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Anarchy in England

Click on the link at the bottom to read an illuminating piece on how English society functioned prior to the Norman invasion of 1066.


Law Enforcement by Mutual Aid: The Borh

Before the Norman Conquest in 1066, government in England was radically decentralized. The King had little or no role in setting domestic policy; this was left to the moots, local courts that passed judgment in accordance with customary law. The King’s authority lay primarily in the area of foreign policy, and here he acted simply as a war leader, a kind of military entrepreneur, whose followers supplied financial contributions and military service voluntarily. England possessed neither a police force nor a standing army; law enforcement and national defense alike were the prerogative and responsibility of the armed citizenry.

For purposes of security, the most important social unit was the borh. A borh was an association, typically of twelve people, who stood surety for one another’s good behavior. If a member of a borh committed a crime, the other members were committed to bringing him to justice — but also to helping him pay restitution for his crime. (Financial restitution rather than retribution was the normal sentence for most crimes; those who refused to pay restitution were outlawed, that is, placed outside the law — meaning that anyone could kill them with impunity.)

The borh may have originated as a kinship group, but if so, its kin-based aspects soon dwindled; at the height of the Anglo-Saxon system, borhs were purely contractual arrangements. Individuals were free to apply to a borh of their choosing, and members of that borh were likewise free to accept or refuse the applicant; once accepted, an individual was free to leave, and could also be expelled. Since the members of the borh would be held responsible for one another’s actions, there was a strong incentive to police members’ behavior. Likewise, there was a strong incentive to belong to a borh and not be kicked out, because few were willing to deal with someone who belonged to no borh; such a person was in effect an uninsured risk, since he had no fellow borh-members standing surety for him. The borh system thus created powerful incentives for responsible behavior.

Anarchy in the U.

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