Constitutions of Melfi
Promulgated by the Holy Roman Emperor
for the Kingdom of Sicily
at Melfi in 1231
of fundamental laws in Latin, originally known as the leges or constitutiones augustalis, is
arguably the first written constitution of government in the Western
tradition that survives, other than some of the provisions of the
Hebrew Halakhah that concern governance. For others, such as the
constitutions of ancient Athens and Sparta, all we have is commentary.
In 1231 the Holy
Empire comprised most of what we today call Germany,
Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, Czech Republic, and
about the northern half of the Italian peninsula, down to and including
Rome. The Vatican was a nation that controlled a few states in the
middle of Italy called the Papal States. The Kingdom of Sicily was not
just the island, but also the southern third of the Italian peninsula,
which had been fought over for generations by Norman Christians,
Byzantines, and Saracens, and the Holy Roman Empire had only recently
gained nominal control, but of a territory comprised of numerous small
feudatory fiefs that ruled their own territories like small countries.
The purpose of the constitutiones
was to reign in these regimes and
unite them under a single rule of law that defined the rights, powers,
and duties of each of the components. The Holy Roman Emperor was not an
absolute monarch, but depended on the consent of lesser nobles. The constitutiones, with some
extensions called novels, and a growing body of commentaries, continued
to rule the region until the conquest by Napoleon in 1797. The words constitutiones and novels were taken from the words
used in the ancient Roman civil law, the Corpus Juris
Civilis, codified under the authority of Justinian from 529 to 565.
These constitutiones were not
confined to defining the structures, procedures, rights, powers, and
duties of government as later constitutions would be, especially as the
model was stabilized in the American states. However, its influence on
those later models is apparent. It begins with an introduction, the Prooemium, that sets forth the
purposes of the collection, much like the Preamble of the U.S.
Constitution would later do. The remainder is divided into three books,
roughly consisting, in order, of rules for legislative, executive, and
judicial functions, a structure that was preserved in the American
constitutions. Of course, this was not a constitution for a republic,
but a collection of royal edicts, with no provisions for ratification
or representation by legislators as would appear in the Provisions of
Oxford and Westminster under the leadership of Simon de Montfort in
1258 and 1259.
We don't yet have copies we can put online of an English translation,
the best of which is copyrighted by James M. Powell in 1971, to which
we provide a purchase link. In the meantime Google has the Latin
version of an edition of it, which includes the imperfectly OCR'd text,
which can be viewed in a rough translation using the Google translator
tool installed as a browser plug-in. With more funding we hope to
eventually offer a clean online Latin text and a new translation that
does not require copyright permission.
- A diplomatic history of Frederick the
Second ..., Volume 4, Issue 1, by Friedrich
(Römisch-Deutsche Reich, Kaiser, 2.), Alphonse-Huillard
Bréholles, Honoré Théodore Paul Joseph d'Albert de
Luynes. This volume contains the Liber.
- A Liber Augustalis, or, Constitutions of
Melfi, Translated with an Introduction and Notes by James M.