Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Administration in the Reign of Charlemagne

You know me, I like trawling through old documents – and the other day I found one of my own (I’m over fifty, therefore I am part of history!) This is the write-up of a paper I delivered many years ago, back when I was still a teenager. I've recently been re-visiting the reign of Charlemagne and looking again at the letters of Alcuin, exploring the relationship between Charlemagne and Offa of Mercia. Here though, it seems the task was to talk about administration in the reign of Charlemagne (Charles). 

Royal Courts

In the seventh and eighth centuries, the Lombard kings had a palace at Pavia which was a permanent base, and which housed royal treasure and an archive of important documents. King Pippin took this over and made good use of the resources. Nothing similar existed north of the Alps at the beginning of Charles’ reign, although the Merovingians had favourite residences and itinerant writing offices. When they weren’t campaigning, the Frankish kings moved their entire court from one estate to another.

Frankia in the early eighth-century Image Public Domain

These rural estates made up the royal domain, or fisc. Their origins were various; they could be estates previously belonging to Merovingian kings, family lands of Charles’ ancestors, estates acquired by confiscation or conquest, and consequently they were widely scattered.

In such estates where the itinerant court was not a frequent visitor, but where there was a reason for maintaining the property, (eg providing hospitality for journeying royal servants) it was entrusted to a prominent local figure who had to pay a rent on it. 

Incidentally, because the interests of the fisc were involved, and because he wished to encourage the payment of compensation instead of vendetta, Charles completed the change from private to royal minting, which resulted in the king’s head, and, importantly, the name, being on the coins.

Image attribution

It was necessary to know what resources each estate had in advance of the royal party’s arrival, and servants had the task of seeing that the produce of a particular estate was available for consumption by the court. Charles, encouraging the use of the written word, ordered the preparation of estate inventories, and an elaborate set of instructions was set out for the estate administrators (the Capitulare de Villis). The estate inventories were very detailed – I quote from one such inventory which would have been forwarded to the king, as instructed in the Capitulare de Villis.
We found in the domain estate of Asnapium a royal house built of stone in the best manner, 3 rooms; the whole house surrounded with balconies, with 11 apartments for women beneath one cellar; two porticoes; 17 other houses built of wood within the courtyard with as many rooms and other appurtenances, well built’ 1 stable, 1 kitchen, 1 mill, 1 granary, 3 barns. 
Farm produce: old spelt from last year, 90 baskets which can be made into 450 weight of flour; 100 measures of barely. From the present year, 11- baskets of spelt, planted 60 baskets from the same, the rest we found. 430 measures of oats, 1 measure of beans, 12 measures of peas. At the 5 mills, 800 measures, small measures. At the 4 breweries, 650 measures, small measures, 240 given to the prebendaries, the rest we found. At the 2 bridges, 60 measures of salt and 2 shillings.”
The location of this estate is not known, but it is easy to imagine the daily life and living conditions.

The Frankish court was indeed very companionable – as we know from Einhard (Charles’ biographer) Charles was a hearty eater, and close association with the king meant that the men hunted with him, ate and drank at the same table and advised him. Until the court became an imperial one *, protocol remained very simple.

Charlemagne at Dinner - from the 'Talbot Shrewsbury Book' : Attribution


Most important (although he was never allowed the unique influence that Charles’ ancestors had attained as mayors) was the Count of the Palace. He exercised a general power of supervision and discipline, and later played a part in legal proceedings which came before the king if the decision of the local court had been ignored.

Aspects of domestic court life fell under the supervision of marshals, or seneschals, and as courtiers they were given other and greater duties besides.

Most other laymen who were not part of the mass of menial servants were numbered among the royal vassals (vassi dominici). They formed an elite fighting-troop around the king in battle, and in peacetime they performed duties ranging from royal legate to investing a recipient of a royal grant with property. Bullough** mentions a certain vassal, Leo, who was not even a Frank, who became a key figure in the administration of the subordinate kingdom of the Lombards. Personal acceptability and gaining royal trust certainly gave a man high standing with the king.

At the time of the succession those in the royal comitatus who could write were entirely clergy. It was they who wrote the royal diplomas, most of which have disappeared without trace, so we don’t know exactly how much work was involved. We do know that in the writing office there were men of different grades, ranging from the man who authorised the preparation right down to the lowly copier.

Capitulare de Villis

Surprisingly, the preparation of the capitularies was normally the work of other court clergy – at any rate north of the Alps, for in the Italian kingdom these tasks seem to have been performed by the lay notaries of the palace.

At the head of the entire complex was the arch-chaplain. He was well placed to influence the royal policy towards the Church. Charles’ first arch-chaplain was Fulred, who was a prominent figure and was high in the royal favour. His successors, Anilgram and Hildebold didn’t play such a prominent part – they were probably overshadowed by the presence at court of a lowly cleric – Alcuin. [Presumably my ‘audience’ would have known that Alcuin was an Englishman who famously went to the Carolingian court, and perhaps I hoped for, and received, a small laugh of recognition here!]

The Territorial Count

The counts were comparatively few in number. Professor Ganshof puts the number between 250 and 300 at any one time. Bullough puts the figure much lower, around 30. It is impossible to tell; very few names are known, and the texts of the time rarely record the fate of individuals.

