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Article Published December 6, 1999

Charlemagne - The Man Of Justice And Letters
By Xenia Stanford

Charlemagne should not be remembered just as a great warrior and conqueror. Nor should he be remembered only for his contributions to politics and government even if it was the foundation of medievalism and The Middle Ages. His contribution to society and history included judicial and cultural reforms. He transformed the great nation he ruled and influenced the great democratic nations that evolved much later.


To ensure the missi, the emissaries of his Majesty, were not overloaded and could do a proper job, Charlemagne introduced the jurata, a sworn group of inquisitors who were chosen from peers or common citizens rather than nobility. These men took over hearing the sworn oaths or testimony of citizens after the missi had ferreted out the most likely suspects. The jurata were also empowered to resolve the issues by meting out justice and punishing persistent offenders. Thus the missi became the auditors and the jurata became the judges and dispensers of justice. With the creation of the jurata Charlemagne established the jury system, which still prevails.

As a lawmaker or legislator Charlemagne's greatest concerns were protection and equal justice to overcome the barbaric systems that had prevailed since Roman rule. He created sixty-five capitularies in an attempt to civilize the nation. These "laws" included legislation and/or moral dictates for behaviour covering military, landownership, agriculture, industry, finance, education, religion, marriage and sexual life.

Prior to Charlemagne's time, inquisition and punishment were dealt with mainly through trial by fire or suffering (surviving ordeals to show just deserts) or trial by combat (the victor takes all). Unfortunately Charlemagne was not able to stamp these out nor was he able to prevent the old punishments by mutilation or an "eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth". Charlemagne himself maintained death or capital punishment as the standard treatment for pagans and other violators of the acts of Church and State.

However, through the jury system he did attempt to create a means where punishment was given as a deterrent but the ultimate aim was to restore order and recompense those who were cheated or suffered a loss. Cutting off a guilty man's right hand and presenting it to the wronged party really did not restore the innocent victim's well being. Furthermore, the guilty party was less able to work to repay the person he cheated. By collecting fines and penalties instead, greater justice was ensured for both the guilty and the injured.

Even so a jury of peers may not have seemed just to all those who appeared before them. When complaints of injustice or wrongdoing by the missi and jurata reached Charlemagne, he created a provincial court of appeals. Since most disputes involved land, a court of landowners was assembled in each county to hear appeals and reinforce the old or render a new decision. Thus from Charlemagne's wisdom and concern, the modern trial and appeals system was born.


It should not surprise us that this man who conceived of the missi and jurata was capable of the finest accounting details. As his estates and coffers grew Charlemagne wished to ensure their proper care and growth for the benefit of himself, his family and his heirs.

One of his capitularies (laws or rules), the Capitulare de villis, detailed the method by which all income and expenses would be tabulated and managed. He applied this same exactitude to industry where the entire monetary system was standardized and closely supervised. Besides levies and prices, this meant weights and measures, which formerly had been loosely or inconsistently applied, now had to meet the King's standards.

The currency of the nation was also standardized and conducted through the royal mint. Charlemagne had coins stamped with his visage, a practise that had all but died out with the Romans. Unfortunately gold became increasingly rare but Charlemagne solved this by replacing the gold solidus with the silver livre (pound) as the standard monetary unit.

He also asked for lists of desired improvements and estimates of their costs from his counts and bishops. Then he attempted to ensure the jurisdictions undertook to collect the necessary monies from their region and conduct the highest priority improvements. By the introduction of budgetary methods his reign became a time of great building and repair of roads, bridges, waterways and other structures that enabled greater industry, communication and economic health.


He even expanded the four directions by naming various winds that blew across his kingdom toward the capital at Aachen. This formed the foundation to our modern division of directions into such finer points such as southwest and south southwest. The idea has been preserved though the names have been changed from his Subsolanus, Ostroniwint; Eurus, Ostsundroni-, Euroauster, Sundostroni; Auster, Sundroni; Austro-Africus, Sundwestroni; Africus, Westsundroni; Zephyrus, Westroni; Caurus, Westnordroni; Circius, Nordwestroni; Septentrio, Nordroni; Aquilo, Nordostroni; Vulturnus, Ostnordroni.

He also gave new names to the months to replace the many various versions found in Latin and barbaric tongues. He called January, Wintarmanoth; February, Hornung; March, Lentzinmanoth; April, Ostarmanoth; May, Winnemanoth; June, Brachmanoth; July, Heuvimanoth; August, Aranmanoth; September, Witumanoth; October, Windumemanoth; Novemher, Herbistmanoth; December, Heilagmanoth.


Charlemagne's intention in the feudalistic system was to create a free class of peasants or serfs and it dismayed him to hear that his subjects were being bound to their seigniors and impoverished by cruel and onerous servile expectations. It must have caused him even more concern when slavery, which he attempted to abolish, still thrived in parts of his kingdom as the military leaders took captives and used them without pay or recompense other than whatever meagre means was necessary to keep them alive.

