site's logo and link back to the English-speaking home page decorative picture arrow back

How the Frankish Kingdom or Empire was Ruled?

pages decorative bandeau, reminder of the one of the main entry home page and the localized home page

The Frankish king was ruling a world of peasants and Greats as Rome was governing a set of urban 'municipes.' Like the Merovingians, the Carolingians do not yet distinguish very well the res privata and the res publica and their power is limited by the ambitions of their aristocracy, by the weight of the Church or the remoteness of local agents. Large agricultural domains are the rule, above all those of the abbeys. Charlemagne, due to cities' decline, had to govern a population scattered in the countryside. The Frankish kingdom then the Carolingian Empire, was vast and diverse, composed of peoples with still neat identities as miscellaneous interests often prevailed. Political concepts, on a other hand, were not developed enough so that, everywhere, the ruler -the Frankish or the Emperor- be not the fundamental -or even real- source to authority. That was further true in a epoch when military campaigns were frequent, with the king the head of the Frankish ost. The Frankish king however could not be present anywhere and everywhere and even the institution of counts, who were representants to the king, was not to suffer intermediaries (under the form of the 'missi dominici'). Faithfulness, at last, of the king's agents was primordial along with their belonging to the Austrasian stock. As such 'natural' faithfuls however were few in number, Frankish kings needed the Carolingian Renaissance to increase them and to make them more efficient. Clerics, on the other hand, who were generally more educated, turned too more unavoidable as far as the administration of the Frankish kingdom was concerned. Ruling the Frankish kingdom thus, then the Empire kept on the move, with the Greats tending to focus upon their military role and clerics upon the Church, the annual assembly to delegate its power to technicians and 400 counts -then with missi dominici- allowing the king's presence in his kingdom. After 800 A.D. the extension of the Empire was to come to add to questions with ennemies -and the conquests' booties- turning more distant and the Emperor weary, albeit more and moring concerned of his rule. He eventually was to share it with Louis, in September 813, who was associated to the Empire

The Carolingian political project with no doubt owed much to the strong personality of Charlemagne, which allowed to unity. He even knew how to divide to rule, or to use managers of mediocer importance to warrant their faithfulness. He also knew how to mediate his authority through the 'kingdoms' (Aquitaine, Italy) he granted his sons. The personality of Charles further also allowed him to impose his choices beyond the annual assembly, that meeting of the Greats in the kingdom, and councils. He also was careful of informally lending a ear to counselors who were present in the Court -or the 'Palace.' Those were close relatives to him, Greats with a title of count or of varied official offices (like the Seneschal or the Master of Houses), or clerics (who also played a fundamental role, the intellectual renaissance included, like Alcuin, Paulin or Theodulf). As far as such advisors were concerned, the campaigns of Charles in Italy opened his mind to models other than those of the Merovingians, bringing to cosmopolitan views (Italians, Anglo-Saxons) and even intellectualized. The number of counselors to Charles, on a other hand, was a palliative to a weakness in quality. Since 800 A.D., those counselors left room, along with a return to a Frankish nationalism, to the world of young Franks who had benefited the renaissance and reached to power under Louis the Pious, like Eginhard or Aldrich. People in the Court could too perform local functions as they constituted the Austrasiens faithfuls about the Frankish king. Greats eventually turned to everything political and military as the clerics to everything civil service. Such a move was accompanied with that the center of Frankish power settled in Aachen, which was located full amidst the Austrasian lands, with the archives. Aachen eventually became the center of a real institutionalized court which tended to surpass the informal and journeying aspects of the government which existed until now. Aachen, a former post to the 6th Roman Legion and a city of spa, really turned a capital by 794 A.D.

