The Nature Of Early Medieval Kingship

It is easy to say that kings were important and that they ruled kingdoms. Easy but meaningless – we need a working definition. What did it mean to be a king in the 8th century?

The nature of kingship had evolved since the Germanic tribes moved west over the Rhine to displace Roman rule in the first centuries after Christ. Evidence is sparse and sketchy, but the tribes were ruled by war band leaders that the Romans interpreted as kings. The members of the tribe owed personal allegiance to the leader, received protection from him, and shared in the victories and defeats of the tribe.

Tomb of Clovis I, Saint Denis, Paris

These early kings came from powerful families that came to be characterized as “noble.” Gregory of Tours noted that after the Franks crossed the Rhine they “set up in each country district and city long-haired kings chosen from the foremost and most noble family of their race.”1.Gregory, History of the Franks, book 2, chapter 7 Thus the Merovingian line was founded, and Clovis became their first great king.

The king also functioned as a lawgiver and judge. While the kings would discuss and debate matters at the yearly general assembly of the Franks, the resulting capitularies were issued over the king’s signature. As the maker of the laws, the king was also the ultimate judge. The nobility had the privilege and access to take their disputes to the king for resolution.

It is not solely with temporal responsibilities that a king is known. The early Germanic leaders were believed to possess a special connection to the supranatural world. The king was not a god, like the pharaohs, or deified after death like the Roman emperors, but a liaison to the gods. That special connection persisted through the bloodline, and so rule descended through families. This religious and spiritual element devolved easily to Christianity as the faith spread through Europe. The king was still a war leader, and it was in the fulfillment of this duty that his hold on power rested. But he had also become God’s representative, His chosen vassal on earth.

At this point in history we do not yet see healing powers ascribed to the king. That would come late in the tenth century with Robert II. 2.Fichtenau, Living In The Tenth Century, p162

The king’s religious and spiritual role did not change the fact that the leader of a people must be seen and heard to be effective. The dukes and counts of the realm needed the king’s presence to validate their own rule.3.Bernhardt, Itinerant Kingship, p50 Pepin and Charlemagne spent much of the year traveling, either at the head of their armies, or to the annual assembly, or to various towns and manors. It was a traveling court. When they could not go themselves, they sent personal delegates, missi dominci, in their place.

To all this we must add the non-material but crucial role of symbol of the nation, of the gens, of the people. In our own day western societies continue to maintain the symbolic position of head of state, be it a republican president or monarchical queen. In a non-technocratic age when so much was personal, the king was essential.

Essential but not omnipotent. When Pepin was raised as the first Carolingian king, one near-contemporaneous account notes that, “King Pepin had been raised to the throne of the kingdom by [the pope and ritual] and election by all the Franks.”4.Dutton, Carolingian Civilization, p.13 As early as the first century Tacitus noted that “The power even of the kings is not absolute or arbitrary.”5.Tacitus, Germania, book 7 As noted above, the capitularies issued by the king were written after debate amongst the great men. The king ruled in conjunction with and the approval of the ecclesiastical and secular magnates of the kingdom.

War leader, law giver, judge, symbol of the tribe, and bridge between god and man, the early medieval king filled many roles. No mere Mayor of the Palace or duke would do.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Gregory, History of the Franks, book 2, chapter 7
2. Fichtenau, Living In The Tenth Century, p162
3. Bernhardt, Itinerant Kingship, p50
4. Dutton, Carolingian Civilization, p.13
5. Tacitus, Germania, book 7

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