The Economic and Social Foundations of European Civilization

By Alfons Dopsch | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VII THE REORGANIZATION OF SOCIETY

THE accepted theory that the nobility originated in the age of the barbarian kingdoms, in the first place among the Franks, is the result more of speculation than of a careful analysis of the sources. How have scholars arrived at this view? In the first place it arose naturally out of the fundamental hypotheses which prevailed concerning the previous Germanic period. If, during that time, there was a republican constitution, in which all power rested with the people and all freemen had equal rights, so that there was no especially privileged nobility,1 then it seemed obvious that there could have beeen no such nobility in the earlier Frankish period. This negative argument was supplemented by a positive one drawn from the Lex Salica, which was for long regarded as the main source of information for early Frankish conditions, and which does not mention a nobility. Consequently, it is argued, no such nobility existed. But is this conclusion really justifiable? Important jurists2 had already shown that in the case of the Lex Salica an argument ex silentio of this sort proves nothing. Many important judicial questions, such, for example, as the right of inheritance, are not mentioned in it, even though they must already have been in existence; the object of the law was not to give a complete account of the Salic order of inheritance.

It has often been alleged, moreover, that in earlier times a nobility of birth of this sort existed among the Franks also, but was afterwards destroyed or deprived of its privileges by the monarchy.3 This explanation is, in fact, contradicted by all our other information on the matter. It is unlikely that a nobility of birth should have been non-existent among the Franks, when its existence can be proved among all the other tribes. Moreover, there is nothing in the history of the early Frankish monarchy to support the hypothesis of a destruction or even of a suppression of the nobility. It cannot reasonably be assumed that the first kings, who on the whole were conservative in their domestic policy, (especially Clovis), got rid of their old folk nobility just at the moment when they found themselves in their new state with its extensive provincial territory, face to face with a Roman nobility, the power of which rested on great landed properties. This old nobility consisted, indeed, of the lords of "followings" who were the doughtiest in war and the most renowned among the people.4

The main point, however, is that we have a sufficient number of certain proofs of the existence of such a nobility.5 These show that importance was attached not only to free birth or descent, but also to the possession of important and illustrious parents or ancestors, and men extolled the antiquity and splendour of a house, which was handed down to its children and secured for them a more

____________________
1
See above, 178 ff.
2
See v. Amira, Erbenfolge und Verwandtschaftsgliederung, 1874, 2 f.; and O. Gierke, "Erbrecht u. Vicinenerbrecht im Edikt Chilperiches" in Zeitschr. f. RG., xii, 439 ff.
3
See Germ. edit., ii2, 98.
4
See Germ. edit., ii2, 98 f.
5
See the collection of sources in Dahn, Könige, vii, 1, 143.

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