The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

Issue 18 (2018)

Prologue to the Laws of King Alfred: An Edition and Translation for Students

Jay GatesMailto: Icon

John Jay College of Criminal Justice

Abstract: This is an edition and translation of the Prologue to the lawcode of King Alfred (r. 871–899) intended for students.


§1. Alfred was King of the West Saxons from 871–899 but, after resisting Viking invasions, reigned as de facto king of all the English people (Angelcynn).1 He probably drew up his famous lawcode sometime in the 990s and it was taken by subsequent Anglo-Saxon lawcodes as foundational and was referred to as seo domboc (The Lawbook). Yet for the importance of Alfred's law code, convenient translations into English of the whole prologue have sadly been lacking. Alfred's laws were published in an edition and translation by F. L. Attenborough in The Laws of the Earliest English Kings, but he made the unfortunate decision to omit Alfred's prologue "as having no bearing on Anglo-Saxon law" (1925, 35). Selections have been published by Dorothy Whitelock in English Historical Documents, Volume I, c. 500–1042 and by Michael Lapidge and Simon Keynes in an appendix to their translation of Asser's Life of Alfred. However, only two complete translations into English have been published. Benjamin Thorpe's translation appeared in his 1840 Ancient Laws and Institutes of England. Yet anyone who has held a copy of this tome knows that it is not a text any student wants to lug around. Nor is Thorpe's translation particularly appealing: he adopted Early Modern biblical phrasing and word forms to represent the antiquity of the laws (e.g. "The Lord spake these words to Moses, and thus said: I am the Lord thy God"), and he alternated between following Early Modern scriptural phrasing and translating literally, whether or not the translation made sense. More recently, Todd Preston addressed the need for a translation by publishing a complete edition and translation of the domboc as an appendix to his study of Alfred's laws. Unfortunately, I only discovered Preston's book as I completed this project. However, while the book is a welcome and valuable addition to the study of Alfred's laws, the translation itself is aimed at a scholarly audience and makes some admittedly awkward translation choices to keep the Old English to the fore in the reader's mind (e.g. domboc is translated "book-book"). Nor does the price tag on an academic book make for its easy inclusion in a course.

§2. Lack of a convenient translation has also obscured Alfred's legislative project for those coming to the laws for the first time. In fact, the prologue to Alfred's laws comprises about one fifth of the whole domboc and no European law code prior to Alfred's contained a prologue anywhere near as long (Wormald 1999, 418). It is a savvy rhetorical document aimed at providing legitimacy for his law-giving, drawing on divine authority and English custom. The prologue to Alfred's lawcode provides a narrative of law and law-giving, tracing the origins of law from God Himself giving the law to Moses, to Christ modifying Hebrew law, to the apostles spreading the law, the rise of Church synods, and the coming of Christianity—and thus Christian law—to the English. Alfred goes on to explain how, in drafting his own laws, he drew on the precedents of the best English law-givers, including Ine, king of the West Saxons, Offa, king of the Mercians, and Æthelberht, king of the people of Kent and the first of the English to accept baptism.2 In this list, Alfred joins together the most powerful English kingdoms and Christian law in order to assert his own authority to rule over all the English peoples.


§3. This edition of the prologue to Alfred's laws attempts to present students with a text that has clear reference points, but which will also give them some sense of the experience of reading a text in its manuscript presentation. The text is drawn from the earliest witness of Alfred's laws, Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 173 (the Parker Chronicle and Laws), with occasional reference to other manuscripts, including the twelfth-century Latin translation contained in Quadripartitus. No effort is made to retain the lineation of the text in the manuscript, which is written out in continuous and uniform lines; but for facility of reference, editorial enumeration of the units of the text is added, following Turk and Liebermann.3 This text follows the convention of retaining the Old English runic characters ash (Æ, æ), eth (Ð, ð), and thorn (Þ, þ); however, it replaces the Old English wynn rune (Ƿ, ƿ) with W, w and the Old English yogh (Ȝ, ʒ) with G, g. Original capitalization and punctuation is retained as it appears in the manuscript. The Old English does not consistently capitalize letters where we would and the only punctuation in the text are the medial punctus (· a dot placed in the middle of the line), here represented by a period, and the punctus versus (⸵) to mark the ends of sections, here represented by a semi-colon. No additional editorial punctuation is included because the punctuation as it appears in the manuscript breaks the text into logical units, even if it does not give the reader a sense of the nuances of our more complete system of punctuation. The manuscript's abbreviations or substitute characters are expanded and italicized.


