Except as otherwise noted, quoted passages are from “A History of Medieval Europe: From Constantine to Saint Louis (3rd Edition)”, by R.H.C. Davis.
The history of the early Middle Ages is a history of “personal law” and something resembling panarchism. Law was “old” and “good.” It was based on custom, almost always passed along by oral tradition and only in the later period were portions written or otherwise documented. This custom was inherently different within each of the different Germanic tribes that came to populate central and western Europe during and after the downfall of Rome – hence, “personal law,” and a rough form of panarchy.
Louis the Pious attempted to change all of that, by building on the accomplishments of his father, Charlemagne, the “Father of Europe”:
Charlemagne; (c. 742 – January 28, 814 at Aachen), also known as Charles the Great (Latin: Carolus Magnus or Karolus Magnus; German: Karl der Grosse) or Charles I, was the founder of the Carolingian Empire, reigning from 768 until his death. He expanded the Frankish kingdom, adding Italy, subduing the Saxons and Bavarians, and pushed his frontier into Spain. The oldest son of Pepin the Short and Bertrada of Laon, Charlemagne was the first Emperor in Western Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire three centuries earlier.
Becoming King of the Franks in 768 following the death of his father, Charlemagne was initially co-ruler with his brother Carloman I. Carloman I's sudden death in 771 under unexplained circumstances left Charlemagne as the undisputed ruler of the Frankish Kingdom. Through his military conquests, he expanded his kingdom into an empire that incorporated much of Western and Central Europe.
Charlemagne continued his father's policy towards the papacy and became its protector, removing the Lombards from power in Italy, and leading an incursion into Muslim Spain. He also campaigned against the peoples to his east, forcibly Christianizing them along the way (especially the Saxons), eventually subjecting them to his rule after a protracted war. Charlemagne reached the height of his power in 800 when he was crowned as "Emperor" by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day.
Called the "Father of Europe" (pater Europae), Charlemagne's empire united most of Western Europe for the first time since the Roman Empire. His rule spurred the Carolingian Renaissance, a revival of art, religion, and culture through the medium of the Catholic Church. Through his foreign conquests and internal reforms, Charlemagne encouraged the formation of a common European identity. Both the French and German monarchies considered their kingdoms to be descendants of Charlemagne's empire.
Charlemagne died in 814 after having ruled as Emperor for just over thirteen years. He was laid to rest in his imperial capital of Aachen. His son Louis the Pious succeeded him as Emperor.
Louis, under the guidance of the monk St. Benedict of Aniane, set upon himself the task of reforming his father’s empire on Christian principles. These reforms included many decrees that might be seen as “puritan,” but Louis’ dream did not end here:
He thought that the subjects of the Empire should be regarded not as an aggregation of Franks, Lombards, and numberless other different peoples, but as one single body; and that in place of the legal labyrinth created by the system of “personal law”, whereby everyone retained as his birthright the law of his own people, there should be a single and universal code. As Agobard, Archbishop of Lyons, put it in a famous letter:
There is now neither Gentile nor Jew, Scythian nor Aquitanian, not Lombard, nor Burgundian, nor Alaman, nor bond, nor free. All are one in Christ…. Can it be accepted that, opposed to this unity which is the work of God, there should be an obstacle in the diversity of laws [used] in one and the same country, in one and the same city, and in one and the same house?
It should be noted that this desire for the legal reach of the Empire was not limited to large regions, smaller regions, or even cities. The objective was also to ensure the law in each house was also uniform, and in accordance with the wishes of the emperor.
Whereas Charlemagne held several titles – a different title for each region within his empire, thus recognizing and respecting the power of tribe – Louis began his march toward conformity by eliminating these distinctions, taking one title for the one, uniform authority to be held.
Such changes make it clear that what Louis wanted was an empire which was an entity in itself, with one ruler, one people, and one law. But the difficulty was that it would have been impossible to abolish all the separate ‘national’ laws at a stroke. No king or emperor could have done so, because every ‘nation’ regarded its law as its birthright and would have fought to preserve it. The most that could be done was to issue capitularies which added new regulations to the existing laws….
The largest obstacle facing Louis was in preserving the territorial unity of the Empire. There were several issues in this regard. One difficulty was logistical. The king, requiring approval of his vassals to rule, had to be able to demonstrate his ability to provide for defense – to keep his oath. This was easier to do in a smaller territory than in a larger one, where vassals would more easily support kings who were relatively closer and with whom there was a familiarity that bred confidence and trust.
Second was legal and political:
A king could only command his subjects to perform those services to which they had always been liable, and a lord could only expect customary services from his vassals. He had no right to invent new duties, and his subjects or vassals would not perform them, unless they had voluntarily given their consent. A king who wanted to increase taxation, lengthen army service, or impose additional duties such as the building or garrisoning of fortresses [needed in a large kingdom, and not previously required in a smaller one] had therefore to convince his subjects that it was worth their while to perform these services….Consequently, everything favoured the rulers of smaller territories as against the rulers of vast empires.
Finally was the issue of divisible inheritance:
…the Franks had hitherto clung to the custom of their forefathers, and had accepted it as natural and right that, on the death of a king, the kingdom should be divided amongst his sons in equal portions. The practice had proved the ruin of the Merovingian monarchy, but it had not been abandoned by the Carolingians, because it was an integral part of Frankish law.
