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Le role meconnu de la loi salique: La succession royale, XIVe-XVIe siecles.

Ralph E. Giesey. Le role meconnu de la loi salique: La succession royale, XIVe-XVIe siecles.

Histoire. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2007. 392 pp. index. illus. tbls. bibl. [euro]37. ISBN: 978-2-251-38082-7.

In this new book (not previously published in the original English version), Ralph E. Giesey revisits the story of the Salic Law in order to show that contrary to common belief, the exclusion of women from the French throne was not rooted in pure misogyny--which was not, therefore, the inexorable companion of the emergence of the modern state--but was the result of a series of circumstantial power games and interests. The methodical study of the historical material proves that the Salic Law was exploited indiscriminately in juridical battles by both the French and English, overturning the theory that the Salic Law served the rights of Philip VI of Valois, while in fact it was at first more adapted to support Edward III's English claims. Once he has demythified the legend and exposed the conjectural origins of the Salic Law, Giesey goes on to prove that the principle of female disempowerment was not in fact invented before the fifteenth century.

As Giesey recollects in his preface, this book emerges in part from a rethinking and reworking of Juristic Basis of Dynastic Right to the French Throne, published forty-five years ago. His choice then was a thematic analysis, while he now follows a chronological order, which makes sense in that it allows us to follow the fascinating story of the origins and tribulations of the Salic Law. Indeed, Giesey is interested not only in deciphering the true foundations of the expulsion of women from the French throne but also in showing how this principle was distorted and altered over the centuries. The book is divided into ten chapters, with critical material reproduced in two appendices, a large body of footnotes with plenty of Latin quotations, an index, a few illustrations, and a brief bibliographical list. Each chapter is a close analysis of various stages towards the iconic fabrication of the Salic Law: from the Convenance agreement of 1316, the meeting of 1328, to various arguments in defense of the Valois faced with the English threat during the Hundred Years' War--argument that have to be distinguished from the principle of women's exclusion per se. The core chapters are devoted to the inventors of the Salic Law, namely Jean de Montreuil, Jean Juvenal des Ursins, Noel de Fribois, and Guillaume Cousinot, and to a number of their successors. Ironically in 1589 it was the very principles that supported the legitimacy of the Valois that brought their dynasty to an end and transferred the French crown to the Bourbons. Yet the legend of the Salic Law was still controversial in the sixteenth century and was demolished by jurists or chroniclers such as Jean Du Tillet, Bernard de Girard, Francois Hotman, and Papire Masson. But the main consequences of the Salic Law were the necessary conceptualization of blood relations and the critical question of preseance that were at the heart of the conflict dividing Henri de Navarre and Charles de Bourbon. The last chapter examines he end of this saga, when the Constitution of 1791 established in its article 4 the "perpetual exclusion of women and their descendents."

In conclusion the Salic Law is of great importance not only from the point of view of the history of law and gender but also because the juridical implications it assumed shaped the power of the princes of blood as potential royal inheritors. Giesey's reflections are therefore of great relevance regarding the way the French nobility established itself and strengthened the absolutist theory that was embedded in the exaltation of blood ties and the exceptional dignities and honors due to the royal family.

The two main merits of Giesey's book are its extraordinary erudition (with an almost exclusive use of primary sources), and its intelligibility and limpidity regarding often obscure juridical reasoning and disputes. The two together make the argument convincing and the reading pleasurable with all the necessary sources and evidence cited. The background of the Anglo-French animosity is critical to emphasize the political foundations of the Salic Law; however, the lack of the cultural context in the book prevents the proper assessment of juridical debates that although in theory did not exclude a female ruler in the French realm, in practice made it impossible for a woman to succeed to the throne. The involvement of Jean de Montreuil, for instance, in the debate of the Roman de la Rose is of great significance, but Giesey only considers his juridical reflections and deplores that Montreuil is "un homme de lettres, pas un jurisconsulte" (96). For medievalists, it will probably not be a groundbreaking revelation to learn that the Salic Law was a fabricated legend, and it will not particularly convince feminists that misogyny was not the principal guarantor of the development and success of this legend, but Giesey's book does offer with exceptional lucidity and precision an astonishing tale of the longue duree of a significant principle that shaped the destiny of the French crown. His work is pioneering in showing exactly how the original historical context was successively distorted and ignored.


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Author:Hochner, Nicole
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2008
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