Posted by: ken98 | May 19, 2011

Salty Law Codes and Broken Vases and Heads

Day 615 – Ken here (Th)(5-19-2011)
(DEF II, v.3, ch.38 pp.470-480)(pages read: 1530)

Rainy day and feeling kind of lousy, but hey that’s life in the big city.

Whew! I’d forgotten how absolutely ALL-CONSUMING and TIME-DEVOURING (or is it all-devouring and time-consuming? – maybe both) it is to read my 10 pages of Gibbons and then knock one of these things out once a day. It’s definitely an acquired taste – acquired with difficulty – as is the READING of these blogs an acquired taste, acquired with, well, difficulty I’m sure.

Today is barbarian law, barbarian law, barbarian law. I’ll be really glad to get of the barbarian west and back to the Eastern Roman Empire (I’ve been reading a LOT on Byzantium in the past year). Early (very early) France is not one of my most favorite subjects. Gibbon goes on and on about the famous French Salic Law (a written barbarian law code – the 1st for the Franks), on general aspects of barbarian law, and concludes with a curious aside about a vase, an ax, and a patiently, vengeful king (see below).

The Story
Final Establishment of the French Monarchy
  • Clovis supposedly received a ROMAN CONSULSHIP – although GIbbon notes doubtfully that his name appears nowhere on the official lists of either the East or West Roman Consular Lists (which we have) – it would seem some med historian inserted this “fact” and figured NO ONE would ever be able to verify it – but Gibbon’s lived in the 18th century – and THEY HAD THOSE LISTS COMPLETED by then

    Salic, Ripuarian Frankish Law Codes
  • Salic refers to the “salty” Franks who lived in the Netherlands, Ripuarian to the riverbank-dwelling Franks
  • The Salic is what the nation of France eventually followed, although there were many, many law codes in Gaul, and you could judged by any of them – usually the defendant’s law was the one that controlled the decisions (ie there were Salic, Ripuarian, Burgundian, Thuringian, Roman, Alemanni, Bavarians, etc etc People’s laws in effect in the Frankish lands) It was your people, not your land that determined the law

    Examples of Barbarian Law
  • Money payment instead of punishment for murder – used to stop vengeance vendettas – Gibbon heartily disapproves and notes that by Charlemagne’s time (late 700’s) the punishment was death for death, not a fine. Paying a fine for murder was the normal oral customary law of Northern Europeans prior to this, so the fact that the Franks wrote it into their 1st code is not surprising.
  • Compurgation – Defense by Swearing – you can defend yourself by bringing witnesses who testify to your good character – we actually still have this in character witnesses – altho you used to be able to be freed by witnesses alone
  • Judicial Combat and Trials – Letting God Decide – you put someone in a fire – if it burns them, theyre guilty; you put someone in water, if they sink to the bottom and don’t come up, they’re innocent; you set 2 men fighting (either the plaintiff and defendant, or their substitutes), whichever wins has God’s approval so he is innocent

    Division of Land – the Law
  • Most conqering barbarian tribes used Roman Law to divide the existing Roman estates between themselves and the current Roman owners (using an old Roman formula for hosting troops on civilian soil – ie 1/3 or 2/3 goes to the troops – in this case the barbarians)
  • The Franks apparently just TOOK IT ALL although what the actual mechanics of it was (if there were any system to it at all) is not well known – despite evidence to the contrary Gibbon feels they divided rather than grabbed the land


    The Breaking of the Vase of Soissons - the guy gesticulating at the king doesn't know it, but he has only a year to live

    The Breaking of the Vase of Soissons - the guy gesticulating at the king doesn't know it, but he has only a year to live

    (A Soissons Vase joke here…apparently well-known in La Belle France – in French – but get Google to translate it)

    For the Love of Clovis and the Strange Story of the Vase of Soissons

    Gibbon likes Clovis – a lot – and twists evidence at every opportunity to make Clovis into a decent gentleman – even when it’s almost painful to watch him (Gibbon) doing it (as in this, the Vase Case).

    The Vase of Soissons – I’ve never heard of it. It must have been quite the bon mot (in the late 1700’s) and very famous for Gibbon to so tangentially refer to it and quickly move on. This, then is its history (from Wiki)

    The Vase of Soissons was a semi-legendary sacred vase, presumably in precious metal or a a hardstone carving rather than a piece of pottery, though the material is not specified, that was owned by a church in the Domain of Soissons during Late Antiquity. The existence and the fate of the vase is known from Gregory of Tours (c. 538–594), a Gallo-Roman historian and bishop. Because Gregory wrote about this vase more than a century after it was presumably destroyed, it is difficult (if not impossible) to separate myth and reality.

    According to Gregory the vase was of marvelous size and beauty and was stolen (along with other holy ornaments) from a church in the pillage that followed the Battle of Soissons (486), a battle which the Franks led by their king Clovis I (who was at that time not yet Catholic) won.

