Lex Frisionum

Last update: January 2010

If anyone breaks into a shrine and steals sacred items from there, he shall be taken to the sea, and on the sand, which will be covered by the flood, his ears will be cleft, and he will be castrated and sacrificed to the god, whose temple he dishonoured.

This gruesome rule is the best known part of the Lex Frisionum, the law of the Frisians from the time of Charlemagne. In studies that mention the Lex Frisionum, this particular rule is usually cited. Sometimes another notorious rule is also quoted, the one about the killing of newborn children. That's all we learn about the Lex from authors such as Halbertsma (1984), Krogmann (1967), Schuyf (1995), and de Vries (1935). And that's a shame: Lex Frisionum is a rare and unusually extensive early medieval source. It offers more than just these two spectacular rules.

These web pages intend to render some more insight into the Lex Frisionum: the provisions it contains, when the work originated, and its significance. The original text of Lex Frisionum is written in Latin. In 1982, Eckhardt & Eckhardt published a German translation, and in a recent study on old Frisian laws, Algra (2000) translated about a quarter of the articles in Lex Frisionum into modern Dutch (Algra's study was done independent of the present translation). A complete Dutch or English version did not yet exist.


The Lex Frisionum was first written down around the year 790. All our knowledge about the Lex is based on the oldest printed version, which dates from 1557. In that year, the printer Joannis Basilius Herold from Basel made a compilation of all Germanic laws from the time of Charlemagne. Among them, the Lex Frisionum. Herold must have had an older, possibly an original specimen. But this has been lost. Whether he copied his example precisely and completely is uncertain. We'll just have to make do with Herold's version.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, many scholars looked into the Lex Frisionum. One of the earliest studies provides the full Latin text plus a commentary (Von Richthofen, 1866). The most elaborate study, and the most important source for this introduction, is the dissertation by Siems (1980). Eckhardt & Eckhardt (1984) published the full Latin text plus a translation into German. A recent work, the dissertation of Henstra (1999) specifically considers the fines in the Lex.
Information on other (more recent) Frisian laws came from Algra's study (2000); the Avalon-website was used for a comparison with the Law of the Salian Franks, and Whitelock (1955) for comparisons with the laws of the Anglo-Saxon kings. Comparisons with the Dutch Ewa ad Amorem were based on my own translation (Nieuwenhuijsen, 2005).

Lex Frisionum: a preliminary book of law

Lex Frisionum, in the form in which we know it, is a preliminary book of law: it is a survey of rules used in Frisia, together with rules imposed by the Frankish authorities. The survey was ordered by Charlemagne. He had the customary laws of all the peoples he conquered written down, with the aim of compiling more definite and more consistent law books in which, at the same time, the Frankish, Christian procedures would be imposed.
It is unknown whether such a definite version of Lex Frisionum has ever been made. Only the 'draft version' has survived, thanks to Herold. This draft contains many duplications, and some rules contradict each other. Lex Frisionum, in this form, with its contradictions and obscurities, would not have been usable in court (see Siems, p 350). However, as Algra (2000, p 95) pointed out, we should be happy with this rough material. In their official version, the Frankish rulers undoubtedly would have cleaned out the original pagan elements.


In the Dark Ages, Frisia comprised much more than merely the present province of Friesland: it was the complete coastal strip from Flanders, through Holland, to North Germany. The Lex Frisionum covers all of ancient Frisia. The central part (indeed the present province of Friesland) plays a prominent role: the Lex presents primarily the legal rules that apply to this area. Deviating rules in the rest of Frisia are mentioned as exceptions. In those cases, the Lex says 'between Zwin and Vlie' (for Western Frisia, now Holland and Zeeland) or 'between Lauwers and Wezer' (for Eastern Frisia, towards Ost Friesland).


