Timetable of Legal History logoHistorian Scott wrote of the Visigoth Code, in a brilliant preamble to his book and translation of the Code, as follows:

 

"…the most remarkable monument of legislation which ever emanated from a semi-barbarian people, and the only substantial memorial of greatness or erudition bequeathed by the Goths to posterity.

"(O)ne of the striking and suggestive features which presents itself is the inculcation of exalted precepts of honor, probity, and justice, and, at the same time, the acceptance and adoption of a belief in the basest and most groveling forms of superstition. Upon the same page where the duties to be observed between man and man are set forth with a perspicuity and a piety worthy of all praise, appear laws denunciatory of divination and sorcery.

"The array of one caste against another, a practice which has never failed to destroy a government and degrade a people, is conspicuous everywhere. The court was regarded rather as a place of execution than the seat of the rendition of justice; the judge rather an avenger of injury, than the representative of the law and the guardian of social order.

"In common with all barbarians, and likewise with the majority of civilized men, force, with its consequent inconvenience and suffering, was the only idea which appealed strongly to the Gothic mind, and the moral and deterrent influence of legislation was almost entirely lost sight of."

The Code was a highly influential endeavour to consolidate the remnants of earlier gothic codes such as Euric’s Code, Salic Law, the Burgundian Code, Lex Ribvaria and the Breviary of Alaric.

It is a true masterpiece not only as a beacon of what law and justice can do for a society but also, as with the American Declaration of Independence, a remarkable document containing not only positive law but also statements such as:

"In all legislation the law should be fully and explicitly set forth, that perfection, and not partiality, may be secured. For, in the formation of the laws, not the sophisms of argument, but the virtue of justice should ever prevail. And here is required not what may be prompted by controversy, but what energy and vigor demand; for the violation of morals is not to be coerced by the forms of speech, but restrained by the moderation of virtue.

"The law is the rival of divinity; the oracle of religion; the source of instruction; the artificer of right; the guardian and promoter of good morals; the rudder of the state; the messenger of justice; the mistress of life; the soul of the body politic.

"The law rules every order of the state, and every condition of man; it governs wives and husbands; youth and age: the learned and the ignorant, the polished and the rude. It aims to provide the highest degree of safety for both prince and people, and, in renown and excellence, it is as conspicuous as the noon-day sun.

"The law should be plain, and not lead any citizen to commit error or fraud. It should be suitable to the place and the time, according to the character and custom of the state; [6] prescribing justice and equity; consistent, honorable, worthy, useful, and necessary; and it should be carefully noted whether its provisions are framed rather for the convenience, than for the injury, of the public; so that it may be determined whether it sufficiently provides for the administration of justice; whether or not it appears to be contrary to religion, and whether it defends the right, and may be observed without detriment to any one.

"Laws are made for these reasons that human wickedness may be restrained through fear of their execution; that the lives of innocent men may be safe among criminals; and that the temptation to commit wrong may be restrained by the fear of punishment."

That all are presumed to be aware of the law is pronounced:

"Let no one think that he can do what is unlawful because he was ignorant of the provisions of the laws, and what is sanctioned by them; for ignorance does not render him innocent, whom guilt has subjected to the penalties of the criminal."

The code provided for a plethora of situations still perplexing jurists, such as class action litigation, how to force witnesses to testify, a prohibition of testimony in writing, travel fees for witnesses and obliging even a freeman to answer to a charge made by a slave.

Some examples:

"If the parents of the woman or girl who has been carried off should rescue her, the ravisher shall be given up to them, and, under no condition whatever, shall she be permitted to marry him; and should they presume to marry, both shall be put to death. If, however, they should take refuge with the bishop, or should claim the privilege of sanctuary, their lives shall be granted them, but they shall be separated and delivered over as slaves to the parents of the woman.

"If the wife of any one should commit adultery, and not be caught in the act, her husband may accuse her before a judge by the introduction of competent evidence. And if the adultery of the woman should be plainly manifest, both adulterer and adulteress, according to the provisions of a former law, shall be given up to the husband, to be disposed of in any way he may select.

"If moderation is displayed in the treatment of crimes, the wickedness of criminals can never be restrained. Therefore, if anyone should, in behalf of the king or the people, bring an accusation of homicide or adultery against a person equal to him in rank, … he who thus seeks the blood of another shall first have an opportunity to prove what he alleges. And if he cannot prove it in the presence of the king, or those appointed by the royal authority, an accusation shall be drawn up in writing, and signed by three witnesses, and the accused person may then be put to the question. If the latter, after undergoing the torture, should prove to be innocent, the accuser shall at once be delivered up to him as a slave, to be disposed of at his will, except that he shall not be deprived of life.

"Where a centurion deserts, in the face of the enemy, and returns home, he shall be beheaded."

The Visigoth Code also refined the wergeld system as shown at Book 4, article II:

"Where one freeborn person strikes another any kind of a blow upon the head, he shall pay five (gold coins) for a bruise, ten (gold coins) if the skin is broken, twenty (gold coins) for a wound extending to the bone, and a hundred (gold coins) where a bone is broken. If a freeborn man should commit any of the above named acts upon the slave of another, he shall pay half of the above named penalties, according to the degree of his offence. If one slave should strike another, as above stated, he shall pay a third part of the above penalties, proportionate to his offence, and shall receive fifty lashes. If a slave, however, should wound a freeborn person, he shall pay the largest sum hereinbefore mentioned, which is exacted from freeborn persons for assaults upon slaves, and shall receive seventy lashes. If the master should not be willing to give satisfaction for the acts of his slave, he must surrender him on account of his crime."

The anti-Semitism of the Code was unequivocal though quaintly stated:

"The execrable errors of heretics in general, having been already prohibited and disposed of, it now becomes our duty to make special provision for some that exist in our days, and of which we are, at present, well aware. For while the virtue of God, by the sword of his Word, extirpated all other heresies, root and branch, we have to lament that the soil of our kingdom is still only defiled by the infamy of the Jews. Therefore, to the end that we may establish peace in our realm, by the spirit of God (which, indeed, seems folly to pagans, and scandal to the Jews themselves), we, who believe in the virtues of Christ, and the wisdom of God, for the sake of whose commiseration we attempt, with pious intentions, to put an end to ancient errors, that others may not arise in future ages; decree by this law, which shall be forever observed, and by the mandate of the Holy Scriptures, that our edicts, as well as those promulgated by our royal predecessors against the perfidy and persons of the Jews, shall be forever inviolate, and shall be obeyed for all time. And if anyone should violate said laws, he shall be liable for the damages provided by them, and to the punishments especially prescribed for their infraction."

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