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Barbarian Europe

Karol Modzelewski

European culture has been greatly influenced by the Christian Church and Greek and Roman culture. However, the peoples of Europe’s remote past, whom the Greeks, Romans, and their medieval heirs called the «barbarians», also left their mark. Closely examining ancient and medieval narratives and the codifications of laws, this thoughtfully conducted comparative study sheds light on the illiterate societies of the early Germanic and Slavic peoples. The picture that emerges is one of communities built on kinship, neighborly, and tribal relations, where decision making, judgement, and punishment were carried out collectively, and the distinction between the sacred and profane was unknown.
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Chapter V. The Community of Neighbors and its Territory


In the understanding of the European barbarians, a free person was an inseparable part of the group. This was the foundation on which a person’s position was based. If I may rather perversely make use of a basic term of the liberal axiology of our times, human rights were in those times a derivative of one’s affiliation to a community, and the defense of those rights consisted primarily in the collective self-defense of the community. It was blood kinship, above all, that constituted that collective subject, which can be seen very clearly in the case of murder. The traditional norms concerning oath help or the mund over women are, moreover, related to the dictates of honor that the clan addressed collectively.

At the same time, fellow family members constituted the group of potential inheritors. The interests of this group limited the individual owner’s freedom to administer land which was inherited up to three generations within the clan. The law of propinquity obtained in the case of such inherited lands which the Slavs called dziedzina, the Scandinavians odal, and the continental Germanic peoples alod. When alod was to be sold, the seller’s relatives had the right of pre-emption as potential inheritors. In the case of a gift of such lands, these relatives’ unanimous agreement was required. Otherwise, the overlooked relatives had the right of retraction (ius retractus), that is, to buy the estate at the price at which it was sold or to take back the land...

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