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 IV: Legal Relationships and Density of Regulation: The Example of Families

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.

This lecture looks at early medieval families, and the types of misconstruing involved in constituting them and their members as legal concepts. This, like the example of slavery, will lead us to reconsider the issue of gaps in normative legal material, and the possible reasons for density of regulation. Which human relationships were most and least densely legally defined and rule-bound seems to have had very little to do with which relationships were most open to becoming fraught or conflict-ridden, or with the levels of coercion required to keep them going.

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