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Article Published Nov. 19, 1999

Charlemagne - Father Of Feudalism And Founder Of The County System
By Xenia Stanford

Charlemagne's first occupation was as a warrior, unlike that of his ancestors who seemed to choose the more studious life and became "Mayors of the Palace". Long before he became king he was known as Charles the Great for his great physical appearance ("the tallest and strongest among men") and his military prowess. In spite of his achieving this reputation first during his battlefield exploits, his name Magnus or Great also applies to the significant impact he had on history, social structure, politics, culture and learning.


His father Pepin Le Bref or Pepin the Short had two sons by Bertrada. The first, Charles, was born about 741 prior to his parent's marriage. In order to legitimize his son and ensure his succession, Pepin married Bertrada in 749. In 751 their second son Carloman (II to distinguish him from his uncle, Pepin's brother) was born.

Up to this point Pepin had been ruling as the Mayor of the Palace but in 751 he declared himself King of the Franks. To ensure this was recognized and respected Pepin called on the Pope to crown him, which Stephen II did in 754.

In exchange King Pepin had agreed to defend Italy against the Lombards, a Germanic tribe occupying the central and northern parts of that country. Young Charles rode into battle with his father's Frankish army on campaigns against these enemies of the Pope. It was during these battles that Charles acquired the name Karolus Magnus or Charles the Great.

By the time his father died in 768 AD, both Charles and his brother Carloman had much military experience behind them. At first the two brothers split the kingdom with the older Charles taking Austrasia (today Germany) and other lands. Carloman was given various regions but Neustria (today France) was not listed by name since it appears to have been divided between the two rather than given in totality to Carloman. This division did not last long as Carloman died on December 4, 771. Click here to see a period map: Growth Of Frankish Power 481-814 AD.

Even after gaining control of the kingdom as its sole ruler, Charlemagne continued to personally lead his men into battle. Of his 53 campaigns to build the empire and vanquish those who threatened the borders, he led almost all physically as well as strategically. Charlemagne, a devout Christian, waged war against the Moslem Avars, Saracens and Moors. Even worse to him were the pagan Saxons and Bavarians and he was not satisfied until they were conquered and Christianized. Once he satisfied the first criterion in 804, he gave them a choice: baptism or death. At least 4500 choose the latter and were all beheaded the same day. Apparently many others were spared but banished from the kingdom.

His military might had become so renown that the Moslem governor of Barcelona asked the Christian king to assist him in battle against another Moslem, the caliph of Cordova. In 777 Charles led the army across the Pyrenees but soon decided Barcelona's governor had not been forthright with him. He led his army back in 778 through the narrow Pyrenees mountain passes to return to the fight against the Saxons. However, the journey home was not peaceful and the Basques whom Charles had conquered on the way to Barcelona returned the favour by attacking the rear guard and killing nearly every man in this contingent led by Charles' nephew Hruodland (Roland). This is the battle in which Roland who met his demise during this attack was to become immortalized by the Chansons de Roland.

Charles directed his army to avenge these deaths and in 795 they conquered a portion of northeast Spain. He then turned his efforts to the Lombards in Italy who had persisted in spite of his father's earlier efforts. For his triumphs, he was crowned Emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day in 800 AD.

With Italy conquered and the pagan tribes having been Christianized, banished or beheaded, all that remained was the Spanish Moslems. In 806 they bowed to the formal recognition of Charlemagne's authority over his realm and vowed to no longer wage war against him. Thus with no major enemies remaining, the now elderly Charles had at last brought peace to his empire. He lived the remainder of his days until his death in 814 in relative calmness in spite of the attempts of some of his sons to commit patricide and gain control of the throne.


In spite of his personal attention to military campaigns and expanding his geographical control, Charlemagne did not neglect his duties as governor of his lands. Although Charles the Great during his reign had built a vast empire that no one man had ever been able to control and maintain for so long, he was determined to ensure his success and safety. He did not want to suffer the same fate as many before him, like his grandfather Charles Martel, who had conquered large areas before only to lose the same lands a few years later.

Charlemagne's Empire Charlemagne's realm extended from the Vistula to the Atlantic, from the Baltic to the Pyrenees and from Bavaria in the north to the toe of Italy in the south. How could one man handle such a large empire in the days where communication was via messenger on foot or horseback riding through foreboding territories for weeks to reach the furthest parts of this great kingdom? It took even more weeks for this messenger to return to the capital at Aachen and show he had not met his and the message's demise along the way.

Besides his military strength, Charlemagne had the attributes of his Mayor of the Palace ancestors. However, he took their administrative abilities much further. He had such confidence in his abilities and in the loyalties of his right hand men that he divided his authority and by this division gained greater power and increased loyalty.


As one of his first means of building military strength (as depicted in the earlier articles) Charlemagne created knighthood and the system of a nobleman (seignior) supporting the means for a knight to gain land and the necessary resources to go into battle on horseback. This strategic move built a strong army ready and willing at any time to report for battle.

The whole code of ethics and morals with the knight's servitude to God, the King and his Liege was destined to make a formidable force of loyal and mighty men, the like of which had never been seen before. However, it was to become a mainstay of the Medievalism and a major factor in the Crusades, many centuries after Charlemagne's death. Even today most historians, thus the rest of us, forget it was Charlemagne who was the innovator of knighthood and as such was the true Founder of the Middle Ages.

Loyalty extended both ways, upward and downward. The lord was expected to outfit and keep his warriors and grant them a fief. In return the warriors pledged loyalty or fealty as the lord's protector.