§4. This translation aims to remain as faithful to the Old English as Present-Day English will allow, although occasionally adding in brackets a more familiar formulation for those students reading only in translation. To this end, idiomatic phrases like ne lige ðu dearnenga are rendered as "do not lie secretly [commit adultery]." Regarding such familiar phrases, a modern reader may be struck by how much the Old English diverges from our inherited formulae and how much that affects the force of the statements. For instance, the familiar "thou shalt not" phrasing of the King James decalogue is absent in the Old English. Thus "thou shalt not kill" is rendered in Alfred's prologue simply as ne sleah ðu "do not kill." As odd as this may sound to a modern ear, the Old English is more faithful to the Latin that it translates, which reads simply non occides.

§5. The great difficulty encountered when translating Alfred's laws is that they do not always seem to carry the force of law that we would expect. Although there are a number of statements expressed in the imperative (e.g. ne stala ðu "do not steal"), there are many clauses in the subjunctive which are difficult to render fluently into Present-Day English in a consistent form. The following passage presents the kinds of difficulties the translator faces:

ðeah hwa gebycgge his dohtor on þeowenne. Ne sie hio ealles swa ðeowu swa oðru mennenu. Nage he hie ut on elðeodig folc to bebycgganne. Ac gif he hire ne recce se ðe hie bohte læte hie freo on elðeodig folc. Gif he ðonne alefe his suna mid to hæmanne do hiere gyfta. locige þæt hio hæbbe hrægl and þæt weorð sie hiere mægðhades. þæt is se weotuma agife he hire þone. Gif he hire þara nan ne do þonne sie hio frioh.

This is a passage full of subjunctives expressing possible situations and explaining how they ought to be dealt with. However, the language of obligation, whether in the imperative or in auxiliary verbs, is not included where we would expect it. Thus, how should one translate the second sentence? Literally, it could be rendered "be she not entirely like a slave as other female slaves," but this is clearly insufficiently fluent. Translating the subjunctive with the present indicative is similarly awkward: "She is not entirely like a slave as other female slaves." Keeping with hio as the grammatical subject, it could be rendered "she should not be [treated] entirely like a slave," but this does not fully convey the sense of obligation implicit in the passage. And while the obligation could be conveyed by translating "she will not be" or "she shall not be," these options actually seem to overstate the obligation conveyed by the original subjunctive. Finally, it could be rendered "let her not be [treated] entirely like a slave," but this has the problem of changing hio from subject to object. Consequently, no single rendering of the subjunctive is desirable in every case and my own translation alternates among options. The bolded phrases translate subjunctive verbs in the original:

Even if one sells his daughter into slavery, she will not be entirely a slave as other female slaves. He [who bought her] does not possess her to sell out among foreign people. But if he does not care for her, he who bought her should let her go free among the foreign people. If he then allows his son to lie with her, give her a gift: see that she has clothing and that it is worthy of her maidenhead, that is the dowry; he should give it to her. If he does none of these things for her, then she will be free.

Anyone translating on their own will notice these difficulties and will surely appreciate the nuances of implied sense as they consider their options. However, the reader engaging only with the translation ought to be wary of accepting verbs at face value and must keep in mind that the original expresses itself in a gray area between obligation, ethical behavior, and customary process that was probably implicitly accepted by an Anglo-Saxon.

Prologue to the Laws of King Alfred


[Prol.] DRYHTEN WÆS SPRECENde ðas word to moyse and þus cwæð. Ic eom dryhten ðin god. Ic ðe ut gelædde of egipta londe and of hiora ðeowdome.
[Prol.] The Lord was speaking these words to Moses and said this: I am the Lord your God. I led you out of the land of the Egyptians and out of their bondage.


[1] Ne lufa ðu oþre fremde godas ofer me.
[1] Do not love other, foreign, gods over me.


[2] ne minne noman ne cig ðu on idelnesse. forðon þe ðu ne bist unscyldig wið me gif ðu on idelnesse cigst minne noman.
[2] Do not invoke my name idly because you will not be guiltless with me if you invoke my name idly.


[3] Gemyne þæt ðu gehalgige þone ræste dæg. wyrceað eow .vi. dagas and on þam siofoðan restað eow. forðam on .vi. dagum crist geworhte heofonas and eorðan sæs and ealle gesceafta þe on him sint. and hine gereste on þone siofoðan dæg. and forðon dryhten hine gehalgode.
[3] Be mindful that you keep holy the day of rest. Work six days and on the seventh rest, because in six days Christ wrought the heavens and the earth, the seas and all the creatures that are in them, and he rested on the seventh day and, therefore, the Lord made it holy.


[4] Ara ðinum fæder and þinre medder ða þe dryhten sealde þæt ðu sie þy leng libbende on eorþan.
[4] Honor your father and your mother, those whom the Lord gave so that you should live longer on earth.


[5] Ne sleah ðu
[5] Do not kill.


[6] ne lige ðu dearnenga.
[6] Do not lie secretly [commit adultery].


[7] Ne stala ðu
[7] Do not steal.


[8] ne sæge ðu lease witnesse.
[8] Do not speak false witness.


