HIST 210: The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000

Lecture 7

 - Barbarian Kingdoms


In this lecture, Professor Freedman considers the various barbarian kingdoms that replaced the Western Roman Empire. Oringinally the Roman reaction to these invaders had been to accommodate them, often recruiting them for the Roman army and settling them on Roman land. Now, however, they were the rulers of the previously Roman lands of the West. These tribes included the Ostrogoths and Visigoths in Italy, the Franks in Gaul, and the Vandals in North Africa. As most sources about these groups come from the Roman perspective, it’s unclear how coherent each group was. In general, the barbarian groups characterized by disorganization, internal fighting and internecine feuds, and lack of economic development. Professor Freedman closes with some remarks on the Burgundian Code as evidence of barbarian society and institutions.

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The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000

HIST 210 - Lecture 7 - Barbarian Kingdoms

Chapter 1: Introduction [00:00:00]

Professor Paul Freedman: So last time we spoke about the collapse of the Roman Empire. And I didn’t quite definitively answer the question: External force - Internal collapse? There are other possible explanations: an eminent historian of the barbarians says that the Roman Empire committed suicide by accident. That essentially it was just a political problem. The wrong people became emperors. Some bad things happened and one day there it was, it was gone. I’m not sure I buy that; I like long-term causes more.

But it is important to emphasize that a lot of this is contingency and not inevitability. Historians generally tend to make things look as if they had to happen. As if there’s sort of long-term things playing out inevitably. And the longer or the farther away the historian is from the period that he or she is studying, the greater that tendency because the look back is longer.

So in talking about both the Empire and the barbarians, I want to at least remind you that events could have gone other ways. There are lots of long-term tendencies, but we’re talking about a series of factors that are both immediate and long term. This is relevant to talking about the barbarians and who they are. Which is more of a mystery than it might seem. Who they are as in, what does it mean to say that someone is a Visigoth? How much have I described what that means? And despite the business about plunder, that’s not actually the only thing they were after.

As we have tried to emphasize, they liked the Roman Empire. They wanted to share in its advantages, not to destroy it. We’ve emphasized accommodation rather than conquest. We’ve said that this is the end of a world, not the end of the world. It is the end of a certain civilization, perhaps, or maybe transformation of that civilization, but it’s not the end of civilization. They’re not invaders from outer space.

Where do they come from? Who are they? What are these aspects of accommodation? That’s partly what we want to talk about today in discussing the barbarian kingdoms after the collapse of Rome.

So 476 to 530. What happens in 530 is that the Eastern Roman Empire embarks on a reconquest of the West under the emperor Justinian. And that will be the subject of our discussion a week from today. Any questions in the meanwhile?

Notice that in the Burgundian Code the authors of the code, the Burgundians, call themselves barbarians. They distinguish between barbarians and Romans. Even though they use the word, it’s deceptive to think of barbarians, or tribes, or Germans as if these were absolute well-defined terms that corresponded to an absolute well-defined set of realities.

What do we know about these people before they enter the Empire? We know something from archaeology. But as they moved around, as I said they’re not nomadic, they have settlements, but they’re not very urban settlements. They have gravesites. People who have gravesites with a lot of graves are not moving around a lot. So that’s one indication. And the gravesites sometimes have stuff in them, things buried with them. And among other things, they show that they had trade with the Roman Empire because they’ve got Roman artifacts in them.

Chapter 2: Tacitus and the Nature of the Barbarian Tribes [00:04:23]

Well, OK. But we actually don’t find out that much about them. The main written source for pre-invasion, let’s call them Germanic tribes delicately, is Tacitus, the Roman historian better known, or best known, for his very pessimistic annals of the history of the Roman Empire. But also the author of a brief work called Germania about the German tribes.

For Tacitus, the Germans - that is the peoples living beyond the Rhine frontier - are both childlike and noble. They’re warlike. From the Roman point of view, these barbarians are intent on invading the Empire and enjoying its riches. Hence the defensive kinds of frontiers we’ve talked about. The Rhine, or in Britain, Hadrian’s Wall, which you can still see in the north of England, not that far from the Scottish border. That to guard not against Germans, but Celts, Picts, and Scots, in particular.

