chapter  I
12 Pages


The immense territory of the Empire, stretching from the marches of the Elbe and the Danube to the march of the Ebro in Spain and the Papal possessions in Italy, had none of the essential characteristics of a State. The Merovingian kingdom did at least endeavour to establish itself on the basis of the Roman institutions. However crude its organization, its administrative absolutism was, after all, a political system. We shall seek in vain for anything of the kind in the Carolingian monarchy. Here all seems incoherent. The power of the sovereign, which should have set the whole mechanism in motion, was not able to impose itself sufficiently. Obliged to reckon with the aristocracy to whom they owed their crown, Pippin the Short and Charlemagne could not refuse it a place in the government. The magnates of the kingdom deliberated with them, assembling at court in a conventus at the feasts of Christmas and Easter. But what were the competences and what the attributes of these councillors? They were as vague and unsettled as the very composition of their assemblies; aggregations of ecclesiastics and laymen who, without title or mandate, were considered as representing the people. Lex fit consensu populi et constitutione regis, says a capitulary; the law is made by the assent of the people and the king’s constitution. A fine formula, but actually devoid of meaning. As a matter of fact, many of the capitularies were never submitted to the assemblies, and in the case of those that were submitted to them we do not know what part the assemblies played in the matter. Nothing could be less deserving of the name of laws than these capitularies, a heterogeneous mass of administrative decisions, regulations, statements of principles, emergency measures, or perpetual edicts; and in most cases we do not know whether they were ever put into force, nor whether they related to the whole Empire or merely to one of its regions. Moreover, they are full of contradictions, and we never know whether the later texts abrogate the earlier ones, or whether we should seek as far as possible to reconcile them. The general impression emerging from this confusion is that of a royal will, ardently desirous of good, eager for progress, order and justice, and endeavouring, without success, to realize them. As manifested and expressed in these documents, the royal power seems that of an absolute sovereign, but of one whose absolutism is doubly limited. It is limited, in the first place, by Christian morality, and it accepts this limitation. It is limited further by the necessity of avoiding anything that will displease the aristocracy, and to this limitation it submits. It is evident that in his heart the Carolingian Emperor felt responsible only to God, and that if he tolerated the intervention

of the magnates it was because he could not do otherwise. Between him and the magnates with whom he took counsel there had been from the beginning a lack of confidence, and before long their relations were vitiated by a lack of good faith. In short, we may say that the Carolingian constitution was based on a disagreement. The two forces that seemed to be in alliance were in reality two adversaries.