As well as their military role, they had to attend court every so often to hear the royal commands. The capitularies laid on them the responsibility of suppressing disorder, and encouraging the peaceful termination of feuds, ensuring criminals did not escape justice by hiding in an area outside the count’s jurisdiction (an immunity), protecting those who were unable to protect themselves – widows and orphans of freeborn landowners, monasteries and churches.

Detail: attribution as above

Where counts were not directly responsible for the lands of the fisc, they had to keep a watchful eye on those who were. In some areas they were responsible for the permanent defence of some portion of the frontier (this was possibly their only military role – although they may have had to provide men to fight, it is not clear whether they themselves fought alongside the kings, for as I shall explain later, the king was loath to take them away from their regular responsibilities. 

The territorial units were very different. In Frankia east of the Rhine the authority seems to have been based around a group of royal estates, in some cases mingled with those entrusted to other counts. West of the Rhine the territorial county was an area with definite boundaries, sometimes corresponding to the old Roman territorial boundaries. There were differences in size, character and strategic importance between the counties. There were also differences of responsibility and power among the counts.

Who were the counts?

Quite often, they were the sons or relatives of other counts. It was rare to find them succeeding their father’s county, and if they did, it would be by imperial command. Being born into certain Frankish families meant a good chance of future office. This probably meant that Charles could expect to retain their loyalty. Most free-born laymen who agreed to become vassi could expect at some future date to be rewarded with a county somewhere. This probably also meant a sharper distinction between the two classes as the Frankish magnate families saw office going to other men, they sought access to privileged positions.

Nineteenth century depiction of early medieval Franks

Comital office though was not restricted to the Franks, or even to the magnate families. There were Bavarian and Lombard counts as well. The unity of the kingdom must have been helped to a certain extent by the coming together at court of all the counts.

Law and Order

The principle remained that a man was to be judged according to the law of his ‘tribe’ and despite the capitularies, marked regional differences persisted.

However, the courts were ordered to enforce the law of the king. This is one of the main themes of the capitulary agreed between Charles and his magnates at Herstal in March 779. It condemned murder, robber and perjury:
8. Concerning murderers and other guilty men who ought in law to die, if they take refuge in a church they are not to be let off, and no food is to be given to them there. 
9. That robbers who are caught in an immunity area should be presented by the justices of that area at the count’s court; and anyone who fails to comply with this is to lose his benefice and his office’ anyone who has no benefice must pay the fine.
 10. Concerning a man who commits perjury, that he cannot redeem it except by losing his hand. But if an accuser wishes to press the charge of perjury they are both to go to the ordeal of the cross; and if the swearer wins, the accuser is to pay the equivalent of his wergeld*** This procedure is to be observed in minor cases; in major cases, or in cases involving free status, they are to act in accordance with the law.
14. Concerning the raising of an armed following, let no one dare to do it.
22. If anyone is unwilling to accept a payment instead of vengeance he is to be sent to us, and we will send him where his likely to do least harm. Likewise, if anyone is unwilling to pay a sum instead of vengeance or to give legal satisfaction or it, it is our wish that he be sent to a place where he can do no further harm. 
23. Concerning robbers, our instructions are that the following rules should be observed: for the first offence they are not to die but to lose an eye, for the second offence the robber’s nose is to be cut off; for the third offence, if he does not mend his ways, he must die.
These crimes figure again and again in the capitularies, making one wonder how effective Charles’ measures were, although it must be remembered that violence and crime were prevalent in the middle ages. [And presumably if a one-eyed, nose-less man approached you, you'd be wary...] 

From the capitulary, it can be seen that Charles recognised that private vendetta still has a part to play in the maintenance of law and order, although where monetary compensation was offered it had to be accepted.

The local courts were presided over by someone acting in the name of the king – usually the count. Ordinary law-worthy men supported the parties to a dispute, saw that the established procedure was observed, and declared the law. It is no clear whether the count was always expected to attend in person.

Because of the great authority of the counts, and their duty of pursuing and punishing crime, there was plenty of room for corruption – improper levying of services, demand for free hospitality when travelling, taking of bribes etc.

One cleric, Theodulf, found it less upsetting to accept small gifts than refuse them. Royal Missi (legates) were used to check the activities of the counts. This left the problem of who to use for the job. Vassi might lack the necessary prestige to be effective. If a count was used he would be taken away from his regular responsibilities.

This all seems to end rather abruptly. My guess is that the last page is missing, because I would have been obliged to provide a bibliography (we delivered the papers, then handed in written-up versions). Ah well, it wouldn’t be an historical document if it didn’t leave some little question mark, would it? 

*look out for a future post about how things changed after the imperial coronation
**Presumably Donald Bullough
***wergeld = man price; the payment in gold according to the man’s worth/rank in society


  1. Annie....Fascinating piece of research. Read it, enjoyed it. You are a crack historian. The Carolingians ran a very tight ship I see. Fastidious record keeping, audits, surveys. You can see how they emulated the old imperial system. Nice work. Rian MCCarthy.

    I used a pseudonym , Wat Tyler to comment. RM

    1. Thanks so much! There'll be more blog posts coming soon - there's such a wealth of material here, particularly with Alcuin's letters.