Francia was the largest and most sophisticated kingdom in early medieval Europe, lasting from the 5th to 9th centuries. At it greatest extent, Francia was twice as large as modern France, stretching from the Pyrenees to Bavaria, from Rome to Saxony. It was huge and unwieldy. Given this, how was a Frankish king supposed to maintain law and order? It seems almost an impossible task. This was a time when horse and rider was the fastest method of communication, and local lords were not always willing to tolerate royal control. As the king could not possibly micro-manage everything, Frankish law and order depended upon complicated local systems of justice which interpreted and enacted the major bodies of centrally composed law codes, with more or less success.
Blood-feud – or the threat of it – was an integral part of maintaining law and order in early medieval Francia. Frankish law presents blood feud as a legitimate way of redressing wrongs; families were allowed to violently avenge insults and injuries perpetrated on a kin member. The mentality behind this sort of retribution is very much of the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” variety. Law codes make it clear that no-one was to interfere in blood vengeance; there is a clause in Lex Salica which forbade killing any man ‘whom his enemies have left mutilated [at a crossroads]’, and any violation of this law incurred the not inconsiderable fine of 100 solidi.
Clearly, vengeance killing was seen as a potent form of justice and a means of recovering a family’s honour, but the fact that it was codified in law seems rather an attempt to regulate killing than to encourage it at all costs. It may be that the threat of ‘mutually assured destruction’ was designed to act as a brake upon lethal crime. J.M. Wallace-Hadrill has argued that the kings of the “Barbarian West” sanctioned blood feud in their law codes as a means of preserving peace in their realms for want of anything better.
However, this is not exactly what we think of as ‘blood feud’ today. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a feud as “a state of prolonged mutual hostility, typically between two families or communities, characterised by murderous assaults in revenge for previous injuries”. Blood-feud as defined in Frankish law, however, was a specific remedy used to avenge one deed. There is no indication that, after the vengeance had been carried out, the family and friends of the victim had any right to continue committing acts of violence against the offender.
The historian David Halsall has attempted to pin down the exact nature of Frankish blood feud as opposed to ‘true’ blood feud, by differentiating between tactical violence and strategic violence. Tactical violence, he maintains, aims directly at the resolution of a dispute, whereas the latter aims not at terminating the dispute directly, but rather at drawing attention to it. Blood vengeance as defined in Frankish law would appear to fit the former definition, whereas the latter approach (strategic violence) seems better suited to the modern understanding of ‘true feud’. I’m not sure how helpful the terms ‘tactical’ and ‘strategic’ are – they are linguistically interchangeable – but Halsall’s differentiation is nonetheless quite useful.
In a further departure from the classic definition of blood feud, it is clear from Frankish law codes that killing the offender was not supposed to be a measure of first resort. The Lex Salica, a major body of Frankish law, clearly stipulated that the punishment for homicide should be compensation first and foremost; only after a lengthy process of ritual and court appearances should the murderer be killed as compensation, and that only if he could not pay the fine. In 6th century Francia, vengeance could not be exacted until the local count or judge had found in favour of the wronged party. For instance, in the famous feud of Sichar and Chramnesind (585-87), Chramnesind forfeited half of the compensation otherwise due to him, for attacking Sichar’s household contrary to the findings of the tribunal.
In a tight-knit community it may have been more sensible to settle for compensation, since although a dead body restored honour and justice for the victim’s kin, it could not buy seed and livestock like monetary compensation (weregild) could. It would, however, be misleading to suggest that all families of the victim were more eager for money than vengeance. Stephen White, who studied violence in the Touraine around 1100, found that aggrieved parties delayed or rejected compromise and compensation for quite lengthy periods. This allowed them to make the most of their opponent’s contrition, and capitalise upon the community’s awareness that they had suffered a wrong and had the right to avenge it.
The blood vengeance in early medieval Francia which most closely paralleled the modern definition of blood feud was waged by the Merovingian royal family. Since the king was above the law, and given that the Merovingians often feuded with dynasties in other countries where the same law codes did not apply, one cannot say that Merovingian vengeance attacks were part of a progression of penalties as outlined in the Frankish law codes. Rather, they fit the pattern of classic blood feud in that they often involved a lasting state of hostility between families or family members. Halsall’s argument seems apt here: he observes that a ‘true feud’ is very difficult to terminate, and almost never ended through violence, because the feuding groups are perpetually in a state of debtor and creditor; every time the debt of blood is paid off on one side, the roles and relationships are reversed, and it keeps on going.
The Merovingians were very into blood feud even by the standards of medieval royal dynasties. They tended to attack opponents in order to avenge insults to their kin. Such feuds could stretch out over generations. Gregory of Tours records Queen Chrotechildis, a Burgundian by birth, urging her sons to avenge the deaths of her parents on the murderer’s sons (her nephews Sigismund and Godomar). It seems that in royal circles, not engaging in blood feud to avenge a kinsman’s death was seen as positively shameful. The mid-9th century Gesta Dagoberti recounts how, supposedly, the sons of Sadregisil did not manage to obtain their heritage because they had not avenged their father’s murder.
Sometimes avenging an injured family member was linked with ideological considerations. For instance, King Childebert invaded Spain in 531 after hearing from his sister Chrotilda that her husband, Amalric of the Visigoths, was grossly mistreating her due to her Catholic faith (Amalaric was an Arian). Childebert defeated the Visigoth army and Amalaric was assassinated after fleeing to Barcelona. Unfortunately, Chrotilda herself never made it back to Paris, dying of an unknown cause en route, but the victory presumably enhanced Childebert’s reputation. Ideological concerns aside, the Merovingians also used blood feud for less exalted ends. One such case developed in the aftermath of a lurid royal scandal involving King Chilperic I (c.539-584). Chilperic murdered his wife, Galswintha, on the instigation of his mistress Fredegund, apparently strangling her in bed. Chilperic’s brothers saw their chance and decided to ‘avenge’ Galswintha by killing Chilperic. This, of course, left the throne open to them, and had the added bonus of being able to steal Galswintha’s dowry in the process.
We start to see an end to vengeance killing as an official form of justice under Charlemagne, who was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor in 800. He opposed blood feud as part of his campaign against any violence not committed by royal consent. His Capitulare Missorum Generale attempted to ban all blood vengeance. Any attempt to settle a dispute had to be conducted through the medium of Charlemagne’s own officers. A murderer had to agree to pay compensation and the victim’s relatives had to accept it, once paid. Anyone taking vengeance of their own would be punished. It’s impossible to know how strictly these laws were followed; Francia was a huge realm and royal powers to enforce such regulations were limited. At any rate, perhaps it is not too much to see Charlemagne’s laws against blood feud as the beginning of the medieval expansion of more centralised royal justice. It was, however, not until the Holy Roman Empire’s Reichstag in 1495 that the right of waging feuds was totally abolished, with the Imperial Reform proclaiming an “eternal public peace”.
- Fischer Drew, Katherine (ed.). Lex Salica, 1991, University of Pennsylvania Press
- Halsall, Guy. ‘Reflections of Early Medieval Violence: The Example of the “Blood-Feud” Memoria y Civilización 2 (1999), pp. 7-29