Salic law was an important body of traditional law codified for governing the Salian Franks in the early Middle Ages during the reign of King Clovis I in the 6th century. Although Salic Law reflects very ancient usage and practices, the earliest compilation date for the Lex Salica was most likely made between 507 and 511.
The best-known tenet of Salic law is agnatic succession, the rule excluding females from the inheritance of a throne or fief. Indeed, "Salic law" has often been used simply as a synonym for agnatic succession. But the importance of Salic law extends beyond the rules of inheritance, as it is a direct ancestor of the systems of law in many parts of Europe today.
The law of Charlemagne was based on Salic Law, an influence as great as that of Greece and Rome. Through that connection, Salic law has had a formative influence on the tradition of statute law that has extended since then to modern times in Central Europe, especially in the German states, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, parts of Italy, Austria and Hungary, parts of Eastern Europe, UK, i.e., (Romania and the Balkans).
The Salic Law codified inheritance, crime, and murder. In a kingdom with many ethnic groups, each expected to be governed under its own law. The detailed laws established damages to be paid and fines levied in recompense of injuries to persons and damage to goods, e.g., slaves, theft, and unproved insults. One-third of the fine paid court costs. Judicial interpretation was by a jury of peers. These laws and their interpretations grant insight to Frankish society; Salic Law establishes that an individual person is legally unprotected by law if he or she does not belong to a family.
The most formative (geo-) political aspect of Salic inheritance law for Europe's history was its equal division of land amongst all living male children in opposition to primogeniture. This has caused not only the break up of the Carolingian Empire amongst Charlemagne's grandsons (the Treaty of Verdun), but many consecutive kingdoms and fiefs during medieval times. It was a regular source of wars between siblings and regular reclamation. The military weakening and division of the Middle Franconian Kingdom after consecutive splits and then the dissolution of Lotharingia with the Treaty of Meerssen, became a regular cause of war between Germany and France that lasted a thousand years up to World War I.
Salic law regulates succession according to sex. 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 the male line, including collateral agnate branches, for example very distant cousins. 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 in the male line.
One provision of Salic law continued to play a role in European politics during the middle Ages and beyond. Concerning the inheritance of land, Salic Law said
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 the 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 law, as well as usual usages in those days and centuries afterwards, seems to support an interpretation that inheritance is divided between brothers. And, if it is intended to govern succession, it can be interpreted to mandate agnatic seniority, not a direct primogeniture.
In its use by hereditary monarchies since the 15th century, aiming at agnatic succession, the Salic law is regarded as excluding 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.
The so-called Semi-Salic version of succession order stipulates that firstly all male discordance is applied, including all collateral male lines; but if all agnates become extinct, then the closest heiress (such as a 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 involving any more distant relative than necessary. At that order, the original primogeniture is not followed with regard to the requisite female. She could be a child of a relatively junior branch of the whole dynasty, but still inherits thanks to the longevity of her own branch.
From the 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 lines, but excludes the females themselves in favor of their sons. For example, a grandfather, without sons, is succeeded by his grandson, a son of his daughter, when the daughter in question is still alive. Or an uncle, without his own children, is succeeded by his nephew, a son of his sister, when the sister in question is still 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 a Quasi-Salic system of succession and it should be classified as primogenitural, cognatic, and male.
Other examples of the application of Salic inheritance laws
A number of military conflicts in European history have stemmed from the application of, or disregard for, Salic law. The Carlist Wars occurred in Spain over the question of whether the heir to the throne should be a female 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 as a result of Salic law, attempted to ensure the inheritance directly to his own daughter Maria Theresa of Austria, this being an example of an operation of the so-called Semi-Salic law.
In the modern kingdom of Italy under the house of Savoy the succession to the throne was regulated by Salic law.
The British and Hanoverian thrones separated after the death of King William IV of the United Kingdom and of Hanover in 1837. Hanover practiced the Salic law, while Britain did not. King William's niece Victoria ascended to 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, and played a weary prosaic day-to-day role in the inheritance and marriage decisions of common princedoms of the German states such as Saxe-Weimar?, to cite a representative example. It is not much of an overstatement to say that European nobility confronted Salic issues at every turn and nuance of diplomacy, and certainly, especially when negotiating marriages, for the entire male line had to be extinguished for a land title to pass (by marriage) to a female's husband—women rulers were anathema in the German states well into the modern era.
In a similar way, the thrones of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Grand Duchy Of Luxembourg were separated in 1890, with the succession of Princess Wilhelmina as the first Queen-regent of the Netherlands. As a remnant of Salic law, the office of the reigning monarch of The Netherlands is always formally known as 'King' even though her title may be 'Queen.' Luxembourg passed to the House of Orange-Nassau's distantly-related agnates, the House of Nassau-Weilburg. However, that house too faced extinction in the male line less than two decades later. With no other male-line agnates in the remaining branches of the House Of Nassau, Grand Duke William IV adopted a semi-salic law of succession so that he could be succeeded by his daughters.
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 of Normandy (never Duchess). The influence of Salic law is presumed to explain why she is toasted as "The Queen our Duke."
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