The sixth installment of my series on the development of Christian Kingship, this time focusing on the early medieval period and the transition in the west from a Roman dominated Europe to a Germanic one and how German ideals of royal authority mingled with older regal traditions to produce a new concept of royal authority.
The German Influence
By the advent of the Carolingian era, a decisive shift had taken place in the power structure of the European continent: the supremacy of the Germans. German influence in European affairs was nothing new. Tribes such as the Vandals and Goths had wreaked havoc on the late Roman Empire; other Germanic tribes such as the Alemanni, Suebi and Cherusci had been known of since before the time of Julius Caesar. But by the time of the ascent of the Carolingian kingdom under Charlemagne, the Germans had gone from barbarian tribesmen on the outskirts of civilization to being the dominant force in the west. With the proclamation of a Frankish emperor in the year 800, Western Europe became decisively and irrevocably a German entity and fell out of Mediterranean/Byzantine sphere of influence permanently. This had been the trend for sometime; the advent of Charlemagne did not so much create this new political situation as much as it made manifest and permanent what was already becoming true.
With their advent, the Germans brought into Christian Europe new ideas about kingship and authority. These were to have a decisive impact on western Christianity and on the development of the Middle Ages in general. Earlier in this series, two prevailing ancient ideologies about power were elucidated: the eastern model, which viewed authority as arbitrary and coming immediately from the gods to the king, who sat at the top of a social pyramid; and the western model, which viewed authority as being a collective manifestation of the power of the people vested into one magistrate, who was accountable to the gods and to society for the way he used this power. How did the German concept of kingship fit into this design?
Though the Germans certainly represent a third element to this equation, as they were neither Mediterranean nor Middle Eastern, they tend to fall more in line with the western, Greco-Roman idea of power than with the eastern concepts. At first, this may seem a bit of a stretch; what does the Visigothic king of Asturias in the 6th century have in common with the Roman republican idealism of the pre-imperial period? On the surface there is not much in common, but the differences are only accidental. Though the culture of the Romans and Greeks varied greatly from the culture of the Germans, their conceptions of political authority do resemble one another. A brief look at the similarities of the Germanic and classical political ideologies will clarify this.
First and foremost, the Germans did not believe in any conception of a ruler wielding absolute power. Though they had a distaste for Roman law (Trial by Ordeal being their preferred method of jurisprudence), they had an equal distaste for the arbitrariness of eastern autocracy. The figure of the early German king is one shrouded in mystery. It is unknown how the Germans viewed their own rulers, but it was the Romans who first applied the word rex to the Germanic chieftains, finding no better terminology with which to classify them; lesser chieftains were called dux. The rex and dux seemed to have little coercive power originally.2
The authority of these chieftains came not by divine right, or even necessarily by birth right, but by merit on the battle field. Tacitus says in his Germania: “The authority of their kings [reges] is not unlimited or arbitrary; their generals [duces] control the people by example rather than command…”3 This is quite similar to early Greek and Roman notions of arête and virtus. A German tribal lord, a rex or dux, gained authority and notoriety by winning victories in battle. Based on his reputation, other warriors would either flock to his retinue or else desert him if they heard of some other lord more powerful. Their authority was by no means fixed, and could be supplanted by other lords. “A leader’s authority lasted only so long as his success in war.”4 In Roman times, whole tribes are known to have split and merged with other tribes in order to follow more promising leaders. This can be viewed as a kind of “election by migration.” Instead of an unhappy electorate voting out an unwanted magistrate (as in Rome and Greece), the disgruntled German electorate was content to leave the chief in place and simply remove themselves to another tribe!
When Germanic kingship is viewed as a kind of martial oligarchy, it is not difficult to find similarities between it and the ancient Greco-Roman systems. It is very likely that the German warlords of the late Roman period were driven by the same ideas of warrior-glory that motivated the early Greek warriors who were in turn inspired by the stories of their own legendary warrior lords, men such as Achilles and Diomedes. And were not the original ancestors of the Roman Senate said to be those patrician families who had won glory in war, such as the Brutii, Fabii and the Scipios?
The most important element in Germanic government was the king’s comitatus, the band of other war leaders that surrounded a chief. These war leaders were generally referred to as dux by the Roman authors. It was with the band of war leaders that the king made his deliberations and proposed courses of action. The king among the duces was a kind of first among equals. Though loyalty was given him by the comitatus only so long as his victory in war continued, once in battle this body proved fanatically faithful to their king. If a king or prominent war-chief were killed in battle, most of his comitatus would go down fighting with him. This was a matter of honor among the Germans.5 It is difficult to distinguish how the authority of the king and the other chieftains differed. Tacitus himself seems uncertain of the matter and sometimes uses the words rex and dux ambiguously. It seems certain, however, that the governance of the German tribe was carried out by a warrior aristocracy under the titular head of a king. This bears much semblance to the earliest accounts of the Greek and Roman civilization, such as the stories of a series of Roman warrior families gathered together under Romulus or the retinue of Greek kings mentioned by the Iliad under the leadership of Agamemnon.