Tacitus portrays the Germans as kind of warlike. Around the year 100 is his description. But he never visited Germania. And if you’d asked him, well, if you’re going to write about them, shouldn’t you do some field work? he’d have looked at you as if you were crazy. Go there? Me? Moi? You’ve got to be kidding.

The reason he wrote the work was probably not an anthropological description of the Germans, but as a way of berating the Romans. If you describe people who are virtuous but primitive, you can use that to castigate your own people. Rousseau’s noble savage where the American Indians are used to attack supposedly civilized societies is an example. Or descriptions of the South Seas, some of Herman Melville’s earlier works. Or Robert Louis Stevenson. Or Gauguin’s paintings. Contrast a beautiful, natural, simple world far superior to the fatiguing rat race of what passes for civilization.

So Tacitus’ Germans are warlike, concerned with personal bravery and honor. They have close family ties. They’re heterosexuals. They treat their women well. All of these are supposed to contrast with what Tacitus, who’s a bit of a scold, Tacitus sees as Roman decadence.

The Romans are given to prostitution. None of that in the German realms. The Romans are given to same sex love. Oh, no, no, no. The Germans know that that is really evil. They don’t practice divorce, according to Tacitus. Now this is not– This is a moralistic rather than an ethnographic treatise.

He does condemn them for certain vices. The vices typically ascribed to so-called primitive peoples by the civilized. They’re lazy. They tend to get drunk. They quarrel. They gamble.

In several respects Tacitus, however, describes things that are true of later German practices visible in the Burgundian Code, for example. And that he does not make up for any particular moralistic purpose. Two of these things are the comitatus– The comitatus is the important men surrounding the leader, his entourage, but his military entourage, his armed men. Not just bodyguards, but members of a gang, I guess would be the closest simile. People who are loyal to their superior, but who have a certain amount of autonomy. They’re not just sort of paid, as I said, bodyguards. They are his followers. An anachronistic word would be “vassals”–anachronistic because it’s not used at this time. His military followers. Armed military followers, the comitatus.

Tacitus describes the feud. Feud between clans. Feuds are generally characteristic of societies without a strong central government and with fairly generous definitions of kinship. A generous definition of kinship means you know who your second cousin is, maybe your third cousin, maybe your third cousin twice removed. And that cousin is going to consider your interests to be his or her interests as well.

You might expect your children or parents to support you, but you probably don’t expect your great uncles or second cousins to do much for you. So in terms of vengeance, which is also protection, in other words, I am protected by the fact that if somebody kills me, my clan will take vengeance on their clan. In terms of protection and vengeance, extended kinship is related to a feud and to keeping order in a society that doesn’t have a very powerful central government.

One way of avoiding feuds that killed too many people is compensation. And this compensation is mentioned by Tacitus and is what appears in the Burgundian Code and elsewhere as wergeld. Wergeld is the money paid in compensation for hurting or killing someone. I killed your brother. We have a drunken brawl. I don’t like the way he describes my mother. And I kill him. I’m sorry, but that’s just the way things go. What are you going to do about it? Are you going to kill me? Are you going to kill a cousin of mine? Or maybe you’ll accept compensation based on, say, what kind of guy he was. Was he a silversmith? In which case I’m going to have to pay a huge amount of money. Or was he just some guy? Some random guy, random Burgundian? Or free Burgundian? Or freed, formerly slave? All of these are tariffs. They’re sliding scales of compensation. Tacitus mentions this.

So we’re looking at the Burgundian Code – and there are other barbarian law codes – for clues as to how the society functioned. But of course, it’s a society that’s already in the Roman Empire. It looks like before they entered the empire, they lived in little villages. They cultivated grain, but they were more cattle-raisers. They’re skilled at iron working. They also supplemented their income by a spot of raiding and warfare. Opportunistic warfare.

Ties of kinship are very important. When we’re talking about a clan, extended kinship group, we’re talking about maybe 50 households. And we’ll see this again. We’ll see this with the Bedouins in the desert, for example. Within the clan you’re not supposed to feud. Not supposed to. Above the clan level is some kind of confederation or tribe. And this is where things get kind of difficult, because we don’t really know how one clan considered another clan to be part of something larger. That is, we know that the Romans call the people who defeated them at Adrianople the Visigoths. “Oh, my gosh. Here I am. Adrianople. The Visigoths are winning. What am I going to do?”