The Frisian customary law that is laid down in the Lex Frisionum probably existed for centuries. Only when Charlemagne ordained so, it was put on paper. This probably happened between 785 and 793 AD. The complete Lex was codified in one go; modern scholars do not support the compilation theory (which assumed that the Lex was composed of segments that were written down independently from each other, with intervals of many years).
In any case, the Lex must have been written down after the year 785: in that year, the conquest of Frisia by the Franks was completed, with the defeat of the rebel leader Widukind. So only then the recording of the law for all of Frisia could commence.
Siems (1980) assumes that the Lex was drafted in association with the Reichstag of 802/803 in Aachen. At that occasion, several Germanic books of law were formally established. An argument for this association is the lacking of rules for the clergy in the Lex (and also in other laws). Precisely at that same Reichstag, Charlemagne ordained the composition of a special book of law for the clergy. Therefore, those rules did not have to be included in each separate people's law. We don't know whether the Lex Frisionum was also formally established during the Reichstag of 802/803: an official Frankish version of the Law of the Frisians has not come to us.
Siems's wording 'in association with the Reichstag' is somewhat confusing, since it could be read as 'during the Reichstag' (as in Halbertsma, 2000, p 165, and also in an earlier version of this web page, see Versions). However, Henstra noted that the actual collection of the Frisian rules (that, up till than, had only been transmitted verbally) and putting them into writing, would have been a long and labour-intensive process. It probably started several years before the Reichstag. Indeed, Charlemagne was already busy recording the various Germanic customary laws by the end of 780's, with the intention of formalising them later (Henstra, p 51 and 71 and pers. comm.). Henstra suggests that in the case of Lex Frisionum, the drafting must have ended some 10 years before the Reichstag. This is based on the amounts of money mentioned in the Lex. At several places, the Lex speaks of 'new money' or 'old money'. In the 8th century, two money reforms took place, by order of the Frankish rulers: in 754/755 (under Pippin the Short) and in 793/794 (under Charlemagne). The amount of silver that a coin should contain was re-assessed. The question is, whether the distinction old/new in the Lex refers to the first or to the second reform. Henstra calculated that it must have been the first reform. Ergo, the Lex must have been drafted before the second reform of 793. And after 785. That means an origination around the year 790.
Why the recording was stopped in or before 793 is unclear. The text of the Lex ends somewhat abruptly, suggesting that the drafting ended suddenly, before completion. Henstra suspects that this had to do with the rebellion against the Frankish rulers in Ost Friesland in those years. Maybe, the Lex was recorded under the supervision of count Diederik, a relative of Charlemagne, who was a military leader in Frisia at the end of the 8th century. This idea is based on the 10th-century Westerlauwers Law, which mentions a 'Herderik' who recorded the Frisian rules of law (Henstra, 1999, p 295-297). According to Jaekel, Lex Frisionum, when mentioning a dux (duke) would refer to this Diederik (Jaekel, 1895, p 22; see also Algra, 2000, p 107). Diederik and his army suffered a heavy defeat in the year 793 near Rüstringen, against the Saxons. Whether Diederik himself fell in that battle is unknown, but we do know that since than his name does not appear in the chronicles any more, and that the Fulda Necrologium mentions the death of a 'Theotheri' in that same year (Nieuwenhuijsen, 2009, p 31). If all suggestions and presumptions are true, this would explain why the recording of the Lex Frisionum halted suddenly in the year 793.


It is uncertain whether the Lex was written down by, or under the supervision of, the afore mentioned count Diederik: it does not give an author's name. Neither does any of the other Germanic laws. The Lex Frisionium does contain the names of two wise men: Wlemar and Saxmund. The 'Additio Sapientum' comes from their hands. So these two gentlemen must have contributed to the Lex. Whether there was, apart from these two, a principal author, or a team of authors, is unknown.
According to Siems (1980), Wlemar and Saxmund contributed their articles during the codification of the Lex, and not as an addition afterwards. Their contributions would reflect the influence of the Frankish sovereign, rather than original Frisian customary law.
Apart from the additions by Wlemar and Saxmund, articles have been added to the Lex Frisionum that were literarily copied from other Germanic laws, especially the Lex Alamannorum. An example is Add. III: 76, which says that a married woman that has been kidnapped must be returned. Thus, situations which the original law did not provide for were still covered, and this was done in accordance with the Christian preferences of the Frankish king.


