It is only since the 15th century, that Lady Justice has been commonly depicted wearing a blindfold. The blindfold signifies objectivity, the idea that justice should be doled out without fear or favour, regardless of wealth, fame, power, or identity.
King Aethelbert of Kent’s code of laws are the earliest set of written laws of any of the new Germanic kingdoms of post-Roman Europe. On first reading they appear to be concerned not with upholding moral norms but with providing a tariff of compensations. The code sets out the cost of reparations in instances of wounded honour and physical injury setting out a price for homicide but also to grievous bodily harm ranging from seizing your enemy by his hair, to gouging out his eyes or extracting the nail from his big toe.
In contrast to modern ideals of justice seventh century Kent was a society that believed in unequal rights. Thus the king’s fatted calf might be deemed more valuable than a man’s life depending on his class, whether he was free or half free or a slave. Compensation for injuries was calculated strictly according to a man’s worth or ‘wergeld’.
The clauses relating to women apply the same principles. Women could be abducted forcibly or to escape an arranged marriage but either way cash payments are required in settlement. If she was a slave 50 shillings should be paid to her owner in compensation, if betrothed ‘at a price’ to another man 20 shillings would be payable. If the woman is returned the abductor would be fined 35 shillings with another 15 shillings payable to the King. A different tariff applied to abducted widows.
Clause 31 has been criticised as regulating the practice of ‘wife-purchase’. However there are alternative interpretations. For instance, the argument that getting married was expensive because it was in the interests of women for this to be so. Grooms were required to make a morning gift ‘morgengifu’ of money or land and this was not a way of buying a woman but endowing her. The morgengifu was hers to keep and to dispose of as she chose, affording her a degree of security. If she were to leave her husband for another it was reasonable to expect that the new lover should ensure that the first husband could afford to take another bride.
Actually in marriage and divorce there appears to have been equality between men and women. In Aethelbert’s code the woman who chose to end her marriage faced no legal obstacles. She was free to do so without grounds and take half the goods and all the children with her.
The Welsh laws of Hywel Dda (a tenth century king) pay more detailed attention to equity in divorce settlements. If a marriage breaks up within seven years without good reason (good reason includes leprosy, impotence and smelly breath) the woman receives a fixed sum.
After seven years it is deemed right for the pair to share everything in ‘two halves’. The man keeps the pigs, the woman the sheep. The eldest and youngest son stay with the father and the middle son goes to the mother. All milking vessels but one pail go to the women. The drinking vessels go to the man. The man gets the hens and one cat and the woman gets the wool, flax and linseed and any opened vessels of butter and cheese. She is free to take as much flour as she can bodily carry. The bedclothes which were ‘over them’ belong to the woman and those ‘under them’ belong to the man until he takes another wife. Thenceforth they belong to the woman and if the new wife sleeps on them she must pay the first wife her ‘wynebwerth’ which translates literally as face-shame.
Source; Leyser, H. (1995) Medieval Women: A social history of women in England, 450-1500.
If changing judges changes law, then it is not clear what law is.