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The Visigothic Code

14 October 2019

PG is a sucker for great headlines.

The Visigothic Code is one such headline, particularly in the legal arena, where the Uniform Commercial Code and The Code of Federal Regulations are just a few of the many legal codes in the US.

The Visigothic Code struck PG because he generally associates the Visigoths with a bit more barbarity than is implied in an extensive written legal code. After all, Visigothic forces led by Alaric I pretty thoroughly sacked Rome in 410 and thereafter, in PG’s limited understanding, The Roman Empire started to go downhill at an accelerating pace, kicking off what some have called the Dark Ages.

It turns out The Visigothic Code was a real thing.

From Wikipedia:

The Visigothic Code (Latin: Forum Iudicum, Liber Iudiciorum; Spanish: Libro de los Jueces, Book of the Judges), also called Lex Visigothorum (English: Law of the Visigoths), is a set of laws first promulgated by king Chindasuinth (642–653 AD) of the Visigothic Kingdom in his second year of rule (642–643) that survives only in fragments. In 654 his son, king Recceswinth (649–672), published the enlarged law code, which was the first law code that applied equally to the conquering Goths and the general population, of which the majority had Roman roots, and had lived under Roman laws.

The code abolished the old tradition of having different laws for Romans (leges romanae) and Visigoths (leges barbarorum), and under which all the subjects of the Visigothic kingdom would stop being romani and gothi instead becoming hispani. In this way, all subjects of the kingdom were gathered under the same jurisdiction, eliminating social and legal differences, and allowing greater assimilation of the populations. As such, the Code marks the transition from the Roman law to Germanic law and is one of the best surviving examples of leges barbarorum. It combines elements of the Roman law, Catholic law and Germanic tribal customary law.

Link to the rest at Wikipedia

How can you not love lawmakers with names like Chindasuinth and Recceswinth?

Someone evidently decided The Visigothic Code would gain more respect if it was written down in an impressive manner:

Visigothic Code or Liber Iudiciorum or Lex Visigothorum. Set of laws promulgated by the Visigothic king of Hispania, Chindasuinth and enlarged by Recceswinth (654).Vit. 14-5. I foliate I. Miniature Painting. SPAIN. Madrid. National Library.

“Where,” you may ask, “might I find a Library of Iberian Sources online so I can examine the Lex Visigothorum aka The Visigothic Code?”

PG has the answer to that question in one link https://libro.uca.edu/ aka LIBRO.

When you start writing laws down, they tend to proliferate, so it turns out The Visigothic Code ended up with 12 volumes. Since PG’s Latin is so rusty that there may be little of the original left unrusted, he was happy to find a translation into English.

Here are a few choice excerpts:

Book II, Title I Law IX

No woman can conduct a case under the authority of another, but she is not forbidden to transact her own business in court. Nor can a husband conduct the case of his wife without authority from her; and, indeed, he should protect himself with such an instrument in writing, that the wife may not repudiate the whole proceeding; and if she should repudiate it, the husband shall undergo the penalty to which he is liable who presumed to conduct a case without the authority of his wife. And if the husband should lose a case which he prosecuted without the order of his wife, her rights shall in no way be prejudiced; and she can afterwards either prosecute the case herself, or can authorize any one she wishes to do whatever is proper in the matter. And if the case should justly go against the husband, and the wife should believe that the adversary who prevailed should again be sued; and, after the second trial, it should be apparent that her husband was not unjustly beaten in the first trial, the wife shall render satisfaction as prescribed by law, not only to the judge who first heard the case, but also to the other party whom she brought into court for the second time.

. . . .

Book II, Title III, Law VI It shall not be Lawful for a Woman to Act as an Attorney, but She may Conduct her Own Case in Court

No woman can conduct a case under the authority of another, but she is not forbidden to transact her own business in court. Nor can a husband conduct the case of his wife without authority from her; and, indeed, he should protect himself with such an instrument in writing, that the wife may not repudiate the whole proceeding; and if she should repudiate it, the husband shall undergo the penalty to which he is liable who presumed to conduct a case without the authority of his wife. And if the husband should lose a case which he prosecuted without the order of his wife, her rights shall in no way be prejudiced; and she can afterwards either prosecute the case herself, or can authorize any one she wishes to do whatever is proper in the matter. And if the case should justly go against the husband, and the wife should believe that the adversary who prevailed should again be sued; and, after the second trial, it should be apparent that her husband was not unjustly beaten in the first trial, the wife shall render satisfaction as prescribed by law, not only to the judge who first heard the case, but also to the other party whom she brought into court for the second time.

. . . .

Book II, Title IV Law VI – Concerning Those who give False Testimony.