Herold's version of the Lex Frisionum shows a subdivision into numbered Titles and paragraphs. This is very likely the work of Herold himself: the original Germanic laws did not have numbered articles. Although these numbers are not original, they turn out to be quite handy: if we say XX: 3, then everyone knows that Title 20, the third paragraph is meant. So all scholars use Herold's numbers.
At several instances, Herold has been sloppy with the sequence of the articles: one part of the Lex Frisionum even ended up in a totally different part of his compilation, namely the Lex Thuringorum. Some article numbers have been omitted and in the Additio Sapientum, the Title III occurs twice.
Eckhardt & Eckhardt (1982) suggested a corrected sequence of the articles, which was used in a previous version of this website. The versions from 2003 onwards, however, follow the 'original' sequence and numbering by Herold (see Versions). Where Herold's numbering is illogical, this has been marked. The section from Lex Thuringorum has been inserted here in the 'Additio', after the register of wound fines, because that is where it fits best.


The Lex Frisionum is a book of criminal law. It says which punishments were to be given for murder, wounding, theft, and breaking matrimonial laws. For such offences, a fine had to be paid, to the victim (or his/her relatives), or to the king, or both.
Below, the various groups of offences are discussed one by one. But first a few words on the wergeld, which formed the basis of the fines.

Fines and wergeld

The level of the fines depended on the social status of the person in question. Three ranks were considered: noble (nobilis), freeman (liber) and serf (litus or half freeman). Furthermore, there were the slaves, but they only had their market value. And there were the clergymen, but they were not considered in the Germanic laws of Charlemagne's time.
The fine (or compensation) for killing a freeman in Frisia was 53 golden solidi and 1 denar or tremisse. In ordinary coins, this equals 1920 silver pennies (see the Explanatory notes for the conversion). A serf's fine was precisely half a freeman's fine. The compensation for killing a noble man varied regionally: in Middle Frisia it was 80 solidi (precisely 50% more than for a freeman), but in Eastern and Western Frisia it was 106 solidi and 2 denarii (twice a freeman). Thus, the ratio serf-free-noble in Middle Frisia was 1-2-3, while in East and West Frisia it was 1-2-4. Such regional differences also appeared elsewhere in the Germanic world: there were 3-4-6 ratios, and 4-5-6, etc.
There is some ambiguity about the concept 'wergeld' (or manwyrth or leodgeld). Siems considers the full fine for killing a person as the wergeld. This vision is corroborated by articles I:1 (the fine for killing a nobleman is 80 solidi) and III:2 (80 solidi is a nobleman's wergeld). Henstra, however, considers only the part of the fine that had to be paid to the victim's heir as the actual wergeld. In Frisia, the fine for killing consisted of an amount to be paid to the heirs of the victim (two thirds), and an amount to be paid to his other kin (one third). Article I:1 specifies this for a nobleman, and it is generally assumed, that this 2:1 ratio also applied to freemen and serfs (Henstra, p 285). Thus, according to Henstra, the actual wergeld of a freeman was 2/3 of 1920 = 1280 silver pennies. This price applied to all of Frisia (central, east and west).

Men and women

The Lex Frisionum states explicitly that the fine for killing a woman was exactly the same as for a male of the same rank (Add. V: 1). This is remarkable, because among other Germanic peoples a woman valued more, especially if she was of fertile age, and even more so if she was pregnant: then she was worth 3 times a man's price (see for instance the Law of the Salian Franks). Only in the Anglo-Saxon laws, as in Frisia, a woman had the same value as a man (see the laws of Ethelbert [74] and Alfred).
The fact that women were so 'precious' is understandable, considering that in the Dark Ages they did not get very old. Many died in childbirth. On average, women only lived to an age of about 26-39 years, and men to 40-54 years (Wemple, 1991). For the Frisians and the Anglo-Saxons, this was apparently no reason to value their lives more.

