Re: Anglo-Saxon wills

From: Andrew Larsen <>
Date: Thu, 21 Sep 2000 09:57:11 -0500

>> I'm uncertain that daddy would sit down and write out an itemised last will
>> and testament al la C20 westerners - its just as likely that the household
>> would divide the goods after death according to a broad understanding of his
>> wishes. I'm open to counter arguments on this - I know that Anglo-Saxon
>> wills were common among the rich and landed, but A-S society was more
>> centralised, literate and far less clannish and communal than the
>> Heortlings. (for the vast majority of Heortlings, we're talking herds and
>> personal possessions and obligation networks, not land or buildings). I also
>> understand that wills among the non-landed A-S were far less common. (Looks
>> askew to Andrew, raises quizzical eyebrow).

    Well, I can't claim to know a whole lot about this subject, and I'm too busy to look it up, unless there's a hot demand for info on the topic, but here's what I'd say in my professional capacity if backed to a wall.

    Yes, A-S nobles did leave written wills in some number, although it's my understanding that this was primarily to address issues that weren't regulated by law and custom, such as giving land to the church. Matters of filial inheritance were normally addressed by law and thus didn't need to be specified in a will.

    So far as we know, A-S ceorls didn't leave wills. The reasons are several. Literacy was virtually unknown among peasants, whereas it was moderately common among the nobility. Peasants simply don't have the skills to produce or read wills. Secondly, most peasants didn't own enough valuable property to bother willing it to someone, and what they did own they could easily be governed by law and custom. Thirdly, it's not completely impossible that a few better off peasants did leave wills which haven't survived. I wouldn't bet on it, but it's not inconceivable.

    That's my two cents worth, but take it with a grain of salt.

Andrew E. Larsen

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