Mayor of the Palace – not what you think it is

Before we get into what the Mayor of the Palace was, let’s be clear about what it wasn’t: using today’s definitions, there was no mayor (the leader of a city), and there was no palace (a permanent royal residence). The Latin term is maior domus. A better reading of the term would be something like “leader of the domicile.” Let’s talk about what the position meant for those who held it, and by the end we’ll have a better understanding of the position by comparing the mayor to a modern equivalent.

As with many things in early medieval Francia, the maior domus and other court positions (known as the palatium) originated from Roman institutions. In any monarchical government power is highly personal, and in Francia that personal power was held by the Merovingian kings and their court. “The Frankish royal court consisted of a permanent establishment of household officials who were drawn from the magnates. The court revolved around the king, and it was held wherever the king was, which was usually in one of a half a dozen or so favoured places situated on royal estates.”1.Fouracre, Charles Martel, p.28. Here we can see where the idea of the ‘Palace’ part of the job title comes from. In the Frankish world there was no equivalent to Buckingham Palace, a single building solely associated with the head of state.2.Charlemagne attempted to build something like that with his palace at Aachen, but that took many decades yet. Instead, the palace, the embodiment of the state, was wherever the king and his court happened to be, or, you could say, domiciled.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Fouracre, Charles Martel, p.28.
2. Charlemagne attempted to build something like that with his palace at Aachen, but that took many decades yet.

Private letters between popes and kings

When Charlemagne had been king for about twenty-three years he decided to enhance the royal archives by preserving a collection of letters written by the various popes to his grandfather, his father, and himself. The letters, some of which must have been more than fifty years old, were probably written on papyrus, and would last longer if transcribed to parchment. The king gave his rational for this effort in the preface to the collection, “So that no testimony whatsoever of the holy church which will be of use in the future should be seen wasting to his successors.” The work involved was not large, and comprised less than a hundred letters. The single compilation that has come down to us, from the ninth century, concludes with a biblical quotation, “The wise man will seek out the wisdom of all the ancients.”1.King, Charlemagne, Translated Sources, pp.36-38. This collection is called the codex carolinus.

The codex is heavily skewed, not too surprisingly, to Charlemagne’s end of the time scale. Two of the letters were sent to grandfather Martel, forty-two to father Pepin, and fifty-four to Charlemagne. There are almost certainly letters missing, both from the original collection, and from what has come down to us. No doubt some were cast aside in the initial survey as duplicative, incomplete, or inappropriate, and some were cleaned up. “This does not seem to have been a simple process of recopying, for some of the original letters, no doubt written on papyrus, were said to be in very poor condition and there was an effort both to renew (renovare) and rewrite (rescribere) the texts from memory onto parchment.” Some of the letters that were initially included are now lost, as the preface to the collection references letters from the emperor in Byzantium which we do not have.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. King, Charlemagne, Translated Sources, pp.36-38.

Aistulf plays the odds… and loses

In November of 753 Pope Stephen and King Aistulf met for last ditch face-to-face talks. The negotiations, which lasted for perhaps ten days, went nowhere, to no one’s surprise. When Stephen announced his intent to continue on to Francia to meet with Pepin, Aistulf did his best to dissuade Stephen, but when the pontiff insisted, Aistulf allowed he and the other ambassadors to proceed. This must have been another example of diplomatic form being observed.1.This must have galled Aistulf, forced by circumstance to allow papal envoys through his territory, knowing their intent, but not able to break protocol with the pope, which would put him in the wrong. One could, perhaps, speak of Lombard honor, but that claim is frankly belied by Aistulf’s record of treaty and oath-breaking.

