Thursday, September 30, 2010

Animal Utility in the Salic Law

The Salic Law (or the Law of the Salian Franks)1 was written and revised multiple times between ca. 500 and 798 by a number of different people and groups from both Frankish and Roman perspectives. It is an extremely complicated source for historians for a number of reasons. It is impossible to say exactly how it was perceived by the people who created it, much less how or even whether it was used by them. It is impossible to tell exactly what it means in some parts because it is impossible to tell what was meant by some of the words used in it, most notably the Malberg glosses but also some of the Latin terms. It is also impossible to tell exactly how severe the monetary punishments it prescribed were since we do not have an adequate sense of the economy of the time or the exact value of the fines either objectively or in relation to the wealth of the average Frank. Given these and other issues it should be used carefully, especially when attempting to draw conclusions about Frankish society. However, the law can be examined internally in order to reveal its own sometimes fractured logic and used tentatively to draw conclusions about the ways in which its creators organized their world. Whatever its dangers it remains an excellent source dealing with animals in northern Europe during its time period. I would like to briefly suggest some of the main conclusions about the use of animals that can be drawn from it.

The second through eighth sections of the earliest parts we have of the Pactus Legis Salicae deal with the theft of animals, as do the forty-fourth through fifty-fourth sections of the latest Lex Salica Karolina. The first conclusion we can reliably draw from both of these sections is that animals were worth varying amounts. This is unsurprising. However, the worth of the animals was not determined simply by the type of animal stolen. For example, in the original version of the law stealing a mature sow or boar resulted in a seventeen-and-one-half solidi (gold coin) fine, but stealing a hive of bees resulted in a forty-five solidi fine. Rather, the worth of the animals appears to be based on the amount of utility (and potential utility) the animal could provide its owner. For example, a piglet was worth one solidus but a two-year-old pig was worth fifteen solidi. Animals were also valued based on their ability to produce young. The theft of a bull resulted in a forty-five solidi fine, but the theft of an ox was only worth thirty-five. That utility was the main factor in the relative worth of these animals is further suggested because each fine was in addition to a fine for the value of the lost use of the animal during the time it was stolen.

How accurately these values can be transferred out of the law and into the world of the Franks is a cloudy matter. However we can certainly argue that to the people who compiled this portion of the law these scales of worth made at least some logical sense. I feel safe in arguing that the uses implied by the variations from young to old and from sexually viable to neutered were real concerns for the Franks as they used animals in their daily lives. One of the most interesting things that we can learn about the daily use of animals may be who was using them and concerned with them.

The Law was clearly concerned not with the common people living in Frankish society but with the nobility. This is attested to by many of the sections discussing what to do with violations against humans, including a regulation against forcibly cutting a male child’s hair (long hair was the symbol of Merovingian royalty) and long discussions about both stolen and disobedient slaves. Due to these concerns it is most likely that the animals the law was trying to account for were the property of the nobility. Thus we can conclude that the nobility of the Franks were directly concerned with their livestock, and that the livestock probably represented a relatively substantial portion of their wealth.

There are many further conclusions that can be reached by examining the law both for its internal significance and what it can tell us about greater Frankish society. For example, I have ignored those parts of the regulations which suggest how the animals were kept. The portions that I have discussed are all from the earliest part of the law, but many more regulations regarding animals were added in the latest addition. These changes offer a glimpse into the ways that the significance of certain animals changed over time. And for me perhaps the most tempting but also fraught mode of comparison is to examine the law’s assumptions about animals and about humans in order to see whether the same values about use and worth hold true.

1. Katherine Fischer Drew The Laws of the Salian Franks (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991). The Salic Law is also available in Latin through the MGH


  1. Does the Salic Law mention any rules regarding criminal animals? My favorite part of the Resl introduction was the snippet about animals being charged with crimes and then actually tried in court.
    (I am not Kate, although it says that. I'm using my sister's account)

  2. I believe that it treats two types of criminal animals, animals that destroy things such as an animal that ruins a field of wheat and animals that kill humans. To continue the comparative theme: there are regulations for animals that ruin property by getting loose, but there are also regulations that direct humans to keep escaped animals from destroying property by rounding them up. If I remember correctly, however, an animal that ruins property is to be killed even if no human stepped in to control it. So animals could be held liable for crimes even if they didn't intend to commit them.