Saturday, January 07, 2006

Shout! Let it all out!

Sweden shuffles into the limelight of written history very late. If for history we demand detailed and voluminous written sources produced by knowledgeable participants in the events themselves, then the history of Sweden begins only in the 13th century.

A major group among the earliest written sources is the provincial law codes. Medieval Sweden was a patchwork quilt of old tribal areas, recently confederated, most of them sporting their own laws.

It is a matter of debate whether these codes preserve a lot of orally transmitted legislation from the Viking Period or if they were mainly as new to Sweden as the stone architecture and the monasteries. Likewise, it is uncertain if the laws were actually enforced in every detail. Things could be a bit disorganised in an area with lousy communications and no police. Some statutes look like they were dreamed up by legalistic quibblers who didn't pause to think whether they would be at all practicable.

But despite all this, the law codes are treasure troves for details about rural life in the Middle Ages. They describe crimes, disputes and other situations that were clearly considered not unlikely to come about.

My colleague Alf Ericsson has pointed out a fine example to me in the law code for Östergötland, codified in the late 13th century. In the section on land rights, Byggningabalken §28:2, a procedure to determine the border between a private farmstead and the commons of the hundred is described.
"Here is a farmstead, settled and old, farmstead with mounds and from pagan times; it borders on the commons. Now the border is disputed. Then stand on the oldest edge of the property and cry, when the day is at its deafest, between the feast-day of St. Botolf and mid-summer; let the farmstead's property reach as far as the cry can be heard, and border upon the commons."

(My translation of Holmbäck & Wessén's paraphrase in modern Swedish, 1933, p. 216.)
Picture this. It's a beautiful day in early summer, 1306. A farm owner is standing at the edge of his land, bellowing like a madman, watched by a few neighbours and some incredulously giggling children. Meanwhile, a group of good men and true walk off into the woods, asking each other every now and then, "Can you still hear him?".

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

What happens if he loses his voice? Does he lose his lands as well?

09 January, 2006 00:21  
Blogger Martin said...

He wouldn't lose his lands, this is just about how far into the woods he will have the rights of grazing, hunting and forestry. I suppose it would pretty much come down to how influential connections he has.

09 January, 2006 00:28  

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