Saturday, June 21, 2014

Food in Frankish laws

Among the rare documents that survive from the early medieval period are a number of legal codes, most, though not all, Frankish. While these rarely address food per se, they do address agriculture and even to some degree infrastructure related to food. This makes them valuable for food history, even if they offer inconsistent and often spotty information.

For more about the early Middle Ages
Feasting with the Franks

The First French Medieval Food

Salic Law

The earliest of these, the Salic Law, is also the richest in food-related information. This law exists in several versions, including variations from much later centuries. But the earliest is believed to have been written down under Clovis (reigned 482-511) and the relevant information does not greatly change across versions. The law is especially useful in offering, if not absolute, relative values, since it assigns amounts to be paid as compensation (wergeldfor each offense. These are paid either in coins of silver (denarii) or gold (solidii). For comparison's sake, one of the highest prices (24,000 deniers or 600 solidi) was for killing a child under twelve, whether they were "distinguished by long hair, [that is, royal] or of the class of the people". The very highest was 72,000 d./1800 s, for killing one of the king's antrusions (a kind of trusted bodyguard). (The initial version of the law probably only used solidi; the Franks did not institute silver denarii until 675.)

A striking aspect of this law is that it begins by addressing livestock and agriculture. Other Germanic legal codes also touch on these subjects, but none give them the sustained attention found here. More striking still is the fact that it begins by addressing the theft of pigs. This neatly illustrates the Frankish love of pork – pigs were used only for food, unlike sheep, goats or cattle. The variations in compensation then, when they do not relate to an animal's ability to breed, suggest some refinement in taste in this area. The amounts depended on the pig's age, whether or not it was weaned, its role as leader of the troop, how many other pigs were stolen with it, whether it was locked up or in a field at the time. The prices ranged from 40 deniers (1 solidus) for a weaned pig to 600 d./15 s. for a suckling pig from the third litter. A number of these prices are in addition to the value of the animals themselves (which seems therefore to have been open to negotiation) and the costs of recovering them. The various circumstances and nuances outlined also suggest that theft of pigs was frequent enough to have been divided into categories.

Above all, the care taken to define the differences between suckling pigs, weaned pigs, pigs who led herds, pigs destined for reproduction, etc. shows how much Franks concerned themselves with the subject.

The law also mentions a pig prepared for sacrifice. This was probably for a pagan ceremony (only some Franks converted to Christianity along with Clovis). However, it is not impossible that well-intentioned recent converts simply performed a familiar sacrifice to their new god. Like the Gauls in Cisalpine (Italian) Gaul, the Franks also used bells to distinguish their livestock and the price for removing these from a sow was far higher (600 d/15 s) than for that of other livestock (120 d/3 s.).

If the law addresses the theft of cattle after that of pigs, and in fewer articles (fourteen instead of twenty), it is tempting to think that these mattered less to the Franks. But the values placed on different animals are, in general, much higher. Stealing a cow by herself cost 1200 d/30 s; if the cow were accustomed to the yoke, the price was 1400 d/35 s. The theft of an ox cost the same, while that of a bull heading a herd and “accustomed to the common use of the cows of three districts” cost 1800 d/ 45 s. (All these costs were in addition to that of the animal itself and the cost of pursuit.) To some degree of course these amounts might simply have reflected the difference in size between pigs and cattle. But whether because of their use or their size, the amounts listed show cattle to have been valued animals. The animal's aptitude for labor or breeding too was clearly a concern. It seems likely then that people tried to get the maximum value from each animal before slaughtering it; likely but not certain, given the archaeological evidence. In fact, people of the time ate far more beef than the written record typically suggests.

The theft of individual or even multiple sheep or goats cost 120 deniers, which is the same price as for certain classes of pig. Separate articles exist for lambs and sheep, but only one for kids and goats. Both these animals had other uses than providing meat: goats might have been used for their milk; the sheep were certainly shorn for their wool. But both were certainly eaten as well.

