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The Medieval World

Merovingian &
Carolingian Governments

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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The aim of this essay is to outline the development of the Frankish powers and functions of government up to the Carolingian era and to indicate how Charlemagne built on and developed them, transforming them by the theocratic idea and enhancing them by his personal genius.

The most important function of the Frankish kings was the leading of the people into war. He had the right to summon every able-bodied man to his army. The kingship was elective but only members of a single royal family was eligible, their special position being derived from legendary descent from one of the Germanic gods.

Kingship was then regarded as a family property, divisible among the king's sons. Their views on the functions of government were extremely limited, the king's duty being to lead into war and to supervise the administration of the ancient customary law, but beyond this their main pre-occupation was the "hoarding" of gold, silver, jewels and pretty women, and consuming vast quantities of meat and drink.

Each king apparently had a body of men bound by oath to serve him faithfully, called a trustee. These antrustiones served as officials, bodyguards and members of the king's household. From them counts were chosen to represent the king in the counties, with functions varied according to the region in which they served.

On entry into the Roman Empire, the Franks were ruled by several kings, each claiming descent from a mythical god, Meroving. Clovis, at first one of many petty kings, overcame the Roman Officer of the region between the Loir and Seine, as well as overcoming the other petty kings, to become king of the Franks.

At this stage he became a convert, thus gaining the allegiance of the Gallo-Romans and the support of the Church, for he became a Catholic and not an Arian, as were the other barbarian invaders. Thus his conquests could be termed "holy wars" against heathens and Arians.

Clovis and his successors realised the value of this alliance with the Church. They made generous gifts of property and gave privileges to the clergy. Bishops in this way became great landowners and rich monasteries sprang up.

The Churchmen did not like the primitive Germanic law since they were accustomed to the more sophisticated Roman system and so they were able to persuade the king to grant them jurisdiction over the clergy, as well as immunity over their land to prevent the wild Frankish counts wandering over it.

No royal officer could enter the land of the Church, officers of the Church arresting criminals and handing them over to the count when it did not have the right to try the criminal itself.

  • S Painter, History of the Middle Ages, p66.
  • Many areas of government did not interest the Frankish kings but were of interest to the Church, such as wills and testaments, marriage and legitimacy. The Church relied heavily on bequests of the faithful. Germanic law however had regular rules for the inheritance of property.

    A compromise was reached with land remaining subject to Germanic custom while moveable property could be left in wills and the jurisdiction over these wills was left in Church hands. As regards marriage and legitimacy, the kings had little concern.

    The most the Church could achieve was to have the king recognise one of his women as his wife. He was certainly not interested in which of his children were born of this partnership, although he did not mind the Church imposing this law on his followers.

    The Merovingians kept the Church strictly under their control. The king's permission was needed before a man could enter the ranks of the clergy and, although the bishops were supposed to be elected by the clergy and the people of the diocese, in practice the king's permission was required for this as well.

    They thus became subject either to the royal veto or were appointed directly. No Church council could meet except at the king's summons and no decrees of such councils had force until they had been issued by the king.

    Thus the Frankish Church became divided in the same manner as the Frankish state: the bishop had become the appointee of the king and controlled the king's diocese. The episcopate had become largely Frankish which brought about a rapid decline in literacy and ecclesiastical discipline.

  • CW Previte-Orton, The Shorter Cambridge Medieval History, Vol 1 (Cambridge, 1953), p164.
  • The Merovingian kings considered the bishops as part of their administration, merely a different form of count. When a throne changed hands, so often did the see of the bishop. Bishops gradually took the place of the town magistrates because of their superior education.

    The Church, however, became steeped in decadence as education and civilization became swamped and morals and manners degenerated. Charles Martel gave the bishoprics and abbeys to "rude, unlettered men" and seized the Church estates to supply benefices to his warriors.

  • Previte-Orton, The Shorter Cambridge Medieval History, p161.
  • The Merovingians divided their kingdom into districts or counties, equivalent to the old Roman civitates. Each was placed under a count who was appointed by the king whose function it was to keep order, arrest criminals, hold courts of justice, levy taxes and carry out royal commands.

    The count has as his assistant a "vicar", the county being divided into vicariates. Several counties could be combined under a duke who had military powers and functions and hence could be dangerous to the king.

    Justice was carried out by vicars in minor cases and counts for the graver, assisted by freemen who declared the law and decided on the fines. The king's court acted as a type of court of appeal. Much of the law was personal hereditary law, such as the Salic law.

    The complicated Roman system of taxation collapsed while tolls and market dues were relied on for tax. However, the treasury gradually became depleted. Minting gradually fell into disorder in the 7th century, with the minters going from place to place and minting coins with their own inscriptions. The king's main revenue then came to be the large royal estates.

    During the last century of Merovingian rule, when the king had become powerless, the estates became governed by great nobles who formed themselves into political groups. The head of these groups took on the title of Mayor of the Palace.

