The king’s hands

Anyone reading a blog about the 8th century, I’m going to guess, is also probably a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire (or, for those without the gumption to plow through around five thousand pages of narrative, the Game of Thrones). An intriguing position to occupy in the world of Westeros is that of the Hand of the King, or, more colloquially, the King’s Hand. The Hand can be thought of as kind of proto-prime minister, the one responsible for the smooth operation of the kingdom.

While the King’s Hand springs from the fevered, fetid imagination of the venerable George R.R. Martin, the role does raise an interesting question. In an age without mass communication, how can a king effectively promulgate his orders and directives, and ensure that the king’s justice is done across a vast realm?

The Merovingians and early Carolingians relied on a form of personal rule that manifested itself as an ongoing tour of the kingdom. The court was wherever the king was, and the king moved from estate to estate through the year. This proved to be something of a burden to the hosts, and the king did not tarry too long at any one place. This method worked for a smaller, more loosely confederated Merovingian kingdom, but the Carolingians, for various reasons, wanted more. More land, more control, and more order.

The solution was to multiply the king, so he could be everywhere at once. Thus were born the missi dominici. The missi were elites drawn from the landed aristocracy and the senior ecclesiastical ranks to represent the king throughout the kingdom. “The missus dominicus was a commissioner whom the king used in order to make his personal action felt in a specified region.”1.Ganshof, Frankish Institutions, p.23. Theirs was a two-way mission: both to bring royal orders from the center out to the realm, and to bring news and official reports of the realm back to the king.

The earliest missi were military commanders when the king could not lead in person.2.Fictenau, Carolingian Empire, p.107. Unfortunately I have not been able to find anything on the earliest references to the the missi. They could be also be ambassadors, as an Austrasian missus negotiated with Eudo of Aquitaine during the Frankish civil war in 719, or when Waifar of Aquitaine sent two missi to negotiate with Pepin in 760.3.Bachrach, Carolingian Warfare, p.22 and p.222. As the state evolved and the administrative demands became more detailed, Charles took the old idea of the king’s representative and expanded its use.

Now the missi dominici would be used to enforce laws and edicts inside the realm, as well as externally. Charles selected leading men, although “To a large extent the king also looked to the clergy, the higher clergy in particular, for his missi dominici.”4.Ganshof, Carolingians and the Frankish Monarchy, p.206. He entrusted them with written copies of his laws and capitularies, and sent them out to do the king’s work. The missi were sent to areas other than ones under their domain, both so as to reduce the possibilities of nepotism and favoritism, and to spread new ideas. The territory for which a missus was responsible was called the missaticum. There was always a wide variety of instructions to fulfill, and information to return.

For example, Charles had instituted a loyalty oath in 793 for all his people, and wanted the missi to report on how many people had or had not taken the oath. In addition, the missi were reminded that all other oaths were forbidden. In other years there were many exhortations to the clergy on the requirements of their office, and how fornication really was forbidden. At one point counts were required to list all of the acts of rebellion that had occurred in their jurisdiction. The missi had to report on the condition of all the benefices held of the king in their missaticum. They had to make a record all of the public pronouncements they made, and all the interventions and decisions they made.5.Ganshof, Carolingians and the Frankish Monarchy, pp.127-132.

That kind of effort could not be sustained without some kind of material assistance, as noted in the Capitulary de Villis from the end of the eighth century. “And the count in his district, or the men whose traditional custom it has been to look after our missi and their retinues, shall continue, as they have done in the past, to provide them with pack-horses and other necessities, so that they may travel to and from the palace with ease and dignity.”6.Loyn and Percival, Reign of Charlemagne, Capitulary de Villis, ch.27, p.68.

Charles recognized, much as the earlier kings had, that royal representatives could be a material burden on the local populace, and encouraged his missi not to prolong their stays, particularly with an extensive retinue.

Unfortunately, ad hoc and inherently personal methods of judgement and enforcement like the missi dominici are temptations in waiting. Charles recognized this as time went on. In his General Capitualry for the missi of 802, he pointedly reminded his emissaries that “the justices should give right judgement according to the written law, and not according to their private opinions.”7.Loyn and Percival, Reign of Charlemagne, General capitulary for the missi, ch.26, p.76.

Bribery was a greater concern. “Theodulf of Orleans has described in detail how, after he had been appointed a missus, both magnates and lowly people, as was their custom on such occasions, approached him with a veritable flood of presents. These bribes ranged from rare objects of art, fit to delight the eye of a connoisseur, to modes offerings such as linen cloth, a beret or a pair of shoes, which peasants could afford.”8.Fichtenau, Carolingian Empire, p.115. In recognition of this pernicious influence, Charlemagne restricted the appointment of poorer vassals as missi, as they would be more susceptible to bribes.

The missi dominici were an attempt to regularize administration throughout the Carolingian kingdom. Charles used the most modern and rapid form of communication available, namely a literate man with written instructions, riding a horse, to extend his vision and authority to all members of society. To a certain extent, it worked, as later capitularies extended the laws and decrees to be covered by the missi. But those same capitularies also reveal the failures of the method, as Charles was forced to repeatedly prohibit the magnates from stealing land from the poor, for example. His reach, unfortunately, literally exceeded his grasp.9.Also summarized in Ganshof, Frankish Institutions, p.26.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Ganshof, Frankish Institutions, p.23.
2. Fictenau, Carolingian Empire, p.107. Unfortunately I have not been able to find anything on the earliest references to the the missi.
3. Bachrach, Carolingian Warfare, p.22 and p.222.
4. Ganshof, Carolingians and the Frankish Monarchy, p.206.
5. Ganshof, Carolingians and the Frankish Monarchy, pp.127-132.
6. Loyn and Percival, Reign of Charlemagne, Capitulary de Villis, ch.27, p.68.
7. Loyn and Percival, Reign of Charlemagne, General capitulary for the missi, ch.26, p.76.
8. Fichtenau, Carolingian Empire, p.115.
9. Also summarized in Ganshof, Frankish Institutions, p.26.

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