Do you remember learning about Joan II of Navarre and how her uncles worked tirelessly to keep her from the French throne by dreading up a forgotten concept called the Salic Law?
Well, for the sake of transparency, Salic Law wasn’t actually used during that time, but applied later to justify those King’s actions. Truth was, the Salic Law was long forgotten by the time Philip V was vying to usurp his niece, but through his actions it was dusted off and actively used during the next few centuries. So what exactly is the Salic Law? How was it used? And what does it mean when said it probably saved France during the 100-year-old War?
Salic Law is older than the Kingdom of France, but was created by the French’s predecessors, the Franks, in 500 AD. It was a code of civil laws both about inheritance and crime, including murder, and was compiled by the first King of Franks, Clovis. He had four researchers compile laws throughout the kingdom that had only been oral passed along; he desired a written text to rule more efficiently. The laws were split between 5 families and amended over the next 300 hundred years by hand. Charlemagne added laws from German culture. The text includes Latin, Old Dutch, and a little German from later years, and touches on everything from standards of punishment for stealing or damaging goods, libel, court fees, and the concept of being judged by a jury of one’s peers. It establishes that without family, you are essential unprotected in the eyes of the courts. The part it was famous for though was the way it determined land succession (though it did influence the legislation going forward and can still be seen in laws we have today). It divided land into two categories: de alode and terra Salica.
De alode land was more personal land, and could be inherited by anyone. Terra Salica was land that could not be inherited by women. The thought was that land was given to someone in servitude, and the land was meant to be inherited by someone that could also inherit the service. This is called agnatic succession, and until the succession crisis in the 14th century, was never envisaged to have been applied to the French throne. When this law was originally applied, the five families that held pieces of the law, as well as the rulers of the time, divided their kingdom between all their sons. The agnatic succession ensured that sons had claims over grandsons, i.e. a man splits his land into four to give it to his four sons. This will remain the case even if his eldest has a son. The Capetian family, and rulers of France, decided in 987 that this would no longer work for them, and adapted a primogeniture succession where their oldest inherits the throne. They would grant appanage (title within the kingdom, but under the over title/throne the oldest inherits) to their younger children. Women were originally not allowed to inherit these appanages, but this would eventually change to allow them if all their brothers were deceased.
The primogeniture succession was closer to feudal law, and until 1316 that is what was believed to apply to the French throne. Since establishing these successions, the Capetians were mostly successful in the transfer of power to their eldest son. Something they usually did while they were still living. In 1316, Louis X died, leaving behind a pregnant wife and a young daughter. He could not give the throne to his daughter Joan, and he could not crown an unborn child, and a crisis began to form. Especially with his power hungry brother, Philip, in the wings. Philip secured the regency in the case of a son being born. John I came along, and the succession was considered secure, until he died five days later. It was expected Joan would rule, as it had been her father’s wish, but Philip had other plans. He usurped her throne and gathered the nobles to help determine his rights to this. The Salic law was not invoked, but the ideals that women could not inherit showed how ingrained they were, and the men concluded Joan was not allowed to inherit the throne.
Philip would rule for eight years before karma came, and he died without a male heir of his own. His brother Charles was easily instated as his successor and became Charles IV. He would also die without a male heir, and this may be where the concept of agnatic succession benefited them. They had excluded the daughters of all the late kings, as well as Isabella of France, their sister and wife of Edward II. When Charles died, there was no clear male to take the throne. Edward III of England and son of Isabella decided the throne was his, and thus the 100-year-war started. While we will never know what had happened if one of the daughters inherited, we do know this law, and the determination of the French man, helped France ensure its sovereignty. It kept Henry V of England from the throne, and it later kept Philip II from claiming it a couple centuries after.
Salic law was never intended to cover all land inheritance, and there are different levels of Salic that were used throughout Europe. Semi-Salic allowed Mary, Queen of Scots, to take the throne, as this concept allows a daughter or niece to inherit in the absence of a brother or male cousin. Quasi-Salic could be used to describe Edward III’s claim where land can pass through a woman, as long as it never touches her hands: i.e. a king’s grandson inherits instead of the king’s daughter.
Despite all the ways this law is misogynist, it would do a discredit to leave the law at sexist. It was created in a completely different era, with a different mindset. While it in some ways could be argued it seems to cement the “superiority” men possessed for the majority of human history, it was not invoked until later, and the bigotry directed at women was a well-established tradition at this point. When we look at it for what it is, we glimpse the backbone of legislation still in use today, and recognize building blocks for society today. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing is open to interruption.
- Potter, John Milton. “The Development and Significance of the Salic Law of the French.” The English Historical Review, vol. 52, no. 206, 1937, pp. 235–253. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/554261. Accessed 16 May 2021.
- “Political and Historical Encyclopedia of Women.” Google Books, Google, books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=Qfq4_2xF8uUC&oi=fnd&pg=PA2&dq=salic%2Blaw&ots=jjwru9YJdv&sig=cdR7SE6WprKE6MEfeo1Fq66Q22I#v=onepage&q=salic%20law&f=false.
- Whaley, Derek. “From a Salic Law to the Salic Law: Taylor & Francis Group.” Taylor & Francis, Taylor & Francis, 12 June 2019, http://www.taylorfrancis.com/chapters/edit/10.4324/9781315203195-26/salic-law-salic-law-derek-whaley.