Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


He who says that the Salic law was written with a pen from the wing of a two-headed eagle, by Pharamond’s almoner, on the back of the patent containing Constantine’s donation, was not, perhaps, very much mistaken.

It is, say the doughty lawyers, the fundamental law of the French Empire. The great Jerome Bignon, in his book on “The Excellence of France,” says that this law is derived from natural law, according to the great Aristotle, because “in families it was the father who governed, and no dower was given to daughters, as we read in relation to the father, mother, and brothers of Rebecca.”

He asserts that the kingdom of France is so excellent that it has religiously preserved this law, recommended both by Aristotle and the Old Testament. And to prove this excellence of France, he observes also, that the emperor Julian thought the wine of Surêne admirable.

But in order to demonstrate the excellence of the Salic law, he refers to Froissart, according to whom the twelve peers of France said that “the kingdom of France is of such high nobility that it never ought to pass in succession to a female.”

It must be acknowledged that this decision is not a little uncivil to Spain, England, Naples, and Hungary, and more than all the rest to Russia, which has seen on its throne four empresses in succession.

The kingdom of France is of great nobility; no doubt it is; but those of Spain, of Mexico, and Peru are also of great nobility, and there is great nobility also in Russia.

It has been alleged that Sacred Scripture says the lilies neither toil nor spin; and thence it has been inferred that women ought not to reign in France. This certainly is another instance of powerful reasoning; but it has been forgotten that the leopards, which are — it is hard to say why — the arms of England, spin no more than the lilies which are — it is equally hard to say why — the arms of France. In a word, the circumstance that lilies have never been seen to spin does not absolutely demonstrate the exclusion of females from the throne to have been a fundamental law of the Gauls.

Of Fundamental Laws.

The fundamental law of every country is, that if people are desirous of having bread, they must sow corn; that if they wish for clothing, they must cultivate flax and hemp; that every owner of a field should have the uncontrolled management and dominion over it, whether that owner be male or female; that the half-barbarous Gaul should kill as many as ever he can of the wholly barbarous Franks, when they come from the banks of the Main, which they have not the skill and industry to cultivate, to carry off his harvests and flocks; without doing which the Gaul would either become a serf of the Frank, or be assassinated by him.

It is upon this foundation that an edifice is well supported. One man builds upon a rock, and his house stands firm; another on the sands, and it falls to the ground. But a fundamental law, arising from the fluctuating inclinations of men, and yet at the same time irrevocable, is a contradiction in terms, a mere creature of imagination, a chimera, an absurdity; the power that makes the laws can change them. The Golden Bull was called “the fundamental law of the empire.” It was ordained that there should never be more than seven Teutonic electors, for the very satisfactory and decisive reason that a certain Jewish chandelier had had no more than seven branches, and that there are no more than seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. This fundamental law had the epithet “eternal” applied to it by the all-powerful authority and infallible knowledge of Charles IV. God, however, did not think fit to allow of this assumption of “eternal” in Charles’s parchments. He permitted other German emperors, out of their all-powerful authority and infallible knowledge, to add two branches to the chandelier, and two presents to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Accordingly the electors are now nine in number.

It was a very fundamental law that the disciples of the Lord Jesus should possess no private property, but have all things in common. There was afterwards a law that the bishops of Rome should be rich, and that the people should choose them. The last fundamental law is, that they are sovereigns, and elected by a small number of men clothed in scarlet, and constituting a society absolutely unknown in the time of Jesus. If the emperor, king of the Romans, always august, was sovereign master of Rome in fact, as he is according to the style of his patents and heraldry, the pope would be his grand almoner, until some other law, forever irrevocable, was announced, to be destroyed in its turn by some succeeding one.

I will suppose — what may very possibly and naturally happen — that an emperor of Germany may have no issue but an only daughter, and that he may be a quiet, worthy man, understanding nothing about war. I will suppose that if Catherine II. does not destroy the Turkish Empire, which she has severely shaken in the very year in which I am now writing my reverie (the year 1771), the Turk will come and invade this good prince, notwithstanding his being cherished and beloved by all his nine electors; that his daughter puts herself at the head of the troops with two young electors deeply enamored of her; that she beats the Ottomans, as Deborah beat General Sisera, and his three hundred thousand soldiers, and his three thousand chariots of war, in a little rocky plain at the foot of Mount Tabor; that this warlike princess drives the Mussulman even beyond Adrianople; that her father dies through joy at her success, or from any other cause; that the two lovers of the princess induce their seven colleagues to crown her empress, and that all the princes of the empire, and all the cities give their consent to it; what, in this case, becomes of the fundamental and eternal law which enacts that the holy Roman Empire cannot possibly pass from the lance to the distaff, that the two-headed eagle cannot spin, and that it is impossible to sit on the imperial throne without breeches? The old and absurd law would be derided, and the heroic empress reign at once in safety and in glory.

