The Laws of Oléron

Articles 1-3 of the Laws of Oléron in BL Cotton Vespasian. B. xxii, f. 25. From Monumenta Juridica: The Black Book of the Admiralty, vol. I, ed. T. Twiss, Rolls Series 55 (1871), frontispiece.

Variously titled in the extant manuscripts as the “Judgements of the Sea” or the “Customs,” “Rolls,” or “Laws” of Oléron, this compilation of customs based on past practices formed the basis of maritime dispute settlement in the British Isles and much of north-western Europe in the Middle Ages. Many of the Laws can be traced back to the ancient Rhodian sea law of the Mediterranean, but they survive as judgments in the court of Oléron, an island near La Rochelle that was once in English hands. Scholars have long debated the origins of the Laws, but most accept that the twelfth-century acquisition of Aquitaine by England was influential since it stimulated maritime trade along the Atlantic coast, especially in Gascon wine, which the Laws often referenced. Studer (see below) presents strong linguistic evidence that the Laws likely originated in southern France but were later translated into Anglo-Norman, versions that circulated in English ports. There remains some disagreement about which of the English versions is the oldest. The Laws were cited in the courts of port towns and recognized as authoritative by the English and French governments during the second half of the thirteenth century. The first extant manuscripts were produced in England in the early fourteenth century in Anglo-French; by the mid-fourteenth century, the Laws had been translated into Flemish (some claim the Flemish translation was even earlier), and by the late fourteenth century, they appeared in a Scots translation. The original version included 24 articles, later expanded to 35 articles and still later to 47 or more. 

The following lists the main editions and translations of the Laws of Oléron used in medieval Britain. 

Monumenta Juridica, The Black Book of the Admiralty, ed. Travers Twiss, Rolls Series 55, 4 vols. (London, 1871-76). The Black Book was compiled from laws and inquisitions dealing with the responsibilities and privileges of the English admirals and used as the basis of Admiralty court jurisdiction well into the modern period. The first complete copy (TNA HCA 12/1) is dated c. 1450, but many parts of the text (such as the Laws of Oléron) survive in earlier or later manuscripts that were used by Twiss (see I, lxxvii-lxxxii; IV, cxli-cxliii) since he did not recover the original copy until after he had produced vols. 1-2. Unfortunately, he used an eighteenth-century transcript of the Black Book for his version of the Laws (I, 88-131), while his accompanying English translation came from The Rutter of the Sea, which was actually a translation of the Breton and Norman versions of the Laws, not the Anglo-Norman version circulating in England. For other problems with his edition, see the entry for Monumenta Juridica on the Admiralty courts page. The sections dealing with the Laws are as follows. 

  • The Judgementes of the See” (I, 88-131). Later, enlarged version of the Laws with 35 articles, included among the texts of the original Black Book of the Admiralty. Reproduces the Anglo-Norman text with a facing-page (Middle) English translation taken by Twiss from Thomas Petyit, The Rutter of the See, printed in 1536. Extensive notes include comparisons between different manuscripts of the Laws. 
  • The Customs of Oleron and the Judgements of the Sea,” (II, 210-241). The original fifteenth-century text (BL Add. Ms. 20,246) is Old French but with elements of Gascon. Includes a facing-page English translation with extensive notes comparing this text to the one in London’s Liber Memorandum and another Gascon version now in Leghorn (Italy).  
  • The Manner How the Maysters of Vessels and Merchaunts and Other Mariner Companions Ought to Rule and Govern Themselves by the Judgement of the See and the Rolle of Olayron,” (II, 432-481). Taken from the first printed text of the enlarged version of the Laws in Pierre Garcie, Le Grand Routier de Mer, compiled c. 1483. Original French text with facing-page (Middle) English translation and notes. 
  • The Charter of Oleroun of the Judgements of the Sea” (III, 1-33). From a manuscript of 1311 called the Liber Horn, which once belonged to Andrew Horn, a London fishmonger, lawyer, and city chamberlain An Anglo-Norman manuscript, which reproduces the first 24 articles of the Laws. Twiss collates it with the Laws that appear in the Liber Memorandum of the city of London (ff. 103b-110b), which Twiss claims is the oldest surviving text of the Laws. The Liber Memorandum text is identical to that in the Liber Horn and Bodleian Ms. Rawlinson, B. 356, except it lacks the later corrections inserted in the last two versions.  
  • For commentary and discussion of the precedents, see I, lvi-lxxviii; II, xlvii-lix, lxxviii-xxi; III, ix-xx. 

