Category Archives: arson

Burning Brands and Unintended Injuries

The Edictus Rothari of 643 CE includes within its scope, four adjacent clauses addressing various forms of arson and fire damage. These comprise:

  • Rothari No. 146 on the deliberate burning down of somebody else’s house,
  • Rothari No. 147 on (accidental?) injuries inflicted by a burning brand taken from the hearth,
  • Rothari No. 148 on damage caused by wayside fires which have been negligently left, and
  • Rothari No. 149 on the deliberate burning down of somebody else’s mill.

The clause following these (No. 150) then goes on to address the destruction of a mill (or dam) in other ways, reflecting the ways in which the continuation between adjacent clauses in the Edictus can often be thematic. My focus here, though, is on the burning brands in the second of these clauses, which in Katherine Fischer-Drew’s 1973 translation reads as follows:

Concerning a brand of fire carried more than nine feet from the hearth

He who carries a brand of fire more than nine feet from his hearth and thereby causes some damage to his own or to another man’s property shall render compensation singlefold (ferquido), that is, he shall pay the value of the damage alone as compensation since he did it unintentionally. If the damage occurs to himself or to someone else within nine feet from the hearth, he shall not be liable for compensation.

Rothari No. 147

Trans. Fischer-Drew, The Lombard Laws, p. 76

From Fischer-Drew’s translation, and if we take a black-letter legalism approach to the legal content, the clause appears to address a small number of possibilities, with the intent of establishing the extent of liability. The main division is whether the damage occurs within nine feet of the hearth, or further away than that. As the person carrying the brand is not responsible for any damages caused within nine feet of the hearth, their seems to be an unwritten implication that anybody else within that perimeter should have been aware of the personal risk and only had themselves to blame. Beyond that perimeter, the liability then transfers to the person who took the brand out, but the law still assumes any damage inflicted was accidental. Consequently, the compensation due is singlefold – the Langobardic ferquido, [literally in ‘like (kind)’] is used in the text, which Fisher-Drew helpfully retains in her translation. That is to say, simply paying ‘the value of the damage done’. While Fischer-Drew sometimes expands and clarifies terminology in the text, in this case the re-iteration of the meaning of ferquido is part of the original clause from the law-code – a strategy frequently (but not consistently) employed throughout the Edictus Rothari where a Langobardic term is then reiterated in a Latinate explanation.

The assumption in the clause is that the damage inflicted is accidental (or else that the person who inflicted it is not liable). Consequently, it probably needs to be read in light of the preceding clause in which another person’s house is entirely and deliberately (in asto animo [‘with evil intent’]) burnt down. In Rothari No. 146, the compensation due for that is threefold the damage inflicted, so the two clauses present a contrast between intentional and accidental damages. This can be loosely compared to accidental killing, addressed in Rothari No. 387, where the financial value of the person killed [usually given as praetium or widrigild] need to be paid, but further faida [loosely ‘feud’] is prohibited as the killing was unintentional. Returning to arson, the balancing of the clauses as between the burning of the house and damage to property appear relatively comprehensive, as would the balance of deliberate verses accidental. However, as the clauses in fact comprise, deliberately burning down the house on the one hand and accidentally damaging property with fire on the other, there appear to be some gaps in the scope of the legislation. One assumes that the judges, bone fide homines [‘men of good faith’], and other (perhaps legally competent) interested parties involved, extrapolated to suit the situation. More dramatically, perhaps, we might assume that a person deliberately trying to burn another persons house, was more likely to cause a greater degree of damage (I uncritically assume thatched roofs and wooden structures), while a person accidentally inflicting fire damage would surely be helping to extinguish the flames and limit the spread of further damage…

Another division that I find quite interesting in Rothari No. 147 is the apparent distinction between the types of damage inflicted. Fischer-Drew positions it as accidental damage to property when beyond the nine foot perimeter, but to people when within it. Quite why she added that distinction is not entirely clear to me, the reasons for which can be seen from examination of the Latin used in the original clause, per Frederick Bluhme’s 185 edition for volume IV of the Leges series of the Monementa Germaniae Historica:

De fogum foris novum pedes a fogolarem portatum

Si quis focum foris novem pedes a focularem portaverit, et damnum ex ipso focum sibi aut alterius factum fuerit, ipse qui portaverit, damnum componat ferquido, id est similem, ideo quia nolens fecit. Et si intra ipsos novem pedes, quod est de focularem, damnum facere sibi aut alterius contigerit, non ei requiratur.