How the Salic Law Came to be Established.

We cannot contest the custom which has indeed passed into law, that decides against daughters inheriting the crown in France while there remains any male of the royal blood. This question has been long determined, and the seal of antiquity has been put to the decision. Had it been expressly brought from heaven, it could not be more revered by the French nation than it is. It certainly does not exactly correspond with the gallant courtesy of the nation; but the fact is, that it was in strict and rigorous observance before the nation was ever distinguished for its gallant courtesy.

The president Hénault repeats, in his “Chronicle,” what had been stated at random before him, that Clovis digested the Salic law in 511, the very year in which he died. I am very well disposed to believe that he actually did digest this law, and that he knew how to read and write, just as I am to believe that he was only fifteen years old when he undertook the conquest of the Gauls; but I do sincerely wish that any one would show me in the library of St.-Germain-des-Prés, or of St. Martin, the original document of the Salic law actually signed Clovis, or Clodovic, or Hildovic; from that we should at least learn his real name, which nobody at present knows.

We have two editions of this Salic law; one by a person by the name of Herold, the other by Francis Pithou; and these are different, which is by no means a favorable presumption. When the text of a law is given differently in two documents, it is not only evident that one of the two is false, but it is highly probable that they are both so. No custom or usage of the Franks was written in our early times, and it would be excessively strange that the law of the Salii should have been so. This law, moreover, is in Latin, and it does not seem at all probable that, in the swamps between Suabia and Batavia, Clovis, or his predecessors, should speak Latin.

It is supposed that this law has reference to the kings of France; and yet all the learned are agreed that the Sicambri, the Franks, and the Salii, had no kings, nor indeed any hereditary chiefs.

The title of the Salic law begins with these words: “In Christi nomine” —“In the name of Christ.” It was therefore made out of the Salic territory, as Christ was no more known by these barbarians than by the rest of Germany and all the countries of the North.

This law is stated to have been drawn up by four distinguished lawyers of the Frank nation; these, in Herold’s edition, are called Vuisogast, Arogast, Salegast, and Vuindogast. In Pithou’s edition, the names are somewhat different. It has been unluckily discovered that these names are the old names, somewhat disguised, of certain cantons of Germany.

In whatever period this law was framed in bad Latin, we find, in the article relating to allodial or freehold lands, “that no part of Salic land can be inherited by women.” It is clear that this pretended law was by no means followed. In the first place, it appears from the formulæ of Marculphus that a father might leave his allodial land to his daughter, renouncing “a certain Salic law which is impious and abominable.”

Secondly, if this law be applied to fiefs, it is evident that the English kings, who were not of the Norman race, obtained all their great fiefs in France only through daughters.

Thirdly, it is alleged to be necessary that a fief should be possessed by a man, because he was able as well as bound to fight for his lord; this itself shows that the law could not be understood to affect the rights to the throne. All feudal lords might fight just as well for a queen as for a king. A queen was not obliged to follow the practice so long in use, to put on a cuirass, and cover her limbs with armor, and set off trotting against the enemy upon a carthorse.

It is certain, therefore, that the Salic law could have no reference to the crown, neither in connection with allodial lands, nor feudal holding and service.

Mézeray says, “The imbecility of the sex precludes their reigning.” Mézeray speaks here like a man neither of sense nor politeness. History positively and repeatedly falsifies his assertion. Queen Anne of England, who humbled Louis XIV.; the empress-queen of Hungary, who resisted King Louis XV., Frederick the Great, the elector of Bavaria, and various other princes; Elizabeth of England, who was the strength and support of our great Henry; the empress of Russia, of whom we have spoken already; all these decidedly show that Mézeray is not more correct than he is courteous in his observation. He could scarcely help knowing that Queen Blanche was in fact the reigning monarch under the name of her son; as Anne of Brittany was under that of Louis XII.

Velly, the last writer of the history of France, and who on that very account ought to be the best, as he possessed all the accumulated materials of his predecessors, did not, however, always know how to turn his advantages to the best account. He inveighs with bitterness against the judicious and profound Rapin de Thoyras, and attempts to prove to him that no princess ever succeeded to the crown while any males remained who were capable of succeeding. That we all know perfectly well, and Thoyras never said the contrary.