Game overall made up a lesser part of the medieval diet than is often thought, but hunting certainly mattered to the Franks. Stealing animals or game killed by others could cost from 600 d/15 s to 1800 d/45 s. The Franks already used trained falcons, the theft of which could cost as much as 1800 d/45 s (in addition to the usual costs of the animal and the pursuit). Compare these to the 40 to 600 d. charged for the theft of pigs. The law also punished killing a stag brought to bay by another hunter's dogs. Like the Gauls, the Franks used poisoned arrows. Salic law elsewhere mentions poisoning with toxic plants, which were probably used on such arrows as well (the Gaul used hellebore). They also used iron-clad traps.

The law mentions dogs specifically trained to hunt bears, boars and hares, giving some idea of the importance of these animals. (Even bear was sometimes eaten, though that may not have been the purpose of hunting it.) It also mentions “a domestic stag, bearing the mark of its master, and trained to the hunt”. These stags – apparently unique to the Franks and the Lombards – are believed to have been used like later “stalking horses” to allow hunters to get closer to deer (Baillie-Grohman),

All the above fits neatly with the Roman idea of Germanic groups as mainly eating meat (and dairy, implied in some of the animals, if not explicitly addressed). But the Germans had always been farmers as well and the law tries to balance concern for livestock with concern for crops. A person who mistreated an animal found in his fields could be forced to pay the animal's value. But if a herder let his flock or herd go into someone else's wheat field and denied the fact, he could be made to pay 600 deniers (a high sum). This was the same price as for stealing the coulter (the blade) from a plow.

Entering a garden to commit a theft also cost 600 deniers. A theft from a field cost less (120 deniers), perhaps because it represented less of an intrusion. Some, it seems, went so far as to harvest the grapes or wheat of another, a crime which also cost 600 deniers (and which presumably took some time to commit).

The law also covers the case where someone might intentionally have made a hole in a hedge or let animals into a field or vineyard “by vengeance or wickedness”, as well as the destruction of grafts or trees that had been grafted or removing bark from a fruit tree. All of this suggests a certain amount of feuding, even pure vandalism, between farmers.

The law only mentions apple and pear trees specifically, though the theft of fruit trees in general or “other trees of the type that are cultivated” is also mentioned. The only vegetables specifically mentioned are turnips, broad beans, peas and lentils. Lentils are less mentioned in later years, but broad beans and field peas became medieval staples.

Hand mills were still common a century later, but larger mills apparently existed among the Franks. It was a crime to steal grain from them, costing 15 gold pieces to the mill owner and another 15 (600 deniers) to the owner of the grain. All of this implies a commercial mill with its own customer base, even if some grinding could be done domestically. Theft of iron implements from a mill (whatever those might have been) cost the offender even more: 1800 d / 45 s.

The Franks then were certainly consumers of grain. They probably had bread – early Germanic groups did – but the one mention of a prepared food in the law is of porridge: witnesses to a contract had to have eaten the pultis of the man they were swearing for. The sense here seems to be the same as in the later phrase “eat another man's bread”, showing how basic a food porridge was in Germanic culture.

There is also the question of the “sugar refineries” of earlier eras: beehives. Before sugar came to Europe, honey had a disproportionate importance, not only in cooking, but even in other domains The law reflects that; seven articles address the theft of hives, which could be under a roof or in a locked enclosure. The text distinguishes between situations where other hives were available – the payment then was only fifteen golden sols – and those where none were – the payment then was triple that amount.

Finally, the law references another, illicit, kind of food:if a witch is convicted of having eaten human flesh, she will be condemned to pay 8000 deniers or 200 golden solidi.” Whether this ever actually happened or was simply the fantasy of fearful Franks is a separate question.

Laws for subject groups

Several subsequent Frankish laws were specifically intended for different groups. While these are sometimes said to be derived from Salic law, they differ in both scope and detail. None is as comprehensive in regard to agriculture as the Salic law, but they do include scattered references to related subjects.

Three of these were collected in the eighteenth century as laws of Dagobert I, dated 630. The dating has been revised and is still uncertain, but, given the 630 date, the first thing to point out is what does NOT appear in them.
Bakers are named collectively in 630 in the laws of Dagobert, which seems to show that they formed a sort of trade corporation in the laws of Dagobert. (Lacroix)
In 630, the Merovingian King Dagobert had made the grinding of corn a feudal right; private persons (noblemen and members of religious communities excepted) and master bakers had to have their grain ground at the communal mill belonging to the lord of the manor. (Toussaint-Samat)
Similar statements have been made in a number of works to support the idea that corporations (guilds) existed in France at this point as well as public bakers. Both may have, but no evidence has survived of either and none of the three laws listed for Dagobert under the date of 630 refer to either bakers or millers. Banal mills (referenced in the second statement) would not appear until around the Crusades. The fact that, ultimately, not all these laws have been found to date that far back only makes such statements that much less credible.