[9] Ne wilna ðu þines nehstan ierfes mid unryhte.
[9] Do not desire [covet] your neighbor's property4 unjustly.


[10] Ne wyrc ðe gyldne godas oððe sylfrene.
[10] Do not work gods in gold or silver.


[11] Þis sint ða domas þe ðu him settan scealt. Gif hwa gebycgge cristenne þeow .vi. gear ðeowige he ðy siofoðan beo he frioh orceapunga. mid swelce hrægle he ineode mid swelce gange he ut. Gif he wif self hæbbe gange hio ut mid him. Gif se hlaford him þonne wif sealde sie hio and hire bearn þæs hlafordes. Gif se þeowa þonne cweðe. Nelle ic from minum hlaforde ne from minum wife ne from minum bearne. Ne from minum ierfe. brenge hine þonne his hlaford to ðære dura þæs temples and þurh þyrlige his eare mid æle. to tacne þæt he sie æfre sið ðan þeow.
[11] These are the laws which you shall establish for them: if anyone buys a Christian slave, he [the slave] will serve for six years; in the seventh, he will be free without payment. With such clothing as he entered, with such let him go out. If he has a wife of his own, let her go out with him. If the lord gave him the wife, she and her children will be the lord's.5 If the slave should then say, "I will not [go] from my lord, nor from my wife, nor from my children, nor from my property," then let his lord bring him to the door of the temple and pierce his ear with an awl as a sign that he will be a slave ever after.


[12] ðeah hwa gebycgge6 his dohtor on þeowenne. Ne sie hio ealles swa ðeowu swa oðru mennenu. Nage he hie ut on elðeodig folc to bebycgganne. Ac gif he hire ne recce se ðe hie bohte læte hie freo on elðeodig folc. Gif he ðonne alefe his suna mid to hæmanne do hiere gyfta. locige þæt hio hæbbe hrægl and þæt weorð sie hiere mægðhades. þæt is se weotuma agife he hire þone. Gif he hire þara nan ne do þonne sie hio frioh.
[12] Even if one sells his daughter into slavery, she will not be entirely a slave as other female slaves. He [who bought her] does not possess her to sell out among foreign people. But if he does not care for her,7 he who bought her should let her go free among the foreign people. If he then allows his son to lie with her, give her a gift: see that she has clothing and that it is worthy of her maidenhead, that is the dowry; he should give it to her. If he does none of these things for her, then she will be free.


[13] Se mon se ðe his gewealdes monnan ofslea swelte se deaðe. Se ðe hine þonne nedes ofsloge oððe unwillum oððe ungewealdes swelce hine god swa sende on his honda. and he hine ne ymbsyrede sie he feores wyrðe and folcryhtre bote gif he friðstowe gesece. Gif hwa ðonne ofgiernesse and gewealdes ofslea his þone nehstan þurh searwa. aluc ðu hine from minum weofode to þam þæt he deaðe swelte.
[13] If a man kills a man of his own will, he should be put to death. However, he who kills him out of necessity or unwillingly or accidentally, as God puts into his hands, and he did not lie in wait for him,8 he will be worthy of life and lawful compensation, if he seeks sanctuary. If, however, one out of desire and intent kills his neighbor through cunning, lock him from my altar, in order that he may be put to death.


[14] Se ðe slea his fæder oððe his modor se sceal deaðe sweltan.
[14] He who strikes his father or his mother shall be put to death.


[15] Se ðe frione forstele and he hine bebycgge and hit on bestæled sie þæt he hine bereccean ne mæge swelte se deaðe. Se ðe werge his fæder oððe his modor swelte se deaðe.
[15] He who steals a freeman and sells him, and an accusation is brought and he cannot explain it, let him be put to death. He who curses his father or his mother, let him be put to death.


[16] Gif hwa slea his ðone nehstan mid stane oððe mid fyste and he þeah utgongan mæge bi stafe begite him læce and wyrce his weorc ða hwile þe he self ne mæge.
[16] If one strikes his neighbor with a stone or with a fist, yet he [the neighbor] can go out with a staff, let him [the assailant] get him a physician9 and do his work during the time that he himself cannot.


[17] Se ðe slea his agenne þeowne esne oððe his mennen and he ne sie i dæges dead ðeah he libbe twa niht oððe ðreo ne bið he ealles swa scyldig forþon þe hit wæs his agen fioh. Gif he ðonne sie i dæges dead ðonne sitte sio scyld on him.
[17] He who strikes his own slave or his female slave, and he [the slave] is not dead on the same day but lives two or three nights, he [the master] is not altogether so guilty because it was his own property. If he is dead on the same day, then the guilt rests on him.


[18] Gif hwa on cease eacniende wif gewerde bete þone æwerdlan swa him domeras gereccen. gif hio dead sie selle sawle wið sawle.
[18] If one, in a quarrel, injures a pregnant woman, repay the injury as the judges order. If she is dead, give soul for soul.