In that long age of barbarism, when the only concern of Europe was to commit usurpations and to sustain them, it must be acknowledged that kings, being often chiefs of banditti or warriors armed against those banditti, it was not possible to be subject to the government of a woman. Whoever was in possession of a great warhorse would engage in the work of rapine and murder only under the standard of a man mounted upon a great horse like himself. A buckler of oxhide served for a throne. The caliphs governed by the Koran, the popes were deemed to govern by the Gospel. The South saw no woman reign before Joan of Naples, who was indebted for her crown entirely to the affection of the people for King Robert, her grandfather, and to their hatred of Andrew, her husband. This Andrew was in reality of royal blood, but had been born in Hungary, at that time in a state of barbarism. He disgusted the Neapolitans by his gross manners, intemperance, and drunkenness. The amiable king Robert was obliged to depart from immemorial usage, and declare Joan alone sovereign by his will, which was approved by the nation.

In the North we see no queen reigning in her own right before Margaret of Waldemar, who governed for some months in her own name about the year 1377.

Spain had no queen in her own right before the able Isabella in 1461. In England the cruel and bigoted Mary, daughter of Henry VIII., was the first woman who inherited the throne, as the weak and criminal Mary Stuart was in Scotland in the sixteenth century. The immense territory of Russia had no female sovereign before the widow of Peter the Great.

The whole of Europe, and indeed I might say the whole world, was governed by warriors in the time when Philip de Valois supported his right against Edward III. This right of a male who succeeded to a male, seemed the law of all nations. “You are grandson of Philip the Fair,” said Valois to his competitor, “but as my right would be superior to that of the mother, it must be still more decidedly superior to that of the son. Your mother, in fact, could not communicate a right which she did not possess.”

It was therefore perfectly recognized in France that a prince of the blood royal, although in the remotest possible degree, should be heir to the crown in exclusion even of the daughter of the king. It is a law on which there is now not the slightest dispute whatever. Other nations have, since the full and universal recognition of this principle among ourselves, adjudged the throne to princesses. But France has still observed its ancient usage. Time has conferred on this usage the force of the most sacred of laws. At what time the Salic law was framed or interpreted is not of the slightest consequence; it does exist, it is respectable, it is useful; and its utility has rendered it sacred.

Examination Whether Daughters Are in all Cases Deprived of Every Species of Inheritance by This Salic Law.

I have already bestowed the empire on a daughter in defiance of the Golden Bull. I shall have no difficulty in conferring on a daughter the kingdom of France. I have a better right to dispose of this realm than Pope Julian II., who deprived Louis XII. of it, and transferred it by his own single authority to the emperor Maximilian. I am better authorized to plead in behalf of the daughters of the house of France, than Pope Gregory XIII. and Cordelier Sextus-Quintus were to exclude from the throne our princes of the blood, under the pretence actually urged by these excellent priests, that Henry IV. and the princes of Condé were a “bastard and detestable race” of Bourbon — refined and holy words, which deserve ever to be remembered in order to keep alive the conviction of all we owe to the bishops of Rome. I may give my vote in the states-general, and no pope certainly can have any suffrage on it. I therefore give my vote without hesitation, some three or four hundred years from the present time, to a daughter of France, then the only descendant remaining in a direct line from Hugh Capet. I constitute her queen, provided she shall have been well educated, have a sound understanding, and be no bigot. I interpret in her favor that law which declares “que fille ne doit mie succéder” — that a daughter must in no case come to her succession. I understand by the words, that she must in no case succeed as long as there shall be any male. But on failure of males, I prove that the kingdom belongs to her by nature, which ordains it, and for the benefit of the nation.

I invite all good Frenchmen to show the same respect as myself for the blood of so many kings. I consider this as the only method of preventing factions which would dismember the state. I propose that she shall reign in her own right, and that she shall be married to some amiable and respectable prince, who shall assume her name and arms, and who, in his own right, shall possess some territory which shall be annexed to France; as we have seen Maria Theresa of Hungary united in marriage to Francis, duke of Lorraine, the most excellent prince in the world.

What Celt will refuse to acknowledge her, unless we should discover some other beautiful and accomplished princess of the issue of Charlemagne, whose family was expelled by Hugh Capet, notwithstanding the Salic law? or unless indeed we should find a princess fairer and more accomplished still, an unquestionable descendant from Clovis, whose family was before expelled by Pepin, his own domestic, notwithstanding, be it again remembered, the Salic law.

I shall certainly find no involved and difficult intrigues necessary to obtain the consecration of my royal heroine at Rheims, or Chartres, or in the chapel of the Louvre — for either would effectually answer the purpose; or even to dispense with any consecration at all. For monarchs reign as well when not consecrated as when consecrated. The kings and queens of Spain observe no such ceremony.

Among all the families of the king’s secretaries, no person will be found to dispute the throne with this Capetian princess. The most illustrious houses are so jealous of each other that they would infinitely prefer obeying the daughter of kings to being under the government of one of their equals.

Recognized by the whole of France, she will receive the homage of all her subjects with a grace and majesty which will induce them to love as much as they revere her; and all the poets will compose verses in her honor.

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25