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Winning political consent, Carolingian-style

On Thursday, voters in the UK will to go to the polls to elect a new government. Although they agree about the apparent inevitability of Brexit, the two main parties in England are otherwise miles apart in their policies. That means voters have a clear choice. Thanks to the UK’s peculiar ‘first-past-the-post’ system, however, it also means that millions of people will be very disappointed on Friday morning, as it’s almost certain that the winning party will attract well under half the vote. The whole thing seems almost designed to generate dissatisfaction. Did things work any better in the Middle Ages?

Contrary to what some people may tell you, elections were pretty common in the medieval period, though usually with a restricted franchise, and not normally on a strict one-person one-vote basis. As towns grew in size, they were often run by elected officials, and election was an important principle in the church throughout the period, for popes, bishops and abbots (and abbesses) in particular. Even crusaders elected their leaders on occasion.

Sometimes kings were elected too, but most often they based their claim to rule on inheritance. Even so, governing with the consent of (some of) the governed was vital, in practice as well as in theory. A king who lost the trust of his aristocracy could, like King John in England or Emperor Louis the Pious in Francia, find himself in serious trouble, accused of tyranny, and facing rebellion and even deposition.

So although medieval kings didn’t need to win regular elections, they did need to generate consent amongst the elite. The Carolingian kings of the ninth century were already masters of this game. For instance, they used to hold a ‘secret’ meeting with their most trusted and senior advisors to thrash things out, before then holding a ‘general’ meeting with a much larger group, to discuss the same issues all over again as if for the first time. All the senior advisors would stick to the secretly pre-arranged line, so the second meeting’s outcome was more or less predictable. A way of sneakily sewing up the meeting in advance: or a sensible method of steering discussion, generating buy-in, and avoiding divisive conflict?

This blog was prompted however by another Carolingian tactic, evidenced by a text whose English translation is provided below (for the first time in full) – the Capitulary of Quierzy of 877, issued by King Charles the Bald of West Francia. Capitularies were essentially royal edicts, declarations of the royal will, and this capitulary is no different. It’s traditionally been seen as marking the beginning of the end for Carolingian rule (and the onset of feudalism), because it supposedly recognised that public offices could be inherited. In reality, a quick glance will show that King Charles very much kept the whip-hand: sons could take over their fathers’ offices temporarily, while Charles was away, but he reserved the right to appoint someone else on his return.

But maybe what’s most interesting about this text isn’t its content, but its “unique form”[1]: the way that it’s written out partially in a question-and-answer format, or, more accurately, as a set of declarations followed by affirmatory responses. For instance, King Charles begins by stating that the church ought to be protected, which evokes this response: “We all praise and wish to keep the first chapter, as you have decreed with God’s inspiration”.

Now,  the capitulary could be a verbatim record of the Quierzy meeting, borrowing  techniques used to record church councils, in which case it could show how a king might choreograph consent in royal assemblies.[2] But at no point is it ever spelled out exactly who this ‘we’ is, which is a rather strange omission.

So just as likely is that this response-format is primarily a textual effect, designed to communicate consent to readers, rather than faithfully recording – or scripting – an actual dialogue. Agreement is literally ‘built-in’ to the Quierzy edict, in an innovative and rather striking fashion. The text comes pre-ratified, so to speak: the royal will has already received consent, before any further discussion.

It’s been said that Thursday’s election in the UK may be about control of the means of production, but that it’ll be won through control of the means of representation. King Charles might not have understood the politics involved (and they might have confirmed his rather mixed opinion of the English) – but it’s a lesson he and his advisors would instinctively have grasped.

English translation (pdf): Quierzy capitulary 877

[1] J.L. Nelson, Charles the Bald, p. 248.

[2] As proposed by J.L. Nelson, ‘Carolingian royal ritual’, in The Frankish World, 750-900, p. 120,

Image: Charles the Bald, from the Codex Aureus of St Emmeram, made a few years before the Capitulary of Quierzy (full page here)

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