Replacing Rome, Part I: The Law of the Salian Franks
When the Roman Empire collapsed, society persisted and new regimes thrived. Europe quickly became a patchwork of new and competing socio‐political orders.
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
As the Western Roman Empire dissolved throughout the fourth and fifth centuries, waves of Germanic (“barbarian”) migrants established a slew of kingdoms along the old frontier. From Britain in the far north, to Iberia in the south, and across the central and eastern European plains, warlords and chieftains seized legitimacy and power from Roman municipalities. In the Empire’s place, these budding feudal lords erected a new, vibrant, syncretic civilization. In the early sixth century, Clovis, the first king of all the Frankish peoples, compiled the first written records of Germanic law. The “Salic Law,” or “Law of the Salian Franks” changed over the centuries to reflect changing circumstances, but perhaps most importantly, it was joined by a wide variety of competing European legal orders. As the migratory Germanic chiefdoms transformed into settled states of their own, each kingdom established its own legal order. As a result, Western civilization became marked by a patchwork of interrelated, often‐overlapping, and competitive institutions, each reflecting the particularity of specific sections of the European population. It is fitting, therefore, that our first investigation of medieval Germanic legal codes be that of the Salian Franks. We will, in turn, then look to Visigothic Spain and Christian Ireland.
The titles included in the selection below speak overwhelmingly to the importance of compensatory justice in early Germanic life. Virtually every offense seems to have been assigned an appropriate price for compensation, and the lawgiver legislates in almost excruciating detail. The Salic Law enshrines the special social statuses of the king, freemen, men, and Franks. Crimes committed (in any sense) against the king carried far larger fines than those committed against other Franks, and Franks themselves enjoyed similar privileges compared to Romans (or other “barbarians”) living under Frankish rule. Significant, too, were the rules established for the generational transfer of property and title. While the Salic Law allowed women to inherit “moveable” property, it specifically forbade female inheritance of land, reserving the male sex an absolute monopoly of land.
[first compiled ca. 500 ce]
The Law of the Salian Franks
Title I. Concerning Summonses
If any one be summoned before the “Thing” by the king’s law, and do not come, he shall be sentenced to 600 denars, which make 15 shillings (solidi).
But he who summons another, and does not come himself, shall, if a lawful impediment have not delayed him, be sentenced to 15 shillings, to be paid to him whom he summoned.
Title III. Concerning Thefts of Cattle
If any one steal that bull which rules the herd and never has been yoked, he shall be sentenced to 1800 denars, which make 45 shillings.
But if that bull is used for the cows of three villages in common, he who stole him shall be sentenced to three times 45 shillings.
If any one steal a bull belonging to the king he shall be sentenced to 3600 denars, which make 90 shillings.
Title XI Concerning Thefts or Housebreakings of Freemen
If any freeman steal, outside of the house, something worth 2 denars, he shall be sentenced to 600 denars, which make 15 shillings.
But if he steal, outside of the house, something worth 40 denars, and it be proved on him, he shall be sentenced, besides the amount and the fines for delay, to 1400 denars, which make 35 shillings.
If a freeman break into a house and steal something worth 2 denars, and it be proved on him, he shall be sentenced to 15 shillings.
But if he shall have stolen something worth more than 5 denars, and it have been proved on him, he shall be sentenced, besides the worth of the object and the fines for delay, to 1400 denars, which make 35 shillings.
But if he have broken, or tampered with, the lock, and thus have entered the house and stolen anything from it, he shall be sentenced, besides the worth of the object and the fines for delay, to 1800 denars, which make 45 shillings.
And if he have taken nothing, or have escaped by flight, he shall, for the housebreaking alone, be sentenced to 1200 denars, which make 30 shillings.
Title XIII. Concerning Rape Committed by Freemen
If three men car off a free born girl, they shall be compelled to pay 30 shillings.
If there are more than three, each one shall pay five shillings.
Those who shall have been present with boats shall be sentenced to three shillings.
But those who commit rape shall be compelled to pay 2500 denars, which make 63 shillings.
But if they have carried off that girl from behind lock and key, or from the spinning room, they shall be sentenced to the above price and penalty.
But if the girl who is carried off be under the king’s protection then the “firth” (peace‐money) shall be 2500 denars, which make 63 shillings.
Title XIV. Concerning Assault and Robbery
If any one have assaulted and plundered a freeman, and it be proved on him, he shall be sentenced to 2500 denars, which make 63 shillings.
If a Roman have plundered a Salian Frank, the above law shall be ordered.
But if a Frank have plundered a Roman, he shall be sentenced to 35 shillings.
If any man should wish to migrate, and have permission from the king, and shall have shown this in the public “Thing”: whoever, contrary to the decree of the king, shall presume to oppose him, shall be sentenced to 8000 denars, which make 200 shillings.
Title XVII. Concerning Wounds
If any one have wished to kill another person, and the blow have missed, he on whom it was proved shall be sentenced to 2500 denars, which make 63 shillings.