[19] Gif hwa oðrum his eage oðdo selle his agen fore. toð fore teð. honda wið honda. fet fore fet. bærning for bærninge. wund wið wunde. læl wið læle.
[19] If one puts out the eye of another, let him give his own: tooth for tooth, hands against hands, feet for feet, burning for burning, wound against wound, stripe for stripe [mark with a lash].


[20] Gif hwa aslea his ðeowe oððe his ðeowenne þæt eage ut and he þonne hie gedo anigge gefreoge hie for þon. Gif he þonne ðone toð ofaslea do þæt ilce.
[20] If one strikes out the eye of his male or female slave and he then makes them one-eyed, free them for that. If he strikes out the tooth, do the same.


[21] Gif oxa ofhnite wer oððe wif þæt he dead sien. sie he mid stanum ofworpod and ne sie his flæsc eten se hlaford bið unscyldig. Gif se oxa hnitol wære twam dagum ær oððe ðrim and se hlaford hit wisse and hine inne betynan nolde. and he ðonne wer oððe wif ofsloge sie he mid stanum ofworpod. and sie se hlaford ofslegen oððe forgolden swa ðæt witan to ryhte finden. sunu oððe dohtor gif he ofstinge ðæs ilcan domes sie he wyrðe. Gif he ðonne ðeow oððe ðeow mennen ofstinge geselle þam hlaforde .xxx. scillinga. seolfres. and se oxa mid stanum ofworpod.
[21] If an ox gores a man or a woman so that they die, it will be stoned to death, and its flesh will not be eaten; the lord [owner] will be guiltless. If the ox were given to butting two or three days earlier, and the lord [owner] knew it and would not keep it enclosed, and it then killed a man or a woman, it will be stoned to death and the lord [owner] will be killed or he will make recompense, as the judges find right. If it kills a son or a daughter, he will be accountable for the same judgment. If it kills a male or female slave, give the lord [owner of the slave] 30 shillings of silver, and the ox will be stoned to death.


[22] Gif hwa adelfe wæter pyt oððe betynedne ontyne and hine eft ne betyne gelde swelc neat swelc ðær on befealle. and hæbbe him ðæt deade.
[22] If one digs a water-pit [well] or opens one that is closed and does not close it after him, let him pay for such cattle as fall therein and let him have the dead [cattle].


[23] Gif oxa oðres monnes oxan gewundige and he þonne dead sie bebycggen þone oxan and hæbben him þæt weorð gemæne and eac ðæt flæsc swa ðæs deadan. Gif se hlaford þonne wisse þæt se oxa hnitol wære and hine healdan nolde selle him oðerne oxan fore and hæbbe him eall ðæt flæsc.
[23] If an ox wounds another man's ox and it then dies, let them sell the [living] ox and share the value and also the flesh of the dead [ox]. If, however, the lord knew that the ox was given to butting and would not enclose it, let him give him another ox for it and have all the flesh.


[24] Gif hwa forstele oðres oxan and hine ofslea oððe bebycgge selle twegen wið and feower sceap wið anum. Gif he næbbe hwæt he selle sie he self beboht wið ðam fio.
[24] If one steals another's ox and kills or sells it, let him give two [oxen for it], and four sheep for one. If he does not have what he must give, he himself must be sold for the price.


[25] Gif ðeof brece mannes hus nihtes and he weorðe  þær ofslegen. ne sie he na mansleges scyldig. Gif he siððan æfter sunnan upgonge þis deð he bið mansleges scyldig and he ðonne self swelte buton he nieddæda wære. Gif mid him cwicum sie funden þæt he ær stæl be twyfealdum forgielde hit.
[25] If a thief breaks into a man's house in the night and he is killed there, he [the house owner] is not guilty of manslaughter. If he does this after the sun has come up, he is guilty of manslaughter and he himself will then die unless he acted out of necessity. If what he [the thief] stole earlier is found with him while he is still living, let him repay it two-fold.


[26] Gif hwa gewerde oðres monnes wingeard oððe his æcras oððe his landes awuht gebete swa hit mon geeahtige.
[26] If one damages another man's vineyard or his fields or any of his land, let him compensate it as one estimates the value.


[27] Gif fyr sie ontended ryt to bærnanne gebete þone æfwerdelsan se ðæt fyr ontent.
[27] If a fire is kindled to burn underbrush, let him who kindled the fire repay the damage.10


[28] Gif hwa oðfæste his friend fioh gif he hit self stæle forgylde be twyfealdum. gif he nyte hwa hit stæle geladige hine selfne þæt he ðær nan facn ne gefremede. Gif hit ðonne cucu feoh wære and he secgge þæt hit here name oððe hit self acwæle and gewitnesse hæbbe ne þearf he þæt geldan. Gif he ðonne gewitnesse næbbe and he him ne getriewe swerige he þonne.
[28] If one entrusts property to his friend, [and] if he [the friend] steals it himself, let him repay it two-fold. If he does not know who stole it, let him clear himself that there was no deceit involved: however, if it was live cattle, and he says that an army took it or it died on its own, and he has a witness, he need not pay for that. But if he does not have a witness and he [the owner of the property] does not believe him, then let him [the friend] swear.


