Charlemagne's charter D. 122 (dated 27 March 779)

Posted: July 7, 2014, 4:52 p.m. by adminluisf

by Jinty Nelson

There is always a back-story. A singularly busy year of charter-production in 775 with no fewer than 23 charters issued in the aftermath of the take-over of the Lombard kingdom, was followed by three much less productive years, in 776 with 3 charters, 777 with 4 (or 5, depending on counting-method), and 778 with only 2. 778 had been an exceptionally fraught year, with the Roncesvaux disaster on 15 August bringing to an abrupt halt any notion that the rise of the regime was unstoppable. Charlemagne and his remaining troops made their way back to Francia where they learned of very serious Saxon attacks on the Rhineland and the burning of the just-built significantly-named Karlsburg – another disaster as much symbolic as real. As the Saxon forces withdrew Charlemagne sent troops who caught up with them in Hesse and won a victory whose decisiveness was celebrated not only in the Annales regni Francorum but other annals too. The king had already decided to winter at Herstal on the Meuse: he was not far from there, at Godinne near the Sambre-Meuse confluence, in October, D. 120. Herstal, an old Pippinid residence, was favoured by Charlemagne especially between 777 and 782, thereafter losing its cachet to Worms. Charlemagne spent Christmas 778 and Easter (11 April) 779 at Herstal, and seems to have stayed there (with intermissions for hunting) from October to early May. He summoned an assembly there in March to deal with what F.L. Ganshof considered ‘the first great crisis of the reign’[1] and also in March issued the first of his own capitularies there[2] in a scenario that prefigured that of 789 and the months of intensive discussion by a group of advisers before the issue of the Admonitio generalis  and its rapid and extensive diffusion.[3] Charters show Charlemagne at Herstal in March (DD. 121, 122), April and May (DD. 123, 124).

D. 122 is among the charters issued from Herstal. It is a grant to the monastery of St-Germain-des-Prés, Paris, of freedom from tolls, and survives in the original.[4]  The origins of Frankish toll-exemptions lay in late antiquity, and royal grants of exemption appear in the later Merovingian period.[5] Tolls at 10% on the value of goods transported were a lucrative source of income for rulers. Exemption from tolls was a great boon to those favoured enough to receive them. Monasteries could also receive toll-rights to exercise themselves. Pippin referred to earlier grants to St-Denis of tolls at the annual fair held at St-Denis when he settled in the monastery’s favour a dispute between it and the count of Paris in 753 (D. 6), and confirmed this decision in 759 (D. 12).[6] Issuing such exemptions was a kingly deed, and Pippin, and each of his sons made sure to perform it early in their reigns. The earliest charter of Charlemagne’s brother Carloman, issued in January 769 confirmed Pippin’s 753 charter to St-Denis (D. 43). Charlemagne in March 775 confirmed the toll exemptions granted by ‘anterior kings’ and by Pippin to St-Denis (D. 93): Charlemagne’s grant, like Pippin’s took the form of a judgement addressed ‘to all our faithful men, present and future’, and it rehearsed the terms of a now lost charter of Pippin but updated them to include tolls taken of old not only in Francia but in newly-acquired Italia (D. 93[7]) Exempted were the monastery’s ‘ships sailing upstream and downstream along rivers, or carts or pack-horses, or the monastery’s men, or those known to be engaged on the said house’s business (homines eorum seu negociantes qui per ipsa casa sperare videntur) wherever and to whatever region they may travel, in cities, castles, villages, harbours, public bridges and other places of business (civitates castellis vicis portis pontis publicis vel reliquas marcadus)’. The forms of such terms and conditions were long-established. Their models were to be found in Supplementum to the formulary of Marculf.[8] 

