The Prologue to the Laws of King Ælfred

Ælfred was king of Wessex from 871 to 899. This translation is based on the text in Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, 1er Band: Text und Übersetzung, edited by F. Liebermann, pp. 26–46 (Halle a. S.: Max Niemeyer, 1898). I have posted the Old English text here:

For more information and bibliography, see Michael Treschow, “The Prologue to Alfred’s Law Code: Instruction in the Spirit of Mercy,” Florilegium 13 (1994): 79–110.

Translation by Jonathan Hall, University of Virginia.
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Updated 22 September 2009.
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[Af. El. Pro.] The Lord spoke these words to Moses, and thus said: I am the Lord your God. I led you out of the land of the Egyptians and out of their service. [Exodus 20:1–2]

[El. 1] Do not love other foreign gods above me. [20:3]

[El. 2] Do not invoke my name in vain, because you are not guiltless with me, if you invoke my name in vain. [20:7]

[El. 3] Remember to make the day of rest holy. Work 6 days and rest on the seventh, because in 6 days Christ made the heavens and the earth, the seas and all created things which are in them, and rested himself on the seventh day, and therefore the Lord made it holy. [20:8–11]

[El. 4] Honor your father and your mother, which the Lord gave you, that you might have longer life on earth. [20:12]

[El. 5] Do not kill. [20:13]

[El. 6] Do not lie secretly [i.e., with someone other than your spouse]. [20:14]

[El. 7] Do not steal. [20:15]

[El. 8] Do not give false testimony. [20:16]

[El. 9] Do not desire your neighbor’s property unjustly. [20:17]

[El. 10] Do not make for yourself gods of gold or silver. [20:23]

[El. 11] These are the laws which you must set down for them. If anyone buys a Christian servant, he serves him 6 years; in the seventh he is free without prejudice. … [21:1–6]

[El. 12–48][21:7–23:13]

[El. 49] These are the laws which the almighty God himself spoke to Moses and commanded him to keep. And after the Lord’s only-begotten son, our God, that is, the savior Christ, came to this world, he said that he did not come to break or forbid these commandments, but with all goodness to fulfill them. [Matthew 5:17] And he taught mercy and humility.

[El. 49.1] Then, after his passion, before his apostles were dispersed throughout the whole earth to teach and were still together, many heathen peoples converted to God. When they were all together, they sent missionaries to Antioch and to Syria to teach the faith of Christ.

[El. 49.2] When they understood that they did not succeed, they sent a letter to them. This is then the letter which the apostles all sent to Antioch and to Syria and to Cilicia, which are now converted from heathen peoples to Christ:

[El. 49.3] “The apostles and the older brethren wish you health [salvation]. And we tell you that we have discovered that some of our comrades came with our words to you, and commanded you to keep a harder way than we commanded them, and severely led you astray with many commandments, and perverted your souls more than set them right. Then we met together about that, and it pleased all of us that we should send Paul and Barnabas, men who want to give their souls for the Lord’s name. [Acts 15:23–26]

[El. 49.4] “With him we sent Judas and Silas to say the same thing to you. [15:27]

[El. 49.5] “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us that we should refuse to impose on you any burden other than that which you need to keep, that is, that you refrain from worshipping demons [idols], and from consuming blood or strangled animals, and lying secretly [i.e., with someone other than a spouse]. [15:28–29] And that what you want others not to do to you, do not do to others.” [15:29, variant reading found in some biblical mss.]

[El. 49.6] From this one law one might think that he judges everyone rightly, that he need no other law-book. Let him take care that he judge no one in a way that he did not want himself to be judged, if that one sought judgement against him.

[El. 49.7] After that happened, that many peoples accepted Christ’s faith, many councils were assembled throughout all the world. And likewise among the English, after they accepted Christ’s faith, holy bishops as well as other distinguished councillors. They set down, on account of their mercy which Christ taught, that the secular lords must at the first guilt, for most any transgression, with their privilege and without sin, take their monetary compensation which they set down. The exception is treason against the lord, to which they should show no mercy, for the Almighty God gave none to them that despised him, nor did Christ, God’s son, to those who sold him to death, and he commanded that one should love a lord as himself.

[El. 49.8] They then in many councils set down compensations for many transgressions of people, and they wrote in many council books, here one law, there another.

[El. 49.9] Then I, King Ælfred, gathered these together and ordered many of these that our ancestors held to be written down, those which pleased me. And many of those which did not please me I threw out, with the advice of my councillors, and commanded them to be kept in other ways. Therefore, I did not rashly presume to set down much of my own in writing, for it was uncertain to me what would please those who come after us. But those that I found from the days of either my relative Ine, or King Offa of the Mercians, or Æthelbert, who was the first of the English to receive baptism, which seemed to me most just, I gathered them here and left the rest.

[El. 49.10] Then I, King Ælfred of the West Saxons, showed these to all my councillors, and they said that it pleased them for all these laws to be kept.