But who are the Visigoths? One theory is that they’re just groups of people who come together in contact with the Roman Empire, in part because the Roman Empire calls them something. It gives them a name and they develop what’s called “fictive kinship” from a common ancestor. They invent the notion that they all come from one place and one ancestor.

This process of sort of fictitious ethnic invention is called “ethnogenesis”. Ethnogenesis means the birth of an ethnicity. Rather than some kind of biological fact that you could confirm with DNA, e.g. all Visigoths have some sort of biological thing in common. These people are not really related, but they invent a common ancestor.

And this question of who forms a real group remains both important as a real thing. For example, American Indian tribes. There are some whose claims to existence are indisputable. They have treaties with the United States. They’ve had reservations for many years. But now with the inducements for tribes, the tax free status, the ability to have casinos and things like that, there are petitions for tribes to be recognized as such. And here the question of ethnicity. Ethnic identification becomes extremely important.

A more sinister and much more widespread modern aspect of ethnogenesis is precisely the use of the Germanic barbarians as the origins of the Germans. It’s no accident that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, culminating but not limited to the Nazis, the idea of the Germans as a racial group; as a group with a common Aryan –  with a “y” – ancestry; As manly and as pure in the sense that Tacitus portrays them becomes a polemical idea. A fighting idea. An invented idea of great force. Just because something is false, it does not necessarily lack historical importance. So the idea of ethnogenesis, of the invention of a group called the Visigoths is one way of approaching who they are.

On the other hand, there’s not a whole lot of evidence that they’re doing this. There’s not a whole lot of evidence that they are developing this notion of a common ancestor. Much of the evidence, or seeming evidence, for that is Roman. A lot of this ethnogenesis comes from contact with the Romans. Certainly peoples who come in contact with those who are more civilized than they are, and by civilized I mean peoples who have writing, who live in cities, who have extensive trade and administration. The so-called barbarian peoples are going to want to define themselves against the Romans. Hence, among other things, many of these invaders are Arian, with an “i”. They use religious difference as part of their identity.

So they have come into the empire and, as we said last time, they come into the empire first as allied troops, as refugees, as federati. Federati, that is to say armies of the Roman Empire. They are supported by a system with the bland name of hospitality. Hospitality meaning that they’re settled on the land of Romans and they share in the revenue of that land. That’s how the Romans pay them. They don’t pay them cash. They don’t pay them in plunder. They pay them in a portion of the tax revenue.

So you owe a reasonably powerful but not quite powerful enough senator in Burgandy. You settle some friendly Burgundian troops on your land. And you give them hospitality, that is to say one third of the tax revenue that you’re collecting for the empire. Or maybe one third  of just your regular old private revenues.

This is a kind of accommodation then. It’s accommodation that costs money, but it is part of a set of ways that the Roman elite figures out how to deal with these invaders. Collaborate with them.

So the Roman aristocratic land owners and the barbarian war leaders come to various kinds of accommodation. Now, the accommodation differs depending on where we’re speaking of. And now we come to the point of having to describe the barbarian kingdoms.


Chapter 3: The Barbardian Kingdoms [00:20:05]

I’ve given you two maps, one of which you’re not to show people who are not in the class. This one. The one with the arrows. Yale University is home to one of the great historians of our time, Walter Goffart. And I can’t believe that I’m talking about all sorts of people like Wickham and Goffart in something that’s going to be widely available, but, anyway let me express my admiration to him, great early Medieval historian who could certainly run rings around me. He’s retired. He taught at the University of Toronto. And among his many works is one that completely destroys the notion of having invaders with arrows. This whole idea, like they’ve got this path; we know where they are; they come from somewhere.

See up where what is now southern Sweden, Skandia? A lot of these histories, or what purport to be histories, say they came from Skandia. And you can still read in not very old textbooks, oh, the Visigoths came from Skandia. And then they went here, and then they went there, and they’re migrating all round. And you have little arrows that show their progress. You’re not supposed to do that. I’m not sure what you’re supposed to do though, as a substitute. And as always with historically misleading things, once you get rid of the misleading thing, you’re kind of helpless if you’re trying to teach this.

