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 4
ROYAL POLITICS AND REGIONAL
POWER IN THE LATE
CAROLINGIAN EMPIRE

In the last chapter the case was made that Charles the Fat ruled the empire in much the same way as had his predecessors. However, this observation cannot hide the fact that there was one major difference between the empire of Charlemagne and that of his great-grandson: its political geography. For generations the mental landscape of the Frankish elite had been dominated by political centres in Francia, the middle Rhine, northern Italy and eastern Bavaria, those regions where the Carolingians were best endowed with palaces and estates. Under Charles the Fat, thanks to a series of dynastic accidents, the traditional order of things was turned on its head. His home regnum of Alemannia was very much a political backwater in Carolingian terms. Although other fringe zones such as Provence and Aquitaine had historically hosted resident royal courts, that had been in times of Carolingian numerical strength. Charles never visited Aachen, the old seat of Charlemagne and Louis the Pious, and ruled from Alemannia during a period of dwindling numbers of kings: after 884, it became, along with northern Italy, the centre of the empire. The marchio, a type of regional middle-man who under Charlemagne had been mainly deployed in less-visited frontier regions such as Bavaria, now became a key player in what had previously been the heart of the empire. The political core had become peripheral, and the periphery had become the core.1

These developments inevitably had an effect on patterns of power within the aristocracy, upon whose cooperation early medieval kings were ultimately reliant. The Carolingian empire was not directly equivalent to entities like the British empire in the sense of having a fixed political centre whose operation was geared to managing and exploiting the peripheral colonies. Rather, it was made up of an agglomeration of regna, each with its own self-conscious political communities and local traditions. Members of all these communities, especially those whose families held

1 The pioneering study of central and peripheral zones in early medieval kingdoms was E. MüllerMertens, Die Reichsstruktur im Spiegel der Herrschaftspraxis Ottos der Großen (Berlin, 1980).

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