Seminar LXXXII: tiny laws and constraining categories

The lecture that had swallowed me is done and so I can tackle some backlog. In order to make some ground I’m going to reluctantly skip over two Oxford papers I went to about which, for one reason or another, I just don’t have anything useful to say,1 and skip straight on to Tom Faulkner presenting at the Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages Seminar on 26th January 2011, with the title “Peoples and Legal Practice in the Carolingian Minor Law-Codes”. Now, I dithered about skipping this one too, not because it wasn’t fascinating, but because again Magistra et Mater has got in ahead of me and covered it excellently already. But there remain a point or two that it’s still worth drawing out. You may want to read her post first, though, because she’s done a better job of explaining what the paper was actually about than I’m going to have time to do.

Opening of a 793 copy of the Lex Salica

Opening of a 793 copy of the Lex Salica, says the originating website

In 802 a couple of Carolingian sources record that Charlemagne had all the ‘laws of the nations’ in his empire written down and thus fixed.2 And we have a number of texts of such laws, the most obvious one being the Law of the Salian Franks or Salic Law, but also the Laws of the Burgundians, Laws of the Lombards, Laws of the Bavarians, and so on (and of course the Law of the Goths, which is different, not least because it’s actually called the Forum of the Judges—that is, it’s not ethnic in its presentation).3 Some of these things had been out there for a long time but that endeavour of 802 probably has a lot to do with the state of the current texts, Goths aside, not least because recent work by such as Christina Pössel is emphasising how new some of the apparently ‘ancient’ practices in the Salic Law might have been. But if so, there are some weirdnesses to tackle. There had been no independent Burgundian kingdom for nearly three hundred years by this time. Who called themselves a Burgundian any more and on what could that claim rest? And similar problems arise for texts Tom was talking about, not least the Ripuarian Franks, a group who appear in basically no sources other than this law. Ripuaria as an area does occasionally get mentioned, but it’s a pagus, not a regnum, a district not a kingdom. Tom argued that really, it might be little more than the territory of the see of Cologne. But this lawcode of a basically illusory people is one of the more copied ones of the group, perhaps just because it had useful stuff which could be raided for means with which to make decisions in the very (very!) few cases where we have reasons to suppose such lawcodes were actually used, rather than just stored up as tokens of nationality.

Map showing probable location of Amor

Map showing probable location of Amor

Such dilemmas get even more pronged when dealing with a text called the Ewa ad Amorem. This is a very different sort of law text, though it has been associated with this big endeavour: Tom laid it out for us and it seems pretty clearly like a set of rules being agreed in a community for how they’re going to handle various affairs, like land sales and thefts. It seems to relate to a little place in Frisia called Amor, and it is extensively referential to other codes (which is nice, because, as Tom had pointed out, Lex ribuaria actually quotes modified Salic law quite a lot too) and peoples, so that you get frankly unhelpful statements like: “… about ecclesiastical affairs and about the servants of God who serve there, we have the same, as the Franks have.” Which Franks? Salic, Ribuarian or real? And so on. Although Levi Roach found parallels in Anglo-Saxon laws (some of which are actually usually called treaties) and someone else in Venetian treaties with foreign powers, the whole thing put me in mind of nothing so much as Spanish fueros, which were civil law codes constructed for new towns in the frontier zones, by the locals in agreement with the king. The counts of Catalonia do the same sort of thing sometimes, too. A central authority and its rights are recognised, but the actual day-to-day stuff is left local, and the implication there is that that’s because they’re rather on their own and central help and involvement will be hard to come by. In that last respect, though, Ewa ad Amorem is different; it’s clear from a reading that this code has become necessary precisely because king’s officers, counts and so on have been in the area a lot and there are problems making this mesh with the local way of doing things, not least because until this was written probably there was limited agreement on what that way was. So, though Tom didn’t really make much of this point, this little code is more interesting to me than the big ones because it seems to have the same sort of ad hoc necessity as some of the capitularies, and may show us how being on the more-or-less-willingly receiving end of Carolingian administrative reform worked out in practice.

A folio of the Capitulare de Villis, from Wikimedia Commons

A folio of the Capitulare de Villis, from Wikimedia Commons

More could be done with this, but only if we spread the categories we have for Carolingian law more thoroughly away from the binary of codes and capitularies (or proscriptive and responsive, ethnic and royal, regional and central… always with the diads, as Susan Reynolds has observed, when triads (or arrays!) might be more helpful) into something a bit more slippery. As Susan herself said, it’s not that there are no categories that work for this: all these things are sets of rules, of some sort, but putting them into a particular ‘sort’ has often distorted our subsequent thinking about them. And we have the same problem with a lot of other categories in this area: the capitularies themselves are so-called solely because they are arranged in headings, capitula (chapters, capitals…). They cover an immense range of topics, however, and are in form anything from minutes of meetings or even agendas for meetings that maybe didn’t happen through case-law being worked out into general knowledge to grand-scale moral state-of-the-empire preaching addresses.4 Not even the process is the same here and a different word or words for some of them might help us think. And even I could adjust: `charter’ is a good catch-all for the documents I want to study but only with exactly the right definition.5 But my category covers sales, donations, wills, securities, homage agreements, pledges, manumissions and basically most stuff, and people have put a lot of work into worrying if these things all work the same way and much of it has made useful distinctions.6 So Tom deserves all credit for making what could have been a dry and technical field accessible an of lively interest to an audience many of whom specialise in other things, but he has also given me some useful tools with which to try and enlarge my own, er, toolbox. (Pity he didn’t give me some new metaphors too, right?)


