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The Welsh Laws.

T. M. Charles-Edwards, The Welsh Laws (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1989.105 pp. ISBN 0-7083-1032-x. 3.50[pounds].

Written in the hope of making |the fascinating subject of early Irish law accessible to a wider readership than before' (p. xvi), Fergus Kelly's Guide to Early Irish Law has to pick its way between two unfamiliar vocabularies: the terminology of the Old Irish lawyers and the jargon of their modern counterparts. By providing an introductory list of common Irish words and phrases used in his book, a very full index of Irish legal terms, an appendix offering a guide to pronunciation, and frequent footnotes giving additional linguistic information, Kelly does everything possible to make his study accessible to the non-Celticist, and by avoiding any technical term likely to be unfamiliar to the modern layperson (the only possible exceptions I noticed were distraint and entry), he has managed to write a legal study which is refreshingly free from legalese. If this accessibility is occasionally gained at the cost of legal precision (a lawyer would regard an |unenforceable contract' (p. 159), for instance, as a contradiction in terms), or at the cost of structural coherence -- why, for example, is the section on |offences against women' (p. 79) separated from the section on rape (pp. 134-6)? -- in general the exchange is well worth it. Modern legal categories are often quite unsuited to dealing with traditional law, and not simply because some archaic procedures are totally alien to the modern legal mind (an Irish plaintiff, for example, might press his case by fasting outside the defendant's house). The basic taxonomy of later law (its division into civil and criminal branches, for instance, or the substantive/adjectival classification) would have been largely unintelligible in pre-Norman Ireland, and Kelly does well not to try to force his law texts into the straitjacket of modern jurisprudence.

The one complaint I have is that the book is somewhat insular. Kelly may well be right that direct outside influence on early Irish law is limited to the canonists (p. 214), but his study could still have benefited from a more comparative approach. To say, for instance, that Irish law is unusual in envisaging |that payment can atone for almost any crime' (p. 214), reveals a lack of familiarity with the Germanic codes where, as Halphen put it, |tout, jusqu'a l'existence humaine, est tarife'. There are times when Kelly's discussion of Irish institutions (the role of the oath in judicial procedure, for instance (pp. 98-102), or the use of pledges (pp. 164-7) might have been clarified by reference to comparable Anglo-Saxon or Frankish practice; as it is, his unwillingness to go outside a Celtic field of reference (there are occasional comparisons with Welsh or Scottish law) can sometimes be a serious liability. This is, however, a minor cavil about what is generally a well-written, balanced and clear treatment of a subject which has hitherto been accessible only to the specialist.

Where Fergus Kelly attempts to provide a general introduction to the whole body of early Irish law, T. M. Charles-Edwards' aims in The Welsh Laws are far more modest. He seeks to trace the development of written Welsh law from a hypothetical pre-Norman model-lawbook, possibly compiled for the tenth-century King Hywel (pp. 82-5), through the various recensions and revisions of it which continued down to the fifteenth century. The textual tradition of the Welsh laws is far from straightforward, and Charles-Edwards provides an admirably clear and balanced account of its ambiguities and anomalies; to the nonspecialist, at least, his various reconstructions look eminently sensible. For those interested in legal (as opposed to textual) history, however, the most interesting section is that dealing with the Book of Cynghawsed, which Charles-Edwards calls |the most mature piece of legal writing in medieval Wales' (p.68). The effectiveness of this section depends in large part on the author's willingness to see the best Welsh law as |an outflowing of the immense intellectual vitality of medieval Europe' (p. 93) and to look to non-Celtic parallels to illustrate its procedural developments. Reading Charles-Edwards's explanation of the Welsh arddelw in terms of the Roman exceptio (pp. 63-4) or of the legal situation of Wales after the Edwardian conquest in terms of the Germanic concept of the personality of law (pp. 87-8), One sees at once how much richer Fergus Kelly's book might have been had he chosen to adopt a similarly broad perspective.
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Author:Green, Richard Firth
Publication:Medium Aevum
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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