D. 122 too was modeled on these supplementaries to Marculf. What makes it of exceptional interest to historians, especially economic historians, is the customising and updating of its contents in detail. These were supplied by the beneficiary, and used in the writing of the document that Abbot Robert of St-Germain proferred in person for issue by the king as a royal command (preceptum). First and foremost among the abbot’s concerns was the purchase by his negociantes discurrentes (travelling agents of the monastery) of luminaria, that is oil for lighting,[9] as well as other necessaries. These purchases were to be made and carried toll-free ‘beyond the Loire or on this side of it, or in Burgundy or in Provence or in Francia or in Austrasia, wherever in our kingdoms (regna) they wish, by Christ’s mercy, to travel’. Furthermore, ‘we decree by this precept, and we order that this remain in force perpetually, that no tolls are be demanded from them in any ports or civitates whether in Rouen, in Quentovic, or in Amiens, or in Utrecht or Dorestad, or any of the ports as far as Pont-St-Maxence [dep. Oise, ar. Senlis], or in the counties of Paris or Amiens, or in Burgundy or in the county of Troyes or the county of Sens or in any cities whatsoever, wherever in our realms or counties or territories a toll might be exacted’. A final addition specifies that the toll formerly received by Count Gerald [of Paris] at St-Germain’s curtis of Villeneuve (Villeneuve-Saint-Georges, dep. Seine-et-Oise, ar. Corbeil) should henceforth go entirely to St-Germain ‘in alms for us in the form of lights for that church (in nostra aelimosina ad luminaribus ipsius ecclesiae)’.

In this text, quite unlike its formula-model which indicates journeys down the Rhone and back, with Marseilles identified as a source of oil, the places sought by St-Germain’s negociantes are located in Francia, especially the ports on the rivers flowing north or north-west into the Channel, with a hinterland in the Seine basin. The more northerly ports all lay in the kingdom ruled by Charlemagne from 768, and their value was well-known to him. He continued to interest himself in north-west Francia after gaining a re-united kingdom in December 771 (see D. 79).

There is a particular temporal context for D. 122: the famine that hit Charlemagne’s realm, perhaps particularly the Meuse area – and Herstal was on the Meuse – and the Rhineland in 778-9. This disastrous famine, the first to appear in the sources for Charlemagne’s reign, is mentioned immediately after a Saxon surrender and contrasted with it (‘But there was a great famine and mortality in Francia’, ‘Fames vero magna et mortalitas in Francia’) in the Lorsch Annals[10] under the year 779 (though the year seems to have included events from late 778), but it is not mentioned at all in the Annales regni Francorum.[11] Famine put new pressures on the regime and on the monastic institutions and aristocratic supporters that underpinned it.[12] This is the backdrop to the assembly of Herstal in March 779, and the two capitularies that emanated from it.[13] The Capitulare generale’s c. 18 stipulates: ‘Concerning the tolls that have before now been forbidden, let no-one exact them except where they have existed from of old’. The Capitulare pro praesenti tribulatione set out an extraordinary plan of charitable relief to be put in place by St John’s day, 24 June, in which Charlemagne envisaged the involvement of all ecclesiastical ranks and large numbers of laity as well in what was essentially a feeding and caring programme in which fasting, hospitality and alms were central.[14] There are analogues (but also differences) in a probably late eighth-century formula and other prescriptive documents.[15]  A relief effort with in some ways similar features was launched in the famine-stricken winter of 1596-7 in Elizabeth I’s England; and there evidence survives of not just prescription but local implementation.[16] Given similar religious and institutional structures in these two anciens régimes biologiques, the comparison between crises and responses is not far-fetched. 

D. 122 identifies the resources available to meet the crisis and where exactly St-Germain could tap them. D. 122’s list of ports evokes an economic system.[17] A rare conjuncture of texts and genres brings a whole world of exchanges into view, with negociantes moving about it, making necessary connexions about the necessities of life. The very process of D. 122’s production was a collaboration between Abbot Robert’s draftsmen and the royal notaries. For us, in that medium are messages about charters and the specific ways they both communicated power and linked holders of power.



Primary sources:

Admonitio generalis, eds K. Zechiel-Eckes, H. Mordek and M. Glatthaar eds, Die Admonitio generalis Karls des Großen, MGH, Fontes iuris Germanici antiqui XVI (Wiesbaden, 2013)

Annales Laureshamenses MGH SS I, ed. G.H. Pertz (Hannover, 1826)

Annales Mosellani MGH SS XVI, ed. J.M. Lappenberg (Hannover, 1859)

Annales Alamannici MGH SS I, ed G.H. Pertz (Hannover, 1826)

Chartae Latinae Antiquiores XV, eds H. Atsma and J. Vezin (Dietikon-Zurich, 1986)

