January 05, 2010

King of the Franks

As a child fascinated by history one of my passtimes was to learn the names and dates of the English Kings- at one point I was perfectly able to recite them back to Alfred, now unfortunately I can only manage that feat going back to William the Conqueror. One of the things though that as a child I did not realise was how fluid the concept of a medieval king could be. Consider for a moment the Kingship of the Franks. Almost everyone will tell you that the first dynasty who ruled the Franks were the Merovingians and the second were the Carolingians- a dynasty begun when Pippin III seized the crown of the Franks in 751 and continued by his descendents, most notably Charlemagne and Louis the Pious. Pippin seized the crown from his position as Mayor of the Palace- a position held by his own family since the 7th Century. The list of Frankish Kings therefore switches neatly from Childeric III, the last Merovingian, to Pippin III the first Carolingian.

Actually that neat switch doesn't really represent what happened. The English Missionary Boniface of Mainz said in his early 8th Century letter collection that he was under the protection of Charles Martel (the Carolingian Mayor), and referred to Charles and Pippin III as patricius, dux francorum and princeps. Pope Gregory III in a letter to Boniface described Charles Martel as princeps francorum. Three papal letters referred to Charles as subregulus (under king). There are more charters from the Carolingians for the early 8th Century than from the Merovingians or any other Frankish family and Martel appears to have established a relationship with the royal monastery at St Denis. Furthermore the Mayors appear to have taken over in the early 8th Century the function of minting coinage. As Professor McKitterick (to whose analysis I'm indebted) argues the evidence suggests that by 751 Mayors of the Palace enjoyed a power equivalent to that of Kings. What we need to recognise is that this authority was slowly built up and overtook the authority of the Merovingians such that the events of 751 could happen, McKitterick argues that what happened was that the Carolingians acquired the history and customs of the Merovingian crown- they stepped into its shoes much as say Theodoric attempted in Italy to step into the shoes of the later Roman Emperors.

One indication that this was a process rather than an event- a growth rather than a sudden deposition- is that we don't know very much about what actually happened in 751. The deposition itself may have taken place over several years, from 750 (the first date given by a Chronicle) to 753-4, and the visit of Pope Stephen and crowning of Pippin's two sons, Carloman and Charlemagne. Later Carolingian accounts from sources like Einhard stressed the continuity of rule between the two dynasties and not the separation of the two: this was not a new order, but a renewal of the old. What is interesting about this is the modern model whereby authority is discreet and distinct does not apply to eighth century France- for a while authority was shared between the Carolingian and Merovingian dynasties. Furthermore it suggests the conservatism of the political culture- in the sense that the Carolingians were keen to stress their continuity- but also its incipient radicalism, the structures of French kingship really did evolve during the early eighth century as power transferred.

Perhaps one of the little appreciated truths about modern history, whenever that started, is that the intermediate steps, the intermediate definitions of sovereignty (such as the Carolingian mayoralty) do not really exist. One of the reasons it is hard to imagine ourselves back into the early Medieval period is that we imagine authority is what it is today- with one Prime Minister leaving and another taking over- such images may not help us when we come to analyse earlier periods.


James Higham said...

at one point I was perfectly able to recite them back to Alfred, now unfortunately I can only manage that feat going back to William the Conqueror.

A little bit like sex, yes?