Book XXXI.Theory of the Feudal Laws among the Franks, in the Relation They Bear to the Revolutions of their Monarchy
1. Changes in the Offices and in the Fiefs. The counts at first were sent into their districts only for a year; but they soon purchased the continuation of their offices. Of this we have an example in the reign of Clovis' grandchildren. A person named Peonius was count in the city of Auxerre;1 he sent his son Mummolus with money to Gontram, to prevail upon him to continue him in his employment; the son gave the money for himself, and obtained the father's place. The kings had already begun to spoil their own favours.
Though by the laws of the kingdom the fiefs were precarious, yet they were neither given nor taken away in a capricious and arbitrary manner: nay, they were generally one of the principal subjects debated in the national assemblies. It is natural, however, to imagine that corruption crept into this as well as the other case; and that the possession of the fiefs, like that of the counties, was continued for money.
I shall show in the course of this book,2 that, independently of the grants which the princes made for a certain time, there were others in perpetuity. The court wanted to revoke the former grants; this occasioned a general discontent in the nation, and was soon followed by that famous revolution in French history, whose first epoch was the amazing spectacle of the execution of Brunehault.
That this queen, who was daughter, sister and mother of so many kings, a queen to this very day celebrated for public monuments worthy of a Roman ?dile or proconsul, born with an admirable genius for affairs, and endowed with qualities so long respected, should see herself of a sudden exposed to so slow, so ignominious and cruel a torture,3 by a king whose authority was but indifferently established in the nation,4 would appear very extraordinary, had she not incurred that nation's displeasure for some particular cause. Clo-tharius reproached her with the murder of ten kings; but two of them he had put to death himself; the death of some of the others was owing to chance, or to the villainy of another queen;5 and a nation that had permitted Fredegunda to die in her bed,6 that had even opposed the punishment of her flagitious crimes, ought to have been very different with respect to those of Brunehault.
She was put upon a camel, and led ignominiously through the army; a certain sign that she had given great offence to those troops. Fredegarius relates that Protarius,7 Brunehault's favourite, stripped the lords of their property, and filled the exchequer with the plunder; that he humbled the nobility, and that no person could be sure of continuing in any office or employment. The army conspired against him, and he was stabbed in his tent; but Brunehault, either by revenging his death, or by pursuing the same plan,8 became every day more odious to the nation.9
Clotharius, ambitious of reigning alone, inflamed moreover with the most furious revenge, and sure of perishing if Brunehault's children got the upper hand, entered into a conspiracy against himself; and whether it was owing to ignorance, or to the necessity of his circumstances, he became Brunehault's accuser, and made a terrible example of that princess.
Warnacharius had been the very soul of the conspiracy formed against Brunehault. Being at that time mayor of Burgundy, he made Clotharius consent that he should not be displaced while he lived.10 By this step the mayor could no longer be in the same case as the French lords before that period; and this authority began to render itself independent of the regal dignity.
It was Brunehault's unhappy regency which had exasperated the nation. So long as the laws subsisted in their full force, no one could grumble at having been deprived of a fief, since the law did not bestow it upon him in perpetuity. But when fiefs came to be acquired by avarice, by bad practices and corruption, they complained of being divested, by irregular means, of things that had been irregularly acquired. Perhaps if the public good had been the motive of the revocation of those grants, nothing would have been said; but they pretended a regard for order while they were openly abetting the principles of corruption; the fiscal rights were claimed in order to lavish the public treasure; and grants were no longer the reward or the encouragement of services. Brunehault, from a corrupt spirit, wanted to reform the abuses of the ancient corruption. Her caprices were not owing to weakness; the vassals and the great officers, thinking themselves in danger, prevented their own by her ruin.
We are far from having all the records of the transactions of those days; and the writers of chronicles, who understood very nearly as much of the history of their time as our peasants know of ours, are extremely barren. Yet we have a constitution of Clotharius, given in the council of Paris,11 for the reformation of abuses,12 which shows that this prince put a stop to the complaints that had occasioned the revolution. On the one hand, he confirms all the grants that had been made or confirmed by the kings his predecessors;13 and on the other, he ordains that whatever had been taken from his vassals should be restored to them.14
This was not the only concession the king made in that council; he enjoined that whatever had been innovated, in opposition to the privileges of the clergy, should be redressed; and he moderated the influence of the court in the election of bishops.15 He even reformed the fiscal affairs, ordaining that all the new censuses should be abolished,16 and that they should not levy any toll established since the deaths of Gontram, Sigebert, and Chilperic;17 that is, he abolished whatever had been done during the regencies of Fredegunda and Brunehault. He forbad the driving of his cattle to graze in private people's grounds;18 and we shall presently see that the reformation was still more general, so as to extend even to civil affairs.
2. How the Civil Government was reformed. Hitherto the nation had given marks of impatience and levity with regard to the choice or conduct of her masters; she had regulated their differences and obliged them to come to an agreement among themselves. But now she did what before was quite unexampled; she cast her eyes on her actual situation, examined the laws coolly, provided against their insufficiency, repressed violence, and moderated the regal power.