    He had been primarily one of the king's officials, the administrator of the royal estates. Since the royal estates had become the chief source of power and revenue, the administration was able to become the head of the government and represented the aristocracy at the court.

    Of these Mayors, the Burgundian soon disappeared and the landed aristocracy of Austrasia won the upper hand over those of Neustria, thus starting the line of the Carolingians.

    The Mayor of the Palace became hereditary and by the time of Charles Martel, the kings were so completely overshadowed by the Mayor that it becomes difficult to distinguish the one from the other.

  • Previte-Orton, The Shorter Cambridge Medieval History, p160.
  • During the civil wars, the great men from the three divisions of Burgundy, Austrasia and Neustria held meetings called the Field of March and later May. Here the great men brought followers armed and ready for campaign, gifts for the king which became his principal source of revenue, tried cases of high treason and promulgated capitularies.

    Charles Martel combined the three into one and had in it an army, advisory council and a tribunal. Although he had no interest in reforming the Church, he did encourage missionary activity for he was able to use it for his own interests and as a support for this relatives and friends.

  • Painter, History of the Middle Ages, p70.
  • Martel's greatest achievement, in an indirect form of government, was his new military organisation, based on cavalry.

    Up to his time, the Merovingian army which consisted of the king and his nobles with their households and a general levy of able-bodied men, was totally inadequate to defend itself from serious attack from either Moslem or Saxon.

    The body-guards were few in number and the mass-levy untrained, poorly equipped and completely undisciplined. Such an army was a terror to its friends, plundering the countryside, but of no great danger to its enemies.

    Martel knew that he needed a powerful army if his house was to remain in power and so turned to reconstructing the cavalry, partly because the Merovingian nobles had always fought on horseback and partly from the example of the Moslems. The horse too had greater mobility and the introduction of the stirrup into Europe at this time increased its efficiency.

    However, the expense of equipping a horse and the endless hours of training necessary, meant the creation of a new service. These soldiers had to be rich and free from work. To do this, Martel enlisted able-bodied men, had them swear an oath of allegiance and to each he gave a benefice.

    The men were thereupon required to equip and maintain their warhorses and do service when called upon. To find enough land for this, Charles turned to the land of the Church.

    Carloman and Pepin the Short, having come under the influence of St Boniface, began the work of reforming the Church. The government of the Franks depended to such a great degree upon the Church that a reformed Church was essential for its smooth functioning.

    They held a series of councils to provide the legislation and directed the bishops to hold councils each year in order to establish discipline. An innovation was brought in when Pepin compelled all bishops swear allegiance to the Pope and so for the first time the Frankish Church was brought under the control of Rome.

  • H Pirenne, A History of Europe from the Invasions to XVI Century (London, 1958), pp78-9.
  • Pepin's coronation as king of the Franks and his sanction by the Pope brought a new aspect to the Frankish kingship. He included the cross among his emblems and entitled himself, "King by the Grace of God".

    The Carolingian ideal was started that the king was not to be king with power and authority from earthly sources, but to govern according to Christian morality and in accordance with the Church. Religion became an affair of the state.

    Only those who belonged to the Christian society could belong to public society and to be excommunicated was equivalent to outlawry. This ideal was handed on to Charlemagne.

    Charlemagne's administration followed the pattern set by the previous rulers, building on the foundation laid by them. Charlemagne was not a revolutionary; he did not change or introduce a new system. He was essentially Frankish and carried on the evolution of the system he inherited.

    He was however a capable and pragmatic ruler, innovating where necessary for the betterment of his state, He was also totally imbued with the religious concept of ruling, having possibly read St. Augustine's De Civitate Dei.

    Indeed, he saw himself as the ruler of the "City of God" and so his rule was innovated so as to bring his kingdom into line with what he felt a theocratic ruler should be.

    The first notable difference in Charlemagne's rule was his place of residence. Whereas the Merovingians and Pepin the Short had ruled and lived in the area of the Seine outside of Paris, Charlemagne had no permanent abode.

    He used dwellings nearer and nearer the Rhine, building himself three palaces at Nymwegen, Ingelheim and Aachen. However, although the palaces were built there, the real palace travelled with him and he travelled constantly to make supervision of his kingdom and put down the enemy.

    Charlemagne had no chief minister or Mayor of the Palace. He himself governed. The rule of the country parts was basically as under his predecessors. The peaceful interior parts were left in the hands of counts who were responsible for local government.

    But, in the border areas where defence was important, Charlemagne created larger units which were administered by margraves or border counts.

  • Painter, History of the Middle Ages, pp79-80.
  • There was a natural danger to his own power in these margraves and so to counter this he appointed a small group of lieutenants above these to watch over his interests. Then, above all this, he made his sons titular kings.

    He also inaugurated a system to maintain adequate information concerning the behaviour of these various officials by creating the missi dominici, consisting of two men, a prelate and a noble, who together were sent out to survey a section of his kingdom, bearing his orders to his officials.

