Charlemagne's administration and Carolingian law

The Carolingian dynasty spanned more than two centuries, from 751 until the 10th century. Among the kings who compose it, Charlemagne (768-814) laid the foundations for a administration and a new internal policy, which will allow him to best control his vast empire. Between supplementary institutions and new distributions of "roles", the foundations of the modern state are unveiling their first stones.

Enlargement of the empire: the army made by the host

Shortly after his accession to the throne in 768, then definitively in 771, Charlemagne embarked on vast campaigns of conquest. Gradually its territory grows in importance and becomes more and more complicated to manage. The Carolingian sovereign then set up a number of institutions and relay points for his power in the different parts of his empire. Who says wars, says soldiers. Military conflict is hungry for men, like an insatiable monstrous beast. The ost service takes on another dimension. Derived from Latin hostis [1], the meaning of the term "ost" varied throughout the Middle Ages. It could have designated an armed troop, a military expedition, a war service or finally a tax aimed at compensating for the war service by a payment in kind and / or in goods. Charlemagne carried the war further and further. We hardly clash between provinces anymore, now we go to face the Saxons, the Saracens or the Avars. The war is slowly beginning to be exported beyond its own territory.

The hostage service - which previously concerned mostly a wealthier class going to war with honor - is becoming increasingly heavy and crushing small peasants who seek to escape at all costs. The clashes pull him out of his field, most of the fighting is carried out in summer. Since the armaments are at the expense of the soldier, the poor are excluded from the fighting and must pay an alternative tax. In order to recruit as many individuals as possible, the sovereign distributes the military charge according to the fortunes of the free men. Charlemagne tries to enlarge his army and if the peasant-soldier does not have the means to arm himself, he pays by associating, therefore, he contributes all the same - indirectly - to the war. holder of four manses[2] at least is required to serve with his equipment. The holder of three manses is then associated with the holder of only one manse so that one of the two can go on campaign. Note that failure to call is punished with a very heavy fine, deserters are executed.

After the conquest, Charlemagne organized his administration

From the Carolingian Empire, once a territory is conquered, it takes the name of "march" and follows a precise organization that responds to a jurisdiction established by the sovereign himself. The "marches" form the military borders of the empire, serving as a sort of "buffer state". Command is entrusted to officers who combine civil and military powers and receive the title of dux or from marchio[3]. The Carolingian Empire then included a number of marches, such as the march of Saxony, Bavaria, Brittany - entrusted to Roland - the Nordmark, the Ostmark ... Each of these "states within the state" experienced stormy periods when the count de la marche tries to consolidate its authority a little more. Between 791 and 802, Charlemagne's son Louis took advantage of the unrest in the Cordoba emirate and headed straight for Barcelona in 801, which he subsequently entrusted to Count Bera.

As a result, he formed the Spanish March which protected the Carolingian kingdom from its adversaries in the south. In these new conquered areas, there is a cultural mix between the Carolingian Franks and the subjugated peoples. Thus, these marches are a symbol of influence and cultural influence on the rest of Europe.

Delegation of power

At the center of the Empire is the Palace, which served both as the Emperor's residence and as the central government. For political and economic reasons, Charlemagne long remained an itinerant ruler, following in the tradition of his ancestors. In 794, he had a sumptuous palace built in Aix-la-Chapelle, where he spent the last years of his reign. It is from the Palace that important decisions emanate. In the very center of the Palace stands the chancellery which brings together the notaries who formulate the capitularies, letters or other decisions taken by the sovereign.

The local administration is however delegated to the counts who receive the delegation of public power through what is called the ban. Originally, the ban represents the command power of the warlord in Germanic societies. Together with barbarian monarchies, this formed the basis of royal authority. The ban then represents the power to constrain and to punish, held only by the sovereign. Charlemagne extends its meaning and widens it to the extreme. Now any breach of public order can be severely reprimanded. The counts are the direct representatives of the king and “inherit” in a way this right. Later, many local agents will claim to have the ban, which will contribute - in part - to the collapse of royal authority to the benefit of local notables.

The organization of justice and Carolingian law

Charlemagne wanted to impose on his empire and his subjects a specific framework that applied to everyone. Thus, it sets up a monitoring system for the counts: the missi dominici. These "sovereign envoys" are responsible for inspecting the government of the counts. This sort of judicial commissioner had already existed since the Merovingian era. But it was Charlemagne who organized them around 780, then definitively after his coronation in 800. Chosen each year among rich palatins [4], they are always sent in pairs - a clergyman and a layman - to the so-called inspection regions missatica. Four "tours" are carried out each year [5]. The missi dominici are then the direct and absolute representatives of the emperor and can judge the most important court cases in the last resort. Their role is vast: they can control the collection of taxes, check the condition of the roads, the royal domain ... In the event of non-compliance with the law, they have the right to punish negligent officials. In addition, to better control the actions of the counts, Charlemagne reformed the judicial system and appointed associate judges - the aldermen - which he enjoins on the counts. Private revenge - the faides - once very popular, are now prohibited.

Charlemagne enacts a number of laws and especially a number of Chapter members. These legislative acts are divided into small chapters called capitularia. The capitular imposes in clear and concise terms everything to which the subjects of the kingdom and the empire must submit. It is also a precise means of writing down in writing the laws that will prove to be Charlemagne's main means of government: the verbum regis.

The mode of operation of the counts and the auxiliary institutions

The territory of the Carolingian Empire is evenly divided into counties or pagi[6]. They are more extensive in the north and smaller in the south, where they are modeled on the old cities. At their head are the counts. Each county is subdivided into lookouts or hundreds, at the head of which the count is represented by a viguier or a centurion. State officials, counts are appointed by the emperor, removed and dismissed at his own will. The latter are remunerated by a land grant - honor, res of comitatu - and a share of justice revenues. As a direct representative of the sovereign in the full extent of his power, they can act in many areas. Their primary role is to enforce imperial decisions, but they can also assemble the ost, collect direct revenues and preside over the sessions of a public court or mallus. The mall is formed by a group of free men from the county and is responsible for administering justice. This assembly meets in periodic sessions. The count then surrounds himself with specialized judges - the scabini - to whom he orders to say the right.

Anxious to create personal links between himself and his subjects, Charles decided in 789 and then in 792 to submit all free men to an oath of loyalty. The practice of the oath aims to give both a visible and personal form of the submission and loyalty due to the sovereign. Moreover, Charlemagne makes all the counts of his kingdom enter his vassalage. Thus, in addition to a natural fidelity due to his sovereign, the count is responsible for a very personal, more restrictive fidelity, which compensates for the concession of a benefit.

Taken one by one, all of these auxiliary institutions do not seem to have much influence on the way of governing. But put together, they form a powerful tool of control, entirely turned towards the sovereign.

Charlemagne was able to put in place a strong administration which made it possible to accompany the expansion of the empire, while structuring it. From the way to govern to the tools to do so, Charlemagne laid the foundations for a revolutionary administrative system for the 8th and 9th centuries.


- By georges Minois, Charlemagne, Editions Perrin, March 2010.

- History of the Carolingians. 8th-10th century, by Marie-celine Isaia. History points, 2014.

[1] Enemies.

[2] Small farm which mostly contains a basic cottage, an orchard in the best case and arable land.

[3] Marquis.

[4] According to Larousse : « Said to be of a lord in charge of some offices in the palace of a sovereign in the Carolingian Empire and the Holy Empire ".

[5] January, April, July and October.

[6] It is estimated that there are 250 to 400.

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