Legislation relating to the portunarium, or ‘ferryman’, appears four times within the the Edictus, the first of the written barbarian law-codes of the Lombards, promulgated in 643 CE in the name of King Rothari. The clauses on ferrymen run consecutively in the law-code, and are edited as Nos. 265 to 268 in Frederick Bluhme’s mid-nineteenth-century, Monumenta Germaniae Historica edition of the Lombard Edictus and Alfred Boratius’ edition of the eleventh-century version of the texts, the Liber legis langobardorum or Liber Papiensis in the same volume. The arrangement of clauses with related themes so that they are adjacent to each other in the laws is nothing unusual, numerous thematic blocks can be identified. In many cases these groupings also progress thematically from one to the next, or, after taking a step back, can be seen to work as units within a larger theme. The clauses to either side of those dealing with the ferryman illustrate this perfectly.
Rothari clause Nos 253 to 263 address the subject of theft, looking at various social iterations beginning with theft committed by a freeman, and then considering slaves, free women, ‘half-free’ women (that is, aldia), freemen ordering their slaves to steal for them and so forth. The following clause, No. 264, progresses from theft to freemen or slaves apprehended while trying to flee the country. While the person could of course be fleeing for many reasons, the clause specifically notes that, following Katherine Fischer-Drew’s translation of the Lombard laws, that the apprehending ‘judge or other resident’ should ‘keep safe the property which he [the fugitive] carried with him’, and then stresses on two occasions that the ‘properties that he took’ should be returned. While these could easily have been the personal properties of the fugitive, as the clause follows on directly from the discussion on theft, it seems strongly implied that those properties were stolen goods.
The clauses following here, Nos 265 to 276 address fugitives in different ways, including a bond’s man who run from their own lord to another (No. 269) and if that second man refuses to return them (no. 270); if they run to the king’s court (No. 271) or take sanctuary in the church (No. 272); if someone harbours or aids a fleeing bondsman (Nos 274 to 276) or, going back a few clauses in the laws to the focus of this discussion, the culpability and responsibilities of ferrymen who aid, knowingly or otherwise, fugitives (Nos. 265 to 268).
Rothari No. 265 begins the discussion on ferrymen, by allowing a ferryman accused of transporting a fugitive OR thief across a river to clear themselves from guilt with only an oath. Here it is assumed that the ferryman will not offer false oath, and the emphasis is on the ferryman having not known that their passenger was on the run. The specific requirement of ‘oath alone’ emphasises the law overall being on the ferryman’s side and hints at their importance in the travel and communication networks of the Lombard regnum.
Rothari No. 266, however, modifies this to include the situation where the ferryman is in the know and transports a thief fleeing with goods anyway. Here the ferryman becomes treated as an accomplice, must pay composition along with the thief for whatever goods were taken, and in addition must pay a further fee of twenty solidi to the king’s treasury. The fees and compositions due within the Lombard laws vary greatly, sometimes being as small as half a solidi, sometimes rising as high as twelve-hundred solidi. Twenty solidi, however, has been suggested to be the uppermost cut offline between the less and more serious cases, based on the understanding that if a person could not pay the fine, then they became a debt slave until they had worked off what they owed in the lesser cases, but a permanent slave if the value was more than twenty solidi (See Fischer-Drew: 28).
Rothari No. 267 examines the other half of that equation, wherein a ferryman knowingly transports a fugitive slave. Here, in addition to a fee of twenty solidi to the king’s treasury, the ferryman was obliged to search out and capture the fugitive, and then return them (with the property they were carrying, stolen or personal?) to their owner, or else to compensate the owner the value of the slave and said property.
When the fugitive in question is a freeman, however, and the ferryman knowingly transports him, then the stakes increase significantly. Rothari No. 268 states that here the ferryman must either pay a fine equal to his own wergild, or failing that lose his life. The clause, perhaps recognising that a fugitive freeman may be in a better position to put up a struggle than a fugitive slave (better health? better weapons? better training in combat?) and putting greater significance on the social value of a freeman than a slave, points out that even if the ferryman could not hold the fugitive, they should at least have run on ahead proclaiming the guilt so that others could intervene.
To my knowledge, Rothari’s Edictus does not make further comment on one other than a ferryman who knowingly aids a fugitive freeman. No. 276, however, addresses giving shelter or help in the form of directions or provisions, to a fleeing slave. As with No. 267, the person is obliged to hunt down the slave. If they succeed in catching the fugitive, they must return them and pay their owner for the lost labour, and if unable to catch the fugitive they instead repay the value of the slave and the property they had taken with them. In this instance, then, there is no fee made to the royal treasury.
Whenever a specific occupation or social class is addressed in the laws, there is normally a reason. The subtle variations between the laws are revealing when examined closely. That is to say: that a ferryman accomplice to a fugitive slave or thief pays a fee to the royal treasury; that a ferryman can prove that they did not know their passenger was on the run can prove their innocence with an ‘oath alone’; and that in the case of aiding fugitive freemen, only ferryman are addressed in specific detail. The question I am mulling now, then, is what do these laws imply for the social and legal context of Lombard Italy? It is not a question I can answer fully here yet, but I have a few thoughts fermenting.
The ability to move around the kingdom must have been vital, and with the many rivers bisecting the land ferries and their operators must have played a significant role. A fugitive, or any person, might be able to move relatively freely across open land, but when crossing a river they would need a bridge or ferry. The ferryman might be expected to know the goings on of the local area, to recognise well enough if a person was likely to be a fugitive slave. Conversely, for a freeman, clause No. 268 almost implies that the ferryman should be able to recognise that he is now a fugitive, as if some outwardly obvious change would occur between an honest and dishonest freeman.
As a nexus point in the transport routes of the kingdom, the actions of the ferryman are of importance to the kingdom as a whole. It may be for this reason that the twenty solidi fine for aiding a thief or fugitive slave goes to the king, not to their owner, that willingly, or at least knowingly, aiding them was an action against the king and the broader interests of society as a whole, as much as it was opposing the financial and labour interests of the slave in question’s owner. Returning to clause No. 265, the broader interests of society and infrastructure can again be seen where the fugitive or thief is unknowingly assisted, and the law falls very much in favour of the ferryman. Clearing themselves of guilt by ‘oath alone’ resonates with significance, and here the implications seem more obvious. The laws balance private interests with societal good: if ferrymen were worried that for every person of unknown or even apparently good-standing they let cross, they might later find themselves having to pay a fee, try and track them down and then return them or their value to their owner, would they take any passengers at all?
‘Edictus Langobardorum’, ed. by Frederick Bluhme; ‘Liber Papiensis’, ed. by Alfred Boratius, in Legum, iv, ed. by Georg Heinrich Pertz (Monumenta Germaniae Historica: 1868)
The Lombard Laws, ed. and trans. by Katherine Fischer-Drew (University of Pennsylvania Press: 1973)