Monetary system

The amounts of money in the Lex Frisionum are confusing. Sometimes an offence is mentioned twice, with two different fines. At several instances it is stated that the fines must be tripled, but often it is unclear to which articles this applies precisely.
Probably, the fine amounts are based on different monetary systems. Both Siems (1980) and Henstra (1999) suggest that most amounts in the Lex Frisionum are based on golden coins, and some amounts on silver coins. This has been suggested because the fines in the beginning of the Lex are remarkably low. Other Germanic laws use amounts for a freeman that are a factor three higher. The ancient golden solidus was worth three (more modern) silver solidi. Thus, the Frisian amounts (expressed in gold) would still be equal to those among other Germanic peoples (expressed in silver). Although gold coins had been out of circulation since two centuries, they could still be used as unit of account. In particular in the second wound register, 'new' silver coins seem to be used, because otherwise the fines for a simple wound would rise far above the fine for murder.
To complete the confusion, the Lex also gives some amounts in pounds and ounces (Title XV), and once in Frisian pennies (Add. III: 44), and it contains loose remarks that only obscure the issue (e.g. after Add: III: 73). All scholars agree that in the fines in the Lex Frisionum no fully consistent system can be discovered, and that it is very likely that mistakes have been made by both Herold and the original composers. Therefore, the amounts mentioned cannot be interpreted too absolutely.
In the present translation of Lex Frisionum, all amounts have been converted to one standard measure, the silver penny of 1,3 gram (see the Explanatory notes). The conversions have been done with the help of van Dr. D.J. Henstra.

Wergeld hypothesis and Wieringen

The wergeld was already in use before the Lex Frisionum was written down, and remained so for centuries thereafter. Henstra studied these wergelds and formulated a hypothesis: the wergeld (excluding kin's share) of a free Frisian would, through the centuries, always have been the equivalent of about 1,7 kg silver. The amount of silver per coin changed over time, and also the amounts (numbers of coins) mentioned in the Lex Frisionum and later books of law varied, but after conversion it always came down to a weight of about 1,7 kg in silver (to be precise: 1,560 to 1,768 kg). The weight at the time that Lex Frisionum was drafted, was 1,664 kg (based on 1280 silver pennies of 1,3 gram each)(Henstra, 1999, p 263 and 285).
At this point it is interesting to make a little side trip, to Wieringen. This area, in north-west Frisia (presently the province of North Holland), was situated along the trade route from Dorestad to Denmark. Vikings from Denmark settled here in the 9th century. In 1996, an exceptional archaeological discovery was done at Wieringen: an earthenware pot was excavated, dating from circa 850, and filled with silver: coins, jewellery, and raw pieces. The weight of this Wieringen silver hoard was exactly 1,7 kg! (see J-S Hoogschagen).
It is tempting to interpret this Wieringen Viking treasure as precisely one full wergeld. Maybe somebody had murdered an inhabitant of Wieringen, and an heir of the victim had received a wergeld as compensation, and he or she had hidden this as soon as possible ...? We will never know for sure, but it certainly is a coincidence!


A murderer had to pay a compensation to the relatives of the victim. An extra fine (peace money) could be imposed, payable to the king. The Lex gives several variants. In case of very vile murders, a 9-fold fine had to be paid. For example, when you set fire to somebody's house and killed him as he came running out (VII: 2), or if you killed somebody in the church (Add. I: 1). Also, the killing of a king's envoy was fined 9-fold (XVII: 3).


