Carolingian royal charters

Geoffrey Koziol has made me think again. His second of two articles in Early Medieval Europe last year, more or less incidentally, has some stuff to say about the nature of the Carolingian royal charter in that family’s declining years, and I can’t work out why I don’t agree with it.1

The Carolingians, like any other kings, made grants to those they held in favour, by which their loyalty was hopefully rewarded and ensured. Sometimes these were only confirmations of previous grants, and these represent (I think we all agree) expressions of a connection rather than an actual material gift, because nothing new actually moves from one to t’other (and Matthew Innes would tell me that nothing but revenues ever really does change hands, but that’s another story). By confirming an old gift the king gets to reassert his patronage of the recipient, and the recipient gets to show off that he has a current and active connection to the king, with not only the material profit that this may represent but also the connections to power that this gives him which makes him sought-after as an intermediary and so on. This is how the whole deal works, and how centre holds edge and so on.

The thing that Koziol says that I baulk at is that other royal charters were also like this. Obviously any transaction with a king can carry these messages, and to that extent he’s right, but there are some important aspects missing from such a picture, or so it seems to me.

The first of these is that recent scholarship is pretty much establishing that these documents have to be requested: that is, the lead is with the recipient not the donor.2 We know this partly because the recipient appears to often be heavily involved in the drafting, which with confirmations frequently reuses the text of the old documents, but also just because study of the break-up of the Carolingian (or any other) Empire shows one the opposite case, when the magnates no longer come to court because the king has nothing to offer them, whether that’s in terms of actual wealth as in the old-fashioned view,3 or in terms of patronage as described above.4 Koziol knows this, it is clear that he does, but he is still trying to show strategies of royal patronage from the use of these documents, when as he admits we don’t have enough survival to be sure of a representative sample (p. 375), and when the king can only award such a document if he is asked. When Koziol shows us magnates not being seen at court, therefore, we need to ask whose the initiative was, and not less important, what it was that King Charles the Simple, not the most well-equipped of Carolingians, had to offer that made them try to come back.

Signature of Charles the Simple from a diploma to the Catalan nunnery of Sant Joan de Ripoll, 898

This is the second problem I have. These documents at least purport to convey actual property. I realise that there are certainly instances where this is not the case—working on Catalonia, where the Frankish kings aren’t seen after 829, where succession to the counties was hereditary after 878, and where nonetheless numerous royal grants are made right up until 986, of course I do—and in these, yes, and in confirmations, the power of connection may be all that is left in the awards, but when this is not the case there is the potential for important riches, that radically alter the recipient’s standing, to be changing hands. And Koziol knows this too, because he interprets events in the light of such properties’ significance, both ideological and military-political; it matters who now holds what, and when he says that Charles the Simple hoped to acquire resources to reward followers with when he acquired Lotharingia (which he does say, p. 363), he acknowledges that royal gifts had a material significance.

Nonetheless, I am very familiar with charters that have no material content that can be true, with the idea that an account of the Carolingian collapse that bases itself solely on material resources is prone to collapse, and with the value of personal connections in distributing power, so I am not fully able to explain why Koziol’s assertions don’t sit right with me, and can only say: I’m sure it wasn’t quite like that…

1. Geoffrey Koziol, “Charles the Simple, Robert of Neustria, and the vexilla of Saint-Denis” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 14 (Oxford 2006), pp. 355–390, at p. 375.

2. Mark Mersiowsky, “Towards a Reappraisal of Carolingian Sovereign Charters” in Karl Heidecker (ed.), Charters and the Use of the Written Word in Medieval Society, Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy 5 (Turnhout 2000), pp. 15-25.

3. E. g. C. Previté-Orton, The Shorter Cambridge Medieval History Volume I: the later Roman Empire to the twelfth century (Cambridge 1952) pp. 334-335.

4. I should of course have read Professor Koziol’s book, Begging Pardon and Favor: Ritual and Political Order in Early Medieval France (Ithaca 1992), where I imagine I might find this more worked out, and it is on the list, but meanwhile, cf. Matthew Innes, State and Society in the Early Middle Ages: the middle Rhine valley 400-1000, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 47 (Cambridge 2000), esp. pp. 68-93, and idem, “People, Places and Power in Carolingian Society” in M. de Jong & F. Theuws with C. van Rhijn (edd.), Topographies of Power in the Middle Ages, The Transformation of the Roman World 6 (Leiden 2001), pp. 397-407.


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