Researching Charlemagne's Europe: advocates

Posted: Feb. 6, 2015, 4:02 p.m. by Edward Roberts

How exactly can ‘Charlemagne’s Europe’ be used for research? This post aims to demonstrate the different ways individuals can trawl the database for information, using the example of advocates.

Advocates (advocati) were lay individuals who represented churchmen and religious institutions in secular affairs, namely in judicial proceedings and other legal matters [1]. They became necessary because, as Scripture and church law made clear, clerics were to avoid involving themselves in worldly business. Advocates, much better known in the later Middle Ages, are not attested before the Carolingian period, and only became systematised after 802, when Charlemagne and his court – ever concerned with spiritual and moral rectitude – ordered all bishops, abbots and abbesses to appoint them. Less formal ecclesiastical representatives can be found in pre- and early Carolingian documentation, but they are usually referred to as actores, agentes or defensores. It was only in the ninth century that advocacy really ‘took off’.

The ‘Charlemagne’s Europe’ database allows researchers to track the appearance and distribution of advocates across Western Europe between 768 and 814. Each of the three browse options – charter, agent, place – presents information in different ways. The charter browse screen offers the best means of analysing documentary and diplomatic contexts. For the present example, you could produce a list of charters including any individual named as an advocate by selecting ‘advocate’ from the ‘Attribute/relationship type’ facet (under the parent category ‘Secular offices & ranks’). Currently, there are 21 such charters in the database (from a total of 912 at the time of writing).

Alternatively, or in addition to this facet, you could view all charters in which the Latin term advocatus appears. This produces a list of 20 charters (one charter, Schäftlarn 12a, contains a defensor whom we designated an advocate because of his role in the transaction – though one might wish to search for other instances of that term to see how it could be used).

Browsing with either the ‘Attribute/relationship type’ or ‘Latin term’ facets yields some interesting information on documentary transmission. For instance, when applying the ‘Latin term’ facet, we can then see that, of our 20 charters containing an individual termed an advocatus, 17 are cartulary copies and just 3 are originals. Moreover, upon closer inspection, one of these originals (DKAR 1:235) is a later forgery, which we might wish to eliminate from our search by selecting ‘Authentic’ from the ‘Charter authenticity’ facet.

This imbalance can at least in part be attributed to the overall ratio of original documents to cartulary copies: our current total of 912 charters includes 168 originals and 659 cartulary copies (as well as other single-sheet copies, early modern copies and more). It is nevertheless interesting that we have thus far only encountered two original charters containing advocates. This number will almost certainly grow, as large collections of original charters such as Lucca (385 charters for Charlemagne’s reign) and St Gall (169 charters) have not yet been entered in the database. (Advocates certainly become common at St Gall in the ninth century, but quite how many turn up in documents issued 768–814 remains to be seen [2].) One might nevertheless hypothesise that the relative prevalence of eleventh- and twelfth-century cartulary references to advocati is indicative of advocates being retrospectively written into earlier documents in place of terms which were less familiar when the cartularies were produced in order to make sense of older documents. This question could be investigated further by examining the dates these charters were originally issued (i.e. were they all given after Charlemagne’s 802 capitulary, or do some come from the late eighth century?), or by comparing the prevalence of advocatus with other Latin terms used to denote representatives, like actor, agens or defensor.

The agent browse option allows us to find more information on the advocates themselves. On this screen, simply selecting ‘advocate’ from the ‘Attribute/relationship type’ facet will bring up a list of every individual who is called an advocate in a charter:

Clicking on individual agents will allow you to see, for instance, whom each advocate is representing (i.e. a bishop/abbot/abbess vs an institution), or any other events in which that individual is involved. The ‘Transaction/event type’ facet allows for easy filtering of advocates’ different legal activities. This might allow us to trace what kinds of backgrounds advocates came from, or whether any can actually be found owning property in the counties of their offices (which royal legislation stipulated they should) [3].

Finally, the place browse option provides the most convenient way of exploring the geographic distribution of advocates. Selecting ‘advocate’ from the ‘Attribute/relationship type’ facet once more will produce a map of all the places associated with advocates in charters:

(Note that the 11 places which do not appear on the map are territorial units. While we often know roughly where these are located, only places with specific coordinates such as known villages and towns will appear on maps.)

Advocate activity appears to be concentrated in the Rhineland, Bavaria and Italy, which, given that these are regions with the highest concentrations of surviving charters, may not be terribly surprising. Nevertheless, a distribution roughly in line with the numbers of charters we have entered from each region tells us something about the implementation of advocacy across the empire (note, however, that advocates will ultimately be far more numerous in the east and south, as most French charters have already been entered in the database while the vast majority of documents still to be input come from Germany, Switzerland and Italy). Place browsing allows easy comparison of advocates operating within particular areas, and by correlating this data with charter issue dates, this option could be used to cast light on the question of whether Charlemagne introduced advocates in newly conquered areas like Bavaria and the Lombard kingdom (or whether advocates were already there but only become visible in light of the marked increase in disputes following Carolingian conquest) [4].

One of the key aims of the project has been to enable users to test their own hypotheses quickly and intuitively. As the example of advocates shows, each of the three browsing options can yield different kinds of information, and the various facets in each browser can be combined to display data in multiple ways. We very much look forward to seeing what others are able to discover in the database!



1. On advocates, see Charles West, ‘The significance of the Carolingian advocate’, Early Medieval Europe 17.2 (2009), pp. 186-206.

2. See further Wolfgang Dohrmann, Die Vögte des Klosters St Gallen in der Karolingerzeit (Bochum, 1985).

3. West, ‘The significance of the Carolingian advocate’, p. 193.

4. See Warren Brown, Unjust Seizure: Conflict, Interest and Authority in an Early Medieval Society (Ithaca, NY, 2001), p. 75 n. 6.