The Concepts

On one hand, it is the thought of St. Augustine which was very present, which translated into the obligation of managing the 'earthly City,' or to manage the common wealth the center of which is the ruler. He is responsible of the deeds and the Salvation of his subjects and will be held accountable for that on the day of the Last Judgment. The king holds his 'ban,' or the royal authority, a heritage of the former Merovingian 'mainbourg'. 'Civil servants' who were found below the Frankish king were serving him personally, which was a officialization of the vassals, with a 'benefice' system, as they served altogether the common wealth. On the other hand, that time was not a one of abstract thought. The Frankish king was still the owner of his kingdom as the law was originating into the Frankish people and that Church was coronating the king. The custom as attached to oral culture and illiteracy (to which the Renaissance wanted by Charlemagne tended to remedy) were a hindrance to a modern government. It was necessary to wait for the Capetians to allow the literacy of the laity to allow an evolution. Greats have a great importance as the king will always have to take them in account, specially through the General Assembly, a annual meeting where that what the king wished adjusted to that to what the Greats could give their agreement. The possibility, thus, that the Greats in the kingdom could get too distant from the king made that they were requested -and all the freemen too- to the oath of faithfulness, a technique which reappeared at the time from Europe to Byzantium, generally as it likely came from the influence of Rome. The oath is establishing a direct link between the king, his Greats and the peoples

The Central Government

Like under the Merovingians, the central government still had a domestic aspect. Domestic service holders carried out political responsibilities. Like the senechal, the bottler (both administering imperial domains), the chambrier (the Treasure), the constable (the cavalry). The Carolingians innovated with the following bodies: the chapel which was the king's clerics, whose leader became the prince's chief advisor; he would have the title of Archchapelain from the reign of Louis the Pious; the chancellery which was detached from the chapel by recruiting scribes who wrote royal acts as the chancellor validated the royal acts and capitulars); the royal court as his presidency was left by the prince to the 'Count of The Palace' (scribes were responsible for the 'plaids,' or acts of application; Charlemagne, by the end of his reign, was to take back to himself the acts concerning the Greats). The diversity of the dominions subject to the Frankisk power obliged for respect to the particularisms of peoples and, to the most original, even viceroys (Aquitaine, Italy, Bavaria) or even local princes (Spoleto, Benevento)

Finance and Income

The germanic peoples' lack of enthusiasm for per capita taxes, the inability to hold a land registry, not to take in account the virtual disappearance of currency due to the weakening of trade, meant that direct taxes upon people and property no longer weighed anywhere eventually, in the Empire in the 9th century A.D. They were replaced by the gift ('annua dona') that the Grands made during the Champ de Mai, or by extraordinary contributions when the Empire faced invasions. The annual donation was not a tax, as either it was part of a friendly sociability or it might also be donations made like a thank to some question solved by the Emperor. The 'tonlieux', remnants of Rome's system weighing on commercial transactions and on transport networks (passes, bridges, portus) remained weak due to abuse of the Greats and the weakness of trade. A important resource is the fines of justice, the rights of chancery, the coinage, also amputated by abuses as war incomes (booty, tributes) depended upon a policy of conquest. From a practical point of view, gold and silver bars and precious objects were piled up, in the care of the chambrier, in a secret chamber of the palace and the sovereign considered the whole thing as his own good and disposed of it through his inheritance. That conception was due to the fact that the daily needs of the monarchy was provided by the benefits due by the populations (duties, housing, food, transport, by the estates) and by the prince's own domains (management, products, land donation policy). Weakening of the land's income was also one of the causes of Carolingian weakening

The General Assembly of The Frankish Kingdom

The Carolingian General Assembly was a continuation of the former 'March's Camp,' a civilian and military meeting of the Frankish warriors around their ruler. Due to the new importance of cavalry under the Carolingian, the March turned into the May's Camp so first hay be available to horses. That date also allowed clerics to not leave their bishopric at Easter time. The camp was the symbolic place of the agreement between the king and the Greats as only those who were useful to decision-making were summoned and the assembly tends to turn the approval of the king's views by the Greats as soon as those stood in accordance with costums and the common wealth. All the Greats, the counts, bishops, abbots and the direct king's vassals were participating into the yearly assembly as they constituted now -and they only- the 'populus,' or the Frankish people. The 'aula regia,' the appropriate meeting room which had been built in the Aachen palace, could harbor 1,000 persons. As the assembly handled what was politics, it tended then to cut from the ost, and the annual council of Church affairs. The Frankish General Assembly first reflected, above all, the strength balance between Charlemagne and the kingdom's Greats. By 769 A.D., they tended to reunite the ost with the assembly, which was held in May as a other assembly, by fall, was preparing the spring meeting of the following year. A separate Church council also was held by fall. Since fall, the whole work of the General Assembly was prepared through a small assembly which looked like a widened kingly Counsel as such a work was also performed in May through that the Frankish king convened Greats and clerics in a small meeting. Technical subjects of the main assembly turned the work of professionals, like the lawyers, clerics, etc., and of close to the king. The General Assembly that way, tended to solely give a approval to the general economy of capitularies as details were left to private gatherings. The Greats further did not speak a single language. The yearly approval eventually turned a formalism as soon as it was considered that the work performed by the special meetings had been made in conformity with law's principles and customs. The result of the General Assembly were the capitularies which were officially some kinds of laws of the Carolingian times as they were indeed aide-mémoires of what had been approved to be used by those who were managing the Frankish kingdom