1. Mark Williams, “Stormy Weather: divine women and the figure of sin in Aided Muirchertaig meic Erca“, Oxford Celtic Seminar, 20th January 2011, was as engaging and entertaining as Mark always is, where I’ve seen: he tells good stories about good stories. But aside from the fact that it is a good story, I really wouldn’t know what to say about the paper: it was all new to me. I probably can’t spell most of it, even. And Richard Allen, “Life before Lanfranc: the careers of three archbishops of Rouen, 942-1054/5″, Oxford Medieval History Seminar, 24th January 2011, was an expansion of the earlier paper of Richard’s I reported on last year and I don’t think I can think of anything extra to say this time round.

2. Specifically Einhard’s Vita Karoli and the Annals of Lorsch, the former of which is edited in the MGH and thus online here and more accessibly to the Anglolexic, at the cost of some appreciation of how cunning his Latin is I am told, and more on that later, by Lewis Thorpe in his Two Lives of Charlemagne: Einhard and Notker the Stammerer (Harmondsworth 1969, many reprints), and the latter edited by Ernst Katz in Georgius Heinricus Pertz (ed.), Monumenta Germaniae Historica inde ab anno Christi quingentesimo usque ad annum millesimum et quingentesimum: Scriptores tomus I (Hannover 1839), pp. 19-39, and mostly translated by P. D. King in his Charlemagne: translated sources (Lancaster 1987), pp. 137-145.

3. As well as the snippets from the Internet Medieval Sourcebook I’ve linked to above, most of these texts exist in some kind of translation, thus I know of: Katherine Fischer Drew (transl.), The Laws of the Salian Franks (Philadelphia 1991) and eadem (transl.), The Lombard Laws (Philadelphia 1996), though I also know that I somewhere read a review of the former by Patrick Wormald (in English Historical Review or Speculum I think, something I could hit by accident on JSTOR anyway) in which he said, roughly, “well, we’ve been needing a decent translation of the Salic Law for a long time and guess what, we still do”. Not a man to mince his words, dear Mr Wormald. There’s also Theodore John Rivers (transl.), The Laws of the Salian and Ripuarian Franks (New York City 1986), which I guess didn’t meet his exacting taste either. Still plenty more to do though. For the Goths, there’s S. P. Scott (transl.), The Visigothic Code (New York City 1910, 2nd. edn. 1922), online here. The Latin of all these texts and more is edited in the various volumes of the MGH’s Leges series. On how the Visigothic Law survives in this period, you can see Roger Collins, “‘Sicut lex Gothorum continet‘: law and charters in ninth- and tenth-century León and Catalonia” in English Historical Review Vol. 100 (London 1985), pp. 489-512, & idem, “Visigothic Law and Regional Diversity in Disputes in Early Medieval Spain” in Wendy Davies & Paul Fouracre (eds), The Settlement of Disputes in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge 1986), pp. 85-104, both of which are reprinted in R. Collins, Law, Culture and Regionalism in Early Medieval Spain, Variorum Collected Studies 356 (Aldershot 1992), V & VI respectively, but now also Jeffrey A. Bowman, Shifting Landmarks: Property, Proof, and Dispute in Catalonia around the Year 1000, Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past (Ithaca 2004), pp. 33-55.

4. Best now approached via Rosamond McKitterick, The Carolingians and the Written word (Cambridge 1989), pp. 23-37, and now Christina Pössel, “Authors and Recipients of Carolingian Capitularies, 779-829″ in Richard Corradini, Rob Meens, Pössel & Peter Shaw (edd.), Texts and Identities in the Early Middle Ages, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 12, Denkschriften der phil.-hist. Klasse 344 (Wien 2008), pp. 253-274.

5. And that definition is: “A document constructed as if for public reference, by which one party affirms the rights of another”, for which if you like you can quote J. Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished Ph.D. thesis (University of London 2005), p. 27. I think it’s the only one that works.

6. Not least of course Wendy Davies, Acts of Giving: Individual, Community, and Church in Tenth-Century Christian Spain (Oxford 2007), which deliberately covers only one sort of document and is really interesting about it.

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3 responses to “Seminar LXXXII: tiny laws and constraining categories

  1. Jon, the Wormald review of Drew’s ‘translation’ of the PLS (the one that starts ‘is Lex Salica cursed?’) is in one of the very first volumes of EME.

  2. Pingback: Seminar XLIV: going to law in post-Visigothic Spain « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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