One group of Franks lived separately from the Salian Franks (Clovis' group) and along the banks of the Rhine, which may or may not be why they were called (probably by others) Ripuarian Franks (ripa means “bank”). The Lex Ribuaria is believed to have been developed for them by the (dominant) Salians, but based on their own customs:
The Lex Ribuaria is an updated version of the Salic Law issued for Ribuaria (the Rhineland around Cologne) or for Austrasia. An origination during the establishment of the subkingdom for Dagobert I. (623) or for Sigibert III. (633) has been considered. The proximity to the edicts of King Chlothar II. (584-628/9) is undeniable, which also indicates its formation in the 7th century.
(Bibliotheca Legum)
This law contains very little about food or agriculture. Notably it does state that “if someone carries off another's harvest with a cart or wagon, they will be fined 15 solidi.” Similar statements are made about hunting and fishing: “If someone steals or hides something [used] for game, or fish, 15 solidi is judged....If someone kills or steals a trained or 'faithful' stag, they must give... 45 solidi.” The law also addresses the question of quadrupeds killing men or killing or hurting each other. It barely mentions specific animals however, except in one section which sets the wergeld not only for different kinds of arms and armor, but some animals: “a healthy, sighted horned bull two solidi, a healthy, sighted horned cow one solidus, stallion... six solidi, mare.. three solidi...”

These animals both could be eaten (the Franks continued to eat horsemeat, if not often). But given that other edible quadrupeds are not mentioned, the interest here is probably in their functional value (cattle for ploughing, horses for war).

The next law attributed to Dagobert in 630 is probably from the eighth century. It was for the Alemanni, a small group whose name - “All men” - would become the French word for what English-speakers call Germans.
The Lex Alamannorum is attributed to Duke Lantfrid (709-730) by two manuscripts, whereas the majority of codices designate the law text to King Chlothar. The dominant view of research sees Lantfrid as the real originator.
(Bibliotheca Legum)
Typically amounts in these laws are for legal compositions, but one chapter here explicitly addresses the price of oxen: for the best, five tremisses, the average four, the lessor as valued. This may have been to avoid the bickering over price which no doubt resulted when the cost of an animal was to be paid separately from the defined composition. As it is, it is a rare example of price setting at this point.

The law also addresses the killing of cows, bulls and smaller (presumably domestic) animals, as well as the theft or killing of buffalo, aurochs and stags, distinguishing not only between trained and untrained stags but red and black ones. The same section mentions bears, poultry, boars, roe deer, cranes, ducks, storks, ravens, crows, doves and other birds. Such an enumeration in a law is very unusual.

Another chapter sets compositions to be paid for killing people in specific positions, giving an idea of their value. Killing a swineherd with a herd of forty pigs and a trained dog, a horn and others working for him (a rounded portrait in itself) cost forty solidi, the same as for a shepherd with eighty sheep, a senechal (later an important official, but then essentially master of the household or head butler) with twelve vassals; and a cook with others under him. This was the same cost as for a goldsmith; high, but not as high as, say, eighty for taking another man's wife.

Note that, in modern terms, most of these people were managers, with part of their value lying in their having subordinates.

Taking herds or flocks – of pigs, horses, cows or sheep – in pledge was punished with the same fine. (Why this was frowned upon is not clear, though it may be similar to the legal principle in some states that a pension or a residence cannot be seized in legal proceedings.)

The list of dogs who could be stolen or killed is interesting for the different specializations represented. Aside from premium hunting dogs, there were those for herding pigs or cattle, for hunting hares and for "defending courtyards" (.e., watchdogs).

In terms of domestic structures, the article on arson mentions spicaria (small granaries or possibly pantries), granaries, cellars, pigpens, sheep cotes, and even hot baths. The one mention of a mill (but not the miller) regards its obstructing water; mills (and any other enclosure of water) had to be made so that they cause no harm to others (including by making water rise). Among other things, this shows that water mills (which were slow to appear in Gaul) were now common.