The bold and insolent regencies of Fredegunda and Brunehault had less surprised than roused the nation. Fredegunda had defended her horried cruelties, her poisonings and assassinations, by a repetition of the same crimes; and had behaved in such a manner that her outrages were rather of a private than public nature. Fredegunda did more mischief: Brunehault threatened more. In this crisis the nation was not satisfied with rectifying the feudal system; she was also determined to secure her civil government. For the latter was rather more corrupt than the former; a corruption the more dangerous as it was more inveterate, and connected rather with the abuse of manners than with that of laws.
The history of Gregory of Tours exhibits, on the one hand, a fierce and barbarous nation; and on the other, kings remarkable for the same ferocity of temper. Those princes were bloody, iniquitous and cruel, because such was the character of the whole nation. If Christianity appeared sometimes to soften their manners, it was only by the circumstances of terror with which this religion alarms the sinner; the church supported herself against them by the miraculous operations of her saints. The kings would not commit sacrilege, because they dreaded the punishments inflicted on that species of guilt: but this excepted, either in the riot of passion or in the coolness of deliberation, they perpetrated the most horrid crimes and barbarities where divine vengeance did not appear so immediately to overtake the criminal. The Franks, as I have already observed, bore with cruel kings, because they were of the same disposition themselves; they were not shocked at the iniquity and extortions of their princes, because this was the national characteristic. There had been many laws established, but it was usual for the king to defeat them all, by a kind of letter called precepts,19 which rendered them of no effect; they were somewhat similar to the rescripts of the Roman Emperors; whether it be that our kings borrowed this usage from those princes, or whether it was owing to their own natural temper. We see in Gregory of Tours, that they perpetrated murder in cool blood, and put the accused to death unheard; how they gave precepts for illicit marriages;20 for transferring successions; for depriving relatives of their right; and, in fine, marrying consecrated virgins. They did not, indeed, assume the whole legislative power, but they dispensed with the execution of the laws.
Clotharius' constitution redressed all these grievances: no one could any longer be condemned without being heard:21 relatives were made to succeed, according to the order established by law;22 all precepts for marrying religious women were declared null;23 and those who had obtained and made use of them were severely punished. We might know perhaps more exactly his determinations with regard to these precepts, if the thirteenth and the next two articles of this decree had not been lost through the injury of time. We have only the first words of this thirteenth article, ordaining that the precepts shall be observed, which cannot be understood of those he had just abolished by the same law. We have another constitution by the same prince,24 which is in relation to his decree, and corrects in the same manner every article of the abuses of the precepts.
True it is that Baluzius, finding this constitution without date and without the name of the place where it was given, attributes it to Clotharius I. But I say it belongs to Clotharius II, for three reasons: 1. It says that the king will preserve the immunities granted to the churches by his father and grandfather.25 What immunities could the churches receive from Childeric, grandfather of Clotharius I, who was not a Christian, and who lived even before the foundation of the monarchy? But if we attribute this decree to Clotharius II, we shall find his grandfather to have been this very Clotharius I, who made immense donations to the church with a view of expiating the murder of his son Cramne, whom he had ordered to be burned, together with his wife and children.
2. The abuses redressed by this constitution were still subsisting after the death of Clotharius I and were even carried to their highest extravagance during the weak reign of Gontram, the cruel administration of Chilperic, and the execrable regencies of Fredegunda and Brunehault. Now, can we imagine that the nation would have borne with grievances so solemnly proscribed, without complaining of their continual repetition? Can we imagine she would not have taken the same step as she did afterwards under Childeric II,26 when, upon a repetition of the old grievances, she pressed him to ordain that law and customs in regard to judicial proceedings should be complied with as formerly.27
In fine, as this constitution was made to redress grievances, it cannot relate to Clotharius I, since there were no complaints of that kind in his reign, and his authority was perfectly established throughout the kingdom, especially at the time in which they place this constitution; whereas it agrees extremely well with the events that happened during the reign of Clotharius II, which produced a revolution in the political state of the kingdom. History must be illustrated by the laws, and the laws by history.
3. Authority of the Mayors of the Palace. I noticed that Clotharius II had promised not to deprive Warnacharius of his mayor's place during life; a revolution productive of another effect. Before that time the mayor was the king's officer, but now he became the officer of the people; he was chosen before by the king, and now by the nation. Before the revolution Protarius had been made mayor by Theodoric, and Landeric by Fredegunda;28 but after that the mayors29 were chosen by the nation.30
We must not therefore confound, as some authors have done, these mayors of the palace with such as were possessed of this dignity before the death of Brunehault; the king's mayors with those of the kingdom. We see by the law of the Burgundians that among them the office of mayor was not one of the most respectable in the state;31 nor was it one of the most eminent under the first Kings of the Franks.32
Clotharius removed the apprehensions of those who were possessed of employments and fiefs; and when, after the death of Warnacharius,33 he asked the lords assembled at Troyes, who is it they would put in his place, they cried out they would choose no one, but suing for his favour committed themselves entirely into his hands.
