The Northern Way

Commentary To the Germanic Laws and Medieval Documents

Chapter VII


In the Lex salica we several times find sunnis, in connection with tricare, tenere, detenere, in order to express a legitimate delay which would excuse a person's non-appearance in court. (1) If we compare these passages with the corresponding ones in the Visigothic (2) and other Germanic laws, it appears that sunnis, sonia, etc., is morphologically and semantically derived from Latin idoneum, as shall be shown further on.

In the Visigothic laws idoneus is the reliable, better situated servant, as opposed to the servus vilior, inferior, rusticanus. (3) But we also get here the combination "testis idoneus," as in the Roman laws, for the reliable witness, that is, one who is of better birth and well-to-do and, therefore, would not be inclined to perjure himself. (4) Idoneum could also be employed in regard to a reliable document or a sufficient proof. (5) If we turn to the corresponding Visigothic law about summoning to court, we at once see that the Salic sunnis is nothing but the legal proof, by means of reliable witnesses or by oath, that sickness, floods, or a snowstorm have prevented the defendant's appearance before the judge. (6) This law is identical with the one given in Digest II. 11, and the manner in which it was applied may be seen from an interesting case at the Synod of Donatists in Carthage in the year 411. A bishop was prevented by sickness from attending, so he sent a proxy to excuse his absence and sign for him, when the tribune and notary Marcellinus, who carried on the proceedings in a strictly legal fashion, pronounced his "probabilis et rationabilis excusatio est." (7)

Precisely the same conception of idoneus is found in the Lex romana raetica curiensis, where the "clericus idoneus," the well-to-do, "reliable" clerical is opposed to the "inferior," while the credible witness is known as "idonia persona," (8) even as is explicitly stated in the Burgundian laws. (9) This conception of the reliable witness has arisen from the current connotation in the sixth century of idoneus as "well-to-do, mighty," wherefore, for example, Cassiodorus constantly opposes the idoneus to the tenuis. (10)

If we now turn to the Germanic laws which are further removed from the Roman prototype, we find a large number of corruptions of the original idoneus. The Langobards made of it a verb idoneare, edoniare, aduniare "to purge oneself legally by means of reliable witnesses," (11) that is, it is identical with the above-mentioned "idoneam probationem, idoneis testibu firmare, probare." In the Lex ribuaria we get both the older "cartam idoneam confirmare" and idoneare, (12) but the latter occurs in the form etuniare and exuniare, of which the first has led to English atone, as though derived from "at one." That atone is derived from France is proved beyond any shadow of a doubt by the survival of a corruption of etunis in Bayonne in the twelfth century. The respective document fortunately has survived in two additional variants, one from Rouen, the other from Oleron. (13) Where Rouen uses idoneus or exonium, Oleron speaks of essoyne, while Bayonne uses tenis, so that there cannot be the slightest doubt as to their identity.



4. Nisi idoneam excusa-     Ne a dit au maior rai-       Si combien excusacion
cionem die precedenti

zonable excusacion por    no affeite conneisser lo
majori notam fecerit.

  quei il ne puchet estre.    davant die au maire.
(p. 10.)

24. nisi ipse justam ha-       se il n'a ogu dreite des-    si ed non a dreiture
buerit excusacionem.



25. nisi qui tenet cu-

  si cil qui tent la cort ne     si aquel qui tin sa cort
riam habeat exonium jus-  ha essoyne.

       no a dreiture tenis.
tum. (ibid.)

28. sine licentia majo-

sans congé dou maior       seis lezer dou maire o
ris vel sui corporis ex-        et dous esquevins.

   seins tenis de son cors.
onio. (p. 36.)

