Frederick I Barbarossa:
Affirmation of the Right of a Priest to Make a Will, 1165
In this case of a controversy about an inheritance in movable goods, an appeal was
made to the Emperor. His decision in favor of the right of the clergy to make a will is
explained in the document itself. This decision would apply to all people under the
jurisdiction of the Emperor.
In the name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity.
Frederick, by divine favor, Emperor of the Romans, ever Augustus.
l. Just as it is certainly held both by human and by divine law to be definitely
criminal that any one either by tyrannical violence or by any other detestable craftiness
should attempt any damage or harm to the Holy Church of God, which prepares us for our
heritage of divine adoption, so everyone, who takes up its defense, advancement, and
liberty provides for himself certain hope of remuneration in the presence of that
Tremendous Judge. Wherefore be it known to all the faithful of Christ and of our empire,
both the living and their posterity, that a certain canon of St. Paul's in Worms, Werner
by name, being on a bed of sickness, when he had already despaired of life and the
question of his last will was already before him, having called together some of his
fellow canons and his mother and the rest of his relatives, made his will and distributed
his movable goods to every church in Worms, and to his mother and to whomsoever else he
wished both for the good of his soul and for charity's sake, and, no one contradicting the
donation, he died. It happened afterwards that Gundolffus, the stepfather of the deceased,
namely the husband of his mother, by reason of the inheritance which fell to the mother,
whose lawful master he was, with malignant zeal, demanded everything formerly ordained by
the will and strove in every way to break the will, claiming, as the law taught, that no
one on a bed of sickness could leave any of his goods or movables without the consent of
his heirs, except five solidi. Wherefore he oftentimes complained against the church of
Worms but the case was not settled.
2. At length when we were at Worms holding solemn court, the said case between
lay and cleric, each holding different opinions on the matter, was for a long time aired
in our presence. When a final opinion was sought from both cleric and layman, the cleric
claimed that the last will of a clergyman concerning his movable goods should be fixed and
unbroken, which opinion the layman contradicted. And so after a long altercation about the
case and continual equivocation about the matter involved, the cleric, with the consent of
the canons, proved from the laws of the emperors and the decrees of the Roman pontiffs
that the said will should remain fixed and should not be made void by any infraction.
3. We, therefore, following in the footsteps of our great imperial predecessors,
Constantine the Great, Justinian, Valentinian, Charlemagne, and Louis, and respecting
their sacred laws as divine edicts, are not ashamed to imitate the Emperor Constantine who
decreed concerning Holy Church and her goods and privileges: "Everyone when dying
shall have freedom to leave what he wishes and his decisions shall not be broken. For
there is nothing more due to men than that the writing of their last will be unshackled,
because they cannot make another, and their decision should stand because they cannot
4. Also we revive the sacred law of the Emperor Valentinian written to the
pretorian prefect Palladius. "If any one at any time makes his will or adds a codicil
according to law, or names a sole heir, executor, or trustee, either by reason of death or
by any other last decision or by reason of a certain plenty while alive, or by contract of
sale or gift, or by any other title whatever, and should wish to leave to the said
venerable church his patrimony or a part of his patrimony in estates, farms, houses or
rents, serfs, coloni and their cattle, his decisions shall be kept unbroken without any
5. Having heard these sacred laws and decrees of Charlemagne and Louis, who were
about equally zealous for the nurture of divine religion and the Catholic Faith, we have
decreed that the will of the venerable cleric of the church of Worms concerning his
movable goods, what he wished to leave to any one, church or person, in his last will,
either for the remedy of his soul, or out of respect for any one, and his right to make a
will with the testimony of at least two of his brothers---We decree that this shall
assuredly remain fixed forever.
Monumenta Germaniae Historiae, Legum, L. Weiland, ed., (Hanover, 1893),
Tome I, pp. 321-322; reprinted in Roy C. Cave & Herbert H. Coulson, A Source
Book for Medieval Economic History, (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Co., 1936;
reprint ed., New York: Biblo & Tannen, 1965), pp. 339-340.
Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by
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© Paul Halsall, October 1998