At Sotheby’s auction house this July, a single medieval manuscript sold for £541,250, or about $879,000. At over $8,700 per page, the price strikes me as a bargain, if not a steal. Why? The reason has to do with the extraordinary history of the country my wife and I saw as we walked along Offa’s Dyke and looked to the west, across the River Wye and into the distant green hills. It also has to do with the number three.
Although it’s part of the United Kingdom, Wales has a long, proud history of legal independence. Even after the country was united with England under Henry VIII, the Welsh administered English law in their own court, the Court of Great Sessions, for almost three hundred years, until 1830. Today, guided by the evocative expression “Legal Wales,” the country is developing a range of autonomous legal institutions and practices as part of devolution.
The stakes of this process are high. If in time it leads to a fully independent Welsh nation, for which an independent system of law would be a prerequisite, the politics of Britain and Europe would be profoundly changed.
The distinctiveness of Welsh legal identity traces to a collection of about forty medieval manuscripts that are among the most important such documents in all of Britain. The texts record what are commonly known as Laws of Howell the Good, or Hywel Dda (the double-d here is pronounced as a voiced “th,” as in “the”), a tenth-century Welsh king who, tradition has it, collected and promulgated the law of his realm. They represent almost everything scholars know about the law of medieval Wales—indeed, they comprise about half of all the existing books in medieval Welsh, on any subject.
It was one of these priceless manuscripts that went on sale at Sotheby’s, put up for auction by a worthy holder in the United States, the Massachusetts Historical Society. Precisely how the book found its way to America is uncertain, but it likely was brought here in the seventeenth or eighteenth century by Welsh settlers, who played an important role in our early political history (sixteen of the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence were of Welsh ancestry, nearly thirty percent). Whatever path it took, though, the “Boston Manuscript” has finally come home: it now is on display in the National Library of Wales, which will soon make it available in digital form on line.
The very earliest surviving manuscripts of the Laws of Hywel Dda date from the thirteenth century (the Boston Manuscript dates from 1350), so they offer a view of ancient Welsh law at one or two removes at best. Still, if one looks closely, one can see the shadow-lines of ancient Celtic legal tradition—and one of the clearest ways that tradition is apparent is in the manuscript’s repeated use of the number three.
The Welsh absolutely loved the number three—and long before the advent of Celtic Christianity: witness the ancient symbol of the triskele. This fondness is reflected in their poetry, their prose—and in Laws of Howell of the Good. Three recurs again and again in different guises throughout the text, which arranges law as a body of knowledge into three parts (the law of the court, the law of the country, and the law of legal practice) and structures basic legal concepts, such as land claims, by dividing them into three categories.
Most striking of all are the legal triads, which present the law of the Welsh people in clusters of three possible applications or fact patterns. Here are twelve (that is, getting into the spirit of things, 4×3), all taken from a meticulous recent scholarly study of the subject:
Three things for which, if they are found on the road, no one need answer: a horseshoe, and a needle, and a penny.
Three things a bondsman is not free to sell without the permission of his lord: a horse, and pigs, and honey.
Three animals to whose value the king is entitled wherever they are killed: a beaver, and a marten, and a stoat.
Three indispensables of a nobleman: his harp, and his blanket, and his cooking pot.
Three things on which law does not allow sworn appraisal: flour, and bees, and silver.
Three things that override law: a contract, and a just custom, and death.
Three free sons from slave fathers: a cleric, a poet, and a blacksmith.
In three ways a summons is confirmed: by witnesses, and suretyship, or distraint.
Three legal values of a woman’s foetus: one is blood before formation; if it is lost through cruelty it is worth forty-eight pence. The second is before life enters it, if it is lost through cruelty a third of the galanas [compensation payment for homicide] is paid for it. The third is after life enters it, its full galanas ought to be paid if it is lost through cruelty.
Three women whose sons are entitled to the inheritance of their mother: a woman who is given as a hostage on behalf of her father, and she has a son during that hostageship; and a woman who is given by a gift of kin to an alien; and a woman from whose kindred a man is killed, and her son avenges him.
Three blows for which there is no compensation: that of a lord to his man to control him in a day of battle and fighting, and that of a father to his son to punish him, and that of a head of kindred to his kinsman whilst advising him.
There are three incitements to revenge: the wailing of female relatives, and seeing the bier of their relative, and seeing the grave of their relative without compensation.
Yes, we thought a lot about this scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail:
The grouping of law—or anything—into three is a device to aid the memory. The legal triads thus point to a basic feature of the Celtic legal tradition: that it was oral. It grew from a small-scale, agricultural society in which memory rather than the technology of the Latin alphabet was the way knowledge was held. A triad is a “killer app” used in the platform of the human mind to store information. Today we have other ways of storing legal knowledge, which is why you will never see a rule expressed in a self-consciously triadic form, such as “Three are the times when the President may without a warrant intercept communications from American citizens ….”
The laws of pre-modern, oral cultures have a number of characteristics in common, and so the centuries-long legal development of Wales out of the legal system whose orality is echoed in the Laws of Hywel Dda provides an important perspective on the transformation that contemporary traditional societies will undergo in the course of their modernization.
The most important of these characteristics is reflected in the last three triads reproduced above. The law of such societies—particularly the ownership of land and the compensation paid for homicide—is organized around the kin group, the extended family, the clan. This what makes the law of medieval Wales so relevant to our own time: not only as a touchstone of an independent Welsh legal identity in the context of political devolution, but for many parts of the world toward which citizens of developed, industrialized nations look with wariness and apprehension.
On that, more just a bit next week—that’s the core subject of my forthcoming book—after some reflections on a talk I heard yesterday about Mexicans facing the death penalty in the United States.