If any one should give false testimony against another, and be detected, or should acknowledge his crime; if he is a person of rank, he shall give as much of his own property to him against whom he testified falsely, as the latter would have lost by his evidence, and he shall never again be permitted to testify in court. If he is a person of inferior rank, and does not possess the means wherewith to make amends, he shall be delivered as a slave to him against whom he testified falsely. But the cause shall by no means be lost by reason of such false testimony, unless the truth shall have been established otherwise; that is, either by a lawful and approved witness, or by just and legal documents in writing. If any one should corrupt another, either by a gift, or by fraud, and should thereby induce him to perjure himself, then, as soon as this fact shall become apparent, the instigator of the crime who aimed at the injury of another, as well is he who was induced by avarice to swear falsely, shall undergo the penalty of forgery.

. . . .

Book III, Title IV Law VI. It is not Lawful for Slaves to put Persons to Death who are taken in Adultery.
While parents have the undoubted right to kill adulterers caught in their houses, slaves have no such authority. But if slaves should discover them, they may keep them in honorable custody, until they can be delivered over to the master of the house, or to the judge; and, after having been found guilty by reliable evidence, the legal penalty shall be inflicted upon them.

. . . .

Book IV, Title II, Law II. Concerning Poisoners.
Different kinds of crimes should be punished in different ways; and, in the first place, freemen or slaves who are guilty of preparing, or administering poison shall be punished in like manner; as for instance, if they should give poisoned drink to anyone and he should die in consequence; in such a case those who are guilty shall be put continuously to the torture, and be punished by the most ignominious of deaths. But if he who drank the poison should escape with his life, the party who administered it shall be given up into his power, to be disposed of absolutely as he may desire.

. . . .

 Book VI, Title IV I. Concerning the Injury of Freemen and Slaves.
Where one freeborn person strikes another any kind of a blow upon the head, he shall pay five solidi for a bruise, ten solidi if the skin is broken, twenty solidi for a wound extending to the bone, and a hundred solidi where a bone is broken. If a freeborn man should commit any of the above named acts upon the slave of another, he shall pay half of the above named penalties, according to the degree of his offence. If one slave should strike another, as above stated, he shall pay a third part of the above penalties, proportionate to his offence, and shall receive fifty lashes. If a slave, however, should wound a freeborn person, he shall pay the largest sum hereinbefore mentioned, which is exacted from freeborn persons for assaults upon slaves, and shall receive seventy lashes. If the master should not be willing to give satisfaction for the acts of his slave, he must surrender him on account of his crime.

Link to the rest at The Visigothic Code

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5 Comments to “The Visigothic Code”

  1. Those are some choice extracts. 😀
    Makes you wonder what Europe (and the Americas) would be like if they hadn’t spent seven centuries pushing back the Moros. They were getting almost civilized by the time they made it to Iberia.

    Might make for a fun alternate history.

  2. Seems white slaves were considered only 1/2 person under the law. Interesting.

  3. Richard Hershberger

    “Visigothic forces led by Alaric I pretty thoroughly sacked Rome in 410”

    This is not correct. It was one of the most restrained sacks in world history, leaving most of the structures and population intact. The Visigoths were Christians and respected Roman civilization. They, like most of the Germanic invaders in later years, didn’t want to destroy Roman civilization. They wanted to get their piece of the action. Alaric only attacked Rome itself after he was betrayed in a parley. He could have done it much earlier, but was trying to negotiate terms.

    The vast majority of sacks in history were far more brutal. This remained true through the Napoleonic era. It was understood that if the besieging commander ordered his men to make a final assault, he wouldn’t be able to control them for some days after. There evolved a code of conduct to avoid this. Once the walls were breached, the defenders could surrender with military honors, marching out the gates with their weapons and baggage and go on their way. The city would then be occupied intact. See Henry V, when Henry is besieging Harfleur. The walls are breached, and Henry gives the city fathers a speech, explaining that they can surrender now or have their women raped and the city burned to the ground. This was not Henry being unusually brutal. He was merely stating the obvious.

  4. These are great, thanks for posting. You can find a surprising amount of plot bunnies just looking at laws and codes from historical eras, particularly if you’re writing a fantasy based on the era.

    Ancient laws give a window on what fantastical occurrences people believed were possible, like with the Roman laws against crop charming, where you magically transport crops from one farm into your own farm. I read a little case study about a man accused of that particular crime. Apparently crop heists are carried out at night, so the accused had watchmen to prevent himself from becoming a victim of that very crime.

    The author of “The Golden Asse” seemed to always be defending himself in court against charges of sorcery. In his arguments, he betrays a suspiciously in-depth knowledge of sorcery for someone who claims to be innocent of magical crimes…

    Oh, and check out Recceswith’s crown, it’s the first picture on the right at the link. If you click to enlarge the picture, it looks like he might have his name spelled out in the dangly bits. If so, that would make it easy to frame the king in a “poisoned crown” scenario (think “Ella Enchanted”). The crown couldn’t be confused with anyone else’s. Unless the poisoner is illiterate, in which case, nevermind. Dark Ages “Cadfael” would be on the case in any event.

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