Old Frisian Law

The earliest Old Frisian law is known as the Lex Frisionum.   It was written around 800 A.D. in Latin at the behest of the emperor Charlemagne.  There are also several other sets of laws that were written somewhat later.  These are mostly in Old Frisian.  A good introduction to Old Frisian Law, if you can read Dutch, is N.E. Algra, Oudfries Recht, 800-1256 (Ljouwert: Fryske Akademy, 2000).   Unfortunately, most old Frisian law is available only in Dutch or German translation, not in English.  The most important exception is the Skeltariucht, parts of which are presented below.

The Skeltana Riucht [excerpts]

    A skelta is something like a magistrate or a sheriff (in the original English sense).  Riucht means law.  Roughly speaking, the Skeltana Riucht is the law of the magistrates.  It probably dates from the twelfth century and is in Old Frisian.  Below I have produced some of  the more interesting provisions, first in Old Frisian and then in English.  The source is Sydney Fairbanks, The Old West Frisian Skeltana Riucht (Harvard University Press, 1939).

I.   Thit is landriucht [thera] Fresena and skeltanriucht.  Thi grewa, ther an Freslande [grewa] wessa skel, hi skel wessa fulre berde bern and sin riucht unforlern.  Hi skel ti Suthermutha inkoma and koma to Franekere [in thet del] mith werdere were, mith thes koninges iefte, mith breve and mith insigele.  Ther agen hine tha Fresen to undfane and riuchtes ti stedigiane; ther ach him thi asega enne frethe ti delane and hine him selva ti bannane, thet him emma aut unriuchtes dwe.  Thenne agen him tha liude thenne frethe ti sterkiane; ther ach thi grewa allera manna likum sin len ti iewane, ascha hit an sinre were hede, one fia.  [So thes grewa komste keth is, so is sin frethe, binna there komste, thi dadslachta fiower and sextich pund.]

Translation:  This is the land-law of the Frisians, and the magistrate-law.  The governor who is to hold office in Friesland, must be of legitimate birth, and not have forfeited his rights.  He shall land at the Take-Zijl and proceed to Franeker in that district, with valid (evidence of) authority, (that is) with the king's grant, with letters patent and with seal.  There the Frisians shall receive him, and allow him to hold court; and the lawsayer shall thereupon decree a truce for him and present him in person, so that no man may (unwittingly) do him any wrong.  Then the people shall confirm that truce, and thereafter the governor shall grant every man his fief, as far as he may have it in this power, without (special) payment.  As soon as the governor's arrival is announced, the penalty for killing in violation of the truce is sixty-four pounds.

II.     Thit is riucht thet thi fria Fresa ni thor fira hereferd fara, thur ban ni thur bod, than mittha ebba wt and mittha flode up, truch tha ned, thet hi thenne ower alle degan wera skel with thenne salta se and with thenne wilda witsing, mith fif wepnem, mith spada and mith forka, mith skelde and mith swerde and mith etkeres orde [thur thet, thet hi thenne ower waria skel], bi enre liudwerthene, ther hit him keth worde mith boda iefta mith bakne.  Iefta sexasum swera, thet hit him mith boda ni mith bakne keth ni worde.

Translation:   This is the law: the free Frisian need make no further foray, whether under proclamation or order, than out with the ebb and back with the flood; because he needs must guard the shore, day in, day out, against the salt sea and the wild viking with five weapons: with spade and with fork, with shield and with sword, and with spear's point.  (And this he must do) on pain of one wergeld, whenever notice is given him by messenger or by beacon, or else swear with five compurgators that such notice was not given him.

III .    Thit is riucht, thet thi fria Fresa ach sines selves deda ti witane uppa tha helgum mith mara riuchte than him se emma over ti tiugane; hit ne se so fir bithingad mith skelta banne and mith asega dome, thet tha niugen tiuch sines einne ath binima.

Translation:  This is the law: the free Frisian may establish by oath upon the holy relics the fact of his own deeds as against any man's testimony unless the matter be  so far prosecuted, by order of the magistrate and decree of the lawsayer, that the ninefold testimony invalidate his oath.


VII.  Thit is riucht, thet thi feder ne ach nene manne sine dochter ti iewane ower hire willa, thur thet hiu nautes wald ni ach mer hera leithena.  And iefth hi se ower hire willa [and ower hire wald] and hire misskith an tha onwilla, so ach hi thet beta mith frethe and mith festa, also hise mith sinre hand forslain hede.