29. major debet eum pu-

   si no a arresonable tenis.
nire secundum exonium
per quod debeat rema-
nere (ibid)

The expression "idonea excusacio" at Rouen shows how idoneum came to mean "legal excuse, essoin," while the forms idoniare, adoniare, exadoniare, exsoniare, exoniare, which are found in the Alemanian (14) and Frankish (15) laws and in later documents show how sonia, sunnis was formed. Idoniare has been understood as ad-oniare, and, from analogy with "excusare," this has been changed to exadoniare and exoniare, exsoniare, producing soniare, while the ablative idoneis has given the form soniis, sonnis, sunnis. (16) This sonia was already known in the seventh century, (17) and, if certain works are correctly dated in the sixth century, it must have been popular much earlier. The expression "sonia nuntiare" of that period shows that sonia has either the legal meaning "excuse," or "that which furnishes a basis for that excuse, affliction, trouble, worry caused by delay, delay." In a sixth century Bible text it is the translation of cura "care," (18) and in the Graeco-Latin glosses (19) it is rendered by merimna, frontij, while soniari is merimnan. The same meaning is given to it in the Sortes sangallenses (20) and in the writings of the eighth century. (21) The French language has not only soin "care," but also "excuse, essoin," (22) while the Germanic languages have evolved a number of important words out of the original "testibus soniis."

Gothic sunjon "to verify, excuse, justify," sunjons "apology, defence, answer," sunja "truth," OHG. sôna, suona "judgment, reconciliation, peace," MDutch soene, swoene, Dutch zoen "atonement," soenen "to kiss," OFrisian sôna "reconcile," Norwegian sone "to atone" are identical in form and meaning with LLatin sonia. In ONorse, syn, in the compound nauðsyn, means "necessity, impediment," which connotation in OHG. has been left to the common alternative of the documents, sumnis "legal necessity, delay," from which has been formed the verb sûmen "to tarry, delay." This meaning has not entered into any other Germanic languages but Dutch zuimen, which is merely a borrowing from the German. Now, the usual formula in which sonia occurs in the Merovingian and Carolingian laws and documents is "sonia nuntiare" is recorded in Gothic in "sunja gateihan," "to tell the truth," and I shall now show that teihan is derived from "testibus."

In Gothic teihan is identical with "nuntiare" in meaning, but in the other Germanic languages the corresponding verb means "to accuse, charge with," so in AS. têon, OHG. zîhen. These verbs are distinct from Goth. taiknjan, OHG. zeihhanen, etc., which alone are related to Lat. dico, Greek deiknumi. It is merest accident that the two forms somewhat coincide, for the meanings of Goth. teihan, etc., are distinctly derived from the rubric "testibus soniis" was popularly pronounced testibusonis, tehtibusonis, and as such it has survived in the AS. tiht-bysig "infamatus et accusationibus ingravatus," a back formation from tiht-bysignis, testibusonis. This appears clearly from the first recorded case in 959, when the phrase is used for "one under heavy accusation and not to be believed by the people," (23) for precisely then the accused person would have to purge himself by three credible witnesses. Now, the long rubric testibusonis has survived in Old French in the abbreviated form busun, busuigne "legal necessity, important affair," (24) which has ultimately produced besoin, but which in the oldest AS. case, of about 950, still means "necessitas, solicitudo." (25) Thus French besoin and English business go back to testibusonis, but, while the whole has produced the AS. tihtbysig, the first part tiht, OHG. zicht, means "accusation, crime," and from this has come by a back formation Goth. teihan, and so forth.