An important part of the Lex is about wounds: about half of the 300 articles. All conceivable parts of the body and wounds of various sizes are described and fined in detail. This is done in Title XXII, and again in the Additio Sapientum. Several wounds are mentioned in both parts, but with differing fines. So there are contradictions within the Lex.
The fine register gives the fines for a freeman. For serfs, the amounts must be halved, and for noble men 50% must be added (Add. III: 71-73; the Lex should say at this point that the injury fines for nobles in Western and Eastern Frisia are 100% higher, but this has been omitted).
The fine for a wound was never higher than the fine for murder. But some fines were very high, for instance for chopping off a hand (XXII: 27). Chopping off a man's penis or both his testicles would cost a full wergeld (XXII: 57-58; but see also Add. III: 60).
It is peculiar that some very severe wounds, that would almost certainly lead to death, still were fined with an amount much lower than the wergeld (XXII: 18, 49 and 56). As if it was assumed that the victim would still survive these lethal injuries.
The provisions for particular professions are remarkable: the wounding of a harp player or of a woman that prepares wool, was punished extra heavily (Add. III: 23, 24).
The ratios among the various fine amounts are sometimes hard to understand: for a relatively light wound an higher fine may apply than for an apparently more serious wound. This might be due to the fact that some fine amounts are not based on the Frisian customary law, but seem to be derived from other laws. In this respect Siems (1980, p 355 ff) specifically mentions the Lex Alamannorum.
It is remarkable that Lex Frisionum deals so elaborately with all sorts of wounds, much more than the Ewa ad Amorem, a book of law from the same period and from a neighbouring region: the central-Dutch river area. This Ewa contains only two articles about wounds (XVIII and XX).


Anyone who stole an object or a domestic animal or a slave, had to pay double the value to the owner, plus a fine to the king. Again, the fine depended on the social status, but in this case not of the victim, but of the thief: stealing by a noble man was punished heavier than stealing by a poor serf (Title III).

Matrimonial laws

A man was not allowed to marry a woman without her partents's consent. But the fine for kidnapping your loved one was relatively low: 20 solidi for a free woman (IX: 11), less than half a wergeld. This seems to imply that the 'Raubehe' (marriage by robbing) was more or less permitted.
When a woman married, she got the rank of her husband. Women should better not marry a man of lower rank. Apparently, some men pretended to be better than they actually were: sometimes a serf posed as a freeman. When a free woman married such an imposter, she would drop in rank. However, if this was revealed, and she swore that she had not known it, she (and her children) could keep her original rank, provided that she would never sleep with her husband again (Title VI).

Fornication and adultery

In the Germanic laws, in the penitentials, and in modern studies, all sorts of terms are being used regarding sexual activities that could not be allowed: fornicando, adultero, moechia, and stuprum. It is not always clear what exactly is meant. Brundage (1987) gives the official definitions: 'fornicando' is a broad concept, it includes all sinful sex, i.e. all extramarital sex and all illicit acts such as fellatio and bestiality; 'adultero' is a stricter concept, a special form of fornication, in which at least one of the two sinners is married (to a different partner).
The Lex Frisionum contains several provisions about fornication and adultery. Article V: 1 says that a man, who caught his adulterous wife, had the right to kill her lover (adulterum) without punishment. The Lex does not tell us explicitly what happened to the woman, but from other Germanic laws (Siems, 1980, p 329 ff) and also later Frisian laws (Algra, 2000, p 324 ff) we can assume that the deceived husband had the right to kill her too.
Title IX is about whoring. For fornication, a woman had to pay a fine to the king (IX: 1). This article is probably about an unmarried woman, who was not under the mundium of a husband or father. Another provision is about violently taking an unmarried girl ('virginem', IX: 8), which the man was fined. The same Title IX contains punishments for dishonouring the female slave of another. This also had to be paid, but not to the female slave herself, but to her owner. The Lex gives an exhaustive enumeration of the fines for rape by a group (IX: 3-7; see also the Law of the Salian Franks [XIII]).
Neither Lex Frisionum, nor other Germanic laws, make a distinction between married and unmarried men. For them, it made no difference wheter or not they had a wife waiting for them at home. Several early-medieval kings even openly had concubines. When such a relationship resulted in the birth of a child, there were special laws of succession applicable, but Lex Frisionum does not deal with this (see Algra, 2000, p 371-374).
In the early Middle Ages, many Christian theologists were painstakingly writing penitentials, filled with punishments that father confessors had to impose on sinners. In these works, sexual offences were extensively dealt with. Extramarital sex was forbidden, of course, but also within wedlock there were many restrictions, depending on the phase of the menstrual cycle, the day of the week, etc. Sex was more often forbidden than allowed, and it was certainly not something you were supposed to enjoy, even if you were decently married. Offenders had to fast and/or refrain from carnal contacts for long periods of time. Brundage (1987) presents a nice overview of all these restrictive rules in Europe between AD 600 - 1000. However, in Lex Frisionum, codified in that same period, none of this can be found. When it comes to sex, the Lex is rather accommodating. Fornication and rape were punished, as was touching a woman indecently, but furthermore no restrictions are mentioned. The strict Roman doctrine seemed not to have penetrated to this peripheral part of the Christian world.