Translation:  This is the law:  the father shall not give his daughter to any man against her will, since shee has at least the right to dispose of her own person.  And if he gives her against her will, and in spite of her resistance, and harm comes to her by reason of her unwillingness, he shall pay for it with fine and with fasting, as if he had slain her with his own hand.


XI.   Thit is riucht lutheres lana, thet thi sone ach sinre moder tolef ier aller [ieralikes to] lan ti iewanne fif skillingan, as hi sine breid halath, thet hi unewemmed se fan [wan-] warlashed.

Translation:  This is the legal swaddling-payment that the son shall pay to his mother when he takes a bride; five shillings a year for twelve years, in payment for his not having been injured by neglect.


XVIII.   Thit is riucht, thet thi fria Fresa skel thenne over, ther hi bi banne warath with thenne salta se et sente Benedictus missa wrocht habba iefta mith twam skillingum aldus over nacht beta with thenne skelta, also lange so hit unewrocht is unt sumeris nacht; [and efter sumeris nacht] thet grundieth thet thet salte weter inleth ande tha liudem skathath an hiara notum, aldus over nacht unt lettera ewennacht mith twam pundum beta [ande tha liudum tha nota fella, so fir so him thet god warath].

Translation:  This is the law: the free Frisian, when under proclamation he is warding off the salt sea, shall have the shore (-dikes) finished by St. Benedict's Day, or pay for it to the magistrate, with two shillings a day up to Midsummer Night, so long as it remains unfinished; and after Midsummer Night any hole in the dikes that lets in salt water and harms the people in their harvests shall be paid for, for every day until the following equinox, with two pounds, and the offender shall recompense the people for their crops so far as his goods hold out.



    (Thit is riucht, alder thi fria Fresa thritich punda werth erves heth an sinre were) thet hi horses and wepnes ewarad wesa skel ti ther landwere. Ief him thes berst, so skel hi with sine frana mith twam pundum beta. 
    Thit is riucht, thi ther tventiga punda werth [erves] an sinre were hath, thet thi skel habba truch lang wepen, iefta mith twam pundum beta. 
    Thit is riucht, thi ther tolef punda werth heweth erwes, thet hi skel habba spere and skeld ti ther liudwere, iefta mith twam pundum beta. 
    Thit is riucht, thi ther lessa hath, hi skel habba koker and boga ti ther liudwere ief mith twam pundum beta.


           This is the law: when the free Frisian has thirty  pounds worth of land in his possession, he shall be equipped with force and weapon for the defense of the realm.  If he fails in this, he shall pay two pounds for it to the magistrate.
          This is the law: he who has twenty pounds’ worth of land in his possession shall have a two-handed sword, or pay for it with two pounds.
          This is the law: he who has twelve pounds’ worth of land shall have spear and shield for the defense of the people or pay for it with two pounds.
          This is no law: he who has less shall have quiver and bow for the defense of the people, or pay for it with two pounds.

    Thit is riucht so hwerso ma en wif an nede nimth and ma hit tha frana klagath, so is hit riucht thet ma hire folgia skel ti tha fordele ther hiu inne is, mith tha asega.  Ande thi frana skel hire fregia hu hiu alder kome, hoder willem so unwillem.   So hwoder so hiu spreckt, so skel hiu thach an thes frana were thria nachta sitta thur tha ned ther ma ther klagade.   Thes thredda deis so ach hia thi frana an (thene) warf ti brengane and twene stewan to settane, hire willa ti bariane.  Etta othera stewe stande hire megan, etta othera hire man.  Geith hiu ti tha manne hiu brukes wel ther om thet hiu nautes wald ni ach ni were hira lithena [thera ach hiu tha wald].   Geith hiu ti tha megum, so skel thi man hia twiielde ielda and hi skel breke and brand thelda and achtich punda iewa herem and liudem ande thera (sibbista) sexa allerlik, ief se therin bitiugad wordath, brand and breke thelda and mith enre haudlesne beta.  So hwam so ma thes ekes bitigath, thet hi ther mede an fulleste were, so skel hi mith twam pundum beta, iefta sexasum unswora.


          This is the law: whenever a woman is taken by force, and complaint is made to the magistrate, it is the law that she shall be followed to the dwelling that she is in, the lawsayer accompanying.  And the magistrate shall ask her how she came there, willingly or unwillingly.  Whichever she says, she shall nevertheless remain in the magistrate’s custody for three nights, by reason of the violence complained of.  The third day, the magistrate shall bring her to the court, and set up two staves to manifest her decision.  Let her kinsmen stand at one staff and her man at the other.  If she goes to the man let her have him in peace, for she has at least the right to dispose of her own person.  If she goes to the kinsman, the man shall make double payments to her, and suffer fire and wasting, and give eighty pounds to the nobles and commons; and each of the six nearest of kin, if they are convicted of complicity, shall suffer of fire and wasting, and pay with a hand-ransom.  And whoever is in any way convicted of assisting the therein, let him pay for it with two pounds, or take an oath of innocence with five compugators.