Finally, this code is unusual in defining prepared foods, in this case to be given by “servants of the Church” in addition to their required service: fifteen pails of beer, a pig worth one tremisso, two muids of bread, five chickens, and twenty eggs. This sort of list is especially useful in outlining what foods were considered staples. (The use of muid, a measure of volume, for bread, rather than pound or another measure of weight, is unusual.)

The Bavarian Law is probably from far later than the 630 date earlier recorded: it is likely from the eighth century:
The first ever evidence of the Lex Baiuvariorum is found at the Synod of Aschheim in 756. It is probably a transcript from the 740s. The Visigothic law, the Lex Alamannorum and Frankish laws (Königsgesetze) served as models of this law text, and maybe even also antecedents of the Bavarian law from the 7th century. Very recently the Abbey of St. Emmeram in Regensburg has been suspected as the place of origin (Landau 2004).
(Bibliotheca Legum)

In regard to arson, this law refers specifically to setting a fire at night. It refers to a specific type of granary called a parch. Otherwise, it refers to a number of free-standing buildings, including among these the hot baths, the bakery, and the kitchen – a useful note that at this point these were often separate from the dwelling (for the very practical reason that they used fire).

One curious entry punishes someone who drives off or disperses pigs by yelling at them; but it has to be a herd of seventy pigs, with a swineherd who has a horn. Also, pigs didn't just get eaten; they were notorious eaters all through the Middle Ages, even of children, and one clause orders a reward for anyone who buries a body to keep it from being "soiled" by pigs, or torn by other animals.

This law punished taking either eggs or pigs as a pledge. When paying a fine for a pledge of eggs, the person was to "stay silent on the reason for the pledge" (taceat de causa pro qua pignus tullit), a curiously tactful detail.

The law is unique in addressing very specific harm which could be done to animals, such as cutting or knocking the horns off bulls or cows or an animal getting hurt jumping a hedge (if the latter was as high as a man's chest, no payment was due). The harm animals did to crops is again addressed as well.

The theft of bells was, as in the Salic law, punished, but pigs were not the favored animal: one solidus was due for those on a horse or bull, two tremisses for those on a cow, one for smaller animals.

The farming duties of someone on the Church's land are laid out in unusual detail, not only the measure of land (forty by four hundred feet) to work, but that he will sow, gather, transport, store its yield, that he will enclose, cut and gather hay, that he will plan, spade, propagate, cut and harvest vines. With this is an unusually specific (for a law) definition of the rent to pay: every tenth bundle of flax, the tenth beehive, four chickens and fifteen eggs. (How often beehives were increased, so that a tenth became available, is an intriguing question.)

This law not only punishes those who steal another's harvest, but even those who (unauthorized) work another's land. It also uses the unique word aranscarti to refer to someone who ruins another's harvest by cursing it. The penalty for this was weighty; the accused had to take care of the family and its animals, and make good any negative effects for a year, as well as paying twelve solidi. (This could be avoided by appealing to twelve sworn people – i.e., a jury – or in a trial by combat.) The general idea of curses, potions, etc. recurs through all these laws; Christianity did not displace belief in witchcraft.

Sneaking into someone else's orchard to steal fruit is punished. Anyone who destroys another's arbor or cuts his fruit trees (when there are twelve of more) pays twenty solidi to the owner but also to the authorities and has to replant similar trees, and pay a solidus every fall until the new trees start to bear fruit. Theft of a bush or the food from it in another's forest is also punished.

This section specifically names apple and pear trees, the same ones singled out by the Salic Law.

This law is also unique in punishing someone for soiling a fountain, not only by fining them, but making them clean it (how, is not clear). Where several people live near it, they are all to share in the fine. (Note that this is yet further evidence that people of the time knew the difference between good water and bad and valued safe, drinkable water.)

Again, dogs are classified by an assortment of skills: being able to follow a scent, hunting underground, hunting hares or large game, attacking wolves, etc. Stealing a watch dog during the day cost less (one solidus) than at night (three), because the latter was considered theft. Even if a dog attacked a man and the latter killed it, he had to pay a composition, but got half back if he was wounded.