Slaves did not have a wergeld. If anyone killed the slave of another, he had to pay the value to its owner. And if a man raped the female slave of another, he suffered a modest fine, payable to, again, the owner (IX: 3 and XIII: 1).
Title IIII is about slaves and domestic animals. It is typical that in this Title only one single article is about slaves, while five separate articles elaborate on various types of dogs. There were punishments for wounding of domestic animals, (Add. III: 68), but not for the wounding of slaves (see also Add. III: 71-73; here, a provision for slaves is lacking).
It is remarkable that the Lex does not say anything about killing or raping your own slave. It seems as if these were not penal offences, and as if a lord could do with his slaves as pleased him. However, during the Council of Worms (876) it was established that the killing of ones own slave was indeed punishable (Halsall).
Slaves were 'lucky' not to be fined themselves for theft: their lord was responsible (III: 5, IIII: 17 and XII: 1-2). However, if it got really serious and an ordeal with boiling water had to be taken, than the slave himself had to turn up (III: 6).

Level of the fines

Early-medieval fines were very high. Friedman (1979) estimated that, in Iceland, the wergeld for a free man equalled between 12 and 50 annual wages. And some fines were even 3 or 9 times the wergeld (not just in Lex Frisionum, but also in the other Germanic laws). A lifetime would be too short to earn that amount of money.
Another comparison: in the year 810, Frisia had to pay 200 pounds of silver to the invading Danes, as war contribution. This amount was equivalent to the wergeld of 36 freemen (excluding kin's share, Henstra, 1999, p 61). If a nation, or a county, had to come up with such amounts, then how could an individual ordinary man ever pay a nine fold wergeld?
It is more than likely that sometimes fines were enforced that were simply impossible. The Lex Frisionum is not too clear about what should happen then. Article XI: 1 says that a freeman 'out of necessity' could take the rank of serf. Not being able to pay a high fine could be such an emergency. Siems (1980, p 294) gives examples from other sources that make clear that this did indeed happen (see also Friedman, 1979, about temporary slavery until the fine is paid off).
The Law of the Salian Franks says that a man who cannot pay his fine, first must prove that he really does not own anything anymore. Next, his relatives and friends must step in. If, with their help, he still cannot pay the required sum, than he must pay with his life anyway. Also according to Anglo-Saxon law, a murderer's kin is supposed to help him pay his fine, or his guild brothers may help him out (Alfred [30]), and otherwise he will be subject the feud from the victim's kin. In other words: he can be killed (Edmund [1]).

Corporal punishments

The Frankish sovereigns wanted to wipe out the pagan custom of blood feud. Still, the Lex Frisionum contains some corporal punishments. Slaves that worked on a Sunday, were beaten up (XVIII: 2). And a slave or serf who murdered his master, was tortured to death (XX: 3).
The death penalty appears in two other places in the Lex. Stealing a horse or a cow was punished with the death penalty, but it could be redeemed (Add. I: 3; see also Ewa ad Amorem [XLVIII]). And there is the famous Temple breakers article (Add. XI: 1), which will be discussed below.
Lex Frisionum III: 8-9 and X: 1 suggest that a man could loose his hand for swearing a false oath (N.B.: III: 8 is about a false oath rather than theft). The Ewa ad Amorem says explicitly that perjury is punished with the loss of a hand.
The Anglo-Saxon laws mention punishment by chopping off a hand twice: for theft from the church (Alfred [6]), and for fraudulent moneyers (Athelstan [14]).

