Government of the Carolingian Empire
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The government, administration, and organisation of the Carolingian Empire were forged in the court of Charlemagne in the decades around the year 800. In this year, Charlemagne was crowned emperor and adapted his existing royal administration to live up to the expectations of his new title. The political reforms wrought in his capital Aachen were to have an immense impact on the political definition of Western Europe for the rest of the Middle Ages. The Carolingian improvements on the old Merovingian mechanisms of governance have been lauded by historians for the increased central control, efficient bureaucracy, accountability, and cultural renaissance.
The Carolingian Empire was the largest western territory since the fall of Rome, but historians have come to suspect the depth of the emperor's influence and control. Legally, the Carolingian emperor exercised the bannum, the right to rule and command, over all of his territories. Also, he had supreme jurisdiction in judicial matters, made legislation, led the army, and protected both the Church and the poor. His administration was an attempt to organise the kingdom, church and nobility around him, however, its efficacy was directly dependent upon the efficiency, loyalty and support of his subjects.
In the first year of his reign, Charlemagne went to Aachen (French: Aix-la-Chapelle; Italian: Aquisgrana) for the first time. He began to build a palace twenty years later (788) after the death of his father. He made it to dedicate his father and hoped that someday he would be a great ruler like him. The palace chapel, constructed in 796, later became Aachen Cathedral. Charlemagne spent most winters between 800 and his death (814) at Aachen, which he made the joint capital with Rome, in order to enjoy the hot springs. Charlemagne organised his empire into 350 counties, each led by an appointed count. Counts served as judges, administrators, and enforcers of capitularies. To enforce loyalty, he set up the system of missi dominici, meaning "envoys of the lord". In this system, one representative of the Church and one representative of the Emperor would head to the different counties every year and report back to Charlemagne on their status.
The royal household was an itinerant body (until c. 802) which moved round the kingdom making sure good government was upheld in the localities. The most important positions were the chaplain (who was responsible for all ecclesiastical affairs in the kingdom), and the count of the palace (court palatine) who had supreme control over the household. It also included more minor officials e.g. chamberlain, seneschal and marshal. The household sometimes led the army (e.g. Seneschal Andorf against the Bretons in 786).
Possibly associated with the chaplain and the royal chapel was the office of the chancellor, head of the chancery, a non-permanent writing office. The charters produced were rudimentary and mostly to do with land deeds. There are 262 surviving from Charles’ reign as opposed to 40 from Pepin’s and 350 from Louis the Pious.
There are 3 main offices which enforced Carolingian authority in the localities:
The Comes (Latin: count). Appointed by Charles to administer a county. The Carolingian Empire (except Bavaria) was divided up into between 110 and 600 counties, each divided into centenae which were under the control of a vicar. At first they were royal agents sent out by Charles but after c. 802 they were important local magnates. They were responsible for justice, enforcing capitularies, levying soldiers, receiving tolls and dues and maintaining roads and bridges. They could technically be dismissed by the king but many offices became hereditary. They were also sometimes corrupt although many were exemplary e.g. Count Eric of Friuli. Provincial governors eventually evolved who supervised several counts.
The Missi Dominici (Latin: dominical emissaries). Originally appointed ad hoc, a reform in 802 led to the office of missus dominicus becoming a permanent one. The missi dominici were sent out in pairs. One was an ecclesiastic and one secular. Their status as high officials was thought to safeguard them from the temptation of taking bribes. They made 4 journeys a year in their local missaticum, each lasting a month, and were responsible for making the royal will and capitularies known, judging cases and occasionally raising armies.
The Vassi Dominici. These were the king’s vassals and were usually the sons of powerful men, holding ‘benefices’ and forming a contingent in the royal army. They also went on ad hoc missions.
Around 780 Charlemagne reformed the local system of administering justice and created the scabini, professional experts on law. Every count had the help of seven of these scabini, who were supposed to know every national law so that all men could be judged according to it.
Judges were also banned from taking bribes and were supposed to use sworn inquests to establish facts.
In 802, all law was written down and amended (the Salic law was also amended in both 798 and 802, although even Einhard admits in section 29 that this was imperfect). Judges were supposed to have a copy of both the Salic law code and the Ripuarian law code.
Coinage had a strong association with the Roman Empire, and Charlemagne took up its regulation with his other imperial duties. The Carolingians exercised controls over the silver coinage of the realm, controlling its composition and value. The name of the emperor, not of the minter, appeared on the coins. Charlemagne worked to suppress mints in northern Germany on the Baltic sea.
The Frankish kingdom was subdivided by Charlemagne into three separate areas to make administration easier. These were the inner "core" of the kingdom (Austrasia, Neustria and Burgundy) which were supervised directly by the missatica system and the itinerant household. Outside this was the regna where Frankish administration rested upon the counts, and outside this was the marcher areas where ruled powerful governors. These marcher lordships were present in Brittany, Spain and Avaria.
Charles also created two sub-kingdoms in Aquitaine and Italy, ruled by his sons Louis and Pepin respectively. Bavaria was also under the command of an autonomous governor, Gerold, until his death in 796. While Charles still had overall authority in these areas they were fairly autonomous with their own chancery and minting facilities.
The annual meeting, the Placitum Generalis or Marchfield, was held every year (between March and May) at a place appointed by the king. It was called for three reasons: to gather the Frankish host to go on campaign, to discuss political and ecclesiastical matters affecting the kingdom and to legislate for them, and to make judgements. All important men had to go the meeting and so it was an important way for Charles to make his will known. Originally the meeting worked effectively however later it merely became a forum for discussion and for nobles to express their dissatisfaction.
The oath of fidelity was a way for Charles to ensure loyalty from all his subjects. As early as 779 he banned sworn guilds between other men so that everyone took an oath of loyalty only to him. In 789 (in response to the 786 rebellion) he began legislating that everyone should swear fidelity to him as king, however in 802 he expanded to oath greatly and made it so that all men over age 12 swore it to him.
Capitularies are the black hole of Charles' government as no-one really knows what their purpose was or how effective they were. Indeed, most of the controversy surrounding Charles government comes from the fact that the capitularies are the only main evidence, and there is no case law to see if they were implemented or followed.
The four greatest capitularies of Charlemagne’s reign are:
- The Capitulary of Herstal of 779. This is a short capitulary and launched according to Ganshof in response to a crisis in Aquitaine, Italy and Spain. It is concerned a lot with ordo, making sure that the church is working correctly, also with reinforcing the wergild and Frankish ideals. Notably forced the usage of tithes.
- Admonitio Generalis of 789. “Blueprint for a new society” mentioning social issues for the first time. The first 58 clauses (of 82) reiterate decisions made by previous church councils and much is also to do with ordo.
- The Capitulary of Frankfurt of 794. This is mainly to do with theology and speaks out against adoptionism and iconoclasm.
- The Programmatic Capitulary of 802. This shows an increasing sense of vision in society.