1. "Ille uero qui alium mannit et ipse non uenerit, si eum sunnis (sumis) non tricauerit (detenuerit).....," I. 1. 2 (in J. H. Hessels, Lex Salica, London 1880); "si ipse, cui testatum est, noluerit inde exire et eum aliqua sunnis (sonies, sumis) non tenuerit (detenuerit," XLV. 2b; "et si quis commonitus fuerit et eum sunnis (sumnis, sumis) non tenuerit (detenuerit)," XLVII. 2; "et eos sunnis (sonnis, sumis) non tricauerunt (tenuerint, detenuerint)," XLIX. 2; "et sunnis (sumis) eum non tenuerit (detenuerit), " L. 4; "nec sunnia XL et II noctes sunnia eos certa sonia detrigauerit. et toti uenire non possint..... pares suos sunia nuntiant," LXXVIII. 7; "quod si ei placitum sunnis detricat (detenuerit)," Pact. 5 and 17. Back
2. On the relation of the Lex salica to the Visigothic laws read M. Krammer, Kritische Untersuchungen zur Lex Salica, in Neues Archiv, vol. XXX. Back
3. "Ingenuus quidem pro idonea ancilla absque infamia C verbera ferat, pro inferiori vero .....," Leg. Visig. (ed. Zeumer), XIL. 15; "si quemlibet libertum idoneum......pulsaverit addicendum ....nam si inferior fuerit atque rusticanus.....," VI. 1, 5; "si certe ingenuus servum alterius decalvaverit.....det eius domino solidos X, si vero idoneum, c flagella suscipiat," VI. 4. 3; "quamvis idoneus servus.......nullatenus indebite contumeliosus aut sediciosus presumat existere," VI. 4. 7. Back
4. "In duobus autem idoneis testibus, quos prisca legum recipiendos sancsit auctoritas, non solum considerandum est, quam sint idonei genere, hoc est indubitanter ingenui, sed etiam si sint honestate mentis perspicui adque rerum plenitudine opulenti," ibid., II. 4. 3; "seu per scripturam sive per idoneum testem," II. 5. 11; "sacerdos ipse vel iudex sivi alli testes idonei eandem olografam scripturam.......confirment," II. 5. 16; "idoneis testibus quibus merito fides possit adhiberi, aput iudicem........adprobare," VI. 5. 19. Back
5. "Post hoc querenda ab utrisque partibus in scriniis domesticis instrumenta cartarum, ut contropatis aliarum scripturarum suncriptionibus adque signis possit agnosci, utrum habeatur idonea, an roprobetur indigni........tunc ipse, qui scripturam profert, exibits testibus esse idoneam et inlesam scripturam adfirmet," II. 5. 17; "sed et res omnes, tempore nuptiarum acceptas seu promissas, mulier vel puella sibimet vindicabit, si per idoneam probationem convicerit maritum, de quo agitur, sub ingenuitatis spe sibi sociatum esse," III. 2. 7. Back
6. "Si tanem admonitum aut aegritudo ad veniendum nulla suspenderit, aut inundatio fluminum non retinuerit, vel aditum non obstruxerit, in quo montes transituri sunt, conspersio superflua nivium; que necessitas utrum evidenter evenerit, an per excusationem videatur opponi aut idoneis testibus aut suo iuramento firmabit," ibid., II. 1. 19. Back
7. "Aleodatus ipiscopus dixit: Julianus aegritudine praepeditur; sed ne videretur aliquo pacto defuisse, Presbyterum misit, per quem suam absentiam excusaret, et ipse pro illo subscripsit. Et alia manu: Recognovi. Marcellinus v. c. Tribunus et Notarius dixit: Probabilis et rationabilis excusatio est," Mansi, vol. IV, p. 143. Back
8. "Si ipse clericus de bona gente est vel suas res habuerit, aut idoneus apparuerit, inter ipsos curiales officium publicum faciat. Si autem ipse clericus inferior persona est, inter collegiatos officium faciat," XVI. 1. 4; "omnis homo in iudicio pro causam suam tales testes presentare debet, cui fide reprovata non est; sed idonias personas in sua causam quilibet homo presentare debet," XI 15. 4. Back
