Barbarian Law Codes

After the breakdown of the Roman Empire, Germanic peoples and then later tons of other people “from Russia to Ireland” created very extensive law codes detailing the proper compensation for all kinds of wrongs, in minute detail. Like for stealing sheep of various ages and genders or for losing a hand vs finger vs various fingernails.

“Compensation in the Welsh laws is reckoned primarily in cattle and in the Irish ones in cattle or bondmaids, with considerable use of precious metals in both. In the Germanic codes it is mainly in precious metal… in the russian codes it was silver and furs”

Graeber: it’s difficult “to imagine how a system of precise equivalences– one young healthy milk cow is equivalent to exactly thirty-six chickens– could arise from most forms of gift exchange. If Henry gives Joshua a pig and feels he has received an inadequate counter-gift, he might mock Joshua as a cheapskate, but he would have little occasion to come up with a mathematical formula for precisely how cheap he feels Joshua has been. On the other hand, if Joshua’s pig just destroyed Henry’s garden, and especially, if that led to a fight in which Henry lost a toe, and Henry’s family is now hauling Joshua up in front of the village assembly– this is precisely the context where people are most likely to become petty and legalistic and express outrage if they feel they have received one groat less than was their rightful due.”

“Say the fine is in marten pelts but the culprit’s clan doesn’t have any martens. How many squirrel skins will do? or pieces of silver jewelry?”

Since these cultures were in the post-roman age, they converted everything through roman money. Lots of things were listed in these codes which weren’t really for sale on the open market at the time. So their price relationship wasn’t being determined by some sort of market equilibrium. It was just about using money as a pass-through for all these goods that might need to be equivalitized. This does seem to be a pretty decent approximation of the barter system economists imagine, even though its history and purpose is wildly different.

pg 60-62