The Carolingian 1%

As the Carolingian empire grew in size, so its ‘stakeholders’ grew richer – kings, churches, and the highest-ranked Frankish aristocrats above all.

Few if any Carolingian aristocrats were higher-ranking than the couple who issued this will around 863, presented below in draft English translation for the first time (primarily to help students). Count Eberhard came from a well-established noble kinship group labelled by modern historians as the ‘Unruochings’, because many men associated with it were named Unruoch. Eberhard’s wife Gisela was the daughter of Emperor Louis the Pious and Empress Judith, no less. This was a family at the very top of the tree.

That position is evident from the document itself, in which Eberhard and Gisela distributed their possessions amongst their sons and daughters. A large part of the will reads like a treasure list: immense quantities of golden, silver and ivory objects, from swords to drinking vessels. Some of these were probably of recent manufacture, others may have been antiques already.  The will is also famous for its dozens of books, which are individually divided up amongst the children too. Eberhard and Gisela had evidently built up a very considerable library.

Nevertheless, the bulk of their wealth was in land. The will does not give a precise value or acreage, but it is apparent that Eberhard and Gisela were seriously wealthy, with property in what is now Germany,  Italy, Belgium and France. They were certainly part of the Carolingian 1%, busy with Piketty and Scheidel’s ‘capital accumulation’, and keen to pass it on to their heirs.

But the more you have, the more you have to lose, and Eberhard and Gisela clearly worried about that. Their will accounts for the possibility that a future king of the Franks, Lombards or Alemans will seize property from one of their heirs ‘by violence or without cause’.  The Carolingian world of the 860s was one of kingdoms ruled by rival kings, which posed problems for those aristocrats whose property stretched over the old empire as a whole.

Indeed the will can be read as indicating that the couple were beginning to create separate ‘kernels’ of land, with, for instance, all their Italian estates passing as a bloc to their eldest son, Unroch. While kings were still aiming for the ultimate prize – to reconstitute the empire of Charlemagne – were their aristocrats already quietly but surely accommodating themselves to a new, more fragmented reality?

Translation: The Will of Count Eberhard and Gisela (pdf)

Image: the “Reliquiary of Pippin”, a 9th-c. reliquiary now in Conques (France), perhaps like those mentioned in the will.

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