    To prevent the men repeatedly visiting the same regions and thus falling into abuse, he shifted the pairs about each year and so maintained good supervision.

  • CJH Hayes, History of Western Civilization (London, 1967), p120.
  • Charlemagne reformed the economic situation, bringing out decrees concerning money-lending, usury, weights and measures, food-prices, restrictions on the slave trade, and turned to the minting of silver money in the place of gold.

    No revival of the ancient Roman system was possible and Charlemagne had to rely upon the Frankish form of services in kind and money from the estates. He tried to organise the great landed estates which had proved over the centuries the most important stable income and the economic basis of political power.

    Detailed instructions were recorded, minute regulations concerning the running of the estates. However, as Hayes points out, directives are not necessarily accomplishments.

  • Previté-Orton, Shorter Cambridge Medieval History, p321.
  • Nevertheless, Charlemagne and his sons became the largest landowners in Europe, although there was always a steady drain because of his gifts to the Church and his benefices to vassals.

    This was made up to a large extent by conquered territory and the king's proclamation which claimed all land not in private possession or settled, such as rivers, forests and mountains.

    The Fields of May was maintained as a source of revenue although the king alone was now the custodian of justice and peace and, for council, he turned rather to his entourage, or people especially summoned or friends.

    Justice was maintained as before in the hands of counts, vicars and, of course, the addition of the margraves. However, Charlemagne tried to lighten the burden of frequent judicial assemblies. The unbidden courts were held only three times within a year, while only those summoned needed appear at the special cases.

  • Previté-Orton, Shorter Cambridge Medieval History, p322.
  • Charlemagne attempted to solve the problem of the prevalence of the personal hereditary law, much of which was unwritten. He brought together a body of experts on law in each county and these men acted as the count's assessors, who made known the law and gave judgements.

    On top of this, he took steps towards a reform of law in 802, where the unwritten customary law of certain tribes was set in writing and other were edited. He also issued laws for his whole kingdom which cut across the personal laws. He did not produce any systematic code of law.

    The main part of the military service relied on the cavalry, as it would until the development of gunpowder in modern times. However, Charlemagne set his mind to the hardships of the small man in military service, by prescribing a certain minimum property qualification and that freemen with less than the minimum should club together to equip one of themselves.

    The area in which Charlemagne had greatest import was that of Church-State relationships. Unlike Martel's use of the Church for his own ends and Pepin's rule as a Christian king with good use of the bishops in his administration, Charlemagne had very definite theocratic ideals of how his state should be.

    He was imbued, as mentioned above, with St Augustine's ideas of the City of God but seeing this City as the Christians on earth rather than a final revelation in heaven. He saw himself as the ruler of this City.

  • Hayes, History of Western Civilization, p118.
  • Charlemagne had therefore a sense of religious purpose in his government, ruling much in an Old Testament flavour. His biographer, Einhard, called him "David" and he tried to model his kingdom on that Hebrew king, regarding himself as a latter-day moral and religious leader of the chosen people.

    He felt an obligation to protect the Church, to promote a healthy moral and religious life within his realm and spread the faith outside it.

  • Pirenne, A History of Europe from the Invasions to XVI Century, p82.
  • This can be seen in his Saxon campaign where he used the various military and normal governmental means to keep the Saxons under control: fortresses garrisoned with Frankish troops, Frankish counts, removal of masses of Saxons to the west and their replacement by Frankish colonists.

    But he also used Christianity, which he forced on the conquered Saxons, making them pay tithes to the Church and establishing bishoprics and monasteries within the conquered territory.

    Paganism and disobedience to the Church were made an offence equal to revolt. His armies would keep order for a time but the Church would force them to be obedient subjects.

  • C Dawson, The Making of Europe (New York, 1971), p190.
  • The Government too was largely ecclesiastical. The bishops shared equally with the counts in local administration, and the central government was mainly in the hands of the ecclesiastics of the chancery. The arch-chaplain was the king's chief advisor and one of the highest dignitaries in the empire.

  • Dawson, The Making of Europe, pp190-1.
  • Dawson maintains that Charlemagne's style of government was more on the lines of a Moslem Kadi than of a Roman official, Charlemagne as Commander of the Faithful. He was claiming direct authority over the Church and interfering in matters of dogma.

    He seemed to regard the Pope as his chaplain rather than as leader of the Church, at one time saying that it was the king's duty to govern and defend the Church while it was the Pope's duty to pray for it.

    Bishops played a vital role in his administration. Many abbeys and bishoprics were given immunity from the jurisdiction of local counts and were thus equal to these secular officials. The king made little distinction between secular and religious aspects, regarding all affairs as his responsibility. Episcopal elections too followed his wishes.

    This then is the government of the Merovingians and Carolingians. It seems clear that Charlemagne built on what had been established before, developing it, transforming it by the theocratic idea and enhancing it by his personal genius.

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