So I’m asking you to look at this really closely and not take it seriously. I’m asking you to memorize everywhere they went, but not to tell anybody. Once they enter the Empire then those arrows start to make sense. We know that the Visigoths were in the Balkans at the time of the battle of Adrianople in 278.(correction: 378) We know that they sacked Rome in 410. We know that they go down to Italy to try to get to the granaries of North Africa. We know they discover, “OMG, I can’t build a boat,” so then they come up the other side of Italy. They settle in southern France. They’re kicked out of southern France by the Franks for the most part. And they settle in Spain, where the Arabs get them. Four weeks from now, I think.

So the arrows are not completely deceptive, and that’s why I’ve given these to you. And it’s hard to tell which arrows apply to which tribes, so hence map two. Map two, a lot calmer. This is the situation in 506. Why 506? Because in that year the Franks, whom we’re going to be following more closely, the Merovingian Franks defeat the Visigoths and start pushing them out of southern France. So this is a map, I guess, before that defeat. You see the Visigoths in southern France and northeastern Spain with the Basques kind of in between them.

So this is the situation in 500. There’s no more Roman Empire of the West. Or there is a fictitious Roman Empire of the West. All of these people to varying degrees– well, not all of them, most of them– acknowledge some kind of suzerainty of Constantinople. You’ll read about Clovis, King of the Franks in the beginning of the 6th century, who gets some sort of gift from the emperor Anastasius in Constantinople. A letter of appointment, some robes, various trinkets, and, according to Gregory of Tours, the historian of Clovis, the title of consul. And he is very pleased with this. He dons these robes. He scatters coins just like a newly appointed emperor.

But is he obeying the emperor Anastasius? Did the emperor Anastasius start sending orders to him? Or have any kind of administration? No. This is really just symbolic. We will talk about the relationship between the Eastern empire and the barbarians, because it’s going to change in the sixth century as the Eastern empire fends off its opponents and becomes more concerned to take back as much as possible of the lost Western empire.

In the year 500, the most impressive of these barbarians would’ve been the Ostrogoths because they are occupying Italy, which is the most Roman, the most prosperous, the most intact economically and culturally of the former Roman Empire of the West.

The Ostrogoths had been in the– if you look at the arrows, they had been maybe in the Crimean area, around the Black Sea. They came into the Balkans. They tried to attack Constantinople in the late fifth century, and they were defeated. And they were encouraged to move into Italy by the Byzantine emperor to get rid of Odoacer, that military leader whose takeover of Italy in 476 is conventionally understood to be the end of the Roman Empire in the West.

The Ostrogoths had an impressive ruler named Theodoric. And they ruled from Ravenna, the old last Roman capital in northeastern Italy. And the tomb of Theodoric can still be seen in Ravenna. Very impressive monument.

Chapter 4: Intellectual Life after the Fall of Rome [00:26:17]

Roman education survived in Italy. It would reach its last flowering with two figures: I mentioned one of them last time, Boethius, and Cassiodorus. These are two key figures in the preservation of classical learning. Boethuis, not perhaps literally the last person in the west who knew Greek, but certainly the last person who tried to make Greek knowledge known to people who could only read in Latin. He conceived the project of translating all of Plato and Aristotle into Latin. He started by doing a kind of introductory textbook. Like a lot of great projects, this one was not completed. In fact, this one barely got off the ground because he was accused by Theodoric of conspiring with the Byzantine Empire, the Eastern Roman Empire, to overthrow him.

He was imprisoned for a year. In prison he wrote one of the most magnificent works of philosophy, of why we are alive and why we die. The Consolation of Philosophy. And then he was executed.

Cassiodorus lived to be ninety. So one of the differences between these two figures of the last gasp of Roman culture in Italy is Cassiodorus’s relative longevity. They’re both figures of the sixth century. Boethius dies in the 530s, Cassiodorus much, much later. Cassiodorus also conceives of a program of education, but it is more oriented towards Latin learning. And Cassiodorus in some way is the founder, or at least the transmitter to us, of the idea of the liberal arts.