Birds too are classified by skills. One type of falcon may have been specialized in taking cranes. Another took ducks and another geese. Killing woodland birds “who sing and fly in the houses of nobles” was also punished.

When a swarm of bees belonging to one person went to another's tree or hive, most were to be returned, but those who remained after the tree was smoked or the hive knocked over belonged to the latter. This passage includes the useful information that hives could be of wood, bark or wicker; but this law no longer mentions these being covered or enclosed, as in Salic law.

The Carolingians

Though Charlemagne's rules for his own estates (the Capitulary de Villis) are extraordinarily informative, his numerous public laws (typically issued in Capitularies) give very little information on food. The one big exception appears in early attempts to set prices. The most famous of these is in his Frankfurt Capitulary of 794, which sets the prices for grains – “For a modius of oats, one denier, for a modius of barley, two, modius of rye three, modius of wheat four deniers” – followed by prices for bread: “If one wants to sell it as bread, twelve loaves of wheat, each of two pounds, must be given for one denier... fifteen of rye, of two pounds each, twenty of barley, of two pounds each, twenty five of oats, of two pounds each."

Cereals from the royal domains were cheaper: two muids of oats or one of barley for one denier, one muid of rye for two and one of wheat for three.

The Saxon Capitulary of 797, delivered at Aix-la-Chapelle, also includes specific prices. The pagan Saxons had long rebelled against Charlemagne and much of this text is draconian. But one chapter simply defines the solidus for the Saxons, setting it initially as the price of a bull or cow before fattening. A bull or a cow a year old, cost 1 Saxon solidus in Autumn, when entering the stable, more when coming out in the Spring, in function of how much it had grown. The prices for grain differ for the Bortrini and those in the north (neither clearly defined). For the Bortrini, forty measures (scapilos) of wheat cost one solidos, as did twenty of rye (strangely, since rye was typically less expensive). For those of the north (Septentrionales), thirty measures of wheat and fifteen of rye were given for a solidos.

For honey, the Bortrini were to give one and a half buckets (siglae) of honey for a solidus; those of the north, two. (This is the first indication of a price for honey in these centuries and suggests that it was very expensive, a bucket having almost the value of a bull or a cow.) The same [measure of?] ground barley and wheat was given for a solidus. (The text then specifies that twelve deniers make a solidus.)

In 806, there was a famine and the fifth Capitulary of that year (from Noyon) specifies special prices for a muid of grain: oats, two, barley or spelt, three, rye, four, "prepared" wheat, six. (Peyré) (This is an exceptional mention of spelt.) The note that the wheat should be “prepared” was probably to avoid (however ineffectively) speculators “stretching” wheat with bran, etc.

Otherwise, in his first Capitulary of 809, Charlemagne stated that no wine or grain should be sold before it was harvested, “by which occasion people become poor”; that is, by speculating on goods that a bad harvest might render unavailable. This is perhaps the first medieval mention of speculation.

Charlemagne's son, Louis the Pious (reigned 814 – 840), included even less about food in his laws. It is worth noting that over time the law seems to have concerned itself less with the details of agriculture, perhaps because the existing codes applied but perhaps too because local infrastructure began to return and much of this may have been handled at the local level, as it would more officially be in later statues and coutûmes.

On the other hand, in his fifth Capitulary for 819, Louis includes details which previously had appeared in separate documents for official travelers called tractoria; these were the rations to be provided them as they traveled. One purpose of this stipulation may have been to prevent such officials from demanding more than they were due; as it is, the defined rations were far simpler than earlier enumerations, which included oil, spices, garum, etc. Under Louis the Pious, the rations varied by rank, but even a bishop's was not luxurious: forty loaves of bread, three lambs, three measures of “fermented drink”, a young pig, three chickens, and fifteen eggs. This predictably declined further down the hierarchy: for an abbot or a count, thirty loaves, two lambs, two measures of drink, one young pig, three chickens and fifteen eggs; and for a vassal (but hardly a peasant) seventeen loaves, one lamb, one young pig, one measure of drink, two chickens, and ten eggs.

