Having appeared on the territory of the Western Roman Empire, Frankish Gaul appeared to have a number of common features with the Later Roman Empire. However, with regard to the fact that primarily the civil wars have become the reason that has split the great Roman Empire into the Eastern and Western ones, one cannot neglect that the discrepancy in the views on the territory has appeared long before the 5th century. Moreover, the establishment of the new Frankish Kingdom was accompanied by the appearance of the new tribes on the Roman territory. Hence, with some new cultural beliefs, new rulers and laws, a number of differences were brought. This essay will show how the legal status of females, their position in the family and social hierarchy reflects the problems and peculiarities of the national culture. Hence, the analysis of the common features of Later Roman Empire and Frankish Gaul is based on the common history and geographical position, while the differences were predetermined by a variety of economic and social problems that could not be similar in different countries throughout various periods.
The Later Roman Empire dated as the 4th century was marked by a great number of social changes. Primarily the improved position of females can be considered as an interesting aspect predetermined by new laws and Christianity distribution. The economic independence of some females together with the changes of some rights were especially interesting distinguishing features of the period. However, such changes were hardly strong enough to escape from the ‘Levitas et infirmitas sexus’ belief as the Romans initially were convinced that women are weak and mentally unstable.
The family values in the Roman Empire had much in common with antique Greece. Even though the role of females in the Roman Empire can be defined as changeable, their rights were quite limited, and they were mostly excluded from civic and public life. Women were not allowed to be present in the public or civil offices and act as judges or magistrates. At the same time, the private and individual rights of women were actively promoted and supported. In contrast to the previous period of the Roman Republic, when the values of the family put the females’ lives under strict patriarchal power, women were not among “minors” anymore. The development of bureaucracy was one of the main features of the Late Roman Empire. Mainly this feature had a considerable influence on all spheres of social life and especially decreased the role of family and males. The women’s right on the property was defended by law. Moreover, the custom of marriage named “sine manu” provided a wife with more freedom from her husband as she could stay under the responsibility of her family instead of being put under husband’s power right after the marriage. Moreover, the right to inherit property was equal for both genders. In such a way, the law provided women with the ability to accumulate wealth and property in private life even though making them powerless in the public one. More detailed studies of the Roman law related to women were provided by Gardner (1986). The author provided evidence that the independence of females was gradually increasing. With the decreased role of the guardianship (having a father or husband as a tutor), women’s freedom was limited by the number of children they had. Roman law allowed women to have no tutor if they had at least three children. Even though a number of important laws like “lex Voconia”, “lex Fakidia” or others can be considered as controversial, females’ freedom was extended. Women were definitely far from being considered as equal to men, but the legal Roman instruments were getting more and more flexible to provide women with more personal and financial freedoms. Nevertheless, it is quite wrong to believe that such freedoms ensured females’ emancipation. The independence of women was closely interrelated with the wealth of the family, which shows that the real aim of the laws was hardly the females’ position.
The above-mentioned laws are not the only ones that characterize the routine of women, whose greatest part of life still pertained to a family. Particular attention needs to be paid to the Theodosian Code as one that represents a wide range of legal issues related to marriage. The first change was making a marriage an individual choice of each person. With the previously extremely high penalties for people who were not married, since the 4th century, the situation got changed due to the laws implemented by Constantine I. The restrictions regarding the partner for marriage were also changed. The Theodosian Code dictated the following conditions for the marriage appropriateness: not too close family relations of the partners, only close social classes, respectively adult age of the partners with no great difference in age, not only the individual but also the consent of a legal guardian for a woman. Later, in the 4th century, the Christian emperors even expanded the prohibition related to marriages between different social classes. Children from such marriages had no right to inherit the family wealth. In addition to the representatives of the lower classes, the same restriction was strict as referring to women with bad reputation including prostitutes, actresses, and even female musicians. Interestingly, there were no restrictions on relations with such women or choosing such a profession. The code denied solely the right for inheritance by their children.
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Some other legal limitations referred to marriages between the representatives of different religions. However, such restriction was obviously related to both genders. What was important for women, the emotional aspect of marriage was taken into consideration. Since the 4th century, a female could refuse to marry a man if she had some negative feelings towards him even regardless of the father’s choice. Even though in some cases the father’s consent was necessary, the law was mostly respectful towards the opinion of a woman when dealing with marriage. In addition, the criminal charges related to marital issues, as well as the decisions connected with divorce, were based not only on males’ pretenses and desires but also considered the views of both parties. However, a woman had a limited number of options that allowed her to divorce her husband. Among such, her husband could have been a murderer, a sorcerer, or a tomb robber. Any other cases including heavy drinking or cheating could not be considered sufficient reasons for a divorce. Leaving a husband without any reason was forbidden and led to exclusion from the community and the inability to get married again. However, the law of the 5th century equalized the rights of men and women to divorce and deprived the originator of divorce to remarry. Even though the opinion of a woman seemed to be heard in a trial, it is also important that the right for the private life of people was mostly ignored as all the proceedings were public.
