The Salic law (Lat. lex Salica) was a body of traditional law to govern the Salian Franks (the tribe which had separated from original Franks, went to Dutch coast area, and migrated/ expanded throughout Belgium and to Northern France, then formed a Kingdom in Northern France and coasts north of it – which was the proto of the future Kingdom of France) 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 had evolved to something new.
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.
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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.
or, another transcript:
- "concerning terra Salica no portion or inheritance is for a woman but all the land belongs to members of the male sex who are brothers."
As actually interpreted by the Salian Franks, the law simply prohibited women from inheriting, not all property (such as movables), but ancestral "Salic land", and under Chilperic I sometime around year 570, the law was actually amended to permit inheritance of land by a daughter if a man had no surviving sons. (This amendment, depending on how it is applied and interpreted, offers the basis for either Semi-Salic succession or male-preferred primogeniture, or both.)
The wording of the salic Law, as well as usual usages in those days and centuries afterwards, seem to support an interpretation that the Salic Law would mean partition of the inheritance between brothers. And, if it is intended to govern succession, it can be interpreted to mandate agnatic seniority, not a direct primogeniture.
In its usage of hereditary monarchies since 15th century, aiming at Agnatic Succession, the Salic Law is regarded to exclude all females from the succession, as well as prohibiting succession rights to transfer through any woman. At least two systems of hereditary succession are direct and full applications of the Salic Law: agnatic seniority and agnatic primogeniture.
So-called Semi-Salic version of succession order stipulates that firstly all male descendance is seen through, including all collateral male lines, but if all agnates become extinct, then the female who is closest heir (such as daughter) of the last male holder of the property, inherits, and after her, her own male heirs according to the Salic order. In other words, the female closest to the last incumbent, is regarded as a male for the purposes of inheritance/succession. This is a pragmatic way of putting order: the female is the closest, thus continuing the most recent incumbent's blood, and not any more distant relative than necessary. At that order, the original primogeniture is not followed with regard to the requisite female. She could be child of a relatively junior branch of the whole dynasty, but still inherits thanks to the longevity of her own branch.
From Middle Ages, we have one practical system of succession in cognatic male primogeniture, which actually fulfills apparent stipulations of original Salic Law: succession is allowed also through female line, just females themselves do not inherit, but the sons of females do. For example, a grandfather, without sons, is succeeded by his grandson, a son of his daughter, when the daughter in question is yet alive. Or an uncle, without own children, is succeeded by his nephew, a son of his sister, when the sister in question is yet alive. Strictly seen, this fulfills the Salic condition of "no land comes to a woman, but the land comes to the male sex". This can be called as Quasi-Salic system of succession, and it should be classified as primogenitural, cognatic, and male.
However, in 1316, in events which would later lead to the Hundred Years' War (1339–1450), upon the first situation in history of Capetian kings where the closest relative of the dead king was not a son, French lords (notably lead by late king's uncle Philip of Poitiers, the beneficiary of this) wanted to forbid inheritance by a woman. At instance, in order to favor the previous king's (John I the Posthumous's) uncle Philip's claim over John's half-sister Joan, to totally disqualify the claim of the future Joan II of Navarre as well as having the by-product of disqualifying also any future claims of Edward III of England to the French throne. In 1328, a further limitation was needed, to bar inheritance by a male through a female line. These applications of succession were at that time based on a number of reasons and excuses, such as "genealogical proximity with the king Saint Louis", and role of monarch as leader of war, as well as claiming to bar the realm going to an alien man and his clan through a woman, to not allow an order of succession where an alien man could become king of France as husband, without necessarily having any French blood himself. Some additional factors were, in 1316, that the rival heir was a five-years old female and powerless compared with the rival. And in 1328, the rival was a king of a neighboring kingdom against which the French had had battles and quarrels for a couple of centuries already. As far as can be ascertained, Salic Law was not explicitly mentioned at that time.
Actually, only much later (= an anachronism), jurists resurrected the long-defunct Salic Law and re-interpreted it to justify the line of succession arrived at in cases of 1316 and 1328, to forbid not only inheritance by a woman, but inheritance through a female line.
Notwithstanding the Salic Law, when Francis II of Brittany died in 1488 without male issue, his daughter Anne succeeded him and ruled as duchess of Brittany until her death in 1514. (Brittany had been inherited by women also earlier – Francis's own dynasty obtained the Duchy through their ancestress Duchess Constance of Brittany in 12th century.) Francis's own family, the Montfort branch of the ducal house, had obtained Brittany in 1350's on basis of agnatic succession, and at that time, their succession was limited to male line only.
This law by no means was intended to cover all matters of inheritance — for example not inheritance of movables – 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 and its lands had originally situated in Dutch areas, now belonging to another country), the idea was resurrected by Philip V 1316 to support his claim to the throne by removing his niece Jeanne from the succession, following the death of his nephew John. In 1328, at latest, the Salic Law needed a further interpretation to forbid not only inheritance by a woman, but inheritance through a female line, in order to bar the male Edward III of England, descendant of French kings through his mother Isabel of France, from the succession. 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. (This is an example of operation of the so-called Semi-Salic Law.)