One interesting, unknowable question about these final talks is whether or not Aistulf knew of the death of Grifo, Pepin’s half-brother, in a battle with Pepin’s men. The Carolingian chroniclers maintain that Grifo was going to Lombardy “to stir up trouble,” but there is no way to know Grifo’s real intent. The timing is also circumspect, as the sources don’t indicated when Grifo was killed, except that it was probably in the fall. It is fun (if feckless) to wonder if Aistulf knew of Grifo’s coming, or had even invited him. We shall see in a moment that Aistulf had yet another card to play in his efforts to dissuade the Franks, one that could be related to Grifo’s journey.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. This must have galled Aistulf, forced by circumstance to allow papal envoys through his territory, knowing their intent, but not able to break protocol with the pope, which would put him in the wrong.

Aistulf confronts the pope, the emperor, and the king

Poor Aistulf the Lombard. Apparently a man of great ambition, drive, and some level of cunning, virtually everything we know about him was written by his enemies. The biographer of Pope Stephen II called Aistulf “shameless,” “atrocious,” “criminal,” “pernicious,” and of course, just plain “evil.” We don’t know his birth date, place of birth, the name of his mother, or anything of his upbringing. But hey, we don’t even know Charlemagne’s birth date, and people have even heard of him!

Aistulf was born to Pemmo, Duke of Friuli, some time before 730, when Pemmo died. Aistulf had a brother named Ratchis, who was probably the elder, since Ratchis got the plum appointments before Aistulf did. The Lombard political system gave kingship by acclamation of the dukes and other leaders, not family inheritance. Ratchis, who had been named Duke of Friuli by King Liutprand in 739 when Pemmo fell out of favor, was proclaimed king of the Lombards in 745. Aistulf became the new Duke of Friuli, while Ratchis lasted as king for only four years.

“Ratchis, whose diplomatic character had been shown in his career under Liutprand, now concluded a twenty years’ truce with Rome, but from some cause unknown to us, difficulties afterwards arose, and he found himself constrained to attack the Pentapolis and to lay siege to Perugia. The Pope came from Rome with a train of followers, visited the camp of Ratchis, and in a personal interview induced him to desist from his undertaking. This subserviency to papal influence, however, aroused the contempt of his own nobles and followers, who in Milan, in June, 749, chose as their king his younger brother Aistulf, a man of headstrong and unyielding character, whereupon Ratchis became a monk in the cloister of Monte Cassino.”1.History of the Lombards, Edwards’ extensive note at the end of the narrative, p.311.

Clearly one of history’s great unrecorded conversations.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. History of the Lombards, Edwards’ extensive note at the end of the narrative, p.311.

Pepin repays a favor, part 2

The King of the Franks knew, as the year 755 opened,  that he would have to bring force of arms to bear in order to fulfill a promise. Pope Stephen II had come to King Pepin in 753, begging for help against the threat posed by the Lombard King Aistulf, who had grabbed cities and territories in northern Italy that belonged to the papacy and the Byzantine empire. Pepin’s immediate territorial goals, however, focused on the restoration of lands once under the sway of his father, and the kings before him, not Italy. But five years earlier the papacy had done Pepin one huge favor, and supported his claim to the kingship of the Franks. In the face of that debt, he felt he had to act.

He did this in the face of strong opposition from his nobles, some of whom actually threatened to desert him.1.Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, Two Lives of Charlemagne, c.6, p.60. Franco-Lombard friendship extended back several generations, and Pepin himself had been made a ceremonial son of the great Lombard king Liutprand. But one does not refuse a plea from the man who helped make you king, and by whatever means Pepin overcame doubts and opposition. In the spring of 755 he marched for the Alps, along with Pope Stephen, who had been his guest for the last fifteen-odd months.2.There is a tale of Pepin facing down those supporters who did not wish to proceed under such a short ruler, by having a lion attack a bull, and then killing them both with one stroke of his sword. Notker the Stammerer, Charlemagne, Two Lives of Charlemagne, c.15, p.160.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, Two Lives of Charlemagne, c.6, p.60.
2. There is a tale of Pepin facing down those supporters who did not wish to proceed under such a short ruler, by having a lion attack a bull, and then killing them both with one stroke of his sword. Notker the Stammerer, Charlemagne, Two Lives of Charlemagne, c.15, p.160.