[29] Gif hwa fæmnan beswice unbeweddode and hire mid slæpe forgielde hie and hæbbe hi siððan him to wife. Gif ðære fæmnan fæder hie ðonne sellan nelle agife he ðæt feoh æfter þam weotuman.
[29] If one deceives an unwed virgin and sleeps with her, let him compensate her and have her thereafter as wife. However, if the virgin's father does not wish to give her, let him give the money according to the dowry.


[30] ða fæmnan þe gewuniað onfon gealdorcræftigan and scinlæcan and wiccan ne læt þu ða libban.
[30] Maidens who associate with or entertain enchanters and magicians and witches, do not let them live.


[31] and se ðe hæme mid netene swelte he deaðe.
[31] And he who has intercourse with a beast, let him be put to death.


[32] and se ðe godgeldum onsecge ofer god anne swelte se deaðe.
[32] And he who sacrifices to idols rather than God alone, let him be put to death.


[33] utan cumene and elðeodige ne geswenc ðu no. forðon ðe ge wæron giu elðeodige on egipta londe.
[33] Do not in any way oppress aliens and foreigners because you who were formerly foreigners in Egypt.


[34] þa wuduwan and þa stiopcild ne sceððað ge. ne hie nawer deriað. Gif ge þonne elles doð hie cleopiað to me and ic gehiere hie. and ic eow þonne slea mid minum sweorde. and ic gedo þæt eowru wif beoð wydewan and eowru bearn beoð steopcild.
[34] Do not harm widows and orphans, nor in any place injure them. If you do so, they will cry out to me and I will hear them and I will then strike you with my sword and I will make your wives widows and your children orphans.


[35] Gif ðu fioh to borge selle þinum geferan þe mid þe eardian wille ne niede ðu hine swa swa niedling and ne gehene þu hine mid ðy eacan.
[35] If you give property as a loan to your companion who will live with you, do not compel him as a slave, and do not oppress11 him with usury.


[36] Gif mon næbbe buton anfeald hrægl hine mid to wreonne and to werianne and he hit to wedde selle ær sunnan setlgonge sie hit agifen. Gif ðu swa ne dest þonne cleopað he to me and ic hine gehiere forðon ðe ic eom swiðe mildheort.
[36] If a man has nothing but a single cloak to wrap himself in and to wear, and he gives it as a pledge, before the sun sets let it be returned. If you do not do so, then he will call to me and I will hear him because I am very mild-hearted.


[37] Ne tæl ðu ðinne dryhten ne ðone hlaford þæs folces ne werge þu.
[37] Do not reproach your lord; do not curse the lord of the people.


[38] þine teoðan sceattas and þine frumripan gongendes and weaxendes agif þu gode.
[38] Give your tithe-sceattas [unit of currency] and your first-fruits of moving and growing things to God.


[39] eal ðæt flæsc þæt wildeor læfen ne eten ge þæt ac sellað hit hundum.
[39] All the flesh that wild beasts leave, do not eat it, but give it to the dogs.


[40] Leases monnes word ne rec ðu no þæs to gehieranne. ne his domas ne geðafa ðu. Ne nane gewitnesse æfter him ne saga ðu.
[40] Do not in any way give credence to the word of a false man, nor consent to his judgements, nor ever speak as a witness after him.


[41] Ne wend ðu ðe no on þæs folces unræd. and unryht gewill on hiora spræce and geclysp ofer ðin ryht and ðæs unwisestan lare ne him ne geðafa.
[41] Do not in any way turn to the ill-counseled and unjust will of people in their speech and clamor against your [sense of] justice, and give no support to the teaching of the most unwise.


[42] Gif ðe becume oðres mannes giemeleas fioh on hond. þeah hit sie ðin feond gecyðe hit him.
[42] If the neglected property [untended cattle]12 of another man comes into your possession, even though he is your enemy, make it known to him.


[43] dem ðu swiðe emne. Ne dem ðu oðerne dom þam welegan oðerne ðam earman. Ne oðerne þam liofran and oðerne þam laðran ne dem ðu.
[43] Judge very equally. Do not give one judgement for the rich and another for the poor, nor for one you love and one you loathe.


[44] Onscuna ðu a leasunga.
[44] Abhor all falsehood.


[45] Soðfæstne man and unscyldigne ne acwele ðu þone næfre.
[45] Never kill a truthful and unguilty man.


[46] Ne onfoh ðu næfre medsceattum forðon hie ablendað ful oft wisra monna geðoht and hiora word onwendað.
[46] Never take payment for services [bribes]13 because they very often blind the thoughts of wise men and twist their words.