9. "Idoneis, quibus credi possit, testibus fuerit conprobatum," II. 2; "certe si quinque testes ad praesens inventi non fuerint, tres idoneos testes loci illius consistentes, quorum fama nunquam maculata est, praecipimus subscribendos," XCIX. 2., also XLIII. 3, LXXXIII. 1, Lex romana XI. 3; "a iudice fide integra et moribus idoneus deputetur," Lex romana XLIV. 2. Back
10. "Ne tenuis de proprio cogatur exsolvere, quod constat idoneos indebite detinere," Variae, I. 19; "provincialium it aque nostrorum saepius querela comperimus possessores idoneos Saviae non solum casarum suarum tributariam functionem in tenuem resilisse fortunam, verum etiam scelerato commercio aliquid exinde suis applicare compendiis, ut functio publica commoditas sit privata," ibid., v. 14, and often. Back
11. "Edoniare mundare, purificare," Glossa cod. eporediani (ed. G. H. Pertz), "edoniare id est absoluere," glossa matrit., "edoniare liberare seu defendere ul firmare inberare," gloss. caven. "Si quis qualecunque hominem ad regem incusaverit quod animae perteneat periculum, liceat ei, qui accusatus fuerit, cum sacramentum satisfacere et se eduniare (edoniare, idoniare, idoneare, ei donare, aduniare), " Ed. Roth. 9; "non est possibile ut homo ossit eduniare (ae-, a-, edoniare, i-)" ibid., 2; "aut se edoniet (sedoniit, se idoneare studeat, se aedoniet, se idone et, se ipsum donet)," ibid., 272; "si quis porcus aut pecora asto animo in donum alterius miserit, et se non ausaverit eduniare (e-, i-, a-doniare)," ibid., 345; "si pro quacumque culpa homo pulsatus fuerit ab alio, et negaverit, liceat eum se eduniare (idoneare, ae-, e-doniare, aduniare)," ibid., 364; "si eos quicumque pulsaverit, liceat illis cum sacramentalibus suis legitimis se idoniare," lib. pap. Grim. 2. Back
12. "Et si quis in posterum hoc refragari vel falsare voluerit, a testibus convincatur, atu cancellarius cum sacramenti interpositione cum simili numero, quorum roborata est idoneam confirmet (idoniare studeat, et unia restituat, et hunia restituat, etc.)," LIX. 2; "quod si carta in iudicio perforata idonea (idoniata, etuniata) fuerit.....," LIX. 3; "absque pugna cartam suam super altario positam idoniare (etuniare, exuniare)," LIX. 5; "omne factum eius idoniare (adhuna, adunare) studeat," LXVII. 1; "cum sacramento se idoniare (edoniare)," LXXI. Back
13. A. Giry, Les établissements de Rouen, Paris 1885, vol. II. Back
14. "Si autem tres annos induraverit opus ancillae, et parentes eius non exadoniaverunt (exionaverunt) eam, ut libera fuisset," XVII. 2; "liceat illum alium cui crimen imposuit, cum tracta spata exidoniare (id-, ex-, exs-, ad-, exad-, oniare) se contra illum alium," XLIII; "cum sacramentalis se edoniet (id-, exed- oniet)," LXXXVIII. 2; "ipsam cum 12 medicus electus aut cum spata tracta quilibet de parentes adunaverit," Pactus 33. Back
15. "Per sacramentum aut cum ferro se exoniet," MGH., Formulae, Collectiones iudiciorum Dei, I. 6; "de hac causa non redebio nisi isto edonio sacramento," ibid., Form. Andec. 11b; also 15, 50b; "quicquid iam dictus ille de hac causa iuraverit, verum et idoneum sacramentum dedit," Form. Turon. 31; also 40; "in nullo non redibio nisi isto etunio sacramento," Form. Senon. 21 (idonio, 22); "sed uno alteri de causa reputata esset obnoxia, iusiurandum constituit, ut se ad sepulcrum sancti Eparchii consignaret ydoneam," Vita et virtutes Eparchii, in MGH., Scrip. rer. merov., vol. III, p. 562; "cum hoc dixisset, illico confracta catena ex collo cecidit et manibus eandem super feretro proiecit et apparuit idonea, qui fuerat absque noxa poena punita," Passio Leudegarii, ibid., vol. V, p. 350; "me idoneum hoc in opere a mendacio ideo defendere puto," Vita Boniti, ibid., vol. VI, p. 119; "testis debet collegi idoneus," Lex salica XXXIX. 