Besides the Roman system of feudalism, which Charlemagne intensified in his creation of the new military noble class, he expanded the seigniorial system. Here the seignior, whether knight or feudal lord, was to ensure the well-being and safety of his serfs and the serfs were in turn to supply the seignior with the labour to run his estate and raise the provisions he would need to live and to be equipped militarily to ensure the safety of the serfs. Of course, in the ideal it would have created a perfect society as Charlemagne intended. People being what they are, it often turned into a system of exploitation and cruelty. It was written by historians at the time that the abuse of this system was of great concern to Charlemagne and it led to many of his other governmental measures.

However, even without considering his other many reforms Charlemagne had expanded serfdom (servitude), seigniorialism (protection by a senior member of society) and fealty (loyalty) into an intertwined system much beyond previous practices. Today we know it only as feudalism. Charlemagne, as the creator of this integrated system on which the whole of his society was based, was the Father of Feudalism.

The reason, unlike many scholars and historians, I cannot define the Middle Ages as beginning in Merovingian times or the foundation of the Frankish empire is that knighthood and the brand of feudalistic society Charlemagne created are features that distinguish medieval society from anything before and anything after. It is what we have come to recognize as part and parcel of life during the so-called medieval period or Middle Ages. Thus Charlemagne was the Creator of this Medievalism and thus Founder of The Middle Ages.


Many give credit for the county system to the British. However, the Normans brought it with them in 1066 and, unlike the French, the British never gave it up. They have Charlemagne to thank for this system because it was he who conceived this idea to try to organize his kingdom and by dividing his power gain more control over his vast empire. To do this, unlike rulers before, he granted a large degree of autonomy to various levels of government. As such he created a unique brand of government, which we can still see as a powerful influence on the "free world" of today.

The fief of each knight was divided into plots worked by his serfs or peasants. The fiefs in turn were under the liege or control of a lord or higher nobleman from whose lands the various fiefs had been carved. However, to exercise control over the lords and nobles, Charlemagne appointed an aristocrat to the position of count (comte, originally come for companion of the king) and the lands which each controlled became known as "le cômte" (the county).

The counts were responsible for all secular administrative matters and to oversee Church matters Charlemagne named a religious equivalent. Each county boundary formed the borders of a diocese headed by a bishop. Dangerous border counties dividing the kingdom from lands belonging to enemies were known as "marches". To handle the more volatile situation Charlemagne appointed an especially powerful man as governor (graf) over each march. Thus this count was known as a margrave (markherzog in German). (Roland of Roncesvalles, the king's nephew, before his untimely death in the Pyrenees was governor of the Breton march.)

The margraves, bishops and counts were vassals of the king but they had the administrative, judicial and military authority of the emperor within their respective districts. Once a year they traveled to the capital at Aachen to discuss governmental matters and be part of the decision-making body. There they joined the king's court consisting of the seneschal (head of the palace), the palantine (chief justice) and the palsgraves (judges of the palace court) and hundreds of others including scholars, servants, and clerks. This was to be the formula for royal courts for centuries to come.

Since it was difficult to conduct all matters at one grand governmental gathering per year, in between Charlemagne traveled to the various capitals of the region, such as Worms, Valenciennes, Geneva or Paderborn and held usually open-air assemblies of the nobles. He attempted to visit each once a year (as military endeavours would allow). At the palace gatherings and open-air assemblies the king presented legislative or government proposals, which the noble officials then discussed offering revisions or alternatives and finally reaching agreement among themselves. Charlemagne would then compile these into his capitula or chapters for legislation and submit the final versions to the assembly for approval. Those gathered would vote by either shouting "I" (for I agree) to show their approval or emitting moans to show disapproval.

From the writings of various bishops and counts emerges a picture of a wise and caring king who treated his administrators with respect. He talked with each personally and tried to get to know them better individually at every meeting. It was said he was also jovial and sporting at times showing an ever-ready sense of humour.

Most of all, never before had such a government of shared power and responsibility existed on this scale. Once again Charlemagne was instrumental in shaping the medieval world and even influencing modern democracies.


The king also "wished to know" (according to Hincmar, one of his archbishops) everything happening in any part of his lands. Thus another purpose of these assemblies was for the administrators to advise the king of any new events that had occurred since the previous meeting and to depict the status quo of their region. This way Charlemagne could detect civil unrest or determine other matters that may require further attention.

However, since much could happen between the annual gathering at his palace and his assemblies in between, he invented another group called the missi dominici (emissaries of the master) who were the traveling "auditors" - the emperor's ears and eyes to the kingdom. The missi were responsible for ensuring the margraves, counts and bishops were dispensing their duties and running affairs with equal justice.

However, it wasn't just the administrative concerns, which the king wished them to oversee. He wanted to ensure the correct taxes were being collected from each according to their due. Thus the missi were commanded to call forth leading citizens who would give a true statement (verdictum) under oath regarding taxable wealth as well as criminal offences and the general state of affairs in each of the administrative divisions they visited.

Four centuries before the Magna Carta of England, the people of Francia had their own Capitulare missorum or equivalent to assure equality was dispensed throughout his kingdom. In all cases he wished to assure no part of his rule fell into tyranny and abuse. Especially he wished to save "the Church, the poor, the wards and the widows" from mistreatment.

If any were found, such as the Duke of Istria, to be guilty of injustice, the missi were empowered to restore the state of affairs to that desired by the king. To return "weal" (wealth and well-being) to the region the auditors did not just inspect the books and "hear" the confession of the misguided. They also collected missing taxes, then forced the guilty to compensate every person they wronged and offer security against repetition of their crimes, often through additional fines or penalties.

Sounds much like our tax auditors of today, n'est-ce pas?

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