Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The Salic law (Lat. lex Salica) was a body of traditional law to govern the Salian Franks that was codified in the early 5th century, during the reign of Clovis I. It was the basis for the laws of Charlemagne, but by the 12th century, both the Frankish kings and their laws were no more.
This set of laws determined matters such as inheritance, crime, murder, and so forth. In a kingdom with diverse groups and ethnicities, each ethnic group expected to be governed under their own law.
The laws went into extreme details concerning damages to be paid in fines for injuries to person or to goods, such as slaves, and for theft and unproven insults. One third of the fine went to court costs. Interpretation of the laws was put in charge of a jury of peers.
The great detail of the laws and what we retain of their interpretations give interesting insights in Frankish society, for Salic Law makes it clear that an individual has no right to protection if he is not part of a family. To break the family bonds, a person must undergo a pagan-derived ritual, breaking four alder boughs over his head and casting them away, in the presence of judges.
One provision of the Salic Law continued to play a role in European politics during the Middle Ages and beyond. Concerning the inheritance of land, the Salic Law provided
- But of Salic land no portion of the inheritance shall come to a woman: but the whole inheritance of the land shall come to the male sex.
As actually interpreted by the Salian Franks, the law simply prohibited women from inheriting, not all property, but ancestral "Salic land", and under Chilperic I, the law was actually amended to permit inheritance of land by a daughter if a man had no surviving sons. However, in 1316, upon the extinction of the direct Capetian male lineage during the Hundred Years' War, French jurists resurrected the long-defunct Salic Law and re-interpreted it to forbid not only inheritance by a woman, but inheritance through a female line in order to disqualify the claim of the descendants of Edward III of England to the French throne.
This law by no means covered all matters of inheritance — only those lands considered "Salic" — and there is still debate as to the legal definition of this word, although it is generally accepted to refer to lands in the royal fisc. Only several hundred years later, under the Capetian kings of France and their English contemporaries who held lands in France, did Salic law become a rationale for enforcing or debating succession. By then somewhat anachronistic (there were no Salic lands, since the Salian monarchy was long dead), the law was resurrected by Philip V to support his claim to the throne by removing his niece Jeanne from the succession, following the death of his nephew John. When the Capetian line ended, the law was contested by England, providing a putative motive for the Hundred Years' War.
Shakespeare uses the Salic law as a plot device in his play Henry V, and states that it was upheld by the French to bar the claim of Henry V from the throne of France. The play Henry V starts with the Archbishop of Canterbury being asked if Henry's claim can be upheld despite the law. The Archbishop says that it is not a French law but a German one.
The Salic law is responsible for some interesting chapters of history. The Carlist Wars occurred in Spain over the question of whether the heir to the throne should be a woman or a male relative. The War of the Austrian Succession was triggered by the Pragmatic Sanction in which Charles VI of Austria, who himself had inherited the Austrian patrimony over his nieces because of Salic Law, attempted to ensure the inheritance directly to his own daughter Maria Theresa of Austria.
The British and Hanoverian thrones separated after the death of King William IV of the United Kingdom and of Hanover. Hanover practiced the Salic law, while Britain did not. King William's niece Victoria ascended the throne of Great Britain and Ireland, but the throne of Hanover went to William's brother Ernest, Duke of Cumberland; Salic law was also an important issue in the Schleswig-Holstein question.
In the Channel Islands (the only part of the former duchy of Normandy still held by the British Crown) Queen Elizabeth II is traditionally ascribed the title of Duke (never Duchess) of Normandy. The influence of Salic law is presumed to explain why she is toasted as "The Queen our Duke." The argument would similarly apply in the Isle of Man where she holds the title of Lord of Man.
See also: Hundred Years' War
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