The Salic Law

Early Germanic Law Code and Law of Royal Succession

King of the Franks dictates the Salic Law
The King of the Franks dictates the Salic Law. A facsimile of a miniature in the 14th-century manuscript Chronicles of St. Denis.. Public Domain; courtesy of Wikimedia

Definition:

The Salic Law was the early Germanic law code of the Salian Franks. Originally dealing primarily with criminal penalties and procedures, with some civil law included, the Salic Law evolved over the centuries, and it would later play an important role in the rules governing royal succession; specifically, it would be used in the rule barring women from inheriting the throne.

In the early Middle Ages, when barbarian kingdoms were forming in the wake of the dissolution of the western Roman empire, law codes like the Breviary of Alaric were issued by royal decree.

Most of these, while focusing on the Germanic subjects of the kingdom, were clearly influenced by Roman law and Christian morals. The earliest written Salic Law, which had been transmitted orally for generations, is generally free of such influences, and thus provides a valuable window into early Germanic culture.

The Salic Law was first officially issued toward the end of the reign of Clovis in the early 6th century. Written in Latin, it had a list of fines for offenses ranging from petty theft to rape and murder (the only crime that would expressly result in death was "if a bondsman of the king, or a leet, should carry off a free woman.") Fines for insults and practicing magic were also included.

In addition to laws delineating specific penalties, there were also sections on honoring summonses, the transference of property, and migration; and there was one section on inheritance of private property that expressly barred women from inheriting land.

Over the centuries, the law would be altered, systematized, and re-issued, especially under Charlemagne and his successors, who translated it into Old High German. It would apply in the lands that had been part of the Carolingian Empire, most especially in France. But it would not be directly applied to the laws of succession until the 15th century.

Beginning in the 1300s, French legal scholars began attempting to provide juridical grounds to keep women from succeeding to the throne. Custom, Roman law, and the "priestly" aspects of kingship were used to justify this exclusion. Barring women and descent through women was especially important to the nobility of France when Edward III of England tried to lay claim to the French throne through descent on his mother's side, an action that led to the Hundred Years' War. In 1410, the first recorded mention of Salic Law appeared in a treatise rebutting Henry IV of England's claims to the the French crown. Strictly speaking, this was not a correct application of the law; the original code did not address the inheritance of titles. But in this treatise a legal precedent had been set that would thenceforward be associated with the Salic Law.

In the 1500s, scholars dealing with the theory of royal power promoted the Salic Law as an essential law of France. It was used expressly to deny the candidacy for the French throne of the Spanish infanta Isabella in 1593. From then on, the Salic Law of Succession was accepted as a core legal premise, although other reasons were also given for barring women from the crown.

The Salic Law was used in this context in France up until 1883.

The Salic Law of Succession was by no means universally applied in Europe. England and the Scandinavian lands allowed women to rule; and Spain had no such law until the 18th century, when Philip V of the House of Bourbon introduced a less strict variation of the code (it was later repealed). But, though Queen Victoria would reign over a vast British Empire and even hold the title "Empress of India," she was barred by the Salic Law from succeeding to the throne of Hanover, which was separated from Britain's holdings when she became queen of England and was ruled over by her uncle.

Also Known As: Lex Salica (in Latin)