Headshot of Alice Rio

Alice Rio

Rostovtzeff Lecture Series: As If: Fiction, Make-Believe, and the Legal World of Early Medieval Francia, 5th-9th Centuries AD

Lecture II: Procedure: Heroic Fantasy and Bureaucratic Fancies

Alice Rio

King's College London

The Rostovtzeff Lectures are supported in part by a generous endowment fund given by Roger and Whitney Bagnall.

Alice Rio is Professor of Medieval History at King’s College London. She is the author of Legal Practice and the Written Word in the Early Middle Ages: Frankish Formulae, c. 500-1000 (Cambridge, 2009) and Slavery After Rome, 500-1100 (Oxford, 2017), and has published on various aspects of early medieval law and social life.

Early medieval Francia was a world filled with law; yet profound doubts as to the reach and relevance of law to social life have made this plentiful evidence tricky to assess. These lectures attempt to recast the problem by arguing that the reason these things don’t add up now is because they did not add up then. Legal activity was driven by the need to convert hard-to-solve real-life conflicts into legal problems. This process of translation allowed the deployment of often highly fictionalized representations both of legal processes themselves and of society more widely. While these representations needed to be basically plausible, the absence of any homogenizing forces encouraging consistency meant they could take quite different yet valid forms from one case to the next, which is why examples from either law or legal practice can paint such radically different pictures of both authority and society – and why these pictures in turn are so often contradicted by other evidence. Looking at things in this way can help to see the gap between law and practice no longer in terms of a barrier which law consistently failed to clear, but as a busy and fruitful zone, whose potential contemporaries exploited creatively.

One of the areas on which surviving legal evidence provides some of the most contradictory views is the legal and administrative framework itself. I will take the written word and feuding as examples. Surviving texts can give very different impressions of the importance of written documents, and it is possible to read early medieval evidence either to support a literate, almost bureaucratic vision of legal rights, or to view literate forms as a distorting sideshow. I suggest this shows that the importance of the written word depended not on stable assumptions about the value of writing, but instead on a collective agreement about how important it was going to be in any particular case. People could, if they were able to get enough other major participants to play along, behave as if they lived in a world where all rights had to be recorded in a written document as a normal and systematic part of life – even when this expectation was evidently not sustained on anything like a consistent basis. Similarly, one could choose to behave as if there was a strong, Roman-empire-style state which ought as a matter of course to be involved in legal proceedings, or not – which is partly why the problem of whether or not there was such a thing as “feuding” during this period has proved so intractable.

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