Rothari No. 147

Ed. Frederick Bluhme, Leges, iv, p. 34

As can be seen from the emphasised words in the clause, the object to which the damage is inflicted is the same in both cases: damnum. On the one hand, this term does mean injury to either person or property, and a translator has some license to adopt whichever meaning best suits their situation. But changing which within the dependent situations addressed within the scope of a single clause seems to me to be a little confusing. My best guess for why Fischer-Drew may have done this, is due to the types of compensation mentioned in the respective parts of the clause. Beyond the nine foot perimeter, the compensation is in ‘like’ kind (ferquido) for that which is damaged, a presumably clumsy, brand-wielding Lombard in the seventh century could hardly replace an accidentally burnt arm, for instance, with a good one. So opting for property here does make sense. Conversely, in the second part, the clause specifically mentions the damage being to ‘himself or to someone else’ [sibi aut alterius] so the possibility of it being a direct injury that is intended is much more apparent. With the use of ‘damnum’, though, damage to a persons property is surely also included within damage to the self. And, as we know from the injury tariffs of the Edictus Rothari, a wound to the person can be financially compensated for. By stating that the injury was unintentional and recompense is in ferquido, the clause may be limiting the spread of the faida rather than exclusively emphasising property damage. Fischer-Drew’s translation ,then, needs reading with a pinch of salt.

Another point in which Fischer-Drew’s translation seems to slip from the original is in the very first line. She makes the hearth the possession of the person who takes the fiery brand from it, i.e the brand is taken more than nine feet ‘from his hearth’. The Latin, however, seems only to specify that it is taken from the hearth in general – ‘a focularem portaverit’. The assumption that the person taking the flaming brand from the hearth must also be the owner, is an unexplained extrapolation. Perhaps Fisher-drew had some idea of Langobardic politeness being in play, and could not imagine that a person visiting another person’s house would be removing burning wood from the hearth for untold purposes (other than deliberately burning the place down). But there is nothing in the clause itself to suggest that, and the addition of the possessive limits the scope of the law in a way that the original clause is not limited. Again caution is required. Reading the clause in its original Latin, a visitor accidentally burning the owner of a house more than nine-feet away from the hearth is liable for compensation, but that possibility is excluded twice from Fischer-Drew’s translation, as she limits the party inflicting the injury to the owner of the hearth only, and damage only to property.

One would assume in the case of damage to property or self, that compensation would only be due if two parties were involved. After all, if the person wielding the brand damaged their own belongings, even if they were beyond the nine foot perimeter and therefore liable who would they actually pay the compensation to? It seems an irrelevant extrapolation of the clause, but in the second part, again, it specifically address if the damage is to self or to other. So clearly this situation was in the minds of the law-givers. On the one hand, this may be a null-issue, in that the statement is specifically that no compensation is required, and the wording could be taken as an expressive way of emphasising that nobody but themselves were at fault for being injured. But in the process of writing this, one possibility has just occurred to me – if we take into account that the brand may be taken from the hearth by *anybody*, not just its owner per Fischer-Drew, then perhaps this wording deliberately addresses and nullifies the situation where a visitor to a house takes a flaming brand from the hearth (accidentally) injures themselves with it and then tries to claim compensation from the actual owner of the hearth and home? It is the best explanation I have, and it has echoes with Liutprand’s exclusion of the owner of a well with a counter weight from liabaility in a clause written some ninety years later (Liutprand, No. 136).

This clause of Rothari, and those on arson in the Lombard laws in general, then, is interesting, informative and a touch illusive. There’s a lot to be considered about legal mentalities and practice encoded within it, that I hope to return to in more detail in the future. At the same time, the clause reveals a number of gaps in my broader knowledge about the materiality and social customs of Lombards as a whole, how does this nine foot perimeter relate to a typical Lombard house, for instance? And how would domestic space become delimited by it. Likewise, is it polite, acceptable or even usual for a visiting Lombard to take a flaming brand from the hearth and carry it more than nine feet away, and if so for what purposes? These are, for me, burning issues beyond the nine foot perimeter of my usual research foci, that I hope to illuminate with time – hopefully without inflicting injury to persons or property along the way!