The Franks in Europe
In the history of Europe, the most important migratory tribe or set of tribes were the Franks. From the Frankish kingdoms in Gaul and then Germany would arise the political and social institutions of the Middle Ages.
The Franks were originally a set of distinct, small tribal groups that at some point joined in a conferderacy and came to regard themselves as having the same ethnic identity. Unlike the Goths and even the Vandals, the Franks had no success against Rome. The Romans solved the problem of the Franks by settling them in various areas and ceding some territory to them. Around the end of the fourth century, the Franks changed from a military democracy to a set of communities with minor kings. During this entire time, the Franks were mainly allies with Rome, bravely defending Roman territory first against the Huns and then against the Visigoths.
This all changed in 486 when the Frankish king, Clovis, defeated the last western Roman ruler, Syagrius, at Soissons. The defeat of the Romans and, subsequent to that, military victories of other Germanic tribes such as the Visigoths, the Alemans, and the Burgundians, Clovis established a Frankish empire. In this large and ethnically empire, the normal ethnic divisions between German tribes began to dissolve into a larger ethnic identity of the Franks. If you want a beginning to the Middle Ages, this is probably it.
In the year 500, there were two major empires in Europe. The Ostrogoths controlled much of Italy and areas to the east; Gaul and the western portions of Germany were under the control of the great Frankish king, Clovis I. If you had been around in 500 and had to lay bets on either of these great empires, you would not have hesitated to have backed the Ostrogoths. They occupied the traditional territories of the western Roman empire, they were educated and ministered by incredibly well-educated Roman aristocrats. They had the money, the brains, and the land. And they had the church, which was centered in Rome. Clovis and the Franks, on the other hand, occupied what had always been traditionally regarded as hinterlands. They did not have the benefit of Roman schools, aristocracy, and bureaucrats. To the late classical mind, Clovis was little better than a barbarian.
Sound like a reasonable bet? It did to the church. It turned out, however, that the Ostrogothic kingdom soon fell to the Byzantines and Italy, the traditional seat of Roman culture and power, was devestated in the wars that led to this defeat. While the area was once again under the control of the emperor, a crushing economic depression depopulated all the formerly great cities.
The future lay instead with the Franks and the Gaulish empire, the kingdom of the Merovingians. One of the most significant moves for the history of Europe was Clovis’s conversion to Roman Christianity. The Ostrogoths were Arian Christians—dismal heretics in the eyes of both the Roman and the Byzantine churches—as were all other Germanic peoples with the exception of the Spanish Visigoths. Clovis saw that he could gain the help of Byzantines, Romans, and the Gauls by converting to Roman Christianity. If this had not occurred, European history would have gone down a fundamentally different course.
Clovis established his capital at the Gaulish fort of Paris, named after the Celtic tribe that built the fort, the Parisi. For all practical purposes, this city would become a third center of Christianity, after Rome and Constantinople, and much of Christian culture would be preserved during these early centuries by the churchmen that the Merovingians brought to their capital.
The Merovingians didn’t even try to continue Roman institutions as the Ostrogoths had done in Italy. For the most part, the Merovingian king was the “owner” of the empire. The purpose of government was largely fighting and conquest, so there was almost no governmental administration and very little reading and writing done, even at the highest levels of government. The Merovingians did try to preserve the Roman taxation system, but that soon collapsed as tax collectors rarely survived for very long.
This loose centralized government could not hold on for long, so the Merovingian kings adopted new strategies of government The most important was the granting of land to nobility that were loyal to the king. These land grants eventually came to be regarded by their grantees as possessions—they regarded themselves as more or less independent rulers. They took on themselves the Latin word for “ruler” (dux) and so the institution of the duke and the area of the duke’s power, the duchy, were born. By the seventh century, these dukes had become the real power in Frankish territory; the monarch was largely an afterthought.