Under this warrior aristocracy, as in the Greek and Roman states, there existed several tribal assemblies of lesser importance. Unlike what we know of the Greeks and Romans, what exactly constituted a Germanic assembly was uncertain and the body itself seems to have been rather fluid. Sometimes a tribal assembly was the gathering of the entire tribe at an appointed time and place under the leadership of the war council, where justice was then administered and important matters discussed. This assembly of the people is referred to as the "Thing" in ancient chronicles of Germanic law.6 A massive gathering of a Saxon Thing at the River Weser is recorded in the eighth century.7 These meetings were done at an annual cycle determined by the phases of the moon. Tacitus describes such a gathering:
On small matters the chiefs consult; on larger questions the community; but with this limitation, that even the subjects, the decision of which rests with the people, are first handled by the chiefs. They meet, unless there be some unforeseen and sudden emergency, on days set apart-when the moon, that is, new or at the full….then a king or chief is listened to, in order of age, birth, glory in war or eloquence, with the prestige which belongs to their counsel rather than with any prescriptive right to command. If the advice tendered be displeasing, they reject it with groans; if it please them, they clash their spears: the most complimentary expression of assent is this martial approbation.8
These gatherings were the basis on Germanic common law and continued until the tribes began to settle down into cities following the eighth century and their conversion to Christianity. Though it cannot be said that the Germans had a democratic society, at least in the way it was understood in classical times, it seems evident that there was a considerable degree of popular activity in tribal governance and that the early Germans had no tolerance for authoritarian despotism. This they shared in common with the Greco-Roman tradition.
There are instances, however, of experiments with autocracy in the ancient German tribes. The Germans who lived along the Rhine and Danube, and thus came into frequent contact with the Romans, picked up Roman ideas of authoritarian rule from such autocratic Romans as Julius Caesar. There are records of a few Germanic leaders attempting to solidify their power and rule autocratically, but they all came to nothing. Maroboduus and Ariovistus attempted it, and Arminius, in the time of Augustus, attempted to secure his power tyrannically. However, all were betrayed or killed by other German chieftains who had no tolerance for such heavy-handed rulership.9 Why did these experiments in autocracy ultimately fail among the Germans? Their independent minded, warrior mentality was too great to permit any such change. “The style of autocratic leadership…could not be maintained for long in a society of warrior-nobles who pursued their own paths to glory.”10 This German aversion to centralized control would emerge again and again throughout history and was a large factor in the failure of even the most powerful of the Holy Roman emperors to adequately unite the empire in the Middle Ages. It took the force of nationalism to finally unite the Germans, but that did not come until the days of Bismarck and Hitler.
It is evident from these considerations that the Germans, though different in culture and much later in developing their civilization, fall securely into the realm of Greco-Roman political tradition. They viewed authority as coming from merit and martial prowess and held the leader accountable for his actions. A good leader would be followed fanatically while a bad leader would be deserted by his people. Legal decisions were made a matter of popular concern and justice was meted out at tribal assemblies where all the free men had a say in judgments. Common law, not arbitrary whims of autocrats, decided matters. When autocrats did attempt to seize power, like Maroboduus, they were only put up with for so long before being betrayed or murdered. In this they almost resemble the independent and civic-minded Greeks of the classical age or the most virtuous of the Roman republicans.
Divergence with Classical Tradition
Though there were many similarities between the German and classical ideologies of power there were certainly crucial differences as well. Since the time Christianity had been established in the late Roman world, Christians had always been used to living under a centralized government ruled by a civil bureaucracy, as in the late Western Empire until 476 and in the Byzantine Empire until much later. When the Germans began taking control in the west in the 5th century, the manner in which political authority was implemented shifted, despite underlying similarities in conceptions of power. Two are of significant importance: the return of the martial spirit to political life, and the massive decentralization of power. Though these factors do not concern themselves directly with the image of royal power in the Middle Ages, which is the focus of these essays, they do form a political backdrop against which the people of the Middle Ages developed their theories of royal power.
