A capitulary (medieval Latin capitularium) was a series of legislative or administrative acts emanating from the Frankish court of the Merovingian and Carolingian dynasties, especially that of the first emperor, Charlemagne. They were so called because they were formally divided into sections called capitula (plural of capitulum, a diminutive of caput meaning "head(ing)", i.e. chapters).
As soon as the capitulary was composed, it was sent to the various functionaries of the Frankish empire, archbishops, bishops, missi dominici and counts, a copy being kept by the chancellor in the archives of the palace. The last emperor to compose capitularies was Lambert in 898.
Preservation and study
At the present day we do not possess a single capitulary in its original form; but very frequently copies of these isolated capitularies were included in various scattered manuscripts, among pieces of a very different nature, ecclesiastical or secular. We find, therefore, a fair number of them in books which go back as far as the 9th or 10th centuries. In recent editions in the case of each capitulary it is carefully indicated from what manuscripts it has been collated.
These capitularies make provisions of a most varied nature; it was therefore found necessary at quite an early date to classify them into chapters according to the subject. In 827 Ansegisus, abbot of St. Wandrille at Fontenelle, made such a collection. He embodied them in four books: one of the ecclesiastical capitularies of Charlemagne, one of the ecclesiastical capitularies of Louis I (Charlemagne's son), one of the secular capitularies of Charlemagne, and one of the secular capitularies of Louis, bringing together similar provisions and suppressing duplicates. This collection soon gained an official authority, and after 829 Louis the Pious refers to it, citing book and section.
After 827 new capitularies were naturally promulgated, and before 858 there appeared a second collection in three books, by an author calling himself Benedictus Levita. His aim was, he said, to complete the work of Ansegisus, and bring it up to date by continuing it from 827 to his own day; but the author not only borrowed prescriptions from the capitularies; he introduced other documents into his collection, fragments of Roman laws, canons of the councils and especially spurious provisions very similar in character to those of the same date found in the False Decretals. His contemporaries did not notice these spurious documents, but accepted the whole collection as authentic, and incorporated the four books of Ansegisus and the three of Benedictus Levita into a single collection in seven books. The serious historian of today, however, is careful not to use Books Five, Six, and Seven for purposes of reference.
Early editors chose to republish this collection of Ansegisus and Benedictus as they found it. It was a distinguished French scholar, Étienne Baluze, who led the way to a fresh classification. In 1677 he brought out the Capitularia regum francorum, in two folio volumes, in which he published first the capitularies of the Merovingian kings, then those of Pippin, of Charles and of Louis the Pious, which he had found complete in various manuscripts. After the date of 840, he published as supplements the unreliable collection of Ansegisus and Benedictus Levita, with the warning that the latter was quite untrustworthy (see Pseudo-Isidore). He then gave the capitularies of Charles the Bald, and of other Carolingian kings, either contemporaries or successors of Charles, which he had discovered in various places. A second edition of Baluze was published in 1780 in 2 volumes folio by Pierre de Chiniac.
The edition of the Capitularies made in 1835 by Georg Pertz, in the Monumenta Germaniae Historica (folio edition, vol. I, of the Leges) was not much of an advance on that of Baluze. A fresh revision was required, and the editors of the Monumenta decided to reissue it in their quarto series, entrusting the work to Dr. Alfred Boretius. In 1883 Boretius published his first volume, containing all the detached capitularies up to 827, together with various appendices bearing on them, and the collection. of Ansegisus. Boretius, whose health had been ruined by overwork, was unable to finish his work; it was continued by Victor Krause, who collected in vol. II the scattered capitularies of a date posterior to 828. Karl Zeumer and Albrecht Werminghoff drew up a detailed index of both volumes, in which all the essential words are noted. A third volume, prepared by Emil Seckel, was to include the collection of Benedictus Levita. To satisfy modern critical requirements so a new edition has been commissioned by the Monumenta Germaniae Historica to Hubert Mordek and to Klaus Zechiel-Eckes; the edition of the Collectio Ansegisi is superseded by the one published in the Capitularia Nova Series vol. 1 (ed. Gerhard Schmitz, 1996).
True character and scope
Among the capitularies are to be found documents of a very varied kind. Boretius has divided them into several classes:
The Capitula legibus addenda
These are additions made by the king of the Franks to the barbarian laws promulgated under the Merovingians, the Salic law, the Ripuarian or the Bavarian. These capitularies have the same weight as the law which they complete; they are particular in their application, applying, that is to say, only to the men subject to that law. Like the laws, they consist chiefly of scales of compensation, rules of procedure and points of civil law. They were solemnly promulgated in the local assemblies where the consent of the people was asked. Charlemagne and Louis the Pious seem to have made efforts to bring the other laws into harmony with the Salic law. It is also to be noted that by certain of the capitularies of this class, the king adds provisions affecting, not only a single law, but all the laws in use throughout the kingdom.
The Capitula ecclesiastica
These capitularies were elaborated in the councils of the bishops; the kings of the Franks sanctioned the canon of the councils, and made them obligatory on all the Christians in the kingdom.
The Capitula per se scribenda
These embodied political decrees which all subjects of the kingdom were bound to observe. They often bore the name of edictuin or of constitutio, and the provisions made in them were permanent. These capitularies were generally elaborated by the king of the Franks in the autumn assemblies or in the committees of the spring assemblies. Frequently we have only the proposition made by the king to the committee, capitula tractanda cum comitibus, episcopis, et abbatibus, and not the final form which was adopted.
The Capitula missorum
These are the instructions given by Charlemagne and his successors to the missi (dominici) sent into the various parts of the empire. They are sometimes drawn up in common for all the missi of a certain year (capitula missorum generalia); sometimes for the missi sent only on a given circuit (capitula missorum specialia). These instructions sometimes hold good only for the circuit of the missus; they have no general application and are merely temporary.
With the capitularies have been incorporated various documents, for instance, the rules to be observed in administering the king's private domain (the celebrated Capitulare de villis vel curtis imperii, which is doubtless a collection of the instructions sent at various times to the agents of these domains); the partitions of the kingdom among the king's sons, as the Divisio regnorum of 806, or the Ordinatio imperii of 817; the oaths of peace and brotherhood which were taken on various occasions by the sons of Louis the Pious, etc.
The merit of clearly establishing these distinctions belongs to Boretius. He has doubtless exaggerated the difference between the Capitula missorum and the Capitula per se scribenda; among the first are to be found provisions of a general and permanent nature, and among the second temporary measures are often included. But the idea of Boretius is nonetheless fruitful. In the capitularies there are usually permanent provisions and temporary provisions intermingled; and the observation of this fact has made it possible more clearly to understand certain institutions of Charlemagne, e.g. military service.
After the reign of Louis the Pious the capitularies became long and diffuse. Soon, from the 10th century onwards, no provision of general application emanates from the kings. Henceforth the kings only regulated private interests by charters; it was not until the reign of Philip Augustus that general provisions again appeared; but when they did so, they bore the name of ordinances (ordonnances).
There were also capitularies of the Lombards. These capitularies formed a continuation of the Lombard laws, and are printed as an appendix to these laws by Boretius in the folio edition of the Monumenta Germaniae, Leges, vol. iv.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- Capitularies of Ansegisus (assembled 827), ed. Gerhard Schmitz (1996). Die Kapitulariensammlung des Ansegis (Collectio capitularium Ansigisi). MGH Cap. NS 1. Hanover.
- King, P.D. (tr.). Charlemagne: Translated Sources. Kendal, 1987. Selections from three Carolingian capitularies, from AD 806 and 811, dealing with military affairs, available online.