Liber Augustalis
Constitutions of Melfi
Promulgated by the Holy Roman Emperor
Frederick II
for the Kingdom of Sicily
at Melfi in 1231

This collection 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 Roman 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.

  1. Remote Link - HTML 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.
  2. A Liber Augustalis, or, Constitutions of Melfi, Translated with an Introduction and Notes by James M. Powell.

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Original date: 2013/01/10 —