Black Book of the Admiralty as the "Laws of Oleron"

Naval Law
Chrono date: 
1494 Jan 01

SEA LAWS, a title which came into use among writers on maritime law in the 16th century, and was applied by them to certain medieval collections of usages of the sea recognized as having the force of customary law, either by the judgments of a maritime court or by the resolutions of a congress of merchants and shipmasters. To the former class belong the sea laws of Oleron, embodying the usages of the mariners of the Atlantic; under the latter come the sea laws of Visby (Wisby), reflecting the customs of the mariners of the North Sea and of the Baltic.

The earliest collection of such usages received in England is described in the Black Book of the Admiralty as the "Laws of Oleron," whilst the earliest known text is contained in the Liber memorandorum of the corporation of the City of London, preserved in the archives of their Guildhall. These laws are in an early handwriting of the 14th century, and the title prefixed to them is La Chaste d'Oleroun des juggementz de la mier. How and in what manner these "Judgments of the Sea" came to be collected is not altogether certain. Cleirac, a learned advocate in the parlement of Bordeaux, in the introduction to his work on Les Us et coustumes de la mer (Bordeaux, 1647), states that Eleanor of Aquitaine, having observed during her visit to the Holy Land that the collection of customs of the sea contained in The Book of the Consulate of the Sea (see CON Sulate Of The Sea) was held in high repute in the Levant, directed on her return that a record should be made of the judgments of the maritime court of the island of Oleron (at that time a peculiar court of the duchy of Guienne), in order that they might serve as law amongst the mariners of the Western Sea. He states further that Richard I. of England, on his return from the Holy Land, brought back with him a roll of those judgments, which he published in England and ordained to be observed as law. Though R. G. Marsden doubts the story of Richard I. having brought back La Leye Olyroun to England, the general outline of Cleirac's account accords with a memorandum on the famous roll of 12 Edw. III., De Superioritate Maris Angliae "(for many years preserved in the archives of the Tower of London, now deposited in the Public Record Office). According to this memorandum, the king's justiciaries were instructed to declare and uphold the laws and statutes made by the kings of England, in order to maintain peace and justice amongst the people of every nation passing through the sea of England.

The earliest version of these Oleron sea laws comprised certain customs of the sea which were observed in the wine and the oil trade, as carried on between the ports of Guienne and those of Brittany, Normandy, England and Flanders. No English translation seems to have been made before the Rutter of the Sea, printed in London by Thomas Petyt in 1536, in which they are styled" the Lawes of ye Yle of Auleron and ye Judgementes of ye See."French was, in fact, a tongue familiar to the English high court of admiralty down to the reign of Henry VI. A Flemish text, however, appears to have been made in the latter part of the 14th century, the Purple Book of Bruges, preserved in the archives of Bruges, in a handwriting somewhat later than that of the Liber Memorandorum. Prefixed to this Flemish version is the title," Dit es de Coppie van den Rollen van Oleron van den Vonnesse van der Zee."Certain changes, however, have been made in the Purple Book of Bruges in the names of the ports mentioned in the original Gascon text. For instance, Sluys is in several places substituted for Bordeaux, just as in the Rutter of the Sea London replaces Bordeaux. That these sea laws were administered in the Flemish maritime courts may be inferred from two facts. First, a Flemish translation of them was made for the use of the maritime tribunal of Damme, which was the chief Flemish entrepot of the wine trade in the 13th century. The text of this translation has been published by Adriaen Verwer under the title of the Judgments of Damme. In the second place, there is preserved in the archives of the senate of Danzig, where there was a maritime court of old, an early manuscript of the 5th century, containing a Flemish reproduction of the Judgments of Oleron headed" Dit is Twater Recht in Vlaenderen."So far there can be no doubt that the Judgments of Oleron were received as sea laws in Flanders as well as in England in the 14th century. Further inquiry can trace them as they followed the course of the wine trade in the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. Boxhorn, in his Chronyk van Zeelande, has published a Dutch version of them, which van Leeuwen has reproduced in his Batavia Illustrata, under the title of the Laws of West-Capell in Zealand. Verwer has also published a Dutch text of them in his Nederlant's See-Rechten, accompanied by certain customs of Amsterdam, of which other MSS. exist, in which those customs are described as usages of Stavoren, or as usages of Enkhuizen, both ports of active commerce in the 15th century. Of these customs of Amsterdam, or, as they were more generally styled," Ordinances of Amsterdam,"further mention is made below.

