The Farmer's Law, 7-8th Centuries
After the attacks by Persians, Arabs and Slavs, there is
some indication that the great landed estates of late antiquity gave way,
in the Byzantine heartland of Anatolia, to a system of free peasant farms.
These peasants paid taxes to the state and enabled a functional local army
to operate throughout the empire. Although this might be overemphasized,
the contrast with western Europe is outstanding. In the west the "state"
as a function of society either disappeared or shrank to insignificant
proportions and distinctions between public and private power were minimal.
In Byzantium, by contrast, the state maintained its distinctive identity.
The lives of Byzantine peasants are not entirely invisible to us: we can
see them in hagiographical material, such as the Life of St. Theodore of
Sykeon, as well as in legal sources. Here are extracts from the 7th-8th
century Farmer's Law, which regulated the behavior of free peasants.
The Farmer who is working his own field must be just and must
not encroach on his neighbor's furrows. If a farmer persists in encroaching
and dock's a neighboring lot - if he did this in plowing time, he loses
his plowing; if it was in sowing time that he made his encroachment, he
loses his seed and his husbandry and his crop - the farmer who encroached.
If a farmer without his landowner's cognizance enters and plows or sows
let him not receive either wages for his plowing or the crop for his sowing
- no, not even the seed that has been cast.
If two farmers agree with the other before two or three witnesses to
exchange lands and they agree for all time, let their determination and
their exchange remain firm and secure and unassailable.
If two farmers, A and B, agree to exchange their lands for the season
of sowing and A draws back, then, if the seed was cast, they may not draw
back; but if the seed was not cast they may draw back; but if A did not
plow while B did, A also shall plow.
If two farmers exchange lands either for a season or for all time and
one plot is found deficient as compared with the other, and this was not
their agreement, let him who has more give an equivalent in land to him
who has less; but if this was their agreement, let them give nothing in
If a farmer who has a claim on a field enters against the sower's will
and reaps, then, if he had a just claim, let him take nothing from it;
but if his claim was baseless, let him provide twice over the crops that
If two territories contend about a boundary or a field, let the judges
consider it and they shall decide in favor of the territory which had thee
longer possession; but if there is an ancient landmark, let the ancient
determination remain unassailed.
If a division wronged people in their lots or lands, let them have license
to undo the division.
If a farmer on shares reaps without the grantor's consent and robs him
of his sheaves, as a thief shall he be deprived of all his crop.
A share holder's portion is nine bundles, the grantor's one: he who
divides outside these limits is accursed.
If a man takes land from an Indigent farmer and agrees to plow only
and to divide, let their agreement prevail; if they also agreed on sowing,
let it prevail according to their agreement.
If a farmer takes from some indigent farmer, his vineyard to work on
a half share and does not prune it as is filling and dig it and fence it
and dig it over, let him receive nothing from the produce....
If a farmer takes over the farming of a vineyard or piece of land and
agrees with the owner and takes earnest-money and starts and then draws
back and gives it up, let him give the just value of the field and let
the owner have the field.
If a farmer enters and works another farmer's woodland, for three years
he shall take its profits for himself and then give the land back again
to its owner.
If a farmer who is too poor to work his own vineyard takes flight and
goes abroad, let those from whom claims are made by the public treasury
gather in the grapes, and the farmer if he returns shall not be entitled
to mulct them In the wine.
If a farmer who runs away from his own field pays every year the extraordinary
taxes of the public treasury, let those who gather in the grapes and occupy
the field be mulcted twofold.
Concerning Herdsmen. If a neat herd in the morning receives an
ox front a farmer and mixes it with the herd, and it happens that the ox
is destroyed by a wolf, let him explain the accident to its master and
he himself shall go harmless.
If a herdsman who has received an ox loses it and on the same clay on
which the ox was lost does not give notice to the master of the ox that
"I kept sight of the ox up to this or that point, but what is become of
it I do not know," let him not go harmless, but, if he gave notice, let
him go harmless.
If a herdsman receives an ox from a farmer in the morning and goes off
and the ox gets separated front the mass of oxen and goes off and goes
into cultivated plots or vineyards and does harm, let him not lose his
wages, but let him make good the harm done.
If a herdsman in the morning receives all ox from a farmer arid the
ox disappears, let him swear in the Lord's name that he has not himself
played foul and at he had no part in the loss of the ox and let him go
If a guardian of fruit is found stealing in the place which he guards,
let him lose his wages and be well beaten.
If a hired shepherd is found milking his flock without the owner's knowledge
and selling them, let him be beaten and lose his wages.
If a man is found stealing another's straw, he shall restore it twice
If a man takes an ox or an ass or any beast without its owner's knowledge
and goes off on business, let him give its hire twice over; and if it dies
on the road, he shall give two for one, whatever it may be....
If a man steals all ox or an ass and is convicted, he shall be whipped
and give it twice over and all its gain.
If while a mail is trying to steal one ox from a herd, the herd is put
to flight and eaten by wild beasts, let him be blinded.
If a man finds an ox in a wood and kills it, and takes the carcass let
his hand be cut off.
If a slave kills one ox or ass or ram in a wood, his master shall make
If a slave, while trying to steal by night, drives the sheep away from
the flock in chasing them out of the fold, and they are lost or eaten by
wild beasts, let him be hanged as a murderer.
If a man is found in a granary stealing corn, let him receive in the
first place a hundred lashes, and make good the damage to the owner; if
he is convicted a second time, let him pay twofold damages for his theft;
if a third time, let him be blinded.
If a man at night steals wine front a jar or from a vat or out of a
butt, let him suffer the same penalty as is written in the chapter above.
If people have a deficient measure of corn and wine arid do not follow
the ancient tradition of their fathers but out of covetousness have unjust
measures contrary to those that are appointed, let them be beaten for their
If a man delivers cattle to a slave for pasture without his master's
knowledge and the slave sells them or otherwise damages them, let the slave
and his master go harmless. Where a man destroys another's beast on any
pretense, when he is recognized, let him indemnify its owner.
If a man harvests his lot. before his neighbor's lots have been harvested
and he brings in his beasts and does harm to his neighbors, let him receive
thirty lashes and make good the damage to the party injured.
If a man gathers in the fruits of his vineyard arid while the fruits
of some lots are still ungathered brings in his beasts, let him receive
thirty lashes and make good the damage to the party injured.
If a man lawlessly, when he has a suit with another, cuts his vines
or any other tree, let his hand be cut off.
If a man who is dwelling in a district ascertains that a piece of common
ground is suitable for the erection of a mill and appropriates it and then,
after the completion of the building, if the commonalty of the district
complain of the owner of the building as having appropriated common ground,
let them give him all the expenditure that's due to him for the completion
of the building and let them share it in common with its builder.
If after the land of the district has been divided, a man finds in his
own lot a place which is suitable for the erection of a mill and sets about
it, the farmers of the other lots are not entitled to say anything about
If the water which comes to the mill leaves dry cultivated plots or
vineyards, let him make the damage good; if not, let the mill be idle.
If the owners of the cultivated plots are not willing that the water
go through their plots, let them be entitled to prevent it.
extracted from W. Ashburner, trans., "The Farmer's law", Journal
of Hellenic Studies, 32 (1912), 87-95
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(c)Paul Halsall Mar 1996