Cassiodorus is a religious figure. Boethius is a Christian and he wrote on Christian topics, but The Consolation of Philosophy, interestingly enough, is a Stoical work, has very little explicitly about Christianity.

Cassiodorus, on the other hand, is the guy who invented the idea that monks should copy manuscripts. That the preserve of culture, the place where it seeks refuge and is protected in barbarian times, should be monasteries. This seems so self-evident to us. Because if there’s one thing we know about monasteries, it’s guys hunched over and writing stuff and the preservation of learning. But, in fact, monasteries start out as just anti-intellectual institutions where you pray and you don’t spend a lot of time reading, let alone copying, let alone thinking. You’re supposed to have visions. You’re supposed to be inspired. You’re supposed to fast and become ecstatic. It’s Cassiodorus who conceives of this as a contemplative and learned project.

The liberal arts means here things that are not immediately practically useful, but that help illuminate the person seeking after knowledge. And what kind of knowledge is a person seeking after in the 6th century A.D.? They’re seeking after knowledge of God and knowledge of the divine.

Why not just read the Bible? I’m sure many of you have read the Bible or read parts of it. The Bible is not an immediately evident document in terms of its view of the world is total, but it’s full of mysteries. It’s full of obscurities. It’s a strange work that requires knowledge and explication. Or to celebrate divine services, for example, requires a certain kind of knowledge. To know when Easter is. To know the phases of the moon. To know what day it is. These monks, or just anybody out in the countryside, can’t just look at their phone and see what time it is.

There’s a need for some practical knowledge, but that involves abstract concepts like the movements of the planets. This is what the liberal arts are and this is what’s being preserved in the Ostrogothic kingdom. But the fate of Boethius shows you the sort of duality of the barbarian patronage of culture. On the one hand, the Ostrogoths in Italy are as civilized as these groups get. On the other hand, of course, Boethius is executed. On the third hand, you didn’t have to be a barbarian to execute people. After all, Seneca was forced to commit suicide by Nero. So the fate of intellectuals in the Roman Empire is not necessarily so much better than the fate of intellectuals in the barbarian kingdoms.

The thing about the intellectuals in the barbarian kingdoms is they’re very few of them. Seneca’s a great man. It’s too bad that he died. We could have had more works. But there were lots of other philosophers. There were lots of other playwrights. Boethuis we can say– Boethius and Cassiodorus, maybe, are the two smartest people in the sixth century, judging by what they had access to, what they read, how they wrote. And that’s scary. If you can say that Isidore of Seville is the smartest man of the seventh century. Or Bede and Alcuin are the smartest men of the eighth century. It’s not just a compliment to them.

If you’re rated like the eighteenth best tennis player in the United States, that’s a tremendous accomplishment. But presumably, there are 200 tennis players who are ranked. And behind them there are 10,000 very good tennis players. But what if you were the number one tennis player in the country, and there was no number four? No number four through one hundred million. Tennis would be an endangered game. It would mean a lot, but supposing nobody followed tennis anymore? I don’t know enough about antiquated games, but some medieval game that only five people know how to play. I could be the fourth ranked. But here we’re not talking about sports, important though they are. We’re talking about the fundamental aspects of knowledge.

Theodoric. Theodoric is a great ruler, but he had a problem that is typical of many of these barbarian groups: He had to hold his minority together. The thing that made Italy the wealthiest, the most important, the biggest prize for the barbarians is its Roman population, its Roman wealth, the preservation of its cities. But that also meant that the Ostrogoths were a tiny proportion of the total population. He needs to hold them together, but he also needs to mollify the Romans.

So it’s a dangerous place for barbarian rulers. Odoacer had already been overthrown. It’s too valuable to the Eastern Empire. And indeed after Theodoric died in 535, very shortly thereafter the Byzantine Empire, the Eastern Roman Empire, would invade Italy and devastate it in the course of conquering it in a twenty years’ war.

Chapter 5: The Barbarian Tribes: Vandals, Moors, Angles, Saxons, and Visigoths [34:33]

Now if you look at the map again and turn to North Africa, you’ll see we’ve got the Vandals in what’s now Tunisia and eastern Algeria. And then Moorish kingdom and Roman Empire. Ignore Roman Empire. I don’t know what they’re talking about. Moorish kingdoms, what does that mean? We don’t really know who these people are either. They’re not invaders. They’re desert peoples who have now taken over what was formerly the Roman Empire, and they’re pressing the Vandals.

