Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Salic Law: From the Salian Franks to the Present Day

A discussion of the Salic Law, the basic law determining the pattern of inheritance in France and many other European nations up to the 19th century, brings to light interesting historical connections between France and Germany.  The origins of the Salic Law (Lex Salica) can be traced to the Salian Franks, a branch of a larger group of Germanic tribes living in Western Europe.  The Salian Franks established central authority in the territory conquered from the Romans, Gaul, as the Merovingians were of Salian origin.  What is interesting to note about the Salian Franks is that they were the first Germanic tribe settled outside of the Roman Empire to settle permanently with Roman territory in the 4th and 5th centuries.  Similar to other branches of the Franks, inheritance among the Salians occured via agnatic primogeniture, that is inheritance of territory exclusively by males descended from a common ancestor through male lines only.  To compare to modern day monarchies, if the Salic Law were in use in the United Kingdom, Queen Elizabeth II would not have been allowed to ascend to the British throne because she is a female, and her children would also have been excluded because they are the offspring of a female heir.  Therefore, France as a Salic law nation has never had a female sovereign nor has their been a King of France that has ascended to the throne via descendance from a female heir.  Fascinating stuff.

The Cenotaphs of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette at St. Denis

Because of its highly restrictive nature, few European nations utilized the Salic Law; the two primary examples were France and Savoy.  Salic inheritance was also utilized in most if not all of the German states that formed the German Confederation in 1815 (with the exception of Austria).  Certain nations, including Austria and Sweden, utilized what was called Semi-Salic inheritance, in which females could only succeed to a throne upon the extinction of all possible males.  The United Kingdom would not be considered a Semi-Salic law monarchy because women may succeed to the British throne even if there are eligible males available, i.e. there were British princes eligible for the throne in 1952 when Queen Elizabeth II began her long reign.  In the present age, with few European monarchies left, the Salic Law is a relic of the past; several European monarchies (Belgium, Denmark, and Sweden, for example) having eliminated male primogeniture altogether.

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