Whatever else can be said about the Middle Ages, it cannot be denied that it was a very violent time. The ancient world had been very violent as well, but the advent of the Germans represents the return of something to European life that had been gone for some time: civil rule in the hands of military war-lords. By the time of the conversion of Clovis in 496, the Eastern Roman Empire had been ruled for almost two centuries by a civil bureaucracy whose sphere of influence was distinct from that of the military. In the west, however, authority had been concentrated in the hands of a series of powerful barbarian chieftains in the pay of the empire, men like Stilicho and Aetius. However, these de facto military rulers seldom concerned themselves with civic or administrative duties, which largely fell to the crusty remnants of the old Roman civil service, later to the jurisdiction of the local bishop. In the Germanic kingdoms, for the first time in several centuries, the military lord was also the law giver. Germanic rulers were quite conscious of their duties as law givers and several important law codes were promulgated throughout the early Middle Ages, such as the Salic Law of the Franks, the Lex Gundobaba of the Burgundians and the Laws of Ethelbert among the Saxons.
This military-civil rule caused all elements of life in the Middle Ages to be charged with a kind of martial spirit that had long been extinguished in the late Roman world of the west. Germanic peoples were always very prone to war; Tactitus reminds us that glory in war was the highest honor a chieftain could obtain.11 Though the Germans settled down in cities and converted to Christianity in the early centuries of the medieval period, this transformation did not rob them of their martial spirit in the least. In fact, the Christian impulse probably strengthened it, giving military exploits new impetus. Violence was an acceptable answer to every problem. Civil cases were often decided by “Trial by Combat”, personal disputes settled by feuds and vendettas, political disputes by war, arguments of succession by civil conflict and pagan peoples beat back by the sword. In all aspects of life, heavy handed military force replaced the rule of Roman law, which lay dormant in Europe until the 12th century.
It is well known that Christians during the patristic period generally held to a position of non-involvement when it came to the military; some even advocated strict pacifism across the board (e.g., Tertullian). By the time of the establishment of the Germanic kingdoms, warfare was not only permissible to Christians but was seen as a noble and glorious endeavor. This is emphasized by the liturgical texts examined in the last chapter invoking the blessing of the king as he rode off to do battle with the pagans or Saracens. The existence of hostile peoples, be they Arabs on the frontier of Visigothic Spain, Vikings in the north or Avars and Magyars in the east, provided a plethora of belligerent foes to be battled. This martial spirit, especially against pagans, is prevalent in medieval literature, the Song of Roland being a prime example.
Another novel tendency of the Germanic kingdoms was the decentralization of authority. Both in the classical world (pagan and Christian) and in the Middle East, authority was almost always centralized. The only difference was that in the east, the power was centralized in the hands of a single man, while in the west it was centralized in “the State.” The Germans abhorred the autocracy of the east, while the Greco-Roman idea of “the State” was utterly foreign to them. Instead, they generally preferred a decentralized form of government wherein a tribal “king” ruled the realm, whose power was then mediated through several layers of social strata which consisted of other chieftains, warriors, family and even clergy; in medieval terms, through the king’s vassals. Over time, the people’s direct accountability to the king decreased as their local reliance on the dux or petty lord increased. A man was bound to his immediate lord by the oath of fealty, which was similar to the bonds that bound an ancient Germanic warrior to his war-lord or a Roman client to his patron. The kingdoms that emerged are best viewed, not as nations in the modern sense, but as mass conglomerations of lords and vassals united by oaths of fealty. Therefore, while it is proper to speak of French or English “kingdoms”, it is improper to refer to French or English “states” during this period. During the early Middle Ages, “France”, “England” and “Germany” are more geographical expressions than political entities.
By the time of Charlemagne, what had been a centralized, albeit weak, Romanized government had been replaced by an amalgamation of dukedoms, counties and manors farmed by peasants under fealty to local lords, who in turn were under fealty to higher lords, and they in turn to the king. Though the Germanic kingdoms lacked national unity, they made up for it by an ardent militant spirit, motivated in part by their zealous adoption of Christianity. This militant spirit ensured that there was always much turmoil in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. Sometimes there was so much upheaval that the popes had to step in and attempt to mitigate the wars being waged, as in the “Truce of God” and “Peace of God” movements, which attempted to limit fighting to certain days of the week.
The Germanic character of the western European kingdoms comes into play greatly when examining three of the greatest dynasties of the early Middle Ages: the Carolingians, the Anglo-Saxon house of Wessex, and the Ottonians. Each had a profound impact upon the way royal authority was viewed in medieval Europe.
1 The phrase “Germans” in this section refers to all the tribes of northern Europe that are commonly referred to as Germans in ancient accounts. This includes tribes like the Goths, Vandals, Suebi, Lombards, and Burgundians, but also the Franks and Anglo-Saxons as well.
2Malcolm Todd, The Early Germans, (Blackwell Publishing: Malden, MA., 1992), 34
3 Tacitus, Germania, 7
4 Todd, 33
5 Tacitus, Germania, 14
6 Todd, 104-105
7 Ibid., 31
8 Tacitus, Germania, 11
9 Todd, 34-35
11 Tacitus, Germania, 11