The Counts and the Missi Dominici

One to two months were needed to cross the Carolingian empire by land as the king's presence was to be ensured everywhere. That turned the role of 200 to 250 'counts' in the territorial frame of the counties, or 'pagi' where the counts performed their role of civil servants. A 'pagus' (plural 'pagi') was the countryside surrounding the former important Roman cities, a city and his pagus constituting a 'civitas' at the time, which usually was a heritage to the territory of a Gauls' tribe. By the Gallo-Roman times and even before, a pagus was a subdivision of a civitas as the latter was refering to the territory of a Gaul tribe (a pagus could also represent a minor tribe bound to a more important one, like for example, in Burgundy, the Mandubii were a pagus of the Lingones). North and East of the Frankish dominions, they tended to part existing pagi, and the number of about 300 counts was reached by the end of 9th century A.D. The main city (as the term 'civitas' named the city only by now) in the pagus was home to the count alongside with a bishop, which marked the city was the center of the administration in terms of justice, taxes, enforcment of decisions taken during the General Assembly, ost, and also in terms of the large-scale economic life. A pagus, as they were 400 of them in the Carolingian Empire had a more or less ethnic meaning as they were referring to ancient Gauls, or local Germanic settlements. South of the Empire, where former Roman cities had been more numerous and kept so, a pagus could gather several former territories as it often matches the one of the former Roman 'civitates.' In terms of size, a pagus had a size between a French 'département' and 'arrondissement.' Most of the time, counts are originating from their pagus but above all, since Charles Martel to the 9th century A.D., they all were to belong to the Austrasian stock and faithfuls to the Frankish king as they all came from about 30 families. From 768 to 840 A.D., out of 110 known counts -who usually were members of the French aristocracy, 70 were Austrasians -- as 52 of whom were related to the Carolingians. A count was speaking like the 'king's words.' All counts, at last, were gathering each year into the General Assembly. Counts' duties were heavy because they had few aids only as they were often away from their county due to that the Frankish king used them to other tasks. The Carolingian Renaissance aimed to make up for that as one of its purposes was to give a better training to the Frankish elites. Every count had to write a yearly report down for the General Assembly as, on a other hand, for his county, he had to keep the capitularies and other archives. Countries which had been recently conquered, counts were originating from the local ethnic group, which allowed to a transition between safeguarding the people's identity and its integration into the Frankish kingdom. Such territories further could work under the form of military 'marches', which were a grouping of counties, often transient ones, or even of 'duchies' which displayed a military aspect before all. Marquis and dukes perform the same duties than counts, plus their military functions. The Duchy of Flanders, as internal in the Empire, was created for public order purposes. Counts are not paid as they are allocated a land like a lifelong benefit along with one-third of justice fees and trade duties. Counts eventually are chosen among the Greats' families only or the 'young' raised in the Court, as every count is a king's vassal. The countal structure eventually, along two centuries, opened unto feodality as the counts' functions progressively turned hereditary. Part also of that decline that the Frankish king had to take in account the regional identity of Aquitaine or he created some 'kingdoms' for his sons, like the one of Italy. Also, the conquest had given the status of autonomous duchies to Bavaria and Britain, where people had been half submitted or were in revolt. As the function of count was profitable (income from the estates, illegal appropriation of the part reserved for the king of taxes and judicial taxes), the counts tended to create clienteles and to perpetuate themselves hereditarily. Vassality was a attempt to limit abuses but was to prove more harmful than useful: the heredity of land's gifts was to bring that of the office and a weak sovereign was not to be able to assume himself at the head of the pyramid, leaving the back-vassals to the abuses of their direct superiors

