Chapters of decrees

While written laws like the lex salica governed everyday life, the Carolingians also issued decrees from time to time, called capitularies. Capitularies are legal documents, so named because they are divided into chapters or articles called ‘capitula.’ Capitularies were issued by the king, and describe and explain legal obligations of the king’s subjects. It is through capitularies that the flavor of royal rule can be known. “While the decisive influence of Charlemagne on the institutions of the Frankish monarchy is well known, what is more obscure… is the manner in which Charlemagne wielded this influence. This was done chiefly through the capitularies… by which the Carolingian monarchs issued legislative and administrative provisions.”1.Ganshof, Carolingians, “The impact of Charlemagne on the institutions of the Frankish realm,” p.143.

There are about 100 capitularies that have come down to modern times. Of these, maybe twenty-five have been translated into English, primarily by King and Loyn & Percival. I find Loyn & Percival’s translations a little clearer to read, although King provides more background on each capitulary.

They cover a wide variety of topics. Some are specific to a region, such as the Capitulary of Aquitaine, which was issued by Pepin in 768 at the completion of his conquest of that region. Charlemagne issued a confirmation of Pepin’s capitulary the next year, when he came to the throne on his father’s death. Some cover a specific subject, such as the Capitulary de Villis, which details proper management of the king’s estates. Many are concerned with ecclesiastical matters. “The capitularies were among the instruments most used by Pippin and Charlemagne to exercise an influence over the Church: measures of a statutory or prescriptive character, relating to church affairs, are found there in profusion.”2.ibid, “The Church and the royal power under Pippin III and Charlemagne,” p.208. Once defined, multiple copies of capitularies and other documents were made and placed in the royal archives.

Let’s take a look at four of the most important capitularies, and get a sense of what was on Charlemagne’s mind from year to year.

The Capitulary of Herstal, issued in 779, with twenty-three capitula: First comes articles on a theme that is repeated over the years and decades, getting the ecclesiastical house in order. Bishops are told they have the right to punish within their jurisdictions, that they must be properly ordained, that they have powers over their priests. Then comes articles for the rest of society. Everyone must tithe, brigands and perjurers are to be punished, and killers can still take refuge in a church, but cannot be fed while there. Oaths are not to be sworn, armed bands are forbidden, and coats of mail are not to be sold outside of the kingdom. For any of the nobility not doing justice, they can support one of the king’s missi dominici until justice is done. All in all, it feels like a grab bag of commands, perhaps a list of things that had been bugging the king since his ascension.

The Admonitio Generalis of 789 of eighty-two capitula issues several far more detailed ecclesiastical commands: new names of angels are not to be created or uttered (except for the three that are known, Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael); women must not go to the altar; someone excommunicated in one parish cannot be accepted in another; monks and clerics must stay where they were assigned, and are not to engage in secular activities; ecclesiastical fasts are not to be disregarded; and there are many clauses about bishops staying put. This last command is something that must have been happening a lot, and a particular peeve of the king. In addition, “we order that men do not become sorcerers or enchanters or weather-prophets or makers of magical ligatures.”3.King, Translated Sources, ch.65, p.215. Charlemagne is really tightening up the standards for the religious order across the land – telling them how to behave, what they should know, and what they should teach.

The third great capitulary, out of Frankfurt in 794, presents an interesting bunch of royal concerns in one document. It opens with summary reports of a heresy that was dealt with, as was a conspiracy against the king, a decision to reject iconoclasm, and that Tassilo of Bavaria was forgiven (and tonsured). Then there are a couple of economic matters, that the price of corn is fixed, and everyone is to accept and use the new coinage. Then follows the inevitable rules for ecclesiastics, along the same formula: live and rule according to the canon rules and laws; don’t go into taverns to drink; while bishops will dispense justice in their parishes, they should not blind or maim monks for their infractions; women cannot take the veil before the age of twenty-five, and men cannot become priests before the age of thirty. Also, and I find this quite interesting, that prayers are heard by God in any language, not just three languages. Evidently someone was spreading the idea that God only listens to particular languages. Sadly the capitulary doesn’t state what the three languages are.

The fourth great reforming capitulary, the Programmatic out of Aachen in 802, was the first since Charlemagne became emperor. Several articles make pointed references to the fact of his elevation, including an article that reinforces the purpose of, and notes the expansive scope, of the oath to the emperor that every member of Francia over the age of twelve had to take. Again, there is an emphasis that everyone, and not just ecclesiastics this time, should stay where they supposed to stay, and do what they’re supposed to do. There are additional references to Charlemagne’s emissaries, that they are everywhere, and not to be stayed, crossed, lied to, or halted. Monks and nuns should stay in their monasteries. Nuns must be strictly supervised. Monks must not get drunk and fornicate, but live strictly by the rule. Everyone must stop killing and perjuring and committing incest. Justice must be done justly, all the time, by everyone, everywhere. Finally, stop stealing the game from my forests!

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Programmatic capitulary is the product of a man who was becoming fed up with his subjects (Charlemagne had ruled for almost thirty-five years at that point) and had given up being a leader, and resorted to scolding and hectoring. Each iteration of the capitularies feels more and more strident, as if Charlemagne were getting tired of telling ecclesiastics to stay put, that justice must be done. “The capitularies, more and more numerous, constantly renewed warnings, orders and interdictions which were less and less obeyed.”4.Ganshof, Carolingians, “Charlemagne,” p.23.

While that may be true, we should not lose sight of the fact that, “The capitularies represent a remarkable effort, sustained for close on a century, at securing to the exercise of government a permanence, stability and regularity which would be unthinkable without recourse to the written word.”5.Ibid, “The institutional framework of the Frankish monarchy,” p.102. Imperfect though they may have been, the foundations of the modern state were being laid, one capitula at a time.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Ganshof, Carolingians, “The impact of Charlemagne on the institutions of the Frankish realm,” p.143.
2. ibid, “The Church and the royal power under Pippin III and Charlemagne,” p.208.
3. King, Translated Sources, ch.65, p.215.
4. Ganshof, Carolingians, “Charlemagne,” p.23.
5. Ibid, “The institutional framework of the Frankish monarchy,” p.102.

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