The Vandals were less accommodating than the Ostrogoths. They were more fiercely Arian. They persecuted the elite of the Roman population, including the Roman bishops. But they were very effective rulers. They had a navy. They were able to plunder Rome several times in the 5th century. But they were beleaguered by these Moorish groups, in other words native peoples of the North African desert. And so by 506, their kingdom has shrunk.

They were also a minority in what had been a very populous part of the Roman Empire. And they tended to fight among each other. They had internecine feuds. And so we’re talking about things that are common to many of these barbarian kingdoms. Disorganization. Internal fighting. Alien religious beliefs, particularly the Arian heresy. And once they’ve done the plundering, inability really to start making the economy work very effectively. The Vandals would be driven out of North Africa, or obliterated actually, by the Eastern Roman Empire, in the late 520s, early 530s.

Now I’m not going to go through every one of these, but I want to give you some examples of accommodation. Go up to the British Isles. You’ll see it says British kingdoms,  that means Celtic kingdoms, whose remnants would later be Wales, Scotland. And then the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The Anglo-Saxons are invaders who come from the continent beginning in the 440s. This is the first place that Rome abandons. Here it looks more like a conventional invasion. The invaders come and the Romans pull back their troops because they’re afraid that Gaul is going to fall next.

And this is an island where the Roman impress, the Roman impact, was less. There isn’t a large Roman majority and a small German minority. There is a Celtic majority that blends with the invaders or that seeks refuge in these independent British kingdoms, as they’re called on the map, to the west.

We don’t know very much about what’s going on in Britain at this time because more than Vandal North Africa, more than Ostrogothic Italy, the past is obliterated. There’s very little Latin being written. We have very little knowledge of what is going on. So this is at one extreme of what might be called Barbarization verses Roman permanence.

We’re going to be talking about the Franks later, and we’re going to talk a little bit about the Burgundians in closing today. But this leaves really among the important groups the Visigoths. The Visigoths, the people who in a way started this with their invasions of the Balkans in the late 4th century. In 506 they control much of France, the south and the west particularly, and are trickling into Spain. We will be following, in reading Gregory of Tours, the tremendous success of the Franks against the Visigoths. And so the Visigoths will be pushed out.

Chapter 6: The Burgundians and the Burgundian Code [00:39:15]

What about the Burgundians? You’ve read the Burgundian Code– anything strike you about it? Spencer?

Student: Mainly it focused on differences between different classes and emphasized the free men versus the slaves. Burgundians versus Romans, et cetera.

Professor Paul Freedman: Very status oriented.

Student: I didn’t realize there was so much hair pulling.

Professor Paul Freedman: Yeah, why? What’s that all about? Yeah?

Student: Well, it talked about the– in the book it talked about how long hair became like a status symbol.

Professor Paul Freedman: Yes. So the question was, what is all this hair pulling? It’s a status symbol. We’ll see that the Merovingian kings wear long hair, specially long hair. And when they’re finally deposed by the Carolingians, that hair is cut. Now of course, all their hair is cut, they’re put in monasteries. And monks are what’s called “tonsured”. If they’re not completely bald, they at least are pretty near. Like many barbarian, so-called barbarian, people, or like many people period, they’re certain signs of prestige, symbols.

The Burgundian Code is drawn up between 483 and 532. It’s drawn up in different stages. The Burgundians were closer to [correction: “than”] the Ostrogoths in degree of Romanization. They’re a group that wants to be Roman, or at least accepted by the Romans. They write their own law code in Latin, like the Visigoths, for example. They also write a sort of law code for the Roman population. This law code is aware of disputes between Romans and Burgundians. And if each has a different kind of law, then how do you settle a problem that arises between members of both communities?

The Burgundian law in itself shows a lot of Roman influence. For example, in chapter eighteen you’ve seen this title “Of things that happen by chance” and probably didn’t seem very dramatic. If any animal by chance or any dog by bite causes death to a man, we order that among Burgundians the ancient rule of blame be removed henceforth. This is an interesting question. If my dog bites you and you die, am I responsible? Is your brother going to have to kill me? That’s what the Burgundian tradition would have been. But here they say if it’s an accident, then your brother can’t kill me.