Drawing lots

When a murder had been committed and it was not precisely clear by whom, a suspect could be pointed out by the drawing of lots. The procedure is described in detail in Title XIIII. Drawing lots was already done in Frisia in pagan times (Siems, 1980, p 317). The form described in the Lex clearly shows Christian characteristics: the sign of the cross, the altar and the priest.

Swearing of oaths

Somebody who had been accused of a crime could avoid conviction and punishment by swearing that he was innocent. He had to bring along a number of oath-helpers, who would confirm his innocence. These comrades had to have the same rank as the accused.
The number of oath-helpers required, is precisely specified in the Lex. It depended on the rank of the victim and on the rank of the suspect: the murder on a noble man required more oath-helpers, and the oath of a noble man counted heavier than one of a freeman or serf. This resulted in major differences. In Middle Frisia, a noble man, who had killed a serf, could redeem himself with only 3 fellows. Conversely, a serf who had killed a noble man, needed 35 fellows. In Western and Eastern Frisia the differences were even larger, due to the more extreme rank-ratios: the numbers would be 2 and 47, respectively (I: 4 and 8).
At first sight, the numbers of oath-helpers may seem confusing: often prime numbers (5, 11, 17, 23), and lacking any system. However, the suspect himself should also be counted. With the suspect included, the numbers are always neat multiples of 4 or 6. It appears, that the oath of a man always equals 1/12 of the fine for killing that man (wergeld plus kin's share).
Redeeming with oath-helpers seems to be an easy way to get away with an accusation. However, if a false oath had been sworn, and this was revealed, heavy fines would be imposed, also on the oath-helpers (X: 1; see also 'Corporal punishments', above).
An oath could be sworn either on the vestment or, in more serious cases, on the relics (see III: 5-6 and XII: 1-2). The Skeltana Riucht tells us how the oath on the vestment came about: "He must lift his left mantle turn-up with his left hand, an put two fingers of his right hand on it, and than swear" (Algra, 2000, p 333).


The ordeal by boiling water, to prove one's innocence, appears in two places in the Lex: in cases of theft (III: 6-9), and in East Frisia for manslaughter during a riot (XIIII: 3). How precisely this ritual came about is not clear from the Lex. The only thing we learn from the Ewa ad Amorem is that the defendant could get burned during an ordeal.
The ritual is described in detail in more recent sources from England (The Laws of King Athelstan, (The Laws of King Athelstan, 924-939, Paul Halsall's website), Germany (The Breviary of Eberhard of Bamberg, 12th - 13th century, also Paul Halsall's website) and Friesland (Westlauwerssches Recht, circa 1200, Algra, 2000, p 208). In short, the procedure was as follows: the defendant had to take a stone out of a kettle of boiling water; after three days, his hand was inspected; if the wounds had healed, he was considered innocent; if there were still sours, he was guilty.


Lex Frisionum mentions two situations where a duel could decide a conflict: when a man accused another man of being his a serf (XI: 3), and at the accusation of manslaughter during a riot (XIIII: 5). The accused could ignore the oath of the accuser and demand a duel. Algra (2000, p 113-114) suggests that any trial could end in a duel. However, Lex Frisionum gives only the two situations mentioned.
In the duel, both parties could let themselves be represented by a professional fighter, and the fight could continue to the death. One article in Lex Frisionum says that killing an opponent in a duel was not punished (V: 1), while another article does specify a fine (XIIII: 7). According to Siems (1980, p 329) this fine only applied to the death of the professional fighter who had been hired by the defandant: he (the defendant, who initiated the duel) had to pay a fine to the king.
If man accused from manslaughter entered the duel himself, and died, this was extra bitter for his relatives, because now they still had to pay the fine for the (indeed proven!) manslaughter (XIIII: 6).
Both ordeals and duels were considered judgements by God or the Gods. They probably originated in pagan times. However, they were not abolished by the Frankish rulers: they persisted during later centuries. Even the (Christian) Frankish nobility sometimes fought duels to solve their conflicts , and in Frisia, the inspection of the hand after an ordeal in boiling water was done in church (see Algra, 2000, for these and several other examples).