A new and enlarged collection of sea laws, purporting to be an extract of the ancient laws of Oleron, made its appearance in the latter part of the 15th century in Le Grant routier de la mer, printed at Poitiers in France by Jan de Marnef, at the sign of the Pelican. The title-page is without a date, but the dedication, which purports to be addressed by its author, Pierre Garcie, alias Ferrande, to his godson, is dated from St Gilles on the last day of May 1483. It contains forty-seven articles, of which the first twenty-two are identical with articles of the" Judgments of the Sea,"in the Liber Memorandorum, the remaining articles being evidently of more recent origin. A black-letter edition of this work in French, without a date, is preserved in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, and to the last article this colophon is appended: ' ` Ces choses precedentes sont extraictes du tres utille et profittable Roolle Doloyron par le dict Pierre Garcie alias Ferrande." An English translation is printed in the appendix to A View of the Admiral Jurisdiction, published in 1661 by Dr John Godolphin, in which the laws are described as "an Extract of the Ancient Laws of Oleron rendered into English out of Garsias alias Ferrand." Although this new text had the recommendation of an advocate who had filled the office of judge of the Admiralty Court during the Commonwealth and been appointed king's advocate-general by Charles II., it seems to have been superseded in a short time by Cleirac's Us et coustumes de la mer, to which was appended the following clause of authentication: "Tesmoin le Seel de 1'Isle d'Oleron, estably aux contracts de la dite Isle, le jour du Mardy apres la Feste Sainct Andre l'an mille deux cens soixant-six." Cleirac does not inform us from what source or under what circumstances he procured his text, nor on what authority he has adopted in certain articles readings at variance with those of Garcie, whilst he retains the same number of articles, to wit, forty-seven. The clause of authentication cannot be accepted as a warranty above suspicion, as the identical clause of authentication with the same date is appended to the early Norman and Breton versions of the rolls, which contain only twenty-six articles. Cleirac's version, however, owing probably to the superior style in which it was edited, and to the importance of the other treatises on maritime matters which Cleirac had brought together for the first time in a single volume, seems to have obtained a preference in England over Garcie's text, as it was received in the High Court of Admiralty during the judgeship of Sir Leoline Jenkyns, and an English translation of it was introduced into the English translation of the Black Book of the Admiralty made by John Bedford, the deputy registrar of the High Court. It seems to have been Bedford's intention to print this translation under the title of "Sea Laws"; but the manuscript passed into the hands of Sir Leoline Jenkyns, who gave it to the College of Advocates in 1685. The Black Book itself, which was missing for a long time from the Admiralty registry, was discovered in the 1gth century and replaced in the archives of the Admiralty Court. Of these two versions of the sea laws of Oleron the earlier obtained a world-wide reception, for it was translated into Castilian (Fuero de Layron) by order of King Alphonso X., and a Gascon text of it is still preserved in the archives of Leghorn, apparently in a handwriting of the 15th century, entitled "Asso es la copia deus Rolles de Leron de jucgemens de mar." The parent stock of the Visby sea laws would appear to have been a code preserved in the chancery of Lubeck, drawn up in the Old Saxon tongue, and dated 1240. This code contains amongst many others certain articles on maritime law which are identical with articles in the Gotland sea laws. This collection comprises sixty-six articles, and it is now placed beyond a doubt by modern researches, especially of Professor Schlyter of Lund, that these Gotland sea laws are a compilation derived from three distinct sources - a Lubeck, an Oleron and an Amsterdam source. A Saxon or Low German text of this collection was printed for the first time in 1505 at Copenhagen by Godfrey de Gemen, a native of Gouda in Holland, who is reputed to have set up the earliest printing-press in Copenhagen. This print has no title-page, and in this respect resembles the earliest known print of The Consulate of the Sea; but upon a blank leaf, which occupies the place of a frontispiece in one of two copies of Godfrey de Gemen's text, both preserved in the royal library at Copenhagen, there has been inserted with a pen in alternate lines of black and red ink the title "Dat hogheste Gotlansche Water-Recht gedrucket to Koppenhaven Anno Domini M.D.V,," and there has also been inserted on the first page of the text the introductory title "Her beghynt dat hogheste Water-Recht" (here begins the supreme sea law). Professor Schlyter discovered a MS. (No. 3123) in the royal library at Copenhagen, which is written on parchment in a hand of the 15th century, and from which it seems probable that Godfrey de Gemen mainly derived his text, as it comprises the same number of articles, containing the same matter arranged in the same order, with this minor difference, that, whilst both the MS. and the print have the simple title "Water-Recht" prefixed to the first article, the MS. has also a similar title prefixed to the fifteenth. Further, as this article, together with those that follow it in the MS. appears to be in a handwriting different from that of the articles that precede, the fifteenth article may justly be considered as the first of a distinct series, more particularly as they are numbered in Roman characters, beginning with § 1, and such characters are continued with a single interruption down to the end of the MS. Although, however, the numeration of the articles of this second series is continuous and the handwriting of the MS. from the fifteenth to the sixty-sixth article is unchanged, the text of the series is not continuous, as the fortieth article commences with an introductory clause - "This is the ordinance which the skippers and merchants have resolved amongst themselves as ship law." There is no difficulty in recognizing the first division of this second series of sea laws as a Low German version of the Judgments of Oleron, transmitted most probably through a Flemish text. This hypothesis would account for the substitution in several articles of Sluys for Bordeaux. On the other hand, the introductory clause which ushers in the fortieth article is identical with the title that is generally prefixed to MSS. of the maritime Ordinances of Amsterdam, and the text of this and of the following articles down to the sixty-fifth inclusive is evidently of Dutch origin and more or less identical with Verwer's text of the usages of Amsterdam. M. Pardessus, in his valuable Collection de lois maritimes, published in Paris before Professor Schlyter made known the result of his researches, justly remarked that the provisions of several articles of this last division of the sea laws are inconsistent with the theory that they originated at Visby. It may be observed that the sixty-sixth article of the MS. is a Lubeck law identical with the first article of the first series, which is of Lubeck origin. No colophon is appended to this final article in the MS. Nevertheless, Godfrey de Gemen's edition of 1505, which breaks off in the middle of the sixty-sixth article of the MS., has the following colophon: "Here end the Gotland sea laws, which the community of merchants and skippers have ordained and made at Visby, that all men may regulate themselves by them. Printed at Copenhagen, A.D. M.D.V." The question naturally suggests itself, To what MS. was Godfrey de Gemen indebted for this colophon, or is the alternative more probable that he devised it ? There is no known MS. of this collection of an earlier date to which an appeal can be made as an authority for this colophon; on the contrary, the only known MSS. of which the date is earlier than Godfrey de Gemen's print, both of which are in the library of the university of Copenhagen, are without this colophon, and one of them, which purports to have been completed at Nykoping on the Eve of the Visitation of the Virgin in 1494, concludes with a colophon which precludes all idea that anything has been omitted by the scribe, viz., "Here ends this book, and may God send us His grace, Amen." We are disposed to think that Gemen himself devised this colophon. He was engaged in printing for the first time other collections of laws for the Danish government, and, as Gotland was at that time a possession of Denmark, he may have thus distinguished the sea laws from another collection, namely, of land laws. Professor Schlyter, however, believes Gemen may have borrowed it from a MS. which is lost, or at all events is not known. There is some support to this view in the fact that in the archives of the guildhall of Lubeck there is preserved a MS. of 1533 which contains a Low German version of the same collection of sea laws, with a rubric prefixed to the first article announcing them to be "the water law or sea law, which is the oldest and highest law of Visby," and there are good reasons for supposing that the scribe of this MS. copied his text from a MS. other than the Copenhagen MS. The same observation will apply to a second MS. of a similar character preserved in the library of the gymnasium of Lubeck, which purports to have been written in 1537. But as regards the Visby sea laws little reliance can be placed on such rubrics or colophons as proofs of the facts recited in them, though they may be valuable as evidence of the reputed origin of the sea laws at the time when the scribe completed the MS. In illustration of this view it may be stated that in the same year in which the more recent of these two MSS. purports to have been completed - namely 1 537 - there was printed at Lfibeck an enlarged edition of the sea laws consisting of seventy-two articles, being a Low German translation of a Dutch text, in which six additional Dutch laws had been inserted which are not found in the Copenhagen MS., nor have a place in Gemen's text, yet to this edition is prefixed the title, "This is the highest and oldest sea law, which the community of merchants and shipmasters have ordained and made at Visby, that all persons who would be secure may regulate themselves by it." Further, it has an introductory clause to its thirty-seventh article - "This is the ordinance which the community of skippers and merchants have resolved upon amongst themselves as ship law, which the men of Zeeland, Holland, Flanders hold, and with the law of Visby, which is the oldest ship law." At the end of the seventy-second article there follows this colophon: "Here ends the Gotland sea law, which the community of merchants and mariners have ordained and made at Visby, that each may regulate himself by it. All honour be to God, Mdxxxvii." Each article of this edition has prefixed to it after its particular number the word "belevinge" (judgment). It would thus appear that the Visby sea laws have fared like the Oleron sea laws: they have gathered bulk with increasing years.

