The Pactus legis Salicae is often considered important for understanding the Merovingian world. Some of its earliest versions include the claim that it was originally promulgated by “the first king of the Franks” – usually interpreted as Clovis – and therefore it is bound up with traditions about the origins of the Frankish kingdoms.
It was long thought to represent a distinctive and old “Germanic” legal tradition that developed separately from Roman models. At one point, early in the nineteenth century, it was intended to be edited and published as an early key text for the Monumenta Germaniae Historica. But as research progressed, it quickly became apparent that there were a lot of problems with the text. Perhaps too many. It passed through the hands of several editors until, after well over a century, the project was brought to completion by Karl August Eckhardt only in 1962. That edition had many critics and not just because Eckhardt had been an SS officer (which must have shaped his views on “Germanic law” at least a little). Since then, there has been more interest in seeing Salian Law as something developed to complement Roman law, indeed even evolving within traditions of provincial law. Few serious historians of the period truly believe there was a hard Roman/ German divide anyway.
A key problem with “Salian Law” is defining what the text is. Early historical notes about the law present a neat story in which it was first issued in 65 chapters which were supplemented over time, notably with capitularies associated explicitly with the brothers Childebert and Chlothar and also Chlothar’s son Chilperic. That sounds straightforward enough. But the extant manuscripts don’t reflect such a simple progression. We don’t even know on what authority the story about the text is given as, whichever way you look at it, it was composed at least a century after Clovis’s reign and probably later.
Now, an important thing to note from the off is that there isn’t a single Merovingian manuscript of the Salian Law. The earliest ones are all early Carolingian copies. These are themselves all subtly different from each other, which suggests that Merovingian written law had something of a loose or fractured tradition. (It has been claimed that it is in fact ALL Carolingian forgery but I don’t think anyone believes that). There are Carolingian revisions of Salian law too, which help to generate a few bonus oddities like the fact that what is probably the second oldest manuscript of Salian law is actually of a Carolingian recension (St Gallen SB 731: probably from Lyon in 793 containing the “Pippin III” recension). All the different recensions survive in copies from around the same time, which in some ways collapses something of a sense of progression.
What sense can be made of the Merovingian texts? Georg Pertz at MGH felt that they could be arranged into three principal groups: the “original,” a short version, and the 100-chapter version really associated with Pippin III. Jean-Marie Pardessus thought this was rather crude given the variations between the manuscripts and so he published five early versions instead while recognising that there were more. Eckhardt, for his consolidated edition a century later, kept closer to Pertz’s categories, with a family A (= Pertz’s short version), family C (= Pertz’s original), and a family B (= something Eckhardt made up to explain a few minor textual variations).
As representatives of Merovingian tradition, Eckhardt’s families are a nightmare:
Family A contains four manuscripts. Only A1 [Paris BnF lat. 4404: nr Tours, c. 800] and A4 [Paris BnF lat. 9653: “probably Burgundy,” 2nd quarter of 9th century] have 65 chapters. A1 also has a unique “history” of the law. A2 [Wolfenbüttel HAB Weiss 97: “probably Burgundy”, second half of 8th century] – possibly actually the oldest manuscript – has a messed up version of the text with a couple only of the capitularies (making it a 93-chapter text) plus a regnal list up to the death of Childeric III, the last Merovingian king. Super Merovingian then. A3 [Munich BSB clm 4115: southern Germany, first quarter of 9th century] bills itself as an 84-chapter text, with one bonus capitulary.
Family B is postulated mostly on the basis of some oddities in A plus the fact that Herold’s printing from the sixteenth century doesn’t obviously follow any known manuscript. It might also be reflected in a tenth-century manuscript once in Fulda. Let’s say the jury is out on this one.
Family C only has two witnesses: C5 [Paris BnF lat. 4403B: Luxeuil, first quarter of 9th century] is a 65-chapter version with a fragment of a prologue while C6 [Paris BnF lat. 18327: eastern France, second quarter of 9th century] has two prologues and three capitularies tagged on the end. (There isn’t a C1 etc – the numbers follow on from Family A, as you do).
Obviously I have focused on constellations of large text units there, but even where you have the basic 65 chapters, there are minor variances in phrasing and penalties between the versions which meant that Eckhardt had to print all six early manuscripts in parallel because footnotes signalling textual variation would have been insufficient. So just to be clear: the members of the Merovingian families are all different. This is, shall we say, unusual.
In the right circles, of course, all this is well known. It is why it took so long to get even Eckhardt’s text. There is a short chapter on it in the standard English translation by Katherine Fischer Drew, though I suspect most people skip that bit.
We can even start to throw in bonus problems. The law is hardly comprehensive in any sense, for instance. There are references elsewhere to things in Salian law that aren’t in the versions we have. And there is a bit of fuzziness about who a “Salian Frank” actually is: there aren’t references to “Salians” in our sources and, as Guy Halsall has noted a couple of times, the law itself seems to target that label specifically at adult men, leaving women and children covered by aspects of the law but by inference not on the same footing when it comes to identity.
Such problems have long led to suspicions that the Salian Law isn’t really the grand legal statement even its prologue (in some versions) seems to claim. Hermann Nehlsen in 1977, for example, argued that the state of the text suggested there was a separation of practical law and written law. Karl Ubl, more recently, has pushed a more cultural-historical reading of the texts, in which it is suggested they were more important for what they represented in terms of Frankish identity than what they represented in terms of points of law. (Ubl has a big project website by the way: http://www.leges.uni-koeln.de/en/).
I suspect we don’t want to go too far down any route that dismisses the legal value of the text(s) completely. We don’t know enough about how cases were assessed and judged or about how written law fed into the process. The texts as we have them could have been useful guides to the relative seriousness of crimes and the scaling of penalties. A guidebook to values not a rulebook for punishment? It would fit with the looseness of the textual tradition. It also fits with other “practical” texts like my usual computistical or medical fare which tend to evolve through use and different copying techniques.
It is also rash to assume a paucity of written law under the Merovingians given that not a single Merovingian copy of a lawbook has survived. Formularies, charters and copies of royal judgements suggest there was a non-negligible written legal culture but that much of it didn’t survive because it was written on fragile papyrus and/or because it pertained to institutions or individuals that didn’t have long-lived archives and/or because people simply binned stuff once it became obsolete.
These considerations lead us back to a familiar set of issues for this blog: how understanding the Merovingian world is frequently constricted by poor survival of documents, the choices of Carolingian scribes, and the dispositions of modern historians when it comes to filling in gaps. This is why, after two centuries of hard study of an obvious, major Merovingian “text,” there is still frequently little agreement about what Salian law really represents.