Germanic laws

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Germanic laws

Germanic laws, customary law codes of the Germans before their contact with the Romans. They are unknown to us except through casual references of ancient authors and inferences from the codes compiled after the tribes had invaded the Roman Empire. These codes (called leges barbarorum), dating from the 5th to the 9th cent., are usually divided into four groups: the Gothic (Visigothic, Burgundian, and Ostrogothic), the Frankish (Salic, Ripuarian, Chamavian, and Thuringian), the Saxon (Saxon, Anglo-Saxon, and Frisian), and the Bavarian (Alemannic and Bavarian). The Langobardic, or Lombard, laws are sometimes classed with the Saxon. Our knowledge of the early German laws is much hampered by the faultiness of manuscripts; many are known only in fragments.

Nature and Scope

It is now generally agreed that the laws were substantially Germanic, although the form in which they were cast was a more or less crude imitation of Roman codes. Roman influence was generally strong, since German customs had been thrown into new patterns by Roman contacts when these compilations were drawn up; all except the Anglo-Saxon are in Latin, although interspersed with Germanic legal terms. For the most part, the leges barbarorum deal with penal law and legal procedure; some of the older ones are merely lists of compositions to be paid for specific personal injuries. Private and public law are scantily treated. Much material can, however, be found concerning landholding (one of these provisions became the basis for the Salic law of succession) and the personal relationships that governed public law. A codification was sometimes called a pactus (e.g., Pactus Alamannorum), because people and ruler cooperated in enactment of the laws.

The Roman population under Germanic rule continued to live under Roman law, for law was regarded as personal, not territorial. Their law was codified (the leges Romanae, or leges Romanorum) in the Gothic and Burgundian kingdoms and was applied to Roman subjects and to the church. Another type of legislation distinct from these was the Frankish capitulary (see capitularies).

Important Codes

Probably the oldest Germanic codes is the Codex Euricianus by King Euric, the personal law of the Visigoths; a related code was adopted in 506 under Alaric II, the Lex Romana Visigothorum, or Breviary of Alaric, for the Roman subjects. Both were later superseded (c.654) by the Lex Visigothorum, or Liber iudiciorum, compiled under Chindaswinth and Recceswinth; this for the first time applied to Goths and Romans alike. In the 13th cent. it was translated into Spanish as the Fuero juzgo. The Lex Gundobada (Loi Gombette) was adopted (c.501) for Burgundians and for cases involving both Burgundians and Romans, while the Lex Romana Burgundiorum (c.506), also from the reign of Gundobad, applied only to the Romans in the Burgundian kingdom. Because of a mistake in copying, it has come to be known as Papianus, or Papian law; it was gradually replaced by the Breviary of Alaric. The most accomplished Germanic code was the Edictum Rotharis, promulgated in 643. Together with the Italian legislation of the Holy Roman emperors (the Capitulare Langobardicum), it became the basis for a renaissance of jurisprudence in Italy and maintained itself till the revival in the 13th cent. of Justinian's Corpus Juris Civilis, which subsequently spread over all of Western Europe; the latter's influence reached to the threshold of modern times.

As to the Franks and more northerly Germans, their codes were less elaborate and they had none for Romans. Most ancient and also most important was the law of the Salian Franks, Lex Salica, first compiled (c.508–11) under Clovis I, which exerted great influence, for it was the fundamental law of the Merovingian and Carolingian rulers and later of the Holy Roman emperors. The Lex Saxonum and the Lex Angliorum et Verinorum probably owe their compilation to the initiative of Charlemagne; the Lex Ripuaria of the Ripuarian Franks, the Lex Baiuvariorum, and the Lex Alamannorum are distinguished by inclusions of public law. The most important compilation of northern and central German laws was the Sachsenspiegel. This, originally written (c.1230) in Latin, was subsequently translated into the vernacular. It showed an earlier stage of development than contemporary treatises in England and N France.


See E. Jenks, Law and Politics in the Middle Ages (1913, repr. 1970); R. Hübner, A History of Germanic Private Law (1918, repr. 1968).

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