Saturday, December 6, 2014

Hacksilver, Liberty, and Equality

We've discussed here in the past that the Frankish name came from the francisca, their emblematic blade, and that this name comes from a word meaning freedom or liberty.

The problem with etymologies and concepts is that their meaning is always filtered through perspective, and the contemporary understanding of the terms freedom and liberty are affected by our experience, our education, our PRIVILEGE, and the standard of living that defines just how free "free" is, and so on.

The expectation of liberty for someone whose life is dependent upon crops or weather or military success far more directly and immediately than, say, most modern Americans, is difficult if not impossible to understand or conceive.

Equality, too, is a different matter.

All this is by way of introduction to the concept of hacksilver.

In the societies of Late Antiquity in Europe, "Barbarian" peoples enacted the precepts of equality through distribution of wealth:  specifically, to soldiers, after conquest.  Booty was collected and evenly divided - and, by even, what I mean to convey is that equal portions were allotted to all by way of cutting down precious objects, not merely by division piece by piece.  A large vase of gold might be hammered then snipped to ensure egalitarian distribution:  hacksilver (or gold, copper, etc.).

With items indivisible in themselves, the award of some particular treasure was a mark of significant prestige, and all divisions had to be agreed upon.  A king would lose face in the profoundest way, if he presumed upon the division of booty. This led to one of the most famous incidents of Clovis' early reign, the legendary shattering of a great crystal vase:  the vase of my title.

The effect of a king's failure to provide for his forces with booty - and to divide that booty equally - was the deepest betrayal of his duty as a military leader.  To fail, as Clovis did in the incident of the Vase of Soissons, was unthinkable.  His spectacular revenge, then, becomes a matter not only of legend - but, more immediately, and for him, propaganda.  Proven a failure as a king, he has to prove his authority in order to hold the throne from which he can remediate this black mark on his prestige.

So hacksilver is more than the "barbarian" destruction of treasures, it is the reflection of a society so fully invested in equality for those who defend and fight for their king and people that to short-change any of them might be the end of their king.  It is the reflection of the "barbarian" definition of liberty - and equality.

And maybe it's an interesting look at an ancient recycling program!


Colin Smith said...

Fascinating, Diane. I've had an interest in history since I was in single digits, particularly English history (and *particularly* the English monarchy). My knowledge of French history is severely lacking, however, so this was enlightening. :)

DLM said...

Thank you! This was one of those occasions when one of the blogs I follow (The History Blog, which if you don't follow it you might love it) gave me a link I couldn't just put in one of my "collections". It gave me something to say!