Lordship and Feudality

Law & Justice

Invested with his royal powers in 1130, King Roger II sought to organize feudal society in the service of the central authority. This royal will to restore public authority by combating the appropriation of ruling powers by private individuals was not specific to the Norman kingdom of Sicily. But it was expressed at something that typified Hauteville dynasty policy: the Assizes of Ariano, named after the assembly held at Ariano Irpino (Campania) in 1140, at which the rules that the great feudatories had to abide by were dictated to them. This text is still extant and remains a cornerstone of Norman law in southern Italy.

The king consulted his court lawyers and learned about similar constitutions promulgated in other states within the Anglo-Norman domain and elsewhere. His chief concern was with imposing his organization of justice and the royal finances. Contrary to feudal custom, the king did not summon the great barons and the bishops to seek their advice, but to impose his will upon them, by oath. He based his claim on Roman law and surviving legal traditions in the Lombard and Byzantine territories under his rule. The private appropriation of criminal law which characterized "feudal anarchy", private revenge, principles of pecuniary compensation for damage caused, drawn from the customs of the Germanic peoples, and the customizing of laws according to ethnic origin were abandoned in favour of an organization of justice and finance into a hierarchy of territorial districts placed under the king’s authority. The judge and the law were imposed on everyone, in the king’s name. The great lords who were invested with a part of this public authority were deemed to hold it from the king, like civil servants, and, contrary to the feudal system, were not entitled to pass it on to their heirs as part of their inheritance. The vassal’s oath of fealty could not be broken without thereby becoming guilty of treason. Any offence against public order was an offence against his liege.

Born into a family of mercenaries, a pure product of feudal society, the Norman king Roger II sought to restore the basis of public law. Going against the grain of feudal custom, he established an absolute monarchy based on divine right. The long-term success of the enterprise would depend however on the balance of power between the central authority and the great feudal lords. In 1142, Roger II added to the Assizes of Ariano by drawing up an inventory of feudal tenures and their holders’ duties towards the king, in the Catalogus Baronum..

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