Christian character

The Lex Frisionum was codified in a period of transition: the pagan Frisians were Christianized in these centuries. This transition is visible in the Lex. On the one hand, it contains clearly Christian elements: the system of fines (as opposed to blood feud), the swearing on Christian relics, the drawing of lots with the symbol of the cross, the Sunday's rest (XVIII), and the rule not to sell a slave to pagan peoples (XVII: 5). It is a law that was composed on the authority of Christian sovereigns.
On the other hand, there are some pagan elements in the Lex Frisionum (see also Timmer, 2000), and these are conspicuous due to the mainly Christian character of the Lex as a whole. Clearly pagan elements are the article on the killing of children, and the Temple breakers article. Both provisions will be discussed below.

Killing newborn children

Among the Frisians, it was allowed to kill a newborn child. The Lex Frisionum says the mother had this right (V: 1). And there is another source that recorded this cruel custom: the biography of the preacher Liudger tells about a grandmother who wanted to have her newborn granddaughter killed. She ordered two serfs to drown the baby. The biography mentions that this pagan right applied only as long as the child had not eaten anything. This turned out to be the girl's rescue: another woman quickly fed her some honey (Halbertsma, 1984, p 28; Siems, 1980, p 334 ff). In Scandinavia a similar rule seems to have existed, but there the father had this right (Siems, 1980, p. 336).
In the Lex Frisionum, directly after this paragraph it has been established that the mother who killed her child did have to pay a fine to the king. Thus, the pagan rule is actually enfeebled.

Temple breakers article

The last provision in the Lex Frisionum is also the most bizarre and enigmatic one. Anyone who dishounered a temple, was killed brutally: his ears were cleft, he was castrated, and led to the sea to be sacrified. How precisely the sacrifice went about is not described, but there is another source that sheds some light on this: the Vita Vulframni recounts how two boys are sacrificed, by binding them to a pole on the beach and waiting for the flood to come. This happened in the presence of the Frisian king Radbod. The young victims were rescued in the knick of time (Halbertsma, 1984, p 26).
Killing by drowning is a beastly practice, but on the other hand it is also a nice illustration of the special relationship between the Frisians and the sea.
The scholars have racked their brains over this passage: how could such a rule end up in a Christian law, and even in a law of Charlemagne. He was supposed to have encouraged the destruction of pagan shrines, and he even would have participated in it with his own hands. It is said that in 772 Charlemagne personally destroyed a statue for the god Irmin in Westphalia (Schuyf, 1995, p 37).
Siems (1980, p 348) observes that the temple breakers article is not really a legal rule. The phrasing is rather narrative: it says how people acted, but it is not a strict order. Furthermore, it has been suggested that this ancient pagan custom has been included in the Lex to establish that the new Christian churches would enjoy the same protection as, before, the pagan temples.
If the Frankish authorities ever made an official version of the Law of the Frisians, they probably would have skipped both the temple breakers article and the rule on killing newborn children. However, in the draft version of Lex Frisionum, these pagan rules are still present.


The Lex Frisionum is a law of transition: accomplished in a period of transition, full of contradictions, and apparently a draft for a more definite law.
It is unlikely that the Lex in its present form was actually used in court as a book of law. With its many contradictions and obscurities, it would have been very difficult to use this Lex for practical jurisdiction. However, as a source of insight into the life of the Frisians this Lex is, 12 centuries from date, still valuable.

Lex Frisionum
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© Dr. Kees C. Nieuwenhuijsen
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