Consider this most powerful paragraph: a significant check on empire and on a dynastic kingdom was this law of inheritance. The inheritance was not for one son, but for all sons in equal portions. If one of the sons died (through natural, or other more sinister means), consolidation might be possible, but only until the next generation. The kingdom was divided geographically, continually renewing the decentralizing through each generation. In other words, there was a built-in mechanism was established in the law to help ensure power would continually be decentralized.
That this proved the end of the previous monarchical line – the Merovingian – did nothing to change the “old” and “good” law for the subsequent Carolingians. The law was supreme, even over the needs or desires of the monarch.
But this presented a problem for the current emperor:
…Louis the Pious had four sons…. Was he to observe Frankish law at the expense of dividing his Empire? Or was he to preserve the unity of the Christian people even at the expense of flouting the immemorial custom of his ancestors?
His father spent a lifetime consolidating the Christian empire – at the same time giving legitimacy and authority and receiving legitimacy and authority from the official Church. In 817, Louis was asked to clarify the manner by which he was going to provide for his sons:
Although this request was made faithfully and devoutly, it seemed to Us and to those who know what is wise, that the unity of the empire which God has entrusted to Us should not be rent by any human division, not even out of love or favour for Our sons, lest haply this should give rise to a scandalous state of affairs in Holy Church, and lest We should incur the displeasure of Him upon whose power the laws of all kingdoms depend.
It was an attempt to claim legitimacy through the Church. Louis was to make the younger sons, while kings, subordinate to Lothar, the eldest. This decision was not taken lightly by his fellow Franks; it disinherited the younger sons, who had committed no offense. This resulted in fratricidal strife and wars – not to win the other brother’s portion, but merely to keep their rights.
Through these wars, the principle of divisible inheritance was maintained. After Pepin, the second son died, the two younger brothers (Louis the German and Charles the Bald), united against Lothar and secured the division of the inheritance. Their first victory was at Fontenoy in 841, and the final victory secured by the Partition of Verdun in 843.
The empire was divided into three, and this was no small task. One hundred twenty commissioners were assigned to the task (forty representing each brother), and the main consideration was the relation of the countless vassals to each lord. While geographically the division lines are not ‘logical’ (rivers and other geographic features were not respected) on the basis of mediaeval law and custom, the relationships to lord were respected – in a sense, a kind of panarchy. No king should have vassals in the territory of his brother-kings.
Louis the German was to hold the easternmost portion, including Bavaria and Saxony, Charles the Bald the westernmost, basically modern-day France and northern Spain, with Lothar in the middle, stretching from Aachen and the coast in the north to Rome in the south.
A significant ceremony was performed in 842, cementing the bonds between the brothers Louis and Charles – and more importantly, demonstrating the power of the vassals and the power of the oath. Each brother took a solemn oath in front of the army of the other, and in the language of the other’s army – Louis, giving his oath in Old French, and Charles giving his oath in Old High German. The text of the oath is quite revealing on many points:
For the love of God and for the Christian people and for our common salvation, from this day forward, so long as God give me knowledge and power, I will help this my brother [both with my aid and everything] as by right one ought to help one’s brother, on condition that he does the same for me, and I will not hold any court with Lothar, which, of my own will, might cause [my brother] harm.
Then, the people of both armies took an oath:
If Louis [or Charles] observes the oath which he has sworn to his brother Charles [or Louis] and if Charles [or Louis], my lord on his part does not keep it, if I cannot turn him away (from his wickedness), neither I nor any of those whom I will have been able to turn away, will give him any help against Louis [or Charles].
Note that the vassals of Louis pledged to Charles that they will not support Louis if he breaks his oath (an act of “wickedness”) to Charles (and the other way around, of course)!
As the author, Davis, comments:
The text of these oaths is worthy of a detailed study by historians as well as by linguists, for it shows with utmost clarity that the only real basis of political power in the middle of the ninth century was the relationship between lord and vassal….the fact remained that the armies which took the oaths (and won the war) were vassalic armies.
The only way in which Charles or Louis could guarantee that his brother would observe the treaty was by gaining the co-operation of his brother’s vassals.
Ultimately, the dream of Louis the Pious came to naught, at least in the 9th century. The kingdom was divided into three, per customary law. Upon the death of Lothar, the oldest of the three brothers, in 855, his Middle Kingdom was divided in three portions to his sons. Eventually, this divided kingdom was divided between the two brothers, Charles and Louis, when Lothar II died without a son.
Even this passing did not happen without intrigue, and without the church and king supporting each other and therefore legitimizing each other. Lothar II, in desperation to father a child, sought the church’s blessing to get a divorce from his wife so he might marry another. The Pope, Nicholas I, denied this request, all the time fully supported by Charles and Louis – realizing if their nephew dies without heir, the Middle Kingdom would be partitioned between these two.
And with this partitioning comes the first rough edges of what eventually evolved into Germany and France – although there was no concept of such an idea at the time. These were merely the kingdoms of the Eastern and Western Franks, remaining with significant decentralized structures and decentralizing tendencies – legal, political, and logistical.
Panarchy – or at least something close to it.