Charles the Bald (reigned 823 – 877) went even further than his father, recording complaints in his Capitulary of Toulouse of 843 of the hardship inflicted on local priests by traveling bishops. At that point, following interventions by the clergy itself the ration, specified in the Capitulary, was limited to one muid of wheat and one of barley and one muid of wine and a young pig worth six deniers, or the six deniers. Bishops could also take two solidos (in deniers) instead. The bishops had tried to circumvent these limits by arguing over the measures, dividing parishes up so they would have more pretexts to visit, etc. Charles set that the public, approved measure in that region should apply and also limited the bishops to one voyage a year, or its equivalent in rations. He also encouraged them to only visit larger parishes, or to unite the smaller ones into a single one for purposes of this contribution. (Mollard) This capitulary then specifically instructs the hosts not to provide more than these listed items: ten loaves of bread, a half-muid of wine, a muid of oats, a young pig worth four deniers, two chickens and ten eggs. (The oats were probably for the horses.)

Again, this enumeration gives some idea of what was considered a basic ration of food.

Finally, in the Edict of Pistres of 864, which largely addressed Viking depredations, Charles addresses the question of standard measures in France. He asks that counts and public officers have standards available for measures, based on those in his palace. He even implies that this has traditionally been the case, though his own declaration seems to be the first surviving mention of it. Further on in the same section, he writes of “cities and towns and... the markets”, interesting in itself since it implies an urban infrastructure whose existence is considered uncertain in this period. He asks that in these places officers of the state have measures available so that those who “sell baked bread or meat by the piece, or wine by the sexter cannot adulterate or reduce” what they sell. He then however focuses on one profession only, going on to say that the Bishop or the Abbot or the Count in charge will be able to measure bread from bakers. And if they are found to have false weight or adulterated goods, they are to be punished.

This sort of oversight of bakers would become common as cities revived. But this may be the first such mention in the Frankish period, as is the very mention of professional bakers, who had existed under the Romans but may have declined or even disappeared under the Franks.


The information in these laws is useful but profoundly inconsistent. Why did the Franks pay such careful attention to the details of agriculture and animal husbandry, details which are, if not absent, much less apparent in subsequent codes? Still, until Charlemagne, these subjects remained concerns of the law, as did hunting. The different codes vary in peculiar ways, but these may have reflected the cultural variations of the groups addressed. The later codes mention buildings - granaries, bakeries, baths, etc. - more, which may simply mean the Germanic groups had begun to settle in. Specific positions, too, become more important with time; these may not even have existed as separate functions among the early Germans. Honey remains important, but there is already a clear difference between the early Franks, for instance, and the Bavarians. More prepared foods appear, fitfully, in the later laws. There is also a stronger sense of feudal obligations, which were developing over time; working the land was less and less a concern of individual farmers and more and more a matter of fulfilling a duty to a more powerful institution.

Only a handful of agricultural products are mentioned specifically, more in the Salic law than later. Charlemagne's attempts to legally define prices begin to incidentally provide an idea of the major grains and their relative values. The very idea of monetary value takes on more specific importance over time.

By the time of Charles the Bald, the outlines of an urban system begin to appear as well as some attempt to reign in the Church. Hints appear of strictures that over time would become urban and local, not national.


Lois des Francs, contenant la loi salique et la loi ripuaire, suivant le texte de Dutillet, revu, avec la tr. en regard et des notes, par J.F.A. Peyré 1828

Lacroix, Paul, Franz Kellerhoven, Moeurs, usages et costumes au moyen age et a l'époque de la Renaissance par Paul Lacroix 1871

Toussaint-Samat, Maguelonne, A History of Food 2009

Baillie-Grohman, W. A., "A Famous Medieval Hunting-Book", The Monthly Review, V6 1902

Capitularia regum Francorum: additae sunt Marculfi monachi et aliorum formulae veteres et notae doctissimorum virorum ed Etienne Baluze, Marculfus v1 1677

Faider, Amedee, "Histoire du droit de chasse et de la législation sur la chasse en Belgique, en France, en Angletree, en Allemagne, en Italie et en Hollande", Mémoires couronnés et autres mémoires publićs par l'Académie royale des sciences, des lettres et des beaux-arts de Belgique. Collectionin-80. Tome I-LXVI [1840-1904]. 1877

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