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Laws of the New Empire

Posted On October 23, 2017 | 15:11 pm | by baileyt | Permalink
Paolo Angelini limns the legal history of medieval Slavs

Paolo Angelini, a postdoc in Roman law and legal history at the University of Leuven, is a fellow in Byzantine Studies in fall 2017. His research focuses on the transmission and interaction of legal systems in the medieval world. On October 2, Angelini delivered his research report, “Introduction to the Medieval Legal History of the Southern Slavs,” which traced the adoption of Byzantine and Roman law systems by nascent Slavic states.

Q&A with Paolo Angelini

Talk more about the connection between commerce and law in this period, especially as it relates to Slavic cities on the Adriatic Sea, which you mentioned in your talk.

The idea I’m working with is that the Slavic population really came into civilization after it enacted a codification of laws—because it’s popularly supposed that only after codification can you be considered a developed civilization. Otherwise, before that, you have customary law, and so on. The case of coastal cities is really interesting because you can actually see how the development of trade with places like Venice, for example, improved their legislation. There’s always a very practical factor driving these changes. If you think about the Marxist concept of the superstructure, and how law is enacted—justice is a very noble idea, but it’s also enacted in order to improve trade activities, because it’s much easier to trade if you have common institutions.


You discussed the feud system in Slavic customary law, and specifically the concept of “vražba,” or the debt paid to make up for a crime. How does this concept compare to other feud systems?

Well, the Slavs share this concept—this common, or customary, system of blood revenge—with Germanic populations. While the Slavs have vražba, the Germans have wergild, but the system works the same way. For both populations, you have pecuniary compensations for homicide, rather than a death penalty imposed by the state. This is of course when we’re speaking of customary law. Among the Slavic tribes, these elements are really common. What I find interesting is that I was speaking with someone recently about the shared origins of the Slavic and Germanic tribes. And you know, during the Second World War, the Slavs were among those considered Untermenschen, subhuman, by the Nazis. But here you see the Germans and the Slavs share cultural elements, and—why not?—maybe roots. Of course, we don’t know, we’re speaking about very old times. This is just a hypothesis based on a few elements in the legal texts.


How does the adoption of legal systems in this period relate to Bulgarian efforts to form their own imperial identity?

It starts between the ninth and tenth centuries, as Byzantium’s strength begins to diminish. The Bulgarian emperor adopts the Greek term basileus Rhomaíōn, emperor of the Romans. It’s the same thing Charlemagne did at the beginning of the ninth century when he was proclaiming his own empire. Of course, there is a sort of competition to take this title. Simeon I uses it, but the Byzantines don’t agree with this. Once Bulgaria has become a strong state, however, and enacted a codification of laws, they claim the imperial title. It’s sort of the best way of self-legitimizing. The Bulgarians adopt a lot of Byzantine titles, and eventually the titles are used for rulers across Europe.