Barbarian Law

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Barbarian Law


(Latin leges barbarorum, literally “laws of the barbarians”), a written record of the common law of the Germanic tribes (the Visigoths, Burgundians, Franks, and others) who founded their kingdoms on the territory of the western Roman Empire. Barbarian law includes leges Visigothorum (its earliest part was written in the second half of the fifth century), lex Burgundionum (late fifth to early sixth centuries), Salic law (written in the early sixth century), the Ripuarian code (sixth to seventh centuries), the Alamannic codes (late sixth to the eighth centuries), lex Baiuvariorum (mid-eighth century), leges Langobardorum (mid-seventh to mid-eighth centuries), the Anglo-Saxon laws (seventh to ninth centuries), lex Saxonum, lex Frisionum, Thuringian laws, and the code of the Franks and Chamavi (early ninth century).

Although it shared many features of the records of common law of other Germanic and non-Germanic tribes (for example, the ancient Scandinavian and Icelandic laws and Russkaia pravda), barbarian law differs from them primarily in that it reflects the transition from the tribal structure to the feudal structure either in the form of the synthesis of decayed Germanic tribal and Roman slave-owning relations or in the presence of at least some elements of the slave-owning system and its spiritual culture (Roman law, literature, religion, and so on). Virtually all the systems of barbarian law, particularly leges Visigothorum and lex Burgundionum, felt the influence of Roman law to some degree. They also have a common chronological feature: they emerged between the fifth and ninth centuries, and all of them, with the exception of the Anglo-Saxon laws, were written in Vulgar Latin. Barbarian laws (in any event, the Continental systems) were also characterized by mutual influence. All were written on the initiative of royal or ducal authority. As a rule, they have a complex structure; their parts originated at different times (for example, the Ripuarian or Alamannic codes) or were supplemented by later royal laws as the result of a single legislative act (Salic law). In a number of cases only the oldest portions—for example, Euric’s code in leges Visigothorum or the edict of Rothari in Leges Langobardorum —are the barbarian laws proper, since later additions or versions were introduced as royal legislation.

In barbarian law codes individual cases become custom; general norms of law are absent. Most of the norms of barbarian law concern criminal law and the judicial process, but there are also norms regulating the property relations of members of a tribe and statutes for the bodies of the state systems that had come into being. In most cases, the system of barbarian law was applied only to the individuals of the given tribe; relations with the Romans and other peoples were usually regulated by special laws.

Barbarian law is the major, and in some cases the only, source for the study of the social systems of the early feudal states that took shape in Western Europe. It reflects different stages of the transition from the tribal to the feudal system. In the Salic law and lex Saxonum (and also in the lex Frisionum, the Thuringian laws, and the laws of the Chamavi), there are distinct features of the tribal system and vestiges of blood relations based on consanguinity. However, even the most archaic systems of barbarian law show evidence of the existence of a certain degree of social stratification: in addition to the ordinary free and equal members of the tribe, the laws distinguish the tribal and military nobility on the one hand and partially free and entirely bound people on the other. The main legal subjects in barbarian law are still the common free members of the commune—the direct producers. (The classes of feudal society had not yet formed.) Barbarian law makes it possible to trace the transition from the agricultural commune to the mark and the subsequent decay of the communal system—the transition by which arable land became the property of individual families, the initial stage of class formation, and the origin of the state. In the systems of barbarian law that fixed the process of class formation and the formation of feudal society at their farthest points (particularly in lex Baiuvariorum, the Alamannic codes, and leges Visigothorum), there are reflections of the development of large-scale landownership and the transformation of free members of the commune into dependent peasants, the origin of conditional land tenure, and the strengthening of royal power, the state apparatus, and the church.

Barbarian law is characterized by internal contradictions that reflected the struggle between elements of the old tribal system and the incipient feudal structures. On the one hand, barbarian law represented a fixing of a custom that still corresponded to the interests of the broad masses of the commune; on the other hand, it signified the introduction of legal norms that reflected the interests of the incipient class of feudal lords and the striving of the states that were taking shape to eliminate the institutions of the tribal system or adapt them to their own needs.

As the feudal system was consolidated, barbarian law lost its significance, and by the 11th century it was no longer applied in most cases.


Monumenta Germaniae historica, Legum sectio I, vols. 1-5. Hannover, 1868-1954.
Sbornik zakonodatel’nykh pamiatnikov drevnego zapadnoevropeiskogo prava, issues 1-3. Edited by P. G. Vinogradov and V. F. Vladimirskii-Budanov. Kiev, 1906-08. (The Salic Law, Lex Saxonum, and the Alamannic Codes.)


Engels, F. “Proiskhozhdenie sem’i, chastnoi sobstvennosti i gosudarstva.” K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 21.
Engels, F. “Frankskii period.” Ibid., vol. 19.
Neusykhin, A. I. Vozniknovenie zavisimogo krest’ianstva kak klassa rannefeodal’nogo obshchestva v Zapadnoi Evrope VI-VIII vv. Moscow, 1956. (Bibliography.)
Wattenbach, W., and W. Levison. Deutschlands Geschichtsquellen im Mittelalter. Weimar, 1953.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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