The question remains to be answered, How did this collection of sea laws acquire the title of the "Visby sea laws" outside the Baltic ? for under such title they were received in Scotland in the 16th century, as may be inferred from extracts from them cited in Sir James Balfour's System of the more Ancient Laws of Scotland, which, although not printed till 1754, was completed before his death in 1583. The text of the Visby sea laws generally current in England is an English translation of a French text which Cleirac published in 1641 in his Us et coustumes de la mer, and is an abbreviated, and in many respects mutilated, version of the original sea laws. This inquiry, however, would open a new chapter on the subject of the northern sea laws, and the civilizing influence which the merchants of Visby exercised in the 13th century through their factories at Novgorod, linking thereby the trade of the Baltic to that of the Black Sea. (T. T.) See Pardessus, Collection de lois maritimes anterieures au X VII10 siecle (6 vols., Paris, 1828-1845); Schlyter, Wisby Stadslag och Sjorcitt, being vol. viii. of the Cor¢us Juris Sueco-Gotorum Antiqui (Lund, 1853); and The Black Book of the Admiralty, ed. by Sir Travers Twiss (4 vols., London, 1871-1876). An exhaustively critical edition of the Rhodian sea law (given in vol. i. of Pardessus) by W. Ashburner, appeared in 1909 (Oxford, University Press). It contains valuable material not only on the Rhodian sea law, but on the various other sea laws in force on the Mediterranean coast.

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