[47] þam elðeodegan and utan cumenan ne læt ðu no uncuðlice wið hine ne mid nanum unryhtum þu hine ne drece.
[47] With a foreigner and an alien, do not in any way permit hostility against him nor oppress him with any injustice.


[48] Ne swergen ge næfre under hæðne godas ne on nanum ðingum ne cleopien ge to him;
[48] Never swear by heathen gods nor call on them for anything.


[49] Þis sindan ða domas þe se ælmihtega god self sprecende wæs to moyse and him bebead to healdanne and siððan se ancenneda dryhtnes sunu ure god þæt is hælend crist on middangeard cwom. he cwæð ðæt he ne come no ðas bebodu to brecanne ne to forbeodanne. ac mid eallum godum to ecanne. and mildheortnesse and eaðmodnesse he lærde.
[49] These are the laws which the almighty God himself was speaking to Moses and commanded him to hold. And after, the only begotten son of the Lord, our God, that is Healing14 Christ, came to earth and he said he did not come to break or suppress these commandments, but to increase them with all goodness, and he taught mild-heartedness and humbleness of spirit.


[49.1] ða æfter his ðrowunge ær þam þe his apostolas tofarene wæron geond ealle eorðan to læranne. and þa giet ða hie ætgædere wæron monega hæðena ðeoda hie to gode gecerdon þa hie ealle ætsomne wæron. hie sendan ærendwrecan to antiohhia and to syrie cristes æ to læranne
[49.1] Then after his suffering [passion], before his apostles traveled in different directions broadly all over the earth to teach, while they were still together, they turned many heathen peoples to God. When they were all together they sent messengers to Antioch and to Syria to teach Christ's law.


[49.2] þa hie ða ongeaton þæt him ne speow ða sendon hie ærendgewrite to him. þis is ðonne þæt ærendgewrit þe ða apostolas sendon ealle to antiohhia and to syria and to cilicia. ða sint nu of hæðenum ðeodum to criste gecirde.
[49.2] When they perceived that did not succeed, then they sent a letter to them. This then is that letter which the apostles all sent to Antioch and to Syria and to Cilicia. Those are now heathen nations turned to Christ:


[49.3] ða apostolas and þa eldran broðor hælo eow wyscað. and we eow cyðað þæt we geascodon þæt ure geferan sume mid urum wordum to eow comon and eow hefigran [wisan budon]15 to healdanne þonne we him budon and eow to swiðe gedwealdon mid ðam manigfealdum gebodum. and eowra sawla ma forhwerfdon. þonne hie geryhton. ða gesomnodon we us ymb ðæt and us eallum gelicode ða. þæt we sendon paulus and barnaban ða men wilniað hiora sawla sellan for dryhtnes naman.
[49.3] The apostles and the elder brothers wish you health and we make known to you that we have found out by asking that some of our companions came to you with our words and enjoined you to hold them in a heavier fashion than we enjoined; and led you too much astray with various commands, and more perverted than they corrected your souls. Then we assembled ourselves concerning that, and it pleased all of us that we sent Paul and Barnabas; those men wish to give their souls for the Lord's name.


[49.4] mid him we sendon iudam and silam þæt eow þæt ilce secggen.
[49.4] With them we sent Judas and Silas, that they should tell you the same.


[49.5] þæm halgan gaste wæs geðuht and us þæt we nane byrðenne on eow settan noldon ofer þæt ðe eow nedðearf wæs to healdanne. þæt [is]16 ðonne þæt ge forberen þæt ge deofolgeld ne weorðien. ne blod ne ðicggen ne asmorod. and from diernum geligerum. and þæt ge willen þæt oðre men eow ne don ne doð ge ðæt oþrum monnum;
[49.5] It seemed to the Holy Ghost and to us that we should not burden you with more than was necessary to observe: that is that you abstain from worshipping idols, and from consuming blood or strangled things, and from secret fornication.17 And what you wish other men not do to you, do not do that to other men.


[49.6] Of ðissum anum dome mon mæg geðencean þæt he æghwelcne on ryht gedemeð. Ne ðearf he nanra domboca oþerra. Geðence he þæt he nanum men ne deme þæt he nolde ðæt he him demde gif he ðone dom ofer hine sohte.
[49.6] From this one law can one be mindful that he judge each justly. Nor does he need any other lawbooks. Let him remember that he should judge no man as he would not want himself to be judged by him if he sought judgement over him.


