The public administration of the Merovingian kingdoms in the sixth century
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The question is to what extent a structure of public administration can be detected for the Merovingian kingdoms in the late sixth century that is common enough to be accepted as a model for all these kingdoms. The overall answer is that there was a matching superstructure for all kingdoms, that this congruity was an element in binding together these kingdoms, that the structure of government was a representation of the way power was exerted in society, and that the structure of the public administration limited the further expansion of the Merovingian realm. The organization structure of the Merovingian kingdoms was simple. Typically, it had little or no support staff, a loose division of labour, minimal differentiation among its units, and a small hierarchy of officials. Little of its behaviour was formalized, and it made minimal use of planning, training, and liaison devices. It was above all organic: communication flowed informally, most of all between the king and his court and the magnates. The weakness of this structure is that it hinges on the abilities of individuals. The death of an individual has immediate repercussions on the whole balance of power, as was clear when a king died. Basically, the Merovingian realm can be considered a patchwork of holders of large estates and of collectives, which were highly self-governing units of society. Dealing with affairs was done most of all privately, e.g. by negotiating compromises or by feud. Military strength was a necessity for all, and the use of violence was an accepted tool. Not one of the magnates, not even a king, was strong enough to dominate the others. Only coalitions of magnates could dominate a kingdom. But coalitions were not stable, because each member sought his own advantage, and therefore violence continued. Violence could only be directed but not controlled, because even a king was not able to stop an army when there was not yet sufficient plunder. Collectives are not prominent in the sources, but it is clear that they were able to limit the power exercised by officials decisively at crucial moments. For example, these collectives were a political factor that was thought to be strong enough to be able to complot against the lives of kings. The men of a civitas, or the men of the centenarius in a rural area, shared an identity and acted as a collective. These collectives may be considered equally strong cohesive social units as those of the magnates and their dependents, but their representatives did not fit into the public administration of the Merovingian kingdoms, and had to be represented by the count. Counts were cooperating with them rather than commanding them. The magnates accepted one of their own, the count, as liaison with the central government, and as official for all affairs that were not dealt with by themselves. The position of this official was only secured as long as he had the cooperation of the majority of magnates. Appointment of an official by a king was most of all the acceptance of a reality. Only when there was no clear candidate for a position could a king decide for his own favorite. Once appointed, there were opportunities for these officials to reinforce their influence and gain wealth. Each capable actor in the game for power could gain influence, as is illustrated by Queens Fredegunde and Brunhild, who were able to dominate the political scene in their period for quite a while. But inevitably the striving for power resulted in losers, who tried to regain their positions. The balance of power never was steady, and all magnates were involved in continuously changing coalitions. These coalitions of magnates were the real power in a kingdom. The position of kings seems to have evolved from that of war lord to that of territorial leader of a core area of a kingdom and symbol of the unity of that kingdom. The real power of kings was derived from this core area, their leudes, and their abilities to participate in coalitions. Kings had to be capable participants in politics, because they came to power only when they had proven to be competent politicians, and they were the survivors of the competition within their own family. Kings were the descendants of Clovis by tradition, but they could be anyone with a plausible lineage, even people we now consider as pretenders or illegitimate princes. It would be just to call them the first among equals, their equals being first of all the dukes, and to call their courts the centres of politics for a kingdom. The Church introduced the concept of the good king, who was responsible for the public interest, because this benefitted the Church which needed defenders. This idea was certainly appealing to the kings in some ways, because it made their position more important, which became visible in some of the clauses of the capitularia, but the moral implications were not always taken over by the kings. This concept of the good king must have been an ideal that was still far from realized. Gregory made kings far more important in his Histories than they were, because of his own need of royal support for his position and because of his projection of the concept of the good king formulated by the Church. Several attempts were made to centralize the public administration by enlarging the span of control of kings. Princes and dukes were used for some time as an extra hierarchical layer, but neither group could sufficiently be controlled by kings, because of their separate interests. The use of members of the household of a king, e.g. the majores domus, was more effective, because these men depended on the king for their position. Dukes were rulers, most of all military ones, of a region of several districts, but only because their rule was accepted by their equals and as long as their martial achievements were successful. Dukes were probably the most important officials of a kingdom, because they had considerable military power and were able to oppose a king. The main official in a district was the count. The counts’ position was not so much derived from their hierarchical relations, but their authority resulted rather from their ability to cooperate with other magnates, collectives, the bishop, and as liaisons to the political centre of a kingdom. They had to take care of the interests of their district to other districts and to the central authority in the kingdom. Counts had to convince warriors to enlist by giving them the expectation of plunder. They were taxing a diminishing amount of people, because ever more men strove to get the status of a free Frank who had an immunity from taxation. Instead of paying taxes, these men had the obligation to render military service and provide gifts, forming a social network with a clearly understood code of honour. In arbitration, the count cooperated with other important men, for example bishops, but only when this arbitration was accepted by the parties involved. Government was not interested in the poor and left these in the care of the bishops. The bishops took care of this part of society, and were therefore, in a way, also officials of the king. Because bishops had no significant military power and had only religious authority, they were dependent on the protection of magnates and kings. And because the Church was also one of the large landowners, this could cause a tension with local magnates. Therefore, protection was a necessity. There is no reason to assume significant conflicts between bishop and count because of overlapping positions, because their responsibilities were relatively clear. For the Merovingians kingdoms continuity of their existence was realized by outward expansion until the 570s through gathering the necessary plunder and tribute. Towards the end of the century the separate Merovingian kingdoms became more coherent. From their growing identity, and because of the end of expansion, erupted the wars between the Merovingian kingdoms which lasted until 613 CE. The costs for this continuity were high. The reward for war bands, the search for plunder, the acceptance of violence all reduced the wealth of the people and discouraged investment. The ruling class was living parasitically on society, because in return for taxation and gifts they didnot provide safety, justice or other assets for the economy. Therefore Merovingian rule did continue at high costs, and in the seventh century the pauperization of society did stop this way of ruling because most resources were depleted. This may have been one of the causes for the revitalization of the agrarian sector, resulting, after much experimenting, in the manorial system of the eighth century. The possession of land was a necessity for all magnates. But land was not considered a source of wealth in the sixth century, because productivity was low. It supplied housing, food, workers and warriors. Wealth was sought in precious objects made from gold, silver and jewels. Acquiring this treasure was the driving force for the warriors and magnates. Not the commercial value of this treasure was important, but the honour of receiving or showing it. The gift-giving economy was not an economic drive for more profit, but meant redistribution of material symbols as a reflection of political coalitions. The treasure of kings was more or less thought of as the property of the kingdom. Magnates were concerned for the preservation of this treasure for future gifts, but also expected to receive gifts that would circulate among themselves. The magnates did not allow each other to take this royal treasure, but thought of it as a collective possession. In his Histories, Gregory talks mainly about the civitas, which is the focus for the organization of the Church. He neglects the rural estates’ centres governed by magnates, the rural territorial units directed by the centenarii, and the newly formed territorial units of the dukes. All magnates owned large estates with at least dozens, and for some thousands of people, for which they were sole rulers. The other rural areas were inhabited by free peasants who were organized and accepted a centenarius as their leader. The growing social differentiation, visible in the capitularia, indicates a shift from these social units of free peasants to more dependency on magnates. There were several centres of government, each being a core area for a kingdom, together forming the core area of the Merovingian realm centered on Paris. Similar to these core areas, in the periphery of the kingdoms there was centralization of several districts under dukes. This regional organization was not stable, and the continuous redistribution of territory, or rather spheres of influence, was possible because the top layer of the public organization was similar