Formulae Marculfi, in K. Zeumer ed, Formulae Merowingici et Karolini Aevi, MGH Leges V (Hannover, 1883)

Pippini, Carlomanni et Caroli Magni Diplomata, ed. E. Mühlbacher, MGH DD Karol. I, (Hannover, 1906)

A. Rio, The Formularies of Angers and Marculf (Liverpool, 2008)


Secondary works

O. Bruand, Voyageurs et marchandises aux temps carolingiens (Brussels, 2002)

J.-P. Devroey, ‘Réflexions sur l’économie des premiers temps carolingiens (768-877): grands domains et action politique entre Seine et Rhin’, Francia 13 (1986), pp. 475-88, repr. Devroey, Études sur le grand domaine carolingien (Aldershot, 1993), ch. XIV.

P. Fouracre, ‘Eternal lights and earthly needs: practical aspects of the development of Frankish immunities’, in W. Davies and P. Fouracre eds, Property and Power in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1995), pp. 53-81.

P. Fouracre, The Age of Charles Martel (London, 2000)

F.L. Ganshof, ‘Une crise dans le règne de Charlemagne. Les années 778 et 779’, Mélanges C. Gilliard (Lausanne, 1944), pp. 133-45.

F.L. Ganshof, ‘À propos du tonlieu à l’époque Carolingienne’, Settimane Spoleto 6 (1959), pp. 485-508.

F.L. Ganshof, The Carolingians and the Frankish Monarchy, trans J. Sondheimer (London, 1971)

W. Hartmann, Karl der Große (Stuttgart, 2010)

S. Hindle, ‘Dearth, fasting and alms: the campaign for general hospitality in late Elizabethan England’, Past & Present 172 (2001), pp. 44-86.

N. Middleton, ‘Early medieval port customs, tolls and controls on foreign trade’, Early Medieval Europe 13 (2005), pp. 313-58.

H. Mordek, ‘Karls des Großen zweites Kaitular von Herstal und die Hungernot der Jahre 778/779’, Deutsches Archiv 61 (2005), pp. 1-52.

A. Rio, Legal Practice and the Written Word in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge, 2009)

R. Schieffer, Die Karolinger, 2nd edn (Stuttgart, 1997)

A. Stoclet, Immunes ab omni teloneo (Turnhout, 1999)

A. Verhulst, ‘Karolingische Agrarpolitik’, Zeitschrift für Agrargeschichte und Agrarsoziologie 13 (1965), repr. Verhulst, Rural and Urban Aspects of Early Medieval Northwest Europe (Aldershot, 1992), ch. VI.

A. Verhulst, The Carolingian Economy (Cambridge, 2002)

[1] Ganshof 1944 and 1971, pp. 111, 143-4; cf. Schieffer 1997, p. 79.

[2] Mordek 2005; Hartmann 2010, p. 135.

[3] Zechiel-Eckes et al. 2013, pp. 10-30.

[4] Atsma and Vezin, ChLA XV, no. 625.

[5] Ganshof 1959; Stoclet, 1999; Middleton 2005.

[6] Fouracre 2000, pp. 163-4.

[7] translated in Loyn and Percival 1975, p. 143.

[8] Formula no. 1, ‘Immunitas’, and Additamenta, no. 3, in Formulae Marculfi, pp. 107, 111-2; trans. with commentary Rio 2008, pp. 230-1, 237-8.

[9] Rio 2008, p. 230; Fouracre 1986.

[10] Annales Laureshamenses, p. 31, the Annales Mosellani, p. 496, and the Annales Alamannici p. 40.

[11] Mordek 2005, pp. 25-8.

[12] Verhulst 1992 (1965), and 2002, pp. 25-6.

[13] Capitularia regum Francorum, I, nos. 20, 21, pp. 46-51, 51-2.

[14] ed Mordek 2005, p. 50, with intro and apparatus pp. 44-50, 51-2.

[15] Formulae Salicae Merkelianae no. 63, in MGH Formulae ed. Zeumer, p. 262; Mordek 2005, p. 6, n. 25; Rio 2009, pp. 54-5, 131-2.

[16] Hindle 2001.

[17] Bruand 2002, pp. 50, 53, carte 2 at 99, 221-5, 266-8; cf. Devroey 1986, repr 1993.