Online Primary Sources: Anglo-Saxon Charters

Charters are royal instruments that confer upon towns, institutions, or individuals certain rights and privileges along with concomitant obligations and duties. These documents form hierarchical relationships that span centuries and have survived societal upheavals in their many guises. Anglo-Saxon charters are among the earliest written sources we have concerning events in England during what can be justifiably called turbulent times. Think Danes, Viking raiders, Frisians, Norsemen, the occasional cross-border forays of Scotch and Welsh, not to mention the Irish. England during this time was not a united country but was divided into a multitude of separate entites; i.e. Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria, East Anglia to name but a few. Therefore these charters bear witness to this beginning of England.

The first systematic compilation of charters was undertaken by John Kemble, whose six-volume work – Codex diplomaticus aevi saxonici – was recognized for the remarkable work that it was. Over years, more charters were found, but there was never a complete re-inventory of these works until the 20th century with the publication of Peter Sawyer’s 1968 work Anglo-Saxon Charters: an Annotated List and Bibliography – a truly comprehensive catalog. However, despite the utility of both of these monumental works, they do have a drawback for the modern reader – Kemble’s, except for the introduction and headnotes, presents the charters in their original language of Latin while Sawyer directs researchers to the original Latin manuscripts whether in archives or printed facsimiles. This is not to fault either work because neither was designed to offer translations. But there is hope.

The Electronic Sawyer is a revised and expanded list of the 1968 guide that presents through its Browse feature multiple access points to the 1800+ charters listed, including translations of many of these manuscripts. These renderings allow us to more fully understand the machinations and power struggles that were endemic in England during this time frame. A very valuable resource.

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