We saw in the previous chapter that it is possible to say a surprising amount about the nature and dynamics of peasant life and rural society in the Carolingian age. Yet social class is relative, and it is not possible to study the poor and the powerless without discussing their relationship with the social elite. This is especially so when dealing with a world where power depended ultimately on control over land (see Map 8), and where much of what we know about the lower orders comes to us in texts written by and for members of a landed aristocracy. Although they made up only a very small percentage of the population, wealthy aristocrats’ ability to leave a lasting mark on the written record means that they loom disproportionately large in our sources. Yet their impact on contemporary politics and society was also disproportionate, meaning that the study of elite society opens up to us a wide window onto various important aspects of the Carolingian world.
While the existence of an elite grouping that we can call aristocratic is clear from even the most perfunctory reading of the Carolingian sources, attempts to understand the workings of aristocratic society and the nature of aristocratic power have consistently proved controversial. For much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, historical research concentrated on the formal identification of this elite, focussing on questions of its origins, continuity, and definition, and as a result anxiously debating the appropriateness or not of the terminology of ‘nobility’ and ‘aristocracy’. Such scholarship privileged certain questions: what was the relationship between early medieval elites and their predecessors, the ruling classes of the Roman empire and its barbarian neighbours? What effect did the rise and then fall of the Carolingians have on the great families of the Frankish world? To what extent did these families form a closed, separate caste, possessing a special legal status and even rights to rule which were in origin independent of kings? And to what extent did they survive the demise of the Carolingians with their social position intact? These issues made sense in a Europe where the fabric of the ancien régime, with its formal structures of noble privilege, was still fresh in the memory.