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Salic Law

Salic Law


Germanic Legal Codes. Of the many Germanic legal codes and traditions that were passed down by the barbarian tribes that invaded the Roman Empire, few had any great significance except to those curious parties who collected them almost purely out of antiquarian interest. The only exception to that case may be the Lex Salica, or Laws of the Salian Franks. These statutes are significant not because of what they included as far as legal issues, but because of what they excluded as far as who was fit to rule.

Ancient Customs and Traditions. The first codified version of the Lex Salica was probably issued by Clovis at the beginning of the sixth century for use by his Merovingian justices. Although written in Latin at this time, it was undoubtedly formulated from oral transmissions of ancient Frankish customs and traditions. By the time of Charle-


Once Justinian had secured his throne as emperor of the Byzantine Empire in 527, he turned his attention to the reformation of domestic matters. The principal among these was the codification of the various laws on which the empire’s system of justice was built. Roman law, as these laws were generically called, had existed in many forms for many centuries. Emperors and senates had issued legal directions since the earliest days of late antiquity, few of which had been systematically published or catalogued. In addition, judicial opinions had been issued frequently on these laws, many of which were contradictory and inaccessible. When legal collections were attempted—for example, two in the third and fourth centuries—their usefulness was disputed. Finally, earlier imperial attempts at correcting the situation, primarily by Val-entinian 111 in the west and Theodosius II in the cast, had only partially succeeded, their commissions smothered under heaps of bureaucracy. In short, by Justinian’s time the administration of systematic justice within the Byzantine Empire was practically impossible.

In the first year of his reign Justinian appointed a commission to produce a new imperial legal code that could and would become standard throughout the entire Empire. It was comprised of ten legal experts under the leadership of a quaestor, or chief legal officer, and was to take into account all of the preceding collections of laws, as well as new and noncollected laws issued more recently. They were to systemize all of these laws and make them more simple. They worked quickly and after little more than a year produced the Codex Justinianus. Following this success, a new commission of sixteen jurists met to collect, coordinate, and codify all of the legal opinions that had existed in the Roman Empire and afterward. Working through more than two thousand works comprising some three million lines of law, this commission in less than three years published the Digest. This latter effort was extraordinary, amounting to more than fifty books of “definitive” legal opinion.

The Codex and the Digest would be supplemented and reworked throughout the entire reign of Justinian. Initially, these legal texts were written in Latin, but quickly Greek translations were made, and as quickly they were sent throughout the Empire and carried by conquering Byzantine armies. Before too long, Roman law had been established once again throughout the old Roman Empire. Despite the changes in boundaries that would come in the years following the death of Justinian in 565, the Roman law of his Codex and Digest would remain in force throughout the medieval period and into the early modern and modern eras. Indeed, it is upon these early codifications of law and legal opinion that much modern law is based.

Source: J. A. S. Evans, The Age of Justinian: The Circumstances of Imperial Power (New York: Routledge, 1996).

magne it was considered obsolete, kept and studied only for its antiquarian interest.

Rebirth. However, in 1328 the Salic Law was remembered once again, and its provisions created a situation that may ultimately have caused the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453). The part of the Salic Law that was called into use was its Law of Succession, which suggested that women could not inherit property or succeed to the throne; nor could inheritance be transmitted through a woman. When Charles IV died in 1328, he was the last direct heir to the throne of his grandfather, King Philip III of France. The only grandson left was the King of England, Edward III, heir to the French throne through his mother, Isabella, daughter of King Philip IV and sister of Charles IV. However, instead of granting this throne to Edward, the French nobles instead chose his cousin Philip VI of Valois as the new king. They determined by consulting Salic Law that because Edward’s inheritance was through a woman, Philip VI, the son of Philip IV’s brother, had more right to the French throne. In 1337, when Edward III initiated a military conflict with France, the main reason he suggested for fighting the war was to regain the crown that he felt had been unjustly stolen from him.


Katherine Fischer Drew, trans., The Laws of the Salian Franks (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991).

Theodore John Rivers, trans., Laws of the Salian and Ripuarian Franks (New York: AMS Press, 1986).

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