This week the holder of our CUROP placement position, Ben Morris, blogs about his experiences in research, medieval trade, and medieval law codes.


When I ask friends or relatives what they did over the summer, I normally get a reply along the lines of full time work, with some holidaying sprinkled in. When asked myself, I simply reply “research”.


I know many of my peers would imagine historical research to be reminiscent of Gandalf’s investigation in the “Fellowship of the Ring”, a scene in which a lonely figure is hunched over a large old tome. What a relief it is to find that history is a subject which has both kept up with the advances of the digital age, and makes full use of them. My time researching was less Gandalf’s visit to Minas Tirith’s library, and more akin to Bruce Wayne’s detective work in “The Dark Knight”, unfortunately with no Michael Caine to help in my research. Unlike most undergraduate work, there is no handbook to appeal to, nor could I ask my friends or family for advice, as none of them have experience in historical research. Furthermore, due to the ever-evolving nature of this project, any advice given to me soon became obsolete. For example, I decided from a very early stage that I’d do my best to structure my work to emulate a standard eight-hour day in any other workplace. Despite this, the work soon spilled over in all directions: there were times I did very little and at other times there was frenetic activity. Often I would find myself drifting back to my laptop to pick up where I’d left off on the evening just gone out of pure curiosity.

Structuring my work load was the least of my problems. The project itself was to look over several medieval laws from a range of cultures to identify any terminology that could be associated with trade and document it in a database. Within the first day I realised that there was a very blurred line separating which words could be associated with trade, and which ones could not. For example, most laws had a word for compensation.

The oldest known vernacular manuscript (B74) of the Scanian Law and Scanian Ecclesiastical Law, ca1250, photo attrib: wikipedia commons

In the modern world we associate compensation with goods and property, and thus it seemed safe to assume that the different terms for compensation, such as the Old English weregild, the Middle Welsh sarhaet and the Old Frisian bota, would all find a place in the database. However, these terms are most often used in reference to physical injuries or insulted honour, and thus did not seem to be appropriate for this project. Trawling through documents may sound repetitive, but few things seem to be as satisfying as watching your word count grow from ten to fifty, to just under three hundred!

Due to the nature of research, it was far too easy to become distracted as irrelevant, but interesting, questions became apparent. Perhaps most interesting was comparing the format and contents of the laws themselves. The Welsh laws were incredibly regular in structure, using the same words and phrases in similar combinations to the extent I could predict where they would come up in laws I’d yet to read.

Hwyel Dda
The Laws of Hywel Dda ca1350 attrib. Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru – The National Library of Wales


The Anglo-Saxon and Danish laws, whilst rich in content, did not offer as much variety in terms of goods as their Welsh counterparts, whilst the Frisian laws lay somewhere in between. Of course, to draw any conclusions from these laws would require a much greater sample to be looked at, but it was certainly interesting to think about during my lunch breaks.

Overall, this has been a very rewarding experience. Not only has it showed me a glimpse of how all consuming, frustrating and interesting research can be, it also gave me a chance to truly take part in academia. With the next academic year starting soon I can honestly look back at a summer well spent, on an opportunity few have the privilege of enjoying, on a topic both challenging and exciting. My advice for any researchers-to-be would be to not worry too much about whether you’re approaching your task correctly. There is no set road to research, but rather a jungle, and you’ve simply been handed a machete with which to cut through the undergrowth, in any direction you see fit.



6 thoughts on “Terminology of Trade in Laws: a Lesson in Grey Areas

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