He knew he could not prevent all poverty and abuse through the judicial assemblies of counts, emissaries, juries and courts of appeal. Therefore, he established a welfare system where the nobles and clergy were taxed to provide a relief fund for the needy. To ensure none would slip through the cracks through laziness or continued abuse, he made poverty a crime. This way he ensured those still in this sad state would find their way before the courts for a resolution.

Charlemagne was renown for his equanimity to all, even those considered enemies or dissenters. Although he was adamant about the conversion of all non-Christians and the harsh punishment of any Christians who strayed, he assisted the Muslim rulers when they called upon him. This was typical of his foreign relations policy. He fought ferociously against other empires to expand and protect his borders but sent generous gifts and conducted beneficial deeds on behalf of these same foes. The saying "have the Frank for your friend, but not for your neighbour" arose from Charlemagne's seeming duplicity in diplomatic matters.

He showed this same generosity of spirit despite any disagreement with the morals or religion of subjects or foreigners found within the borders of his kingdom. In those early times generally Jews were despised but Charlemagne acted as their protector. Perhaps this was largely because he saw their value to the economics of the state. Nevertheless this King was not afraid to be different from the norms of his time and extend his compassion to all.


Charlemagne spoke several languages and wrote many letters to his wives. He was considered very astute and highly intelligent during his time and even today those who study his works agree. He had a very curious mind and sought to learn everything he could about every subject. His capitularies translate as the entreaties of a father, often angry, to his subjects yet show a remarkable understanding beyond his time. Still he was not considered well educated even then. Perhaps this was part of the reason he was most concerned about the illiteracy of Francia and set about to change it.

Mainly the church scholars were the learned of the time but even among them he found only those in higher positions could read and write fluently. Since he observed Britain, Ireland and Italy doing much better than his realm, he sent for scholars from those countries. The most significant of these was Alcuin from York who came to Aachen in 782 AD.

With Alcuin's help Charlemagne compiled a contingent of teachers and a large library in the palace. His wife, several of his sons and one of his daughters were among the pupils. Charlemagne himself studied rhetoric, dialectic, astronomy, Latin, science, law, literature, and theology. Later Alcuin and other imported educators helped establish schools throughout the kingdom, as Charlemagne was adamant that every man should be educated. (It appears to have been optional for women.)

One of his capitularies issued in 787 was the Capitulare de litteris colendis (directive on the study of letters). It began with a lecture on the abuses of language among the clergy and urged every church and monastery to establish schools and welcome both clergy and laity to study there. His capitulary of 789 stated that the schools should "take care to make no difference between the sons of serfs and of freemen, so that they might come and sit on the same benches to study grammar, music and arithmetic." This was the beginning of free education for all since the instructors were not allowed to take fees.

Further capitularies on education exhorted men to give up superstitious beliefs about healing and to seek true medical education. From these early schools developed many universities, some of which still exist today.

Charlemagne was frustrated by the inconsistent scripts of the time and apparently had a hard time learning to write although he worked at it diligently. To ensure he and others had could become more literate, he standardized the formation of the letters of the alphabet in what has become known as Carolingian miniscule and forms our modern lower-case letters. The old Roman scripted capitals were retained for uppercase.

Example of Carolingian Miniscule:
Example of Carolingian Miniscule

He approved Latin as the language of scholars but used German in his court and urged the clergy to conduct sermons in the vernacular or common spoken tongue so they could reach more people. However, the problem with the common tongue is which one were they to use?

When the kingdom had split prior Charlemagne's time (691) into Neustria (now France) and Austrasia (now Germany), it was largely due to language differences. In Neustria the main language was "Romans" which arose from vulgar Latin and in Austrasia the Germanic vernacular of the original Franks remained. "Romans", which was the origin of the French language, itself had two main schisms: langue d'oil (Parisian French) and langue d'oc (the language of the Burgundians), so named for how they pronounced "oui" for yes.

The intervening years had done nothing to improve the disintegration of these languages into many regional dialects. Charlemagne, who was born and reared in Austrasia tried to reinforce his native German over the much-vulgarized "Romans", which had strayed far from its roots in the learned language of the ancient Latin nation. His native tongue though was also far from perfect. Thus to improve and standardize it, Charlemagne was responsible for the completion of a text on proper German grammar, standardization of punctuation and the division of text into paragraphs and sentences, each sentence beginning with a capital letter.

Charlemagne collected books in both scholarly Latin and vernacular German for his palace library and encouraged the proliferation of writing and libraries. To ensure his king's wishes were realized, Alcuin worked tirelessly to set up scriptoriums where religious texts were accurately copied and preserved. Many of the writings we have from this time were preserved because of Charlemagne's literary zeal and the diligence of Abbot Alcuin.

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