3 (cod. 2); "septem rachinburgius idoneos," ibid., L. 3; "idoneum sacramentum," ibid., CII. 2 (cod. 11); "se idoneum esse cognoscere," ibid., CVI. 3, 6; "cum duodecim uiros idoneos iurare," ibid., XLVII. 2; "idoneare se," ibid., Extrav. B. 2; "idoniare se per sacramentum," ibid., LXXIV. 3; "non aliter sed cum idoneis testibus pergant" (796), MGH., Leg. sec. III. 2. p. 194, and similarly pp. 262, 829, and MGH., Capitularia, vol. I, pp. 75, 122, 124, 160, 180, 190, 220, 269, 282, 297, 328, 332. Back
16. "Ad hanc sinodum Philippus rex Galliarum legationem suam direxit, seque ad illam itiner incepisse, sed legitimis soniis se impeditum fuisse mandavit," Bernoldi Chronicon, in MGH., Scriptores, vol. V, p. 462; "legati Domini mei Henrici Regis ad vos venient infra terminum Ascensionis Domini, exceptis legitimis sonnis, id est morte vel gravi infirmitate, vel captione absque dolo," Vita S. Gregorii Papae, in Acta Sanctorum, May VI, p. 137; "ne infirmitas aut legitima sonnis eum detinuerit," Vetus placitum in Vita Aldrici, in Ducange. Back
17. "Ipse nec vinisset ad placitum, nec misso in vice sua derixisset, nec nulla sonia nunciassit adfirmat" (692), J. Tardif, Monuments historiques, Paris 1866, p. 24; "nec ipso mundeborone suo inlustri viro Ermechario, quem per ipsas praecepcionis habuit achramitum, nullatinus praesentassit, nec nulla sonnia nociasse adfirmat" (693), ibid., p. 26. Back
18. "Curis huius vitae, soniis saecularibus," Rheinisches Museum, vol. XXXII, p. 586. Back
19. Corpus glossariorum latinorum. Back
20. H. Winnefeld, Sortes sangallenses, Bonnae 1887: "noli dimittere persona de qua soniaris in dubio erit condemnatio," p. 21; "non es fugiturus; noli soniari," p. 36 and 37; "noli soniari, quia non est obligata domus tua," p. 42; "de sonio liberaris ut deo adiuvante ad filios tuos reuerteris saluus," p. 44. The author wants to put the origin of these Sortes back into the second century, chiefly because the office of the aediles is mentioned in them, but it is evident from the quotations (amicus tuus aedilem te facit, per aliqua persona poteris esse aedilis, aeris aedilis et amicos multos habebis) that the reference is to an honorable title and social position, and not to a magistracy, even as the "aedilis ecclesiae" (see Ducange) was in Merovingian times the name for a curator in the church, an honorable distinction. From this aedilis comes OHG. edili "noble." Back
21. "Si comis in suo ministerio iustitias non fecerit, misso nostro de sua casa soniare faciat usque dum iustitiae ibidem factae fuerint" (779), MGH., Capitularia, vol. I, p. 48; "illi qui antiquitus consueti fuerunt missos aut legationes soniare, ita et modo inantea et de parveridis et omnia eis necessaria solito more soniare faciant" (800), ibid., p. 85. Back
22. "S'il n'avoient leial sone" (1214), in Godefroy, where more quotations may be found. Back
23. "Et si quis fuerit accusationibus infamatus et populo incredibilis," III Ead. 7. For other quotations see Bothworth's Dictionary. Back
24. "E si alcun jethed les chatels fors de la nef senz busun, sil rendet," Leis Willelme 37. 3 (1090-1135), in Liebermann, Die angelsächsischen Gesetze, p. 515; "a mei affert ceste busunie," Lib. Psalm., p. 366, in Godefroy; "e si parfeisums la busuine, de ses buesuignes fist le rei mult avancer." ibid. Back
25. "Ne bisignisse mettes and woedes haebende, nec solicitudinem escae et vestis habendam." Back

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