Thursday, 12 October 2017

Did Charlemagne's Imperial Coronation Change Anything?

Last month I blogged about administration in the reign of Charlemagne. This time I’m looking at what, if anything, changed after the imperial coronation in 800.

After Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day 800, there was no real profound transformation of royal power or fundamental reform of it, but the imperial power supplemented it. Certainly there was a quest for definition; Einhard (Charlemagne’s biographer) mentions that Charlemagne ordered unwritten laws and customs to be defined and written.


Along with the concept of imperial power came new ideas of fidelity and devotion. The basic element of feudalism arose; Charlemagne would safeguard the Christian Church and its people, in turn they must observe the laws of Christ and the Emperor.

The Imperial Coronation by Friedrich Kaulbach

In March 802, there was a meeting of the Diet at Aachen. Missi were dispatched to all parts of the empire. These missi were not chosen, as they were usually, from the palace vassals, but from ecclesiastical and lay aristocracy; archbishops, dukes and counts who would be less open to corruption. They had with them a written document in support of the oral instructions, a Capitulare Missorum. 

This fourth great capitulary of Charlemagne’s reign came about because of a psychological crisis within Charlemagne himself. His coronation had given him a more acute awareness of his responsibilities before God. From this arose a clearer view of the contrast between what ought to be, and what was, in the Frankish state. The capitulary presents a programme of imperial government of Church and State in the Empire and contains numerous purely ecclesiastical dispositions and many others of an administrative, judicial and political nature, and articles defining a new and more exacting concept of the fidelity owed to the emperor.

One of Charlemagne's capitularies

To initiate the new regime, it was necessary to lay down and enforce rules of conduct to be observed in the future, confirm and apply rules already in force, but most of all to eradicate existing abuses. It was hoped that these new missi of high standing would be conscientious. They were instructed to investigate complaints, take note of the existing situation and where possible remedy abuses. 

Where there were abuses that they were unable to remedy, the emperor would deal with them himself. They were to report on any gaps or defects they found in the laws, and they were to publish the regulations contained in the capitulary and see that they were enforced.

Homage in the Middle Ages

The duty of fidelity to the emperor was no innovation, and the concept was fundamentally negative; to do nothing that would endanger him to whom fidelity was owed. After the coronation, the duty was not only to refrain from certain actions, but there were certain positive obligations. These included obedience to the divine precepts and to the commands of Christian charity, obedience to the emperor’s orders and respect for imperial property, performance of military service and promotion of the regular course of justice. There was also a new formula for the oath; it became more like the oath sworn by vassals, and more religious in character. 

Swearing the oath of fealty

The whole programme was markedly religious in nature. Charlemagne became aware of his new power, bestowed on him by God. The way the emperor discharged his power indicated reward or punishment in the next world. Charlemagne was also responsible for the attitude of his subjects; they must also perform their duty to God. 

As Charlemagne had to protect the Church, his subjects were obliged to do likewise. There had to be harmony between the lay and ecclesiastical authorities. Bishops and abbots were ordered only to appoint upright and conscientious men. Charlemagne’s fate in the next world depended on the attitude and conduct of churchmen who wielded authority. It was ordered that the clergy should lead a common life. There was also a call for a stricter observance of their rule by monks and nuns.

There were 15 articles in the capitulary relating to religious matters, and religion enters into other aspects. The missi, as we have seen were chosen for their piety, and the capitulary also deals with protecting churches and their property. Disorders in monastic establishments annoyed Charlemagne, so autonomy for houses of monks and nuns was discouraged, indeed many were placed under very strict control of the bishop or even archbishop.

Among the more political articles, Charlemagne’s increased sense of power is clearly detectable. He demanded much more personal devotion from his subjects. He placed a strong emphasis on his Bannum, his power to command or to prohibit and to punish any contravention of his orders or prohibitions. Some of these orders and prohibitions he proclaimed permanent by making them law. They forbade the harming of churches, widows, orphans, or the ‘economically weak’. They prohibited rape, group assaults on a house, and arson. They sought to secure more dependable military service for the king. These eight examples are the best known and Charlemagne frequently called attention to their permanent character in his capitularies. 

The Coronation - by assistants of Raphael

After the imperial coronation, refusal to submit to the Bannum, or evasion of it by trickery, or attempts to restrict its application (in particular the eight examples) could not be tolerated. Non-obedience would in future count as infidelity. 

No-one was to refuse military service, and counts were not to grant unwarranted exemptions. Future contraventions would count as infidelity. This was important to maintain the quality and strength of the imperial fighting force.

As emperor, Charlemagne was the successor of Christian emperors who had been legislators, and he henceforth engaged in legislative activity with less caution, even in the realm of private law. Like the Roman emperors, he ordered that judgement should be made in accordance with the written text of the law where one existed. The chief object of his judicial reforms was to guarantee everyone an opportunity to claim and exercise his rights under the law. So there was a series of measures imposing on the courts a strict regard for the law. 

The Construction of Charlemagne's Palace at Aachen

A knowledge of the law was required of the judicial officials concerned with the administration of justice in courts under the jurisdiction of ecclesiastical authorities, in their capacity as seigneurs of great estates, especially when the church in question enjoyed the privileges of immunity. It was considered important for the law to be applied strictly in the seigneurial courts, in particular in those under the jurisdiction of churches with immunity.

There was much more personal intervention from the emperor, and it is implied that he actually presided over a palace court. This was another indication of his awareness of his responsibilities for his subjects, and of his heightened sense of his accountability to God. The punishment for perjurers, the amputation of the right hand, was no novelty, but now the responsibility for suppressing this crime was placed on the palace courts.

Charlemagne's Throne: attribution

These measures and reforms were not entirely effective, but the ideas remained for Charlemagne’s successors to take up. More than anything they show how his sense of responsibility increased with his new power. It is obvious that he took these new responsibilities seriously, especially where the welfare of the Church and his subjects was concerned. Once he had determined the significance of imperial power, he undertook to instigate reforms which would carry out the obligations he now had as ruler of his people, and as a successor to the Christian Roman emperors.

Further reading:
The Life of Charlemagne – Einhard University of Michigan Press
The Coronation of Charlemagne – Robert Folz
Frankish Institutions under Charlemagne – FL Ganshof
The Carolingians and the Frankish Monarchy – FL Ganshof

[images are in the public domain unless otherwise attributed]

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