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England-Saxon Law Courts


losses by fire, and they carefully looked after the protection against thieves, and the good behavior of their own members. At a later period the merchantguilds were organized, and acquired great wealth and prominence. There were also various social and religious guilds.

The kingdom was divided into townships, hundreds (so-called because each furnished a hundred soldiers or supported a hundred families), and counties or shires. The king's officer, called a shire-reeve or sheriff, gathered the taxes due the crown, and looked after the execution of the laws. The same system was followed in the hundreds and townships.

Since the nation had its assembly of wise men who constituted a high court, so each shire, hundred, and town had its court open to all freemen. In these, without special judge, and without any lawyers, the disputes were settled by a vote of the whole body. Two methods were followed. The accused might secure acquittal by compurgation, that is, purifying or freeing himself of guilt. He would swear he was not guilty, and then get a number of neighbors to swear they believed his oath. If this did not satisfy his judges, he could bring witnesses to swear to some special fact, but the value of a man's oath depended upon his rank, that of a noble being equal to the oaths of twelve common men.

Failing to clear himself by this means, the accused was compelled to submit. to the "ordeal." This generally consisted of carrying a piece of hot iron a short distance, stepping over heated plough shares separated by brief intervals, or thrusting the bare arm to the elbow in boiling water. If the ordeal was passed without injury to the accused, he was declared innocent and no punishment followed. Since it cannot be supposed that, the laws of nature were suspended for the benefit even of a guiltless person, this test in reality was worthless. The vindication of a person subjected to the ordeal was dependent wholly upon accident, or skill, or, what was quite as frequent, the connivance of those in charge of the test. Perhaps it would be correct to say that the jury was "fixed," for it amounted to that.

Most of the penalties inflicted in these courts consisted of fines, a pecuniary value being attached to each man's life, with that of a freeman about one-twelfth a nobleman's. A slave was not allowed to testify in court nor could he be punished by the court. When convicted of crime, his owner paid the fine, and then evened up matters by taking out the value with the lash from the back of the slave. While murder could be requited by a fine, treason was punishable with death.

By "common law" was meant the ancient customs, few of which had been reduced to writing, in distinction from the laws made since by legislative bodies. These customs form the basis of the present system of justice in America as well as in England.

It followed inevitably that the introduction of Christianity did vast good in lifting the fallen, elevating the oppressed, teaching the virtues of self-sacrifice and labor for one's fellow-men, in building monasteries, encouraging education and industry, and in holding out the surety of a reward in a future life for the good done in this life.

A peculiar practice that grew up in those times was that which gave the "right of sanctuary," as it was called. The churches were held in profound veneration, and it was decreed that any one fleeing thither for refuge could not be seized until forty days had expired, during which period he had the choice of leaving the kingdom and going into exile. While this right doubtless defeated many schemes of savage vengeance, it grew into a travesty upon justice, for scores of ruffians, robbers, and murderers took advantage of it to defy the law. Although modified a number of times, the right of sanctuary was not really abolished until 1624, when James I. was King of England.

I have shown in my account of the feudal system how the army was organized, although at first there was a national militia founded upon the obligation of all the freemen to fight for their country. The Saxons invariably fought on foot, their principal weapons being the spear, javelin, battle-axe, and sword. They wore helmets and a sort of flexible armor, composed of iron rings or thick leather covered with iron scales or small plates. There was nothing resembling a navy until the time of Alfred.

The language of the Saxons resembled the Low-German of the present day. The written characters were called runes, which means secrets or mysteries. On a drinking-horn found on the Danish-German frontier is cut the following, which scholars agree is fully 1,500 years old:

Ek Hlewagastir. Holtinger. horna. tawido

This reproduction in English characters means:

"I, Hlewgastir, son of Holta, made the horn."

Christianity brought the Latin alphabet, and the runic characters disappeared. Ranking with the first of the English books was the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle," which is a history beginning with the Roman invasion under Cæsar, and closing in the year 1154. Among other early books were Cadmon's poem of the Creation, and Bede's history of Britain. Bede, or Beda, as he is sometimes called, was born at Durham, in 673, and thirty years later was ordained to the priesthood, having already obtained a wide reputation for learning and piety. He spent his life in the quiet retirement of the monastery at Yarrow, and devoted his time to studying and writing. His "Ecclesiastical History of England" was written in Latin and translated into English by Alfred the Great.

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