    Thit is riucht, alder thi fria Fresa up en erwe thingia welle thet hi an bannena thinge kuma skel mith sine thingmanne, mith efta gretwerde greta skel and bitigia him thes thet hi en erwe an sinre were habbe unriuchte, ther hi him mith riuchte rema skel.   So ach him thi other andwerdia and fregath him, hwer thet erwe lidzie.  So ach him thi asega ti delane, thet hi him thet erwe wise mith steve and mith tiuge.  Thet thing skel wesa thes selva deis over sowen nachtem uppa tha erwe.


          This is the law: if the free Frisian wishes to go to court about a piece of land, he shall come to the proclaimed court with his lawyer, (and) challenge (the defendant) with the proper formula, and charge him with having a piece of land wrongfully in his possession, which he must by law surrender to him (the plaintiff).  Then the defendant must answer him and ask him where the land lies.  Then the lawsayer must decree that the complainant point out the land both by demonstration and by word of mouth.  The trial shall be held on that day week [i.e., a week later on the same day--PMT] on the land itself. 


    Thit is riucht, thet hi hine these selva deis bi midda morne, bi sunna upgange,  mith tha twam skeltum and mith sinra bura sowen, mith tha asega and mit thes otheres burem sowen, mith efta tiuge lathia skel ti ther landwere et sine fordele; and ach him thi asega ti delane thet hi and feld fara skel, is thet hit wera wolle.  Of hi kuma ni wolle ti ther landwere, so ist riucht thet ma [eft] thingia skel en thing, thet other, thet thredde and thet fiarda; etta fifta thinge thenne frethe on winna asma skel mith riuchta landriuchte.


    This is the law: that on the same day (of the week) in the middle of the morning, while the sun is climbing, he shall summon the defendant, accompanied by two magistrates and seven of his neighbors and the lawsayer and seven of the defendant’s neighbors, at his house, to the defense of the land.  And the lawsayer must decree that he shall go afield if he wishes to defend it.  If he will not come to the defense, the law is that the complainant shall again hold proceedings, a second time, a third, and a fourth; and at the fifth preceding he shall be entitled to undisturbed possession, according to the true law of the land. 


    (1) Thit is riucht, ief thi fria Fresa werth to stride bithingad and hi kweth thet hi einlikes godes so fule an sinre were ni habbe thet hi wepen and wrichta winna ni moge and beta ief him an uppa felle, so ach him thi asega ti delane thet thet sowen sinra bura wita sken bi tha ethe ther hia tha koninge ti helde sworen, and bi hiara selva sele, hwoder hi an sinre were so grat god hede thes deis ther ma hine mith tha stride bigrette.  Sedgiath hia him so grat god, so hi mith stride bigret warth, so skel hi thet mara strid ongan; ni sedgiath hia sin god naut so grat, so skel hi thet lessa strid ongan.

    (2) Thit is riucht, ther thi ti swerdkempa thingia wolle, thet hi lessa bigreta ni mei than thria pund and achte ensa, so is thet thi stridwerthega sket.  So skel thi fria Fresa tha othere an sinne bannena thinge to thingia en thing, thet othere, thet thredde and thet fiarde. Etta fiarda thinge so skelma thet strid weddia.  So ist riucht, thet hi enne berend habba skel, and thi berend so grat god habba thet hi thet stridwerthega sket al lesta muge; also hine under gretwerd lette, also skel hi under berendskip stan unt thi strideth sweren is.

    (3) Thit is riucht, thet hia etta thinge thenne eth swora sken and thenne witheth hera.  So skel hi tha hand uppa tha helega lidza and thi asega skel him thine eth stawia, thet him god also helpe and tha helega.  So ach thi asega thine onthingere monia thet hi up lidze ief hi riucht habbe.  So skel hi tha hand uplidza and thi asega skel hem thine eth stawia, thet him god also helpe ande tha helega.  So skel hi swigia and thi other swora.   Nu skelma him stawia thet him god so helpe ande sine helega, thet hi thine eth riuchte swora and unmenes.  Nu skel hi swigia and thi other kwetha: "so ik thenne eth riuchte swore and unmenes."
Nu skel hi swigia, and thi other swora, and thi asega skel him [thene eth] stawia: "so ik hine na birawade an he and an stre, ner an goda etbera fia." [etc.]


