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.

The Lex Frisionum is the Frisian book of law. It was recorded 12 centuries ago in Frisia (as Friesland and the surrounding area were called in those ages), during the reign of Charlemagne. The described part is the best-known rule of the Lex Frisionum. The Frisian Law was first written down in Latin around the year 800. All our wisdom about the Lex is based on the oldest printed version, which dates from 1557 when Joannis Basilius Herold from Basel made a compilation of all Germanic laws from the time of Charlemagne.

Charlemagne had the traditional laws of all the peoples he conquered written down, after which the Christian procedures were enforced. Pagan custom of blood feud had to be abolished and a system of fines was introduced. For example, a killer had to pay money to the relatives and to the authorities. The Frisian customary law that is laid down in the Lex Frisionum most likely existed for centuries but wasn't put on paper until Charlemagne's orders.

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 in gold or silver coins had to be paid to the victim (or his/her relatives), to the king, or both. Fines were dependant on the amount of money a victim represented. This market value was called wergeld or manwyrth. For example, the ratio serf-free-noble in Middle Frisia was 1-2-3. How much this was exactly is hard to define, but one theory says the wergeld of a free Frisian was the equivalent of about 1,7 kg silver.

A murderer had to pay the wergeld of the victim to his relatives. 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 Lex Frisionum described all conceivable parts of the body and wounds of various sizes in detail. Some fines were very high, for instance for chopping off a hand. Chopping off a man's penis or both his testicles was as costly as murdering him (a full wergeld). The provisions for particular professions are remarkably sophisticated: the wounding of a harp player for instance was punished extra heavily.

Some situations that the original Frisian law did not account for, were copied from other Germanic laws, for example article 76, which says that a married woman that has been kidnapped must be returned. This was an exact copy of the Lex Alamannorum article.

The last provision in the Lex Frisionum is also the most bizarre and enigmatic one. Anyone who dishonoured a temple was killed brutally, as the citation at the top of this write-up describes. 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. No reasonable theories have been developed on this yet.

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