The Punishment Fits the Crime: Ownership, Gift-Giving, and Theft in Anglo-Saxon England

Date of Award


Degree Name

Master of Arts


Medieval Studies

First Advisor

Dr. Jana K. Schulman

Second Advisor

Dr. Robert Berkhofer

Third Advisor

Paul E. Szarmach

Access Setting

Masters Thesis-Abstract Only


From the calls for the execution of thieves in the Anglo-Saxon laws to the thrall's fateful pilfering of the dragon's cup in Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon textual corpus is far from silent on the problem and consequences of theft. The fact that theft is both the most frequently mentioned crime in the laws and one of the few punishable by death forces us to question the impact of illegal taking in Anglo-Saxon culture. Drawing on legal and literary evidence, including heroic and didactic poetry and homiletic texts, this study offers an explanation for the Anglo-Saxon preoccupation with theft. I argue that the severe punishment of thieves in the Anglo-Saxon laws is the direct result of the cultural weight of theft's two-fold opposite: ownership and gift-giving.

In a material culture such as that of Anglo-Saxon England, the right to possess an object affords one both economic power-that is, to use, trade, or barter one's possessions-as well as social potential-that is, to give away goods as gifts and thus establish a bond with the receiver. By removing goods without the owner's consent, the thief jeopardizes the owner's prerogatives and thereby commits an offense serious enough to warrant his death. The laws of the Anglo-Saxons demonstrate, the importance of ownership to both king and commoner alike by allowing and even encouraging the execution of thieves throughout the Anglo-Saxon period.

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