Much like a corporate all-hands meeting at the beginning of the first quarter, or the sports team gathering before the start of training camp, so the Carolingians wanted everyone notable to assemble as the campaign season began. What were these assemblies, who attended, what function did they serve, and when did they occur? Who knows?
Fortunately one historian did a lot of work describing Frankish governmental institutions. Francois Louis Ganshof was a Belgian historian who died in 1980. Several of his most influential works have been translated into English, and those are my principal sources for what follows. He called the yearly assembly “one of the central institutions of the monarchy.”1.Ganshof, Frankish Institutions Under Charlemagne, p.21.
The idea of a spring gathering goes back at least to the Merovingians, although details are sketchy (or I am sketchy on the details, which is far more likely). These yearly gatherings went by many names, including “synodus, conventus, generalis conventus or generalis populi sui conventus, and placitum, often accompanied by the possessive suum or nostrum, or even placitum generale.”2.Ganshof, Frankish Institutions Under Charlemagne, p.21. Fredegar provides the example of King Pepin who in 754 “summoned all his Franks to meet him on 1 March (the customer Frankish date)”,3.Fredegar, ch.37, p.105. The parentheses are part of the original. which is why you’ll sometimes hear reference to a “marchfield”. But Pepin began holding the assembly in May as well, when it became known as the magiscampus. Theophanes the Greek, in his description of the Merovingian kings, says that the king “passed his time at home, but on May 1 he sat before the entire tribe, bowed low to them and was bowed to by them, was brought the customer gifts and gave them in return, and then lived by himself until the next May.”4.Theophanes, Annus Mundi 6216, p.94. Eventually it bounced back and forth between March and May, depending exigencies.
These assemblies were for the purpose of advising the king on matters of the realm. The attendees at these assemblies were not the common people, but “consisting mainly of bishops, abbots, counts and important royal vassals.”5.Ganshof, Carolingians and the Frankish Monarchy, p.264. These notables were selected for their influence, knowledge, experience, and authority, but they attended to be asked for their advice. The assembly was strictly a consultative body, and the king made all of the decisions.
A lot of times the assemblies were military, and were called to bring the army together as the campaign season began. But they also served administrative and religious functions. The Capitulary of Herstal was issued in 779 to address the terrible confusion and upset that roiled the realm in 778.
There was an assembly at Paderborn in 777, which set the stage for some of the upset the following year. Several delegates from the Muslim Abbasid caliphate arrived to present themselves to Charles, and ask for his help against their Umayyad enemies in the Muslim civil war. The arrival of a foreign delegation during the assembly was not an uncommon occurrence. Sometimes the king might arrange for a delegation to arrive during the assembly, both to impress the ambassadors and the locals, as well as to have the most seasoned advisers on hand to discuss the possibilities. The foreign delegation sometimes planned on arriving during the assembly, so that they would have access to as many nobles as possible.6.Ganshof, Carolingians and the Frankish Monarchy, p.163.
There was another council that met to assist the king, prior to the full assembly. This council was “a special court (placitum), attended only by his most important court advisers (praecipuii consiliarii) and by a small selection of very important seniores drawn to the court from outside the regular palace staff.”7.Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, p.202. The fact that two such distinguished scholars as Ganshof and Bachrach might draw different conclusions from the same word, placitum, should give you an idea of the fragmentary nature of the sources around this topic.
The best that we can say is that there was usually an assembly every year, and probably an additional, smaller council. The assemblies were primarily concerned with military matters, although other religious, legal, and administrative concerns also were discussed. Foreign delegations were received. The army was mustered. And the king held sway over all.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1, 2.||↑||Ganshof, Frankish Institutions Under Charlemagne, p.21.|
|3.||↑||Fredegar, ch.37, p.105. The parentheses are part of the original.|
|4.||↑||Theophanes, Annus Mundi 6216, p.94.|
|5.||↑||Ganshof, Carolingians and the Frankish Monarchy, p.264.|
|6.||↑||Ganshof, Carolingians and the Frankish Monarchy, p.163.|
|7.||↑||Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare, p.202.|