Dagobert reunited the whole monarchy in the same manner as his father; the nation had a thorough confidence in him, and appointed no mayor. This prince, finding himself at liberty and elated by his victories, resumed Brunehault's plan. But he succeeded so ill that the vassals of Austrasia let themselves be beaten by the Sclavonians, and returned home; so that the marches of Austrasia were left to prey to the barbarians.34
He determined then to make an offer to the Austrasians of resigning that country, together with a provincial treasure, to his son Sigebert, and to put the government of the kingdom and of the palace into the hands of Cunibert, Bishop of Cologne, and of the Duke Adalgisus. Fredegarius does not enter into the particulars of the conventions then made; but the king confirmed them all by charters, and Austrasia was immediately secured from danger.35
Dagobert, finding himself near his end, recommended his wife Nentechildis and his son Clovis to the care of Æga. The vassals of Neustria and Burgundy chose this young prince for their king.36 Æga and Nentechildis had the government of the palace;37 they restored whatever Dagobert had taken;38 and complaints ceased in Neustria and Burgundy, as they had ceased in Austrasia.
After the death of Æga, Queen Nentechildis engaged the lords of Burgundy to choose Floachatus for their mayor.39 The latter dispatched letters to the bishops and chief lords of the kingdom of Burgundy, by which he promised to preserve their honours and dignities for ever, that is, during life.40 He confirmed his word by oath. This is the period at which the author of the Treatise on the Mayors of the Palace fixes the administration of the kingdom by those officers.41
Fredegarius, being a Burgundian, has entered into a more minute detail as to what concerns the Mayors of Burgundy at the time of the revolution of which we are speaking, than with regard to the mayors of Austrasia and Neustria. But the conventions made in Burgundy were, for the very same reasons, agreed to in Neustria and Austrasia.
The nation thought it safer to lodge the power in the hands of a mayor whom she chose herself, and to whom she might prescribe conditions, than in those of a king whose power was hereditary.
4. Of the Genius of the Nation in regard to the Mayors. A government in which a nation that had an hereditary king chose a person to exercise the regal authority seems very extraordinary; but, independently of the circumstances of the times, I apprehend that the notions of the Franks in this respect were derived from a remote source.
The Franks were descended from the Germans, of whom Tacitus says42 that in the choice of their king they were determined by his noble extraction, and in that of their leader, by his valour. This gives us an idea of the kings of the first race, and of the mayors of the palace; the former were hereditary, the latter elective.
No doubt but those princes who stood up in the national assembly and offered themselves as the conductors of a public enterprise to such as were willing to follow them, united generally in their own person both the power of the mayor and the king's authority. By the splendour of their descent they had attained the regal dignity; and their military abilities having recommended them to the command of armies, they rose to the power of mayor. By the regal dignity, our first kings presided in the courts and assemblies, and enacted laws with the national consent; by the dignity of duke or leader, they undertook expeditions and commanded the armies.
In order to be acquainted with the genius of the primitive Franks in this respect, we have only to cast an eye on the conduct of Argobastes,43 a Frank by nation, on whom Valentinian had conferred the command of the army. He confined the emperor to his own palace, where he would suffer nobody to speak to him, concerning either civil or military affairs. Argobastes did at that time what was afterwards practised by the Pepins.
5. In what Manner the Mayors obtained the Command of the Armies. So long as the kings commanded their armies in person, the nation never thought of choosing a leader. Clovis and his four sons were at the head of the Franks, and led them on through a series of victories. Theobald, son of Theodobert, a young, weak, and sickly prince, was the first of our kings who confined himself to his palace.44 He refused to undertake an expedition into Italy against Narses, and had the mortification of seeing the Franks choose for themselves two chiefs, who led them against the enemy.45 Of the four sons of Clotharius I, Gontram was the least fond of commanding his armies;46 the other kings followed this example; and, in order to entrust the command without danger into other hands, they conferred it upon several chiefs or dukes.47
Innumerable were the inconveniences which thence arose; all discipline was lost, no one would any longer obey. The armies were dreadful only to their own country; they were laden with spoils before they had reached the enemy. Of these miseries we have a very lively picture in Gregory of Tours.48 "How shall we be able to obtain a victory," said Gontram,49 "we who do not so much as keep what our ancestors acquired? Our nation is no longer the same." …… Strange that it should be on the decline so early as the reign of Clovis' grandchildren!
It was therefore natural they should determine at last upon an only duke, a duke invested with an authority over this prodigious multitude of feudal lords and vassals who had now become strangers to their own engagements; a duke who was to establish the military discipline, and to put himself at the head of a nation unhappily practised in making war against itself. This power was conferred on the mayors of the palace.
The original function of the mayors of the palace was the management of the king's household. They had afterwards, in conjunction with other officers, the political government of fiefs; and at length they obtained the sole disposal of them.50 They had also the administration of military affairs, and the command of the armies; employments necessarily connected with the other two. In those days it was much more difficult to raise than to command the armies; and who but the dispenser of favours could have this authority? In this martial and independent nation, it was prudent to invite rather than to compel; prudent to give away or to promise the fiefs that should happen to be vacant by the death of the possessor; prudent, in fine, to reward continually, and to raise a jealousy with regard to preferences. It was therefore right that the person who had the superintendence of the palace should also be general of the army.