The Merovingians represent the last hurrah of Rome. During Merovingian rule, people still identified themselves ethnically as Franks, Gauls, or Romans. Many of the churchmen and government officials were drawn from Roman nobility and felt themselves to be distinct from the Merovingian rulers and their Frankish neighbors. Whatever the faults of the Merovingians, by the end of the Merovingian period in the eighth century, “Roman” and “Gaulish” ceased to serve as ethnic markers. Europe had truly entered a period when a non-Roman ethnic identity would dominate the landscape.
by Richard Hooker, Washington State University
The Law of the Salian Franks
Title I Concerning Summonses (St. Gall, Stiftsbibliothek 728, p. 113)
1 . If any one be summoned before the “Thing” by the king’s law and does not come, he shall be sentenced to 600 denars, which make 15 solidi (solidi).
2. But he who summons another and does not come himself, shall, if a lawful impediment have not delayed him, be sentenced to 15 solidi, to be paid to him whom he summoned.
Title III. Concerning Thefts of Cattle
4. 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 solidi.
5. 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 solidi.
6. If any one steal a bull belonging to the king he shall be sentenced to 3600 denars, which make 90 solidi.
Title XI Concerning Thefts or Housebreakings of Freemen
1. If any freeman steal, outside of the house, something worth 2 denars, he shall be sentenced to 600 denars, which make 15 solidi.
2. 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 solidi.
3. 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 solidi.
4. 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 solidi.
5. 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 solidi.
6. 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 solidi.
Title XIV. Concerning Rape Committed by Freemen (St. Gall, Stiftsbibliothek 728, p. 124)
1. If three men carry off a free born girl, they shall be compelled to pay 30 solidi.
2. If there are more than three, each one shall pay five solidi.
3. Those who shall have been present with boats shall be sentenced to three solidi.
4. But those who commit rape shall be compelled to pay 2500 denars, which make 63 solidi.
5. 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.
6. 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 solidi.
Title XV. Concerning Assault and Robbery
1 . 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 solidi.
2. If a Roman have plundered a Salian Frank, the above law shall be ordered.
3. But if a Frank have plundered a Roman, he shall be sentenced to 35 solidi.
4. 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 decrees of the king, shall presume to oppose him, shall be sentenced to 8000 denars, which make 200 solidi.
Title XVII. Concerning Wounds
1. 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 solidi.
2. 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 solidi.
3. 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 solidi.
4. 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 solidi — besides five solidi for the physician’s pay.
5. 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 solidi.
6. 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 solidi.
Title XXIV. Concerning the Killing of Little Children and Women
1. 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 solidi.
3. If any one have hit a free woman who is pregnant, and she dies, he shall be sentenced to 28000 denars, which makes 700 solidi.
6. If any one have killed a free woman after she has begun bearing children, he shall be sentenced to 24000 denars, which make 600 solidi.
7. After she can have no more children, he who kills her shall be sentenced to 8000 denars, which make 200 solidi.
Title XXX. Concerning Insults
3. 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 solidi.
4. If any person shall have called another “fox,” he shall be sentenced to 3 solidi.
5. If any man shall have called another “hare,” he shall be sentenced to 3 solidi.
Title XLI Concerning the Murder of Freemen
1. 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.
2. 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 solidi.
3. 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 solidi.
4. 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 solidi.
5. 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 solidi.
6. 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 solidi.
Title LVII. Concerning the “Chrenecruda ”
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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
1. If any man die and leave no sons, if the father and mother survive, they shall inherit.
2. If the father and mother do not survive, and he leave brothers or sisters, they shall inherit.
3. But if there are none, the sisters of the father shall inherit.
4. But if there are no sisters of the father, the sisters of the mother shall claim the inheritance.
5. If there are none of these, the nearest relative on the father’s side shall succeed to that inheritance.
6. 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
1 . 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.
2. But if there are no relatives, paternal or maternal, that portion shall go to the fisc.
Note: from “The Salic Law,” in Ernest F. Henderson, Select Historical Documents of the Middle Ages, (London: George Bell and Sons, 1910), pp. 176-189