All men are not created equal

Are all men created equal? While “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” they were certainly not evident to those born in the 8th century. There were several different legal statuses a person could hold, either at birth or as their circumstances changed later in life. These statuses were written into the various law codes in effect at the time. Unfortunately the codes only describe what the effects of being part of one status or another were, but don’t delineate what it actually meant to be in one status or another. So we have to infer the meaning of a status, rather than rely on a written description. Welcome to early medieval studies.

The most common way the laws illustrated status was the fines that were imposed for various infractions against a person. “[A]lthough the laws do not support the existence of difference social classes based on birth in the Frankish kingdom, they nonetheless make it clear that some people were worth more than others. This difference in value was indicated by a person’s wergeld, the amount at which that life was valued.”1.Fischer-Drew, Laws of the Salian Franks, p.45. Based on these carefully constructed fines, and the descriptions of those to whom the fine protected, it is possible to build a rough social model for the early medieval age.

At the bottom, not too surprisingly, was a slave. To be a slave was to be someone’s property.

“[T]he non-free, had no rights. They were under the coercive power of their masters and enjoyed no judicial guarantees against unlimited punishment. Their marriages could be dissolved and they or their children could be sold. In all things, their master acted for them. … [T]he wars of conquest had given [slavery] new stimulus. Gangs of slaves were not infrequently encountered on the roads, en route to be sold within the Empire or abroad.”2.Riche, Daily Life, p.101.

There is some evidence that a human slave was treated differently than a piece of furniture or a horse. While Fischer-Drew observes, “the slave was obviously something more than property and the courts took cognizance of this fact,” unfortunately she doesn’t give any specifics.3.Fischer Drew, Laws of the Salian Franks, p. 48.

There are various terms for slaves, including mancipia, which apparently was unequivocally a slave, and specifically one who worked on a farm. A servus was an unfree person, be he a slave, serf, or something else. An ancilla was a female servus.

Next up the ladder was a litus, and the female was a colona. This one is a bit of a mystery. As best as I can puzzle out this was a person who had personal and legal rights, but was tied to the land, like a serf. In other words, a litus could marry freely, own property, and had rights in the law, but could not leave the farm where their lord had placed them. “There are, however, references to “freedmen” and half-free men (lidi), but these references are so vague that it is difficult to say just what the position of a freedman or lidus might be except that he was still regarded as the dependent of his lord…[T]he value of a lidus was… half the value of a free Frank.”4.Fischer Drew, Law of the Salian Franks, p.48. Beyond that, I don’t have much.

You should note that this quest for specific definitions is more of a modern concern than a medieval one. “The line of demarcation between owning property and owning nothing, between relatively free activity and complete subordination to an authority, had no name.”5.Fichtenau, Living in the Tenth Century, p.370. My impression is that these distinctions were self-evident in early medieval culture, and the law merely touched upon them when necessary. In other words, a person’s social status was so bound up in the warp and woof of society that no written definition was necessary.

Finally, atop society’s pyramid stood the freeman, with all the rights and responsibilities thereto. A free man or woman could move where they liked, marry whom they wanted (within the bounds of church consanguinity laws and family requirements, of course), and own what property they could acquire. With these rights came responsibilities, particularly a freeman’s debt of military service to his lord. As Charlemagne organized and ordered his kingdom more and more closely, he spelled out rules that explained how many military men would be expected to go to war based on how much land a freeman held.6.Ganshof, Frankish Institutions, p.61.

Another status was that of freedman, one who had once been a slave and was now free, but was not still not considered a true freeman. There doesn’t seem to have been much difference between a freedman and a freeman in the law, but it must have had some meaning, or else the status wouldn’t be mentioned. It does illustrate that legal and social status had some fluidity to it, but not a lot.

In general you were born to your lot in life, and that was that. Children of slaves were slaves. Social mobility tended to push downward, not upward. A free man or woman who married a slave became a slave. A person who fell into debt and could not repay it could be forced into slavery. During times of trouble a free man could commit himself to a lord, and become a lidus, which was irreversible. However, a man who had become a slave due to a bad debt could regain his freedom by paying off the debt. The king or a slave’s lord could manumit him.

An implication and drawback to using the laws as a measure of social status is that we inevitably come to equate social standing with some kind of economic value, and that may not have been the case. It is interesting, however, that in the lex Burgundium a woman’s wergeld was twice that of a man’s, while the wergeld of a “Roman” was half that of a Frank. Plainly the law was illustrating a social construct that is otherwise not visible to us.

I have to confess that this has been a frustrating topic to explore. No one seems to have much of an idea about how this all worked in Frankish society, while everyone recognizes the need for a better understanding. A reviewer of a recent work of Carolingian scholarship lamented, “I would have welcomed some more engagement… on the social status of agrarian cultivators, craftsmen (and women), and petty traders (the few paragraphs on freedom and unfreedom do not quite do justice to this complicated topic).”7.Shami Ghosh, reviewing “The Carolingian World” by Costambeys, Innes, and MacLean. Unfortunately, my poor contribution will have to do for the moment.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Fischer-Drew, Laws of the Salian Franks, p.45.
2. Riche, Daily Life, p.101.
3. Fischer Drew, Laws of the Salian Franks, p. 48.
4. Fischer Drew, Law of the Salian Franks, p.48.
5. Fichtenau, Living in the Tenth Century, p.370.
6. Ganshof, Frankish Institutions, p.61.
7. Shami Ghosh, reviewing “The Carolingian World” by Costambeys, Innes, and MacLean.

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