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
Agnatic succession means succession to the throne or fief going to an agnate of the predecessor; for example, a brother, a son, or nearest male relative through male line (collateral agnate branches, for example cousis, very distant cousins included). Chief forms are agnatic seniority and agnatic primogeniture. The latter, which has been the most usual, means succession going to the eldest son of the monarch; if the monarch had no sons, the throne would pass to the nearest male relative through male line. These genealogical ways to organize succession fulfill the prerequisites of the Salic Law.
Preference for males, existing in most systems of hereditary succession comes mostly from the perceived nature of the tasks and role of the monarch: A monarch most usually was, firstly and foremostly, a military protector.
- Tribal chiefs, proto-monarchs, themselves were required to participate, personally, in violent activities such as warring, marauding, robber expeditions and duels.
- His income was very dependent on protection money collected from those people he was in office of protecting against wars, violence, crimes, other injustices (already in those times, this sort of protection money, more or less extorted from people by use or threat of the violent powers of the protector himself, was labelled by the less-infuriating terms "tax" and "duty", and as we all know, those forms of revenue-collecting have continued into our less-monarchical governments, too).
- It was very useful, or even requisite, that the monarch be a warrior, and a commander of military. And, also, war troops (consisting typically only of males) were perceived to approve only males as their commanders, or even warriors.
- Additionally, in some monarchies (such as France), the monarch held a certain mystical position, some task best described as priestly position (high priest or demigod). That sort of position was, depending on the tradition in question, often denied of females. In the French monarchy, one of the official explanations for the Salic Law was that the monarch was obliged to use certain sacred instruments, which females are forbidden even to touch.
In later Middle Ages, violence decreased, at least touching lords and their heirs, who slowly decreased their personal participation in violent activities such as warring, marauding, robber expeditions and duels. Sons were much more likely to survive longer than in previous centuries, when almost any noble family lost sons in their teens to constant warfare. Also, living conditions, food and overall health of higher classes (such as high nobility) improved, leading to fewer miscarriages, deaths of babies, and deaths young, as well as lead to higher fertility. The number of sons reaching adulthood and marriage, as well as the average lifespan, increased. Thus, daughters were needed only increasingly rarely to carry on inheritance. In earlier centuries, perhaps in every second or every third generation in average, male line became extinct and females were needed so that the fief will not become extinct. In medieval culture, male lines tended become extinct relatively soon (males engaged much in dangerous warfare, and private wars were common), thus fully agnatic primogeniture (so-called Salic Law) would have been impractical (impossible) to maintain (almost every generation, an exception must have been made or the succession went to relatively distant male, such as second cousin).
Slowly in Middle Ages, Europe became more and more congested. There were no more lands available. As societies became more fixed and stable, migration grew rarer. Lands were strictly divided among noble families and tended to remain fixed. This scarcity lead to reinvigorate the ancient tradition of clannishness within agnate heirs. In earlier medieval society, lordships and properties were not as fixed as in, say, 1400–1900. Feudal lords as individuals often made their own position, or it was inherited from a not very ancient ancestor. Therefore, a very distant male was not regarded as justified to inherit instead of close female who descended from more several of those individuals who had created the inheritance. During say 1400–1900, scarcity of free lands had lead to situation where landed properties were inherited rather untouched from ancestors centuries ago. Descendants of the male line of those ancient ancestors were more often regarded fully justified to receive the forefathers' inheritance, over females who would have brought it to an alien family (husbands controlled properties of their wives). Therefore increasingly, succession preferably going to the eldest son of the monarch, if the monarch however had no sons, the throne would pass to the nearest male relative through the male line. Salic Law and operation of totally agnatic succession became thus much more common during those centuries, when lands were strictly divided among noble families and tended to remain fixed. Certain 'xenophobia' also lead to try to exclude those as heirs who have gone or may go to "another clan" – which easily meant exclusion of females from scarce inheritance.
The fully agnatic succession usually was not in interests of individual lords who favored usually and quite naturally close female relatives over very distant males. In earlier medieval times, male lines tended become extinct relatively soon.
In very many cultures, surnames have been most usually agnatically determined. This has been true in many oriental civilizations as well as in Europe – two regions which earlier had almost no interaction. Sort of an outcome of the usualness of clan membership to be determined typically based on agnatic kinship.
Matrilineal Succession is the precise analogy (and, in some sense, the opposite) of agnatic succession. It is precisely the same as agnatic succession when "male" is changed into "female". As in agnatic succession, only males in male line are allowed to inherit, correspondingly in matrilineal succession, only females in female line are allowed to inherit.
Practically everything that -in regard to gender- falls between these two extremes, can be classified into the group of various forms of cognatic succession. Cognatic succession may give some preference to males (as happens in succession of Spain and Britain), or some preference to females, or it may be totally and absolutely neutral regarding gender, as happens for example in primogeniture.