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rederick II & the Constitutions of Melfi


Among his many accomplishments, Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, was responsible for the Constitutions of Melfi (generally cited in the plural - also known as the Liber Augustalis) a new legal code for his Kingdom of Sicily. The code was promulgated on September 1, 1231 and brought about revolutionary changes in the way medieval society under Frederick was governed, foremost of which was the successful curtailing of the institution of feudalism. It set the king as the sovereign ruler of the state and described the principles that would govern the political and social organization of the state; it was a modern national constitution well before the age of modern nation states.

A few words about constitutions

A constitution is a body of principles that determine how a nation shall be governed. Many modern nations have a single document actually called “Constitution” (the USA, for example); some (Great Britain) have an “unwritten constitution,” a collection of accepted precedents and laws that, taken together, are the constitution. In either case, a constitution is not a grand collection of detailed laws; it is rather a statement of principles according to which the laws of a nation shall be formulated, applied and be in harmony.

Most ancient nations had at least some statement of principles that “constituted” how the state should function. The Code of Ur-Nammu (the name of the king) is the oldest such statement that survives today. It is from about the year 2100 BC and governed the Sumerian civilization (in southern Mesopotamia) of that period. It described various classes of society, set punishments for certain crimes, etc. and is actually some centuries before the well-known Code of Hammurabi (1790 BC), a well-preserved example of an early constitution in that it established the principle of fundamental laws that even the king was bound to respect.

The Romans—whether the early kingdom, the subsequent republic, or the Roman Empire, itself—had a vast collection of accepted precedents that were the “constitution”, again, not a single document, but an evolving set of principles. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Eastern Roman Emperor, Justinian I, formulated the Corpus Juris Civilis, now known simply as the "Justinian Code." The code was issued from 529 to 534 and was essentially a collection and reworking of pre-existing Roman legal codes plus some new ones, all of which, taken together dictated how the state should function.

Whatever effect the Justinian Code had in the Eastern Empire, the remnants of the Western Empire were about to devolve into feudalism, that is, a society in which the powers of local lords filled the void left by the absence of central authority. That system of social organization would remain intact in many parts of Europe for centuries. The kingdom of Sicily, the forerunner of the Kingdom of Naples, was in fact founded by errant Norman knights, each of whom set up and ruled over his own feudal holding (while pledging nominal allegiance to a sovereign).


Frederick’s Constitution of Melfi changed that. The 253 clauses of the code are divided into three books: one on public law, one on judicial procedure, and one on feudal, private and penal law. Among the far-reaching and long-lasting features of the new state, the code:

declared the king to be sovereign. Feudal lords were deprived of their traditional powers, such as the administration of local justice. Citizens might be judged and punished only by the king’s magistrates;
required royal permission to carry a weapon;
declared that feudal holdings could not be sold since they all belonged to the state;
put clerics under civil law. Also, they were forbidden from holding office and were required to divest themselves of inherited land;
restored the Roman “equality before the law” of all citizens of the state;
divided the kingdom into provinces in which local authorities answered to central royal authority;
forbade the independence of cities such as the "city-states" in the north of Italy: Venice, Florence and Milan, among others. This effectively stifled any return to independence in the south of Naples, Salerno and Gaeta, all of which had briefly been independent duchies in the south before the arrival of the Normans.

Among the features that we do not like to recall when talking about progressive documents was a declaration against heresy. It was, in fact, in total compliance with Pope Gregory's demand that Frederick do something about all the heretics in southern Italy. Thus, the Melfi document essentially installed the Inquisition in the Kingdom of Sicily. Frederick put his own secular twist on that, though. The Inquisition was run by his own civil servants and not religious orders. (That would later change in the 1260s, after Frederick's death, when the new Angevin dynasty installed the ecclesiastical Inquisition). [see The Medieval Inquisition in Naples.]

The castle of Melfi, where
the code was written.

(photo: Michele Perillo)

Other sidelights of the new code included setting up the presence of a loyal Saracen (Muslim) community and army in Lucera (so that Frederick would not have to rely on local barons for troops), declaring the equality before the law of Jews in the kingdom, regulating the important medical school in Salerno, decreasing tariffs in order to promote trade, and forbidding such medieval idiocies as trial by ordeal. ("Put your hand on that white-hot iron rod. If it doesn't burn your hand, you're innocent.")

The Melfi Constitution is named for the town of Melfi, near Potenza in southern Italy, the site of one of Frederick’s many castles. Although he no doubt had a hand in writing the code—and certainly had the last word—it is generally held that the code was the collective work of a committee that included, among others, at least two of the great intellectual luminaries of the day, Pier della Vigna and Michael Scotus.

The code came only a few years after the Magna Carta (1215) in England, but one should not necessarily conclude that the two were somehow connected or similar in purpose. The Magna Carta is historic because it set limits to the powers of the monarch—even the king is not above the law—and guaranteed the rights of subjects (against unlawful imprisonment, for example). For the first time, limits were put on the King. That violated the idea that the King's power was from God; therefore, in limiting his power, the barons were challenging God's authority. The Magna Carta was, however, not an expansive statement of principles by which to govern a state. The Melfi Constitution was. Perhaps there is at least one point in common, and that is the papal reaction to both documents. Pope Innocent III immediately declared the Magna Carta null and void because he didn’t like the idea of barons squeezing concessions from King John, a papal vassal. Innocent’s successor, Pope Gregory IX, also reacted predictably to Frederick II (whom he excommunicated and called the Anti-Christ). Obviously, putting the clergy under civil law did not sit well with the pope, but that was simply one more bone of contention between two of the mightiest players in the Guelph/Ghibelline controversy that consumed much of the era.

The aftermath of the Constitution of Melfi

Frederick II passed from the scene in 1250, and within a few years, the kingdom was taken by the Angevin French. Interestingly, the new-comers retained the basic structure of the state as set up by the Constitution of Melfi. That structure persisted through subsequent centuries and changes of dynasty. The motivations and priorities of the various rulers no doubt changed and individual laws may have changed, but the idea of “nation” survived, an idea that can be traced to Frederick’s constitution, which German historian Ernst Kantorowicz called “the birth certificate of the modern administrative state.”

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