Charlemagne’s reign corresponds to an exceptionally high peak in the documentary record: some 4,500 documents survive from this period, more than for any other early medieval ruler. Though their distribution is patchy, charters have been preserved from all the main regions of Charlemagne’s empire. Besides the sheer volume of material they contain, they constitute a major source for other reasons. They are the most useful available source for social and economic history; further, whereas narrative sources hardly ever mention anyone outside the immediate entourage of the king, charters allow access, often of a very direct and personal kind, to broader sections of the population from regional elites to local peasant landowners. These characteristics make charters by far the richest source of prosopographical data for the Carolingian empire.

Early medieval documentary sources therefore constitute an extraordinarily rich body of evidence for political and social relations on the ground, and put together can give unparalleled access to the practicalities of rule in centre and locality. For Charlemagne's reign in particular, when the Frankish empire grew to encompass most of Western Europe, they allow the historian to analyse the creation, expansion and maintaining of local political ties in a wide-ranging yet geographically sensitive manner. Although much used in regional contexts, they have never been analysed or even compiled systematically over the whole empire.

This work is particularly crucial for the reign of Charlemagne, because it saw rapid expansion into such a large number of new territories, and because it was also characterised by the knitting of stronger ties between centre and locality. Charters offer the best chance to trace these changes on the ground in greater depth, by integrating the central and the local. If Charlemagne was indeed the Father of Europe (and the belief that he was certainly underpins much of the current interest in him among the wider public), it is important to see in detail how ‘his’ Europe was constituted, and the impact his rule had on these disparate territories.

Our research

The charter material collected in the database can be used to address a number of fundamental research questions much more systematically than has so far been possible:

1. Elites and political relationships. Who was included in the running of the empire, and who benefited from it? How far were local elites integrated within wider imperial networks, and did their make-up change during this period of conquest and expansion? How were networks of political friendship managed, and what role did land transactions play in this? How much interaction was there between centre and locality?

2. Economic and social foundations. How did lords organise their property, and what were the material underpinnings of local and supra-regional power? How far did regional differences in social and economic structures affect strategies of political control? How different were the fates of newly conquered areas – and why? How much difference was there, and of what kind, between ‘marginal’ regions and Frankish heartlands?

3. Religious institutions. What did churches and monasteries contribute to the 'Frankicisation' of newly conquered areas? How much of a network did they form? How much did new endowments change local power relationships?

4. Archival strategies and the written word. Who were the scribes who wrote our documents? What were their affiliations and level of professionalisation? How many documents was each of them involved in drafting over what period of time? What was the extent of their area of activity? Where were documents issued and witnessed? Where do most documents survive, and in what ways could this have distorted our sense of the overall picture?

Wider research

Equally important for the project are the opportunities the database will give to users worldwide to explore their own research questions, providing new insights into such varied topics as the social and economic status of rural priests, the role of women as witnesses and naming practices for the unfree. The database has been designed so that data can be combined and displayed in multiple ways, allowing users to explore hypotheses rapidly and intuitively. Some of the most intriguing uses of the database are likely to be those that the project team had not initially envisaged!

Project team

Principal investigator: Alice Rio (History); co-investigators: Janet L. Nelson (History), John Bradley (Digital Humanities)

Current research associates: Gianmarco de Angelis (History), Edward Roberts (History), Rachel Stone (History); Ginestra Ferraro (Digital Humanities), Luis Figueira (Digital Humanities), Neil Jakeman (Digital Humanities)

Past research associates: Graham Barrett, Sören Kaschke, Brian Maher, Michele Pasin