The Charter of Oleron, or the Laws of the Sea,” The Oak Book of Southampton of c. A. D. 1300, vol. 2, ed. P. Studer, Southampton Record Society 11 (Southampton, 1911), 54-103. An Anglo-Norman version dating to the mid-fourteenth century that contains the original 24 articles and one more about pilots. Studer’s extensive introduction offers a detailed discussion of conflicting views of the Laws of Oléron and his evidence that two families of manuscripts came out of the (now lost) original Gascon version (xxxix-lxxi). See also his “The MSS of the Rolls of Oleron” (xlii-xlvii). “The Text of the Laws of Oleron,” in Dorothy Burwash, English Merchant Shipping 1460-1540 (Toronto, 1947), 171-76, points out the problems with the edition and translation done by Twiss and shows where corruption crept into manuscripts that Studer considered most reliable.  

“Transcription and Translation of the MS Liber Horn Copy of the Lex d’Oleron,” in Robin Ward, The World of the Medieval Shipmaster: Law, Business and the Sea, c. 1350-1450 (Woodbridge, 2009), 183-205. Accompanied by extensive notes pointing out important variants between the text in Liber Horn and eight other manuscripts, and variants identified by Krieger (see below). The translated articles are accompanied by interpretative comments. See also “A Partial Transcription and Translation of Les Bon Usages et les Bonnes Costumes et les Bons Jugemenz de la Commune D’Oleron” (pp. 219-28), which draws on Bémont (see below) in offering a corrected original and translation of Twiss’ edition of passages in the Coutumier regarding maritime matters. 

Roules de Oleroun des Iugementz et des Estatutz de la Myer” is noted but not transcribed in The Little Red Book of Bristol, vol. I, ed. F. B. Bickley (Bristol and London, 1900), 88. The manuscript dates to the fourteenth century; it was not collated by Twiss or Studer but was consulted by Krieger (below).  When it was collated with a list of Studer’s variants (M. E. Basile, J. F. Bestor, D. R. Coquilletter and C. Donahue, Lex Mercatoria and Legal Pluralism: A Late Thirteenth-Century Treatise and Its Aferlife (Cambridge, MA: Ames Foundation, 1998), 211-12), the editors concluded that the Bristol version was a version of Studer’s beta I and therefore as early a text of the Laws as the versions in the Oak Book of Southampton and Bodleian MS 462.

K-F. Krieger, Ursprung und Wurzeln der Rôles de Oléron, Quellen und Darstellungen zur hansischen Geschichte n. F., 15 (Köln, 1970). Detailed analysis of the early print editions and 27 manuscript versions of the Laws. Krieger thinks that the Laws were assembled in England in the 1280s via a private initiative rather than as an institutional project since there is evidence it was being used in city courts by that time. He provides (pp. 122-45) a diplomatic edition of the original 24 clauses in the Anglo-Norman text of the Laws in the Liber Horn, which he considers the earliest version, with a German translation in facing columns. 

J. Shephard, “Les Origines des Rôles d’Oléron,” (Unpublished M.A. thesis, Department of History, University of Poitiers, 1983) and “Les Rôles d’Oléron: Étude des Manuscrits et Ėdition du Texte” (unpublished D.E.A. thesis, Department of History, University of Poitiers, 1985). He suggests that the Laws were composed c. 1190-126. His edition is based on 30 manuscripts (as cited in Hale and Fleetwood on Admiralty Jurisdiction, ed. M. J. Prichard and D.E.C. Yale, Selden Society vol. 108 (London, 1993), pp. xxxv-vi, n. 7).  

“Les bons usages et les bonnes costumes et les bons jugemenz de la commune de l’Oleron,” Le Coutumier de l’Ile d’Oléron, ed. C. Bémont (Paris, 1919). A fourteenth-century manuscript in the Oléronais dialect that includes many chapters relating to the Laws of Oléron but which probably pre-date the Laws; it is reproduced with a translation by Twiss (Black Book, II, 254-401) and, more recently, in Le Coutumier d’Oléron, ed. J. H. Williston. (Poitiers, 1992). 

Rooles ou Jugemens d’Oléron,” in M. Pardessus, Collection de lois maritimes antérieures aux XVIIIe siècle, 6 vols. (Paris, 1828-45), I, 322- 54. Consulted five manuscripts, including BL Cotton Ms. Nero A. VI, dated to the mid-fourteenth century; Bodleian Ms. 462, of the early fourteenth century; and Ms. Leghorn, written in Gascon dialect in the fifteenth century in providing an edition of the Laws along with a modern French translation. The edition includes later ordinances, for a total of 56. His work is the departure point for most modern studies of the Laws, although some of his views and readings have been corrected by later scholars. 

Edda Frankot, “The Scottish Translations of the Rôles d’Oléron: Edition and Commentary”, in Miscellany Eight, ed. A. M. Godfrey, Stair Society vol. 67 (Edinburgh, 2020), pp. 13–56. Frankot provides a critical edition based on fifteen surviving manuscripts. For each of the original 24 articles, she provides the Scots translation (with important variants noted), a comment summarizing and explaining the original French article in English, and a comment on the Scots translation.