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The Danes and the 'Danelaw'

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1986 has proved a year of early-medieval anniversaries. The ninth centenary of Domesday Book has occupied centre stage, but the eleventh centenary of the creation of the Danelaw has gone with much less comment. Domesday Book is doubtless more newsworthy than the Danelaw, offering a potential for computerisation, updating and so on. But the differences go further than this. Historians are in no doubt of the date or reality of Domesday; it can have a true anniversary. In the case of the Danelaw there is less agreement.

1986 is the anniversary of the making of a treaty between the West Saxon King Alfred and Guthrum, Danish King of East Anglia, in 886. The very date is debatable, even more so the significance of that treaty in defining the area of Danish England, let alone in creating the 'Danelaw'. A geographical area of Danish law is not mentioned in that treaty, nor in any document before the eleventh century. Moreover, although the ethnic interpretation of history in which the Danes and the Danelaw play such a part is far from abandoned, sufficient doubt surrounds it to make 1986 more an occasion for discussing than celebrating the 'Danelaw'.

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