          (1) This is the law: if the free Frisian is challenged to an ordeal, and he says that he has not enough property in his possession to buy a sword and armor and begin (still) pay damages if it turns out that he must, the lawsayer must decree that seven of his neighbors shall swear, by the oath of loyalty that they swore to the king and by their own souls, whether he had that much property in his possession on the day when he was challenged to the ordeal.  If they say that he had that much property when he was challenged, he shall undergo the greater ordeal; if they declare that he had not so much, he shall undergo the lesser ordeal.

          (2)  This is the law as to one who wishes to settle the case by the sword: that he may not bring a complaint involving less than three pounds and eight ounces as the amount in controversy.  Thus the free Frisian shall bring proceedings against the other party once, a second time, and third, and a fourth.  At the fourth proceeding a pledge shall be given for the ordeal.  And it is the law that the defendant shall have a surety and the surety shall have enough property to pay the entire amount in controversy.  As soon as the complaint has been spoken to him, he shall be under surety until the ordeal-oath is sworn.

           (3)     This is the law: that they shall swear the oath in court and hear the counter-oath.  The defendant shall lay his hand on the holy relics and the lawsayer shell administer the oath to him: “that may God so help him, and the saints…”  Then the lawsayer must bid the complainant lay (his hand) thereon, if he is in the right.  So the complainant shall lay his hand on the relics, and the lawsayer shell administer the oath to him: “that may God so help him, and the saints….”  Then he shall be silent and the defendant swear; Now the oath shall be administered him that “may God and the saints so help him that he may swear the oath lawfully and not falsely.”  Now he shall be silent and the complainant say: “…as I may swear the oath lawfully and not falsely.”  Now shall he be silent and the defendants swear, and the lawsayer administer the oath to him: “ as I have not robbed him in hay nor in straw nor in good clean beasts…” [etc.]


    (1) Nu thi strideth sworen is, nu is thet riucht thet hi ene berend habba skel, ief hine thi borgia ni wolle, ther hine er borgad hede; so skel hi hine borgia en and tuntich nachta.  ...
Als tha thria and sextich nachta umbekumen sind, so skel ma thet strid bifiuchta binna tha banne ther hit binna bisworen is. So ach thi skelta thine kere hwer hi thet thing ketha lete.  Nu agen hia tha kempan ther ti brengane ther thet strid ledath and ach him thi asega thine kampstal to wisane.  Thi kampstal skel wesa thria and sextich fota bred, molles fota umbe alle halva; ther agen tha kempan binna ti wesane and tha gretwerderen, thi skelta and thi asega.  Hwaso ekker ingeth, so is hi twa pund skeldich tha grewa.  Efter tham ther thi skelta bannes bigent, so ach him thi asega ti delane thet hia binna thrim degem thet strid bifiuchta sken mith tha sex wepnem.  Nu sken tha swerd ewen lang wesa, ande thi skelta ande thi asega sken tha wepen skawia and ewende and an morne.  So sken tha wepen an tha kampstal bida al ther se tha kempan brengath.  Hira skel habba aider twa swerd; ief him thet other breke iefta unsprenge, thet hi ti tha otherum fe, ief hi moge.  ...


    (1)   Now that the ordeal–oath has been sworn, it is law that the defendant shall get a surety, if the man will not stand surety for him who has done so till now, and he shall stand surety for him for twenty-one days.  …  When the sixty-thee days [to get a champion] are passed, the ordeal shall be fought out within the jurisdiction where the oaths were sworn concerning it, and the magistrate shall have the decision as to what place he will have proclaimed for the meeting.  Now the champions must be brought there, who are to perform the ordeal, and the lawsayer point out the ring to them.  The rings shall be sixty-three feet wide—that is standard feet—measured each way; the champions and the umpires shall be inside it, and the magistrate and the lawsayer; anyone else who goes inside is liable to the governor for two pounds.  Next, after the magistrate has opened the proceedings, the lawsayer must decree that they shall fight out the ordeal in three days with six swords.  The swords shall be of the same length, and the magistrate and lawsayer shall examine them into the evening and morning.  They shall remain in the ring where the champions put them.  Each champion shall have two swords, so that if the one breaks or flies out of his hand he may take up the other if he can.