    Saint Remigius, the bishop of Reims sent messengers to Clovis, begging that if the church might not recover any other of the holy vessels, at least this one might be restored. Clovis agreed to do so and therefore claimed the vase as his rightful part of the booty. One soldier however disagreed and crushed the vase with his battle-axe. Clovis at first didn’t react to this event and gave the broken vase to Remigius. One year later however he personally and publicly killed the crusher of the vase, using the soldier’s own throwing axe and exclaiming, “Just as you did to the vase at Soissons!”

    A francisca - a Frankish throwing ax used in battle - if you want to do any vase or soldier crushing of your own, you can buy this one on Amazon for about $60 plus shipping.  You could practice with it, swinging it about and shouting  - Thus you did with the vase at Soisson - to get a feel for what it really felt like to be the first French king

    A francisca - a Frankish throwing ax used in battle - if you want to do any vase or soldier crushing of your own, you can buy this one on Amazon for about $60 plus shipping. You could practice with it, swinging it about and shouting - JUST AS YOU DID WITH THE VASE AT SOISSONS! - to get a taste of what it really feels like to be the first French king

    The story is odd though – why did Clovis wait so long to take vengeance for the soldier’s disrespect? It all seems very political – there are wheels within wheels within wheels here which we will never understand 1500 years after the fact. Also I’m thinking the bishop of Reims didn’t represent holiness and spirituality to the conquering Franks so much as urbanity and civilized behavior – upper class Roman moderation and decorum – in short – everything the Franks weren’t at this point in their short successful barbarian-conqueror history, so the returning of the vase to the church was more an act of good manners than piety. The fact that the recalcitrant return-or got trashed with the same throwing battle axe (called a francisca) publicly by the king himself accompanied by a crushing (pun intended) witticism – shows that Roman manners still had a long way to go in Francia.

    What is even odder to me isn’t the story itself – but Gibbon’s reason for quoting it so offhandedly

    The silence of ancient and authentic testimony has encouraged an opinion that the rapine of the Franks was not moderated or disguised by the forms of a legal division; that they dispersed themselves over the provinces of Gaul without order or control; and that each victorious robber, according to his wants, his avarice, and his strength, measured with his sword the extent of his new inheritance.

    At a distance from their sovereign the barbarians might indeed be tempted to exercise such arbitrary depredation; but the firm and artful policy of Clovis must curb a licentious spirit which would aggravate the misery of the vanquished whilst it corrupted the union and discipline of the conquerors.

    The memorable vase of Soissons is a monument and a pledge of the regular distribution of the Gallic spoils. It was the duty and the interest of Clovis to provide rewards for a successful army, and settlements for a numerous people, without inflicting any wanton or superfluous injuries on the loyal catholics of Gaul. The ample fund which he might lawfully acquire of the Imperial patrimony, vacant lands, and Gothic usurpations, would diminish the cruel necessity of seizure and confiscation, and the humble provincials would more patiently acquiesce in the equal and regular distribution of their loss.

    (DEF II, v.3, ch.38 pp.479)

    Gibbon is contradicting the historical record to say that the Franks (with little or no evidence) did not just take the property of the Romans they conquered, but allotted it as if they were still settling as an ally nation (foederates) on imperial Roman land – getting their 2/3 portion of each estate. Even the French historians (as Gibbon notes in his footnote) feel that Clovis raped, pillaged, and took rather than “settled” into former imperial provinces.

    Is this an English Francophile, being more French than the French? Gibbon has, as I’ve already mentioned a strange weak spot for Clovis.


    Edward III of England from a miniature Date ca. between 1430 and 1440 before 1450 (100 years after his death).  Edward began the Hundred Years War between France and England based apparently solely on a technicality of the Salic Law.  This is the FAMOUS SALIC LAW that didn't allow inheritance through females.

    Portrait of Edward III of England from a miniature ca. 1440 (100 years after his death). Edward began the Hundred Years War between France and England based apparently solely on a technicality of the Salic Law (he wanted France, but the French didn't want him, refusing on a fine point of Salic Law governing inheritances). This is the FAMOUS SALIC LAW you hear so much about - the one that didn't allow inheritance through females - mulieres ne succedant. AND IT ALL STARTS HERE, NOW, in the 500s WITH CLOVIS

    Last Word…
    The Salic Law Spit Upon

    Salic Law is a byword for “making it up as you go along to prevent your enemy from taking everything you own” or something like that. The original great dispute is from the 1300’s, and the start of the Hundred Years War (1337 – 1453) – by the way, those 2 dates are for some reason USEFULLY and THANKFULLY EMBLAZONED in my mind along with the other 1453 (Constantinople), 410, 1527, 1666, 753 B.C.E and 1492 when Columbus sailed the ocean blue (and the Moors were driven from Spain). Go figure.

    Here is an explanation from Wiki here.

    In 1316, King John I the Posthumous died, and for the first time in the history of the House of Capet, a king’s closest living relative upon his death was not his son. French lords (notably led by the late king’s uncle, Philip of Poitiers, the beneficiary of their position) wanted to forbid inheritance by a woman. These lords wanted to favour Philip’s claim over John’s half-sister Joan (later Joan II of Navarre), but disqualify her future claim to the French throne, and any possible future claims of Edward III of England. These events later led to the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453).

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