[49.7] Siððan ðæt þa gelamp þæt monega ðeoda cristes geleafan onfengon þa wurdon monega seonoðas geond ealne middangeard gegaderode. and eac swa geond angelcyn. siððan hie cristes geleafan onfengon. halegra biscepa and eac oðerra geðungenre witena. hie ða gesetton for ðære mildheortnesse. þe crist lærde æt mæstra hwelcre misdæde. þætte ða weoruldhlafordas  moston mid hiora leafan buton synne æt þam forman gylte þære fiohbote onfon. þe hie ða gesettan buton æt hlafordsearwe hie nane mildheortnesse ne dorston gecweðan. forþam ðe god ælmihtig þam nane ne gedemde þe hine oferhogodon. Ne crist godes sunu þam nane ne gedemde þe hine to deaðe sealde. and he bebead þone hlaford lufian swa hine.
[49.7] After that it came to pass that many nations accepted the faith of Christ. Then many synods were assembled all over earth, even as far as among the English, who then accepted the faith of Christ. Then the holy bishops and other excellent counselors, decided, for the mild-heartedness Christ taught, that for the greatest misdeeds secular lords might, with their leave and without sin, accept monetary compensation for first offenses, which they then decreed, except in the case of betrayal of a lord, which they dared not resolve for any mild-heartedness, because almighty God did not judge any for them who despised Him, nor did Christ, God's son, judge any for him who condemned Him to death, and he commanded to love the lord as himself.18


[49.8] hie ða monegum senoðum monegra menniscra misdæda bote gesetton. and on monega senoðbec hie writan hwær anne dom hwær oþerne;
[49.8] Then in many synods they established compensation for many human misdeeds, and they wrote in many synod books, here one judgement and there another.


[49.9] Ic ða ælfred cyning þas togædere gegaderode and awritan het. monege þara þe ure foregengan heoldon ða ðe me licodon and manege þara þe me ne licodon ic awearp mid minra witena geðeahte and on oðre wisan bebead to healdanne. forðam ic ne dorste geðristlæcan þara minra awuht fela on gewrit settan. forðam me wæs uncuð hwæt þæs ðam lician wolde ðe æfter us wæren. ac ða ðe ic gemette awðer oððe on ines dæge mines mæges oððe on offan mercna cyninges. oððe on æþelbryhtes þe ærest fulluhte onfeng on angelcynne þa ðe me ryhtoste ðuhton ic þa her on gegaderode and þa oðre forlet.
[49.9] Then I, King Alfred, gathered together and commanded to be written many of those which our forebears held, those which pleased me; and many of those which did not please me I, with the advice of my counselors, discarded and commanded to be observed in a different way. However, I do not dare to presume to set any of my many [laws] in writing, because it was unknown to me what from among them would please those who come after us. But those which I encountered, either from the days of Ine, my kinsman, or from the days of Offa, king of the Mercians, or from the days of Æthelberht, who first among the English accepted baptism, those which seemed most just to me I gathered here and those others I abandoned.


[49.10] Ic ða ælfred westseaxna cyning eallum minum witum þas geeowde. and hie ða cwædon þæt licode eallum to healdanne;
[49.10] Then I, Alfred, king of the West Saxons, showed these to my counselors and they said then that it pleased them all to observe them.


1. On the difficulties of groups of English and the degree of their unified identity, see Reynolds 1985; Foote 1996; Davis 1998. [Back]

2. Ine (r. 688–726), Offa (r. 757–96), Æthelberht (r. 597x90–618). On the dating of Æthelberht's reign, see Oliver 2002, 8–10. [Back]

3. A new and much anticipated edition of the complete laws is under way ( [Back]

4. ierfes/yrfes, cattle, property [Back]

5. The phrase gif he wif self hæbbe stresses the distinction between the slave who had a wife prior to his servitude to the lord, which is why two distinct clauses must address the status of the enslaved wife. [Back]

6. The manuscript has gebycgge "buys," but bebycgge "sells" makes more sense here. [Back]

7. recan: si displicuerit oculis domini sui (Latin Quadripartitus): if she is displeasing in the eyes of her lord. [Back]

8. ymbsirwan carries the meanings "deliberate" and "lie in wait for" (Bosworth-Toller, I and II). [Back]

9. læce: healer, doctor, physician [Back]

10. This passage assumes that a fire intended to clear underbrush or excess growth got out of hand and spread to the fields and crops. The Latin Quadripartitus clarifies this: Si egressus ignis inuenerit spicas et comprehenderit aceruos frugum siue stantes segetes in agris, reddet dampunm qui ignem succenderit (If the advance of the fire reaches the grains and takes a hold of the stores of crops or the grain standing in the field, the one who set the fire will repay the damage). [Back]

11. Gehenan primarily means to humble, humiliate, or despise. The Latin text translates this with opprimere, but both meanings should almost certainly be understood. [Back]

12. Gimeleas fioh may indicate neglected property or stray cattle. [Back]

13. Medsceattas is difficult to translate because of the ambiguity of meed so effectively discussed in Piers Plowman passus 2–4. The law certainly does not intend to forbid payment for services, but rather for special favor in services for which one is already responsible. [Back]