Any count has a his service a dozen at best of assistants even if those local relays were rarely indeed available to the counts. Those are the viscounts, viguiers (or voyers or centeniers who perform their function in the 'viguerie' or 'hundred'), and a secretary, which constitutes a total of 2,000-3,000 civil servants in the Frankish dominions. Lower into the territorial organization thus, were to found the following institutions, like the 'viguerie' (a equivalent to the French 'canton') which was managed by a 'vicaire', or 'viguier' (a deputy to the count) or a 'centenier' (a subordinate named by the count with the agreement of local notables). The viguerie was the heir to the former Germanic 'hundred,' or 'centena,' a group of 100 inhabitants and was now heralding the 'vicomtés". Viguiers turned the Frankish civil servants who indulged themselves to more to abuses likely due to their links with the local notables. There was one viguier for each centena (which also may be called 'vicaria') in the county. A viguier, technically, is chairing the 'mallum,' or the countal court as he is also the head to the ost. Generally, he has the countal orders carried out. Counts also name a other deputy, the 'vice-comes,' or 'viscount,' with powers equivalent to theirs. The fundamental base to life in the Carolingian kingdom or Empire at last, was rural domains, with a village and its village under the rule of a 'intendant' or monasteries, or even the episcopal district of a city or townships which kept existing South like the heirs to former Roman little towns. Higher in the organization, on the other hand, one may also refer to the kingdoms Charlemagne devoted to his sons

As far as 'missi dominici' -'master's envoys', litterally, in French- are concerned, those special kingly envoys were to make a better link between the king's rule and the real life in the pagi, and to check how the king's orders were really enforced. Above all, they were needed due to that the counts often exerted extorsions against people with complicity of the local aristocracy. That institution was of a Merovingian origin and Carolingians began to use it since 780 A.D. for special missions. Missi turned quickly part of the curriculum of civil servants. Missi turned a permanent and general institution by 802 A.D. as they became the seniors to counts and they investigated and represented the king about archbishops. They were also entrusted the 'missiatica,' or permanent territorial districts of their own. Missi were also the essential way to rule for Charles as they allowed the unity of that enlarged Frankish kingdom along with controlling the counts. Missi were almost always of Frankish origin. Missi's mission was originally for one year. With the restoration of the Empire, missi had their function increasing. Their mission was enounced by oral or through aide-mémoires and they had also to journey with a whole library of reference. Missi were chosen among the wealthy, to avoid bribery. They were sent by two of them, with one a layman (a count or a duke) and the other a cleric (a archbishop, bishop, or a abbot) as they took their decisions in common. In their missiatica the missi had to perform four tours a year, during which they held a General Assembly. There were performed all the administrative deeds of the Empire like the oath of fidelity, the publication of capitularies, the heaviest of judiciary cases, the question related to moral order, the appeal of poor, etc.) and the review of the ost. Missi were also liable for a set of administrative tasks like taxes, roads, domains, etc. which could result into kingly ban-level orders. They also had to check the cultural level in the life of Church. Back from a tour, they wrote a report sent to the king. Of note is that missi dominici were used and found mostly in the Neustrian and Burgundian borders of Austrasia. That institution of the missi, which was praiseworthy per se, was already weak since its beginnings because the counts and other delinquents kept calm during the time of the missi's journey. Missi were to not survive the decline of Carolingian power as it was to fall, like others, under the sway of the Greats. A form of last resort justice -and even of first level one- existed at Charlemagne as, for varied petitions, he could be reached in the thermal baths in Aachen

The Carolingians also integrated into the work of local administration the officialization of the concepts of vassals and benefices, the emergence too of a hierarchized and hereditary Austrasian nobility, which performed a civilian and military service. That was however to be also the basis to the dynasty's decline. Of note at last that the travelings of the Court or the ost with those of the Greats going to the general assembly added to the administration's network. The Church also, with its own infrastructure, participated into the administration network in the kingdom, which was truer still in the 8 bishoprics in conquered Saxony. Charles also reinvigorated the institution of archbishoprics as the Frankish kingdom was to hold 21 of them

Website Manager: G. Guichard, site Learning and Knowledge In the Carolingian Times / Erudition et savoir à l'époque carolingienne, Page Editor: G. Guichard. last edited: 4/9/2015. contact us at
Free Web Hosting