This is the difference between – this is a a tricky problem. Those of you who have the good fortune to go to law school are going to study this first year: torts. A tort is a so-called civil wrong as opposed to a crime. A crime is where I kill you because I want to. A tort is I leave a roller skate out on the sidewalk, you trip and die. I’m not going to be considered in the same league as someone who poisoned you, but that roller skate shouldn’t be there. And of course this is a crucial thing.

For example, I’ve learned, fortunately not from experience, but from neighbors after Hurricane Irene, that if a tree in my yard falls on your house, I’m not to blame. Your insurance is going to have to cover that. I’m really sorry about that tree. But if you warned me, “I don’t like the look of that tree in your yard. It’s leaning over like this. I’m afraid in the next storm it’s going to fall in on your house,” and I don’t do anything, then my understanding is that I’m liable for negligence. This was a present and obvious nuisance. It was an obvious threat, and my neighbor called my attention to it. And I didn’t do anything. So next time it storms and your house is threatened by somebody else’s tree, just as the wind starts to blow go next door and say, you know, I don’t like the look of that tree on your property. You better do something.

These are real legal questions. And they are handled in here with some sophistication. On the other hand, there is vengeance. It’s OK to practice vengeance, but there are some limitations. For example, if I kill you, your relatives can kill me, but they can’t just kill my cousin. This is sort of individual-directed and not clan-directed vengeance.

There’s a lot of talk about compensation and wergeld for victims. How much you pay. Whether you grab them by the hair. Whether you cut off which finger. Whether they were free or slave. Whether they were a skilled artisan or a serf. I love title X. “If anyone kills a slave, barbarian by birth, a trained house servant or messenger, let him compound 60 solidi. But 200 solidi if the slave is a skilled goldsmith.” 40 solidi for a carpenter, and so forth.

If you cut off someone’s arm, it’s half of their wergeld. Wergeld is like murder. Their murder value. So I have a murder value of 100 solidi. Cut off an arm, you’ve got to pay me 50 solidi. This seems pretty crude, doesn’t it? How does it strike you? Yes?

Student: Yeah, it does seem crude, but I think it gives a solution to something that could cause a total outbreak, a civil war.

Professor Paul Freedman: It is a maintenance of peace. And what about victims’ compensation? In the Western legal tradition, if you injure me, it’s a crime against the peace, and the state punishes the perpetrator. Only relatively recently has this notions of victims’ rights, victims’ compensation, been entered. Which is like a reversion back to the notion that the crime really injures not the state or the king or the peace that we all take for granted, but the individual who is affected.

But what makes it seem crude is the specificity of the offenses. If you look at the Connecticut Criminal Code, it’s not quite so precise about hair pulling. If anyone seizes a freeman by the hair, the fine is greater if he’s seized with two hands than one. Maybe that has to do with intent. One arm might be instinct. I’m pulling your hair. But two hands argues of serious intent to do harm. Or it’s more humiliating. This is a culture in which there’s an awful lot of shame and compensation for public shaming.

A lot of questions of personal status. In title IV about theft, if a slave commits a theft he’s either beaten or killed, end of story. Freemen, that is to say people who are not slaves, pay fines and compensation. It’s a violent society. Course all criminal codes show various forms of violence. There’s a lot of mutilation. There are a lot of assaults on women.

Compensation for assaults on free women are paid to the women themselves, but a native freeman who assaults a maid-servant must pay the master. Maid-servant, as a slave, is regarded as a commodity.

And then finally, it’s a society in which, at least according to the official law code, men are more valued than women, or men are less regulated than women. If a man breaks a marriage, in title XXXIV, he’s fined if he goes and runs off with another woman. If a woman goes off and runs off with another man, she’s to be smothered to death.

On that enlightened note, we’ll leave the Burgundian Code. And indeed we’re going to leave the barbarians only for a little while. Next week we’re going to talk about the Eastern Roman Empire and why it survived and even why it flourished.

[end of transcript]

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