (1941), 179, at 73–4Google Scholar; cf. Æthelberht 77. See also Gesetze der Angelsacbsen, ed. Liebermann, I, 7.Google Scholar

27 Hazeltine, H.D., ‘Zur Geschichte der Eheschliessung nach angelsächsischem Recht’, in Festgabe für Dr. Bernhard Hübler …zum 70. Geburtstage am 25. Mai 1905 (Berlin, 1905), pp. 249–84, at 271.Google Scholar

28 Among the continental Saxons, the brideprice was equal to the woman's wergeld. See Lex Saxonum 40, in [Leges Saxonum, ed. von Richtofen, K. and von Richtofen, K.F.], MGH, Leges (in Folio) 5 (Hannover, 18751889), 6970Google Scholar. Cf. Lex Saxonum 43 and 49 (ibid. pp. 71–2 and 74).

29 Comparative anthropology indicates that the woman's brideprice, not her person, was purchased. Lancaster, L., ‘Kinship in Anglo-Saxon Society’, Brit. Jnl of Sociology 9 (1958), 230–50 and 359–77, at 243CrossRefGoogle Scholar. This view is in sharp contrast with Stenton, D.M., The English Woman in History (London, 1957), pp. 8 and 11.Google Scholar

30 Even Attenborough, , Laws of the Earliest English Kings, p. 177Google Scholar, says that it was not difficult to please an injured husband.

31 In addition to the penitential of Theodore, see also the penitential of Egbert, notably IV. 8–9, in Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents, ed. Haddan, and Stubbs, III, 420.Google Scholar

32 It seems quite probable that Cnut's laws were promulgated under the direction of Wulfstan, archbishop of York and bishop of Worcester, as argued by Whitelock, Dorothy, ‘Wulfstan and the Laws of Cnut’, EHR 63 (1948), 433–52CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Wulfstan's Authorship of Cnut's Laws’, EHR 70 (1955), 7285.Google Scholar

33 II Cnut 53.1, and 54.1: Gesetze der Angelsacbsen, ed. Liebermann, I, 349.Google Scholar

34 And similarly, the view expressed in Pollock, F. and Maitland, F.W., The History of English Law Before the Time of Edward I, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (Cambridge, 1895) II, 437.Google Scholar

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