14. The Old English hælend "healer" is used in the senses both of "savior" and "Jesus." On the etymological translation of Jesus as hælend, see Fleming 2013. [Back]

15. Omitted in CCCC 173 but supplied by the other manuscript witnesses of the laws. [Back]

16. Omitted in CCCC 173 but supplied by the other manuscript witnesses of the laws. [Back]

17. "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality" (Acts 15:28–29). [Back]

18. This passage in the Old English makes no grammatical sense. Even Thorpe decided simply to translate it literally without trying to make it make sense. I have followed the clearer grammar of the Latin in my translation: Postquam contigit, quod plures nationes Christi fedem susceperunt, religione erescente, plures synodus circumquaque conuenerunt. Et ita etiam in Anglorum gente, postquam ad christianitatem peruenit, sancti episcopi et sapientes laici satuerunt, pro misericordia quam Deux docuit, ut terreni domini audeant ex eorum licentia sine peccato in prima culpa pecunialem emendationem capere, quam ibi decreuerunt, preter proditionem domini, in qua nullam pietatem ausi sunt intueri, quia Deus omnipotens nullam adiudicauit contemptoribus suis, nec Dei filius Iude proditori suo, et precepit dominum diligi tanquam se ipsum. [Back]

Further Reading

Editions and Translations

Attenborough, F.L., ed. and trans. (1925). The Laws of the Earliest English Kings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; reprinted (2006). Clark, NJ: Lawbook Exchange.  [Back]

Flower, Robin and Hugh Smith, eds. (1973). The Parker Chronicle and Laws (Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, MS. 173): A Facsimile. London: Oxford University Press.  [Back]

Liebermann, Felix, ed. (1903–16). Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen. Halle: Max Niemeyer; reprinted (2007). Clark: Lawbook Exchange.  [Back]

Thorpe, Benjamin, ed. (1840). Ancient Laws and Institutes of England. Commissioners on the Public Records of the Kingdom; reprinted (2004). Clark, NJ: Lawbook Exchange.  [Back]

Turk, Milton Haight. (1973). The Legal Code of Ælfred the Great. New York: AMS Press.  [Back]

Whitelock, Dorothy. 1968. English Historical Documents c. 500–1042. London: Eyre & Spottiswood.

Additional Reading

Asser. (2004). Alfred the Great. Ed. and trans. Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge. London: Penguin.  [Back]

Carella, Bryan. (2005). "The Source of the Prologue to the Laws of Alfred." Peritia 19:91–118.  [Back]

Davis, Kathleen. (1998). "National Writing in the Ninth Century: A Reminder for Postcolonial Thinking About the Nation." Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 23:611–37.  [Back]

Discenza, Nicole Guenther. (2000). "Alfred the Great: a Bibliography with Special Reference to Literature." In Old English Prose: Basic Readings. Ed. Paul E. Szarmach, with the assistance of Deborah A. Oosterhouse. Basic Readings in Anglo-Saxon England 5. New York: Garland, 463–502.  [Back]

Discenza, Nicole Guenther and Paul E. Szarmach, eds. (2014). A Companion to Alfred the Great. Leiden: Brill.  [Back]

Fleming, Damian. (2013). "Jesus, that is hælend: Hebrew Names and the Vernacular Savior in Anglo-Saxon England," JEGP 112:26–47.  [Back]

Foote, Sarah. (1996). "The Making of Angelcynn: English Identity Before the Norman Conquest." Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Sixth Series, 6: 25–49.  [Back]

Frantzen, Allen. (1986). King Alfred. Boston: Twayne.  [Back]

Oliver, Lisi. (2002). The Beginnings of English Law. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.  [Back]

———. (2013). "Legal Documentation and the Practice of English Law." In The Cambridge History of Early Medieval English Literature. Ed. Clare A. Lees. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 499–29.  [Back]

Pratt, David. (2010). The Political Thought of King Alfred the Great. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  [Back]

Preston, Todd. (2012). King Alfred's Laws: A Study of the "Domboc" and Its Influence on English Identity, with a Complete Translation. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.  [Back]

Reuter, Timothy, ed. (2003). Alfred the Great: Papers for the Eleventh-Centenary Conference. Aldershot: Ashgate.  [Back]

Reynolds, Susan. (1985). "What Do We Mean by Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Saxons?" Journal of British Studies 24.4:395–414.  [Back]

Treschow, Michael. (1994). "The Prologue to Alfred's Law Code: Instruction in the Spirit of Mercy." Florilegium 13: 79–110.  [Back]

Wormald, Patrick. (1999). The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the Twelfth Century, I: Legislation and Its Limits. Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell.  [Back]


"Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary," Charles University, Prague, updated November 11, 2013,  [Back]

Bosworth, Joseph and T. Northcote Toller. (1898). An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.  [Back]

Last Modified: 3-Oct-2018