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  • Print publication year: 2016
  • Online publication date: February 2016




I now turn away from the problems of law and ethnicity towards those of law and kingship. I examine the principal sources for early Carolingian kings’ engagement with the leges, that is the capitularies that added to them (this chapter), the manuscripts that have been associated with their efforts to disseminate them (Chapter 4), and the revised texts of the leges that have been associated with their courts (Chapter 5). Arguments concerning the relationship between legal text and practice are also developed further in this chapter, and in Chapter 4. First I provide an extended introduction to the final three chapters, covering some central points in the historiography, and examining some Carolingian texts concerning rulership.

The relationship between the ideology of rulership and the making of law was already prominent in Ewig's work in the 1950s, before receiving the most thorough treatment in Nelson's and Wormald's work from the 1970s and 80s onwards. A central message in this scholarship is that legislation, and other forms of engagement with legal texts, including revision and compilation, made a very deliberate statement about the power and authority of a king or emperor. The historical and cultural resonances of legislation need to be appreciated in the context of the symbolic display of power, and the underlying link was with the Christian Roman emperors.

The relationship between kingship and legislation in the Carolingian period has also been put on a more concrete level and linked with a narrative of state building, often involving its eventual failure. Thus Carolingian kings in their capitularies aspired to build a state founded on a defined, authoritative, literate, ‘objective’ legal system, controlled by royal authority, which turned out, after some moderate success under Charlemagne, to be ahead of its time, simply not manageable because of entrenched private aristocratic opposition. After Charlemagne's death, decadence set in, and with the disruption associated with the Viking invasions, private began to eclipse public, and public law was eclipsed by force. Wormald's view was subtle, but at its centre lay a careful reworking of such an argument. The Carolingian kings tried hard, inspired by the Roman example, to build a working system of literate law, but simply could not persuade their aristocracy to apply it. Counter-arguments to Wormald have emphasised different evidence, but have tended to work within the same framework.