Aug 7, 2013

Codex Unia: Karl And Redbad - Part II

This is the second translation in a three-part series about the divine origins of Old Frisian law. The legend's pre-Christian elements become especially apparent in Part III


The Frisians asked King Karl to wait for their spokesmen, and he granted his permission. On the second day, the king called them to go and come back with their law. They came and chose their spokesmen, Twelve from the Seven Sealands. [FN7] Then he ordered them to choose their law.

The Twelve yearned for a delay. On the third day, King Karl called them to come before him. They pled a legal impediment. They did this on the fourth day and the fifth day as well. These were the two delays and the three legal impediments that Free Frisians could have through means of the law. [FN8]

On the sixth day King Karl ordered the Twelve to choose the law. They said that they could not.

Then the king said, “Now I lay three choices before you: that you all be beheaded, that you all be serfs, or that you be given a ship so firm and strong that it can withstand the ebbs and flows, without any kind of rudder, oar, or tackle.” [FN9]

They chose the ship, and it followed the ebbs so far out that they couldn’t see the coast. And their hearts were troubled.

Then the first lawspeaker [FN10], who was of Widukind’s line [FN11], spoke: “I have heard that our Lord God had twelve disciples when he was on earth and he himself was the thirteenth, and he came to them through a locked door and comforted them and taught them. Why don’t we pray that he send us a thirteenth to teach us the law and conduct us to land?”

[FN7] The number twelve is relevant to the history of English law as well, e.g., regarding jury sizes. On a personal level, I do find it interesting that Gylfaginning, for example, lists twelve holy Gods and notes that they meet in judgment. See Gylfaginning 20, 15, and 42.

[FN8]  Responding to unpleasant substantive questions with procedural objections is a strategy as old as law itself.  

[FN9] Ain or ein, the Old Frisian word that I am translating as “serf,” literally means “owned.”

[FN10] The Old Frisian word asega is often translated as “lawspeaker” in English. An asega was an official who provided advice on law and procedure but who was not quite the same as a judge in the modern sense nor a lawspeaker in the former Icelandic sense. They were heavily tied up with the Frankish legal system imposed by Charlemagne, which may be one of the reasons that the title of this legend is sometimes rendered as an exchange between King Redbad and a non-contemporary ruler. The skelta, or “sheriff,” was also integral to the administration of law in Frisia at that time. The two roles were later consolidated into one position. See, e.g., the Skout (Skelta) and Asega entries on the Frisian version of Wikpedia.

[FN11] Widukind lived at the same time as Charlemagne.

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