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A History of Yorkshire
from Bulmer's Gazetteer (1892)

Part 10


If, after trial either by compurgation or ordeal the accused were adjudged guilty, he was punished by the infliction of a pecuniary fine, which depended not so much on the gravity of the offence, as on the rank of the injured party. Thus every freeman in the Saxon commonwealth had his weregild, or price of a man, and every injury done to himself, his dependents, or property, was duly assessed. "Every freeman," says Lingard, "was numbered in one of the three classes termed twyhind, syxhind. and twelfhind. The first comprised the ceorls, the third the royal thanes; under the second were numbered the intermediate orders of society. The were of these classes - the legal value of their lives and legal compensation for their murder - advanced in proportion from two to six, and from six to twelve hundred shillings. But that of an ealdorman was twice, of an etheling three times, of a king six times the were of a royal thane. The were was the great privilege of the higher classes; for every offence against them was punished in proportion to their were, and, in consequence, their persons and properties were better secured than those of their inferiors."

Some crimes, however, could not be expiated by these pecuniary compensations; treason of a vassal against his lord, Alfred declares, he dare not pardon; fighting in the king's hall, coining, and many other offences against the state, were death-worthy; "and among the customary punishments are mentioned beheading, hanging, burning, drowning, casting from a height, stoning, and breaking the neck; scourging, branding, and many other kinds of mutilation, as scalping, loss of hands, feet, eyes, nose, and ears; and exile."

LANGUAGE. - Before proceeding to the Norman period of our history we cannot refrain from adverting, though briefly, to the language and literature of our Saxon forefathers. How totally different does our modern English appear to be from that which was spoken by Bæda or Ceadmon, twelve centuries ago, or by King Alfred two centuries later! If the reader, aided only by his knowledge of the language as now spoken, were to direct his attention to the writings of Bæda or Alfred in their original form, he would extract as little of their meaning as he would from a page of German or Low Dutch. And yet our modern English is the direct descendant of that Anglo-Saxon which appears so foreign to us now that we can only obtain a knowledge of it by grammar and lexicon, as we should of the languages of ancient Greece or Rome. In fact we may say, in spite of the dissimilarity, there is almost absolute identity between our modern English and the language of Alfred; and that what we commonly call Anglo-Saxon is, indeed, more purely English than what we call English at the present day. We have indeed borrowed from the Latin, Greek, and Roman languages to enrich our vocabulary, but the great bulk of our words are essentially Saxon. "Old words drop out from time to time, old grammatical forms die away or become obliterated, new names and verbs are borrowed, first from the Norman-French at the Conquest, then from the classical Greek and Latin at the Renaissance; but the continuity of the language remains unbroken, and its substance is still essentially the same as at the beginning. The Cornish, the Irish, and to some extent the Welsh," continues Grant Allen, from whom we quote, "have left off speaking their native tongues, and adopted the language of the dominant Teutons, but there never was a time when Englishmen left off speaking Anglo-Saxon and took to English, or any other form of speech whatsoever." The following extract from Ceadmon's poem describing the creation of Eve, closely rendered in modern English, exhibits a specimen of the Anglo-Saxon tongue as spoken in Yorkshire twelve hundred years ago.

Ne thuhte tha gerysne		Then seemed it not fitting
Rodora wearde			To the Guardian of the firmament
The Adam leng			That Adam longer
Ana waere				Were alone
Neorxna wonges,			Of Paradise,
Niwre gesceafte,			Of the new creation,
Hyrde and haldend;		Keeper and ruler;
Forthon him Heah-cyning,	Therefore for him the High King,
Frea Ælmihtig,			The Lord Almighty
Fultum tiode,			Created a helpmate,
Wif-aweahte				Raised up a woman,
And tha wrathe sealde		Raised up a woman,
Lifes leoht-fruma			The Author of life's light.
We also append another example taken from the old English epic of Beowulf. Saxon poetry, it may be observed, differed widely from our modern English versification. It possessed neither rhyme nor metre; what answered to the former was a regular and marked alliteration, each couplet having a certain keyletter, with which three principal words in the couplet began; and what answered for the latter was the recurrence of a number of accents in each couplet, without restriction to the number of feet or syllables.
Beowulf mathelode			Beowulf spake
Hwæt we the thas sæ-lac	See We to thee this sea-gift,
Leod Scyldinga			Prince of the Scyldings
Tires to tacne,			For a token of glory,
Ic thæt un-softe			That I unsoftly,
Wigge under wætere,		In war under water;
Earfothilce;			With much labour;
Guth getwæfed			The battle divided,
bearn Ecgtheowes;			the son of Ecgtheow;
sunu Healfdenes			son of Healfdene.
lustum brohton,			joyfully have brought,
the thu her to-locast		that thou here lookest on.
ealdre gedigde			gloriously accomplished,
weorc genethde			the work I dared,
æt rihte wæs			rightly was
nymthe mec god scylde.		but that a god shielded me.
Or as it has been rendered in modern prose

"Beowulf, the son of Ecgtheow, addressed the meeting. See, son of Healfdene, Prince of the Seyldings, we have joyfully brought thee this gift from the sea which thou beholdest, for a proof of our valour. I obtained it with difficulty, gloriously, fighting beneath the waves; I dared the task with great toil. Evenly was the battle decreed, but that a god afforded me his protection."

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