Bishop Burchard’s ‘Law of the dependants of the church of Worms’

Around 1025, Burchard, the bishop of the Rhineland city of Worms, wrote a text known as the ‘Law of the dependants of the church of Worms’ (Lex familiae Wormatiensis ecclesiae). The earliest known copy dates from the twelfth century but there is no reason to doubt its authenticity. The text sets out 32 regulations for the people living under the church’s control (Latin: familia).

The text has several points of interest for those concerned with eleventh-century Europe. Firstly, it reveals some of the social complexity of Rhineland society around the year 1000, in ways which other surviving documents do not. The ‘family’ or community of Worms included people of very different social standings and wealth: from the merchants living in the city of Worms to the farmers working on the bishopric’s lands in the countryside. Some of these were described as mancipia, in other words wholly unfree; others were fiscalini, slightly more free (probably they had originally been serfs of the king before being transferred to the bishop); others, such as the cives or citizens who lived in Worms, were legally entirely free. They were united in being subject to the bishop’s authority, but remained very diverse nevertheless, as Thomas Kohl has emphasised.

Secondly, it is valuable for its insights into local customs in the countryside, amongst people who were generally ignored by most of our other sources. Most of the scholarship on the text has focused on what it has to say about violence. For instance, we learn that feud – i.e., one family taking violent reprisals against another to revenge someone’s death – was prohibited, but that wergild – that is, buying off this vengeance – was still authorised for the benefit of close relatives. As Warren Brown has noted, this suggests that ordinary people “thought about violence, honour, and vengeance in the same way as their betters”, the aristocrats who usually dominate the archive.

Yet as Hans-Werner Goetz has emphasised, there is a lot more to the Burchard’s text than feuding and violence, interesting though these aspects are. There is also a lot of revealing evidence for social history, which has been rather less studied. For example, we learn that farmers could inherit their parents’ lands and even sell them, though only within the group of the familia, to prevent the lands leaving the bishop’s control. And we learn that wives could keep the dowry their husbands gave them even after their husbands’ death, but if they themselves then died without children the dowry returned to the husbands’ family.

Thirdly, Burchard’s Lex familiae tells us a lot about how bishops such as Burchard were attempting to project their authority at this time, not necessarily in opposition to royal authority, but alongside it. Burchard justified his account in two ways: that he was only writing down what was generally accepted already, and that he was doing to in response to growing violence and oppression.  It is difficult to know how far to believe him on either point, but in any case, the fact remains that this was the first known attempt to establish a legal code for a particular group of dependants in the Latin West. Burchard claimed only to be writing down old custom, but quite a few of the regulations begin ‘Lex erit’, ‘This shall be the law’, which suggest that he was not afraid of legislating on his own authority.

Links

Translation: Internet History Sourcebooks Project (fordham.edu) (scroll down)
the earliest (12th-century) manuscript: Werksansicht (gwlb.de)
Bibliography (mostly in German): Geschichtsquellen: Werk/745

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