Kingship and Politics in the Late Ninth Century: Charles the Fat and the End of the Carolingian Empire

By Simon Maclean | Go to book overview

Chapter 3
THE MEN WHO WOULD BE KINGS: THE
‘SUPERMAGNATES’ AND THE ‘RISE OF
THE ARISTOCRACY’

In the year 880, the four surviving Carolingian rulers met at Vienne to draw a line under the revolt of Boso and to seal a succession and division treaty which led to a period of renewed concord in the royal dynasty1 One of their more specific goals was to make kingship more accessible to the nobility of Lotharingia, the symbolically and strategically important central Frankish realm which had been thrown into renewed turmoil by the events of 879. In this aim, the Vienne treaty was broadly similar to most other Carolingian family settlements. The point of subkingship, for example, was not only to keep junior members of the royal house happy by allowing them a tangible share in power, but also to give provincial aristocracies their ‘own’ king, who would often be married into a local family of note.2 A nearby royal court was less a hindrance than a potential source of opportunity for regional aristocrats, serving as a source of offices which would help them entrench their local standing, and as a doorway leading onto the grander stage of imperial politics.3 Equally, the Carolingians, lacking the institutions of the decayed Roman state, needed members of the aristocracy, whose power was rooted in control of land, to act as the means of transposing their authority from the palace to the localities. Those with access to royal ears, moreover, were less likely to join rebellions: inclusiveness, not keeping the magnates at arm’s length, was the essential (if difficult) task of ninth-century kingship. In other words, Carolingian kingship was, from the very beginning, predicated on a close alliance between royal and aristocratic power: the relationship between the two was symbiotic.4

This perspective on the workings of Carolingian politics is now becoming the orthodoxy among historians of the period. However, as outlined

1 See above, pp. 21–2.

2 See now Kasten, Königssöhne und Königsherrschaft.

3 Airlie, ‘The Palace of Memory’.

4 As stressed many years ago by K. F Werner: ‘Untersuchungen zur Frühzeit des französischen Fürstentums (9.–10. Jahrhundert)’, Die Welt als Geschichte 18 (1958), 256–89 (parts I–III); 19 (1959), 146–93 (part IV); 20 (1960), 87–119 (parts V–VI), esp. I; and also his ‘Important Noble Families in the Kingdom of Charlemagne’.

-48-

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