If any person have wished to strike another with a poisoned arrow, and the arrow have glanced aside, and it shall be proved on him: he shall be sentenced to 2500 denars, which make 63 shillings.
If any person strike another on the head so that the brain appears, and the three bones which lie above the brain shall project, he shall be sentenced to 1200 denars, which make 30 shillings.
But if it shall have been between the ribs or in the stomach, so that the wound appears and reaches to the entrails, he shall be sentenced to 1200 denars‐which make 30 shillings‐besides five shillings for the physician’s pay.
If any one shall have struck a man so that blood falls to the floor, and it be proved on him, he shall be sentenced to 600 denars, which make 15 shillings.
But if a freeman strike a freeman with his fist so that blood does not flow, he shall be sentenced for each blow‐up to 3 blows, to 120 denars, which make 3 shillings.
Title XXIV. Concerning the Killing of Little Children and Women
If any one have slain a boy under 10 years‐up to the end of the tenth‐and it shall have been proved on him, he shall be sentenced to 24000 denars, which make 600 shillings.
If any one have hit a free woman who is pregnant, and she dies, he shall be sentenced to 28000 denars, which makes 700 shillings.
If any one have killed a free woman after she has begun bearing children, he shall be sentenced to 24000 denars, which make 600 shillings.
After she can have no more children, he who kills her shall be sentenced to 8000 denars, which make 200 shillings.
Title XXX. Concerning Insults
If any one, man or woman, shall have called a woman harlot, and a not have been able to prove it, he shall be sentenced to 1800 denars, which make 45 shillings.
If any person shall have called another “fox,” he shall be sentenced to 3 shillings.
If any man shall have called another “hare,” he shall be sentenced to 3 shillings.
Title XLI. Concerning the Murder of Freemen
If any one shall have killed a free Frank, or a barbarian living under the Salic law, and it have been proved on him, he shall be sentenced to 8000 denars.
But if he shall have thrown him into a well or into the water, or shall have covered him with branches or anything else, to conceal him, he shall be sentenced to 24000 denars, which make 600 shillings.
But if any one has slain a man who is in the service of the king, he shall be sentenced to 24000 denars, which make 600 shillings.
But if he have put him in the water or in a well, and covered him with anything to conceal him, he shall be sentenced to 72000 denars, which make 1800 shillings.
If any one have slain a Roman who eats in the king’s palace, and it have been proved on him, he shall be sentenced to 12000 denars, which make 300 shillings.
But if the Roman shall not have been a landed proprietor and table companion of the king, he who killed him shall be sentenced to 4000 denars, which make 100 shillings.
Title LVII. Concerning the “Chrenecruda”
If any one have killed a man, and, having given up all his property, has not enough to comply with the full terms of the law, he shall present 12 sworn witnesses to the effect that, neither above the earth nor under it, has he any more property than he has already given, And he shall afterwards go into his house, and shall collect in his hand dust from the four corners of it, and shall afterwards stand upon the threshold, looking inwards into the house. And then, with his left hand, he shall throw over his shoulder some of that dust on the nearest relative that he has. But if his father and (his father’s) brothers have already paid, he shall then throw that dust on their (the brothers’) children‐that is, over three (relatives) who are nearest on the father’s and three on the mother’s side. And after that, in his shirt, without girdle and without shoes, a staff in his hand, he shall spring over the hedge. And then those three shall pay half of what is lacking of the compounding money or the legal fine; that is, those others who are descended in the paternal line shall do this.
But if there be one of those relatives who has not enough to pay his whole indebtedness, he, the poorer one, shall in turn throw the “chrenecruda” on him of them who has the most, so that he shall pay the whole fine.
But if he also have not enough to pay the whole, then he who has charge of the murderer shall bring him before the “Thing,” and afterwards to 4 Things, in order that they (his friends) may take him under their protection. And if no one have taken him under his protection‐that is, so as to redeem him for what he can not pay‐then he shall have to atone with his life.
Title LIX. Concerning Private Property
If any man die and leave no sons, if the father and mother survive, they shall inherit.
If the father and mother do not survive, and he leave brothers or sisters, they shall inherit.
But if there are none, the sisters of the father shall inherit.
But if there are no sisters of the father, the sisters of the mother shall claim the inheritance.
If there are none of these, the nearest relative on the father’s side shall succeed to that inheritance.
But of Salic land no portion of the inheritance shall come to a woman: but the whole inheritance of the land shall come to the male sex.
Title LXII. Concerning Wergeld
If any one’s father have been killed, the sons shall have half the compounding money (wergeld); and the other half the nearest relatives, as well on the mother’s as on the father’s side, shall divide among themselves.
But if there are no relatives, paternal or maternal, that portion shall go to the fisc.
For original text, see: “The Salic Law,” in Ernest F. Henderson, Select Historical Documents of the Middle Ages, (London: George Bell and Sons, 1910), pp. 176–189.