      Thit is riucht, thet thi grewa ther hir ban leth thes fiarda ieris bodthing halda mot ther hi wolle.  Thit is riucht ho hise halda wolle, thet ma hia ketha skel et allar haudkerkena likum thi prester efter Cristis morne [er ieresdei] thet hia thi grewa halda welle efter sumeres nacht er lettera ewennacht. ...


          This is the law: the governor who has jurisdiction here may hold the bodthing [a popular assembly or moot that functioned like a court] every four years if he wishes.  This is the law when he wishes to hold it: the priest shall announce at every headchurch between Christmas and New Year’s Day that the governor will hold it between Midsummer Night and the second equinox.  …


      Thit is riucht ief ther en owerlendich man sterfth, so ach thi frana sin god ti bifane, ier and dei ti haldene; ief ther sinra eng efter kumth binna iere and binna dei, tha erfnama ti iewane.  Ief ther nemma [efter] ni kumme, thi frana ti habbane thine half del, and thruch sine sele thine other del.


This is the law: if the free Frisian has attended three duly held sessions of court during the year, the magistrate cannot go behind his oath regarding his attendance at the other sessions.


(1) Thit is riucht, alder ma ene manne sin god ofstelt and hi kumith mith tha frana bi thes bures huse and hi ther seka wolle, so skel hi orlewes bidda ande thet god nemma ther hi ther inne seka welle.  Nu ist riucht thet hi(t) him fregia skel, hot hi seka wolle; so skel hit namnia.  Ief hit so den god se thet ma hit muge an hande [bi]luka iefta under skate bihella, so skel thi frana ingan and sowen mith hem thes koninges orkendan mith gripianda handem and ermem, and unegerd and uneskoch and wraxle, thet ma nen god indrega ni muge ther hia skathia methe muge tha unskeldega manne.  Ief hia thet [thiuftigade] god ther inne findath, is hit en willen klath and hit se uneferwad, so mot hit to sine inuerke tian, thet hi tha skep hede [ther tha ulle drogen, ther thet klath fan makad worde].  Ief hit linnen is so mot hit to sine eckere tian, thet hit ther on were [thet flax ther on woxe] ther hi thet klath of makade.  So sken it swera twene sinra bura thet hi alsoden land hede ther thet flax on waxa machte, iefta hi tha skep hede, ther ma tha ulle of skara machte.  Ief hit wrocht gold is, so mot hit to [sine] inwerke tian; ief hit unwrocht is, so skel hit to sine werende tian, iefta ti tha tolneda merkede, [iefta to ene feld farende manne.]  ...


    (1)    This is the law: where a man’s goods are stolen and he comes with a magistrate to his neighbor’s house and wishes to search it, he shall ask leave, and state what he wishes to search for.  Now it is the law that the suspect shall first ask him what it is that he wishes to search for, and then he shall name it.  If it be the sort of thing that can be hidden in the hand or under the coat, the magistrate shall go in with seven of the Kings witnesses, with open hands and arms, ungirt and unshod, and let him shake (them) that no property may be carried in with which they might injure an innocent man.  If they find the stolen property inside, and it is woolen cloth and not dyed, let him show that it is his own manufacture (claiming) that he owned the sheep that grew the wool from which the coat was made.  If it is linen, let him show that it came from his farm, claiming that the flax grew on it out of which the cloth was made. In that case two of his neighbors shall swear that he had such land as the flax might have grown on, or sheep from which the wool could have been sheared. If it is wrought gold, let him show that it is his own manufacture; If it is unwrought gold, he must show that it came from a bailor, or the toll-market, or a traveler. 


    (1) Thit is riucht so hwer so thi skelta en thing halt, thet hi skel biada [riucht] aller mannalikum, ief him emma autis bitigath [so skel hi tian] lada and bota.  Ief him emma than aut up spreka welle, so skel thi huskerl [selva] tha bannere biada thet hi thine skelta askie.  So skel thi bannare kwatha: "Her skelta, ik askie io and banne io ther to mith mines hera banne thet i tha manne riucht andwerd iowe."  Ief hi nelle, so ne ach him nimma iowa lada ner bota, ner nimma sine ban thelda. ...


    (1)  This is the law: that whenever the magistrate holds court, he shall offer legal satisfaction to all men alike.  If any man accuses him of anything, the magistrate shell tender him oaths and compensation.  If it is desired to make any claim against him, let the freeman himself instruct the sheriff to make instructions upon the magistrate.  Then the sheriff must say: “Sir magistrate, I demand of you and charge you, by the authority of my lord, that you give this man a proper answer.”  If the magistrate will not (do so), no man need tender him oaths or compensation, nor obey his orders.