Peasants and emperors in ninth-century Francia

A book about the Frankish emperor Charlemagne, based on a conference held in Paris in 2014 (twelve centuries after his death), has just been published. I contributed a chapter about a decree issued by the great emperor in the year of his imperial coronation (800), concerning the obligations owed by tenants to their lords. Since the chapter’s not open access, I thought I might unpack its content a bit here.

The decree is known as the Capitulary of Le Mans (Capitulare in pago Cenomannico datum) – it’s quite a famous text that’s widely cited as evidence for the early medieval peasantry. In brief, Charlemagne regulates how much labour tenants can be expected to do for their landlords, capping it at three days a week maximum, and less for the richer tenants. In spoken versions of the paper (though not in the written version!), I described the decree a little tongue-in-cheek as the first European Working Time Directive. Here’s an open-access English translation of the capitulary which I put together.

The Capitulary of Le Mans was copied in lots of early manuscripts (including Paris BnF. ms Latin 5577, now online thanks to Gallica). But *spoiler alert*┬áthe chapter actually argues that it probably wasn’t issued by Charlemagne after all (sorry!)…

Yet I’m not sure that actually matters all that much. Even if we can’t securely associate it directly with the ruler, the notion it expresses that kings might or should take such an interest in “the peasantry”‘s daily life was pathbreaking. And I think that makes the Capitulary of Le Mans a key source for the emergence of the medieval ‘three orders’ ideology – albeit in a version intriguingly and significantly different from that which developed post-860.

Image: the inimitable Stuttgart Psalter, f. 124v.

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