The laws and rules implemented in the 4th and 5th centuries in the Roman Empire were accompanied by the development of Christian traditions. They were mostly accepted by the ruling of the Christian Emperor Constantine I. However, they still remained to a great extent close to the old Roman traditions and views on family. The father’s authority in the family remained quite strong. However, the Christian traditions have brought much humanitarian to the family values perception. In contrast to the previous norms of letting the father kill his children, the society of the late antiquity was much more civilized. As for the expectations of a woman, her behavior was to a great extent predetermined by her social belonging. In the Roman Empire, the lawfully predetermined expectations varied for the honorable and dishonorable women. Respectable women had to marry and give birth to children. However, the “lowborn” women were initially expected to entertain and provide sexual recreation to more respectable people. Late antiquity was characterized by the appearance of celibate widows and virgins as the descendants of the respectable families and showgirls or prostitutes as the representatives of the lower class. These two types of women were primarily affected by the adoption of Christianity. At that time, the laws adopted by Constantine I and Constantine II were directed to protecting widows and virgins as well as putting particular emphasis on holy celibate as a highly respectful choice. However, the law accepted the female’s possibility to change her choice and get married later. Hence, the traditional values of a family remained in the first place as a sacred unity of man and woman.
Since the 5th century, the population of the eastern territories resisted the church laws much less than previously, and the position of the “religious” men and women was more beneficial than the one of the ordinary people. However, the situation in the western territories was obviously much more troublesome. The duty to get married was evaluated as more important that celibate and remarriage was encouraged for the widows. Initially, the Majorian’s laws and later Severus’ ones were focused on encouraging marriage. Grubbs (2001) presupposed that low birth rates could be one of the most important reasons for such rules. As for the attitude towards the celibate women, they remained a problem for the secular authorities of the West. Again, the low birth rates could have an impact on such attitudes. However, it is important to consider also political and economic changes in the territories during this period.
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Frankish Gaul was established in the 5th century and led to the social and legal changes of the western territory. The ruling of King Clovis and further representatives of the Merovingian dynasty were associated with convert to Catholicism, active support of the monasteries by the nobility, church architecture, and art development. Lewis Wood emphasizes that the nobility deserves particular attention when studying the development of the new society on the western territory. Even though it is possible to find some similar features of eastern society and the earlier Roman Empire, Frankish Gaul was a unique Gallo-Roman society with crucial influence on the nobility. The nobility and new constitution have provided many new views on the various spheres of life, which made Gaul ambivalent towards the Roman background.
The Frankish kingdom was marked by the predominance of the Germanic traditions with a slight impact on the Roman ones. The assimilation of the nations was also supported by the common marriages of Franks with the Roman women. The smaller number of Frankish women was the main reason for such a choice. In fact, according to the law, it was more desirable to create unions between the representatives of the elite regardless of the parties been Frankish or non-Frankish males and females. None of the parties had to lose status in such a case. Hence, one can find both similarities and differences in the legal and social status of females. Considerable control over property and respect towards the widow’s rights were the features borrowed from the Germanic tribes. In contrast to the Roman traditions, women inherited property only if there were no men. Hence, they obviously could not be considered equal to men. In contrast to the Late Roman Empire, the females from the Frankish Kingdom were not completely restricted from public life. The activities within the country were strictly differentiated according to gender. However, only the social rank and religious status were the obligatory features that could let females act at the court. The royal females were considered quite powerful and could participate in social and political life under some particular conditions. As for the women’s rights in the civilizing process, religious and old females could participate in cases with younger men, while the royal women were powerful in many contexts. Being a high-born woman or man provided one with a number of additional rights and possibilities in contrast to the descendants of the lower classes.
A strong influence of the social and economic aspects was also observed in the Western Medieval Society. Especially when dealing with marriage traditions, financial and class issues were particularly important. In general, marriage was predetermined mostly by the Christian traditional values and laws provided by the governments. Polygamy was abandoned, and incest marriages were even considered as secular crimes; divorces and remarrying were undesirable. The conditions on which a woman could divorce her husband were not much different from those of the late antiquity. However, not all rules coincided. The earlier traditions of Franks tribes were influential for the differences that appeared in the western and eastern territories. The main differences regarding the marriage included the absolute ban on marriage between not only the closest relatives but also any types of relatives. However, such a rule was predetermined by the incest in the Frankish royal family and could not be considered as a limitation of the females’ rights. This situation provides evidence that the Frankish Gaul was marked by disturbance about the population health and size. Hence, women had to be protected due to their ability to give birth to children.
While some traditions of the Later Roman Empire remained in the Frankish Gaul and found their place in the new environment, the others underwent numerous changes and assimilated with the rules of the Frank tribes. In general, one can see that both societies were dependent on social ranks and religion. The rights of women were gradually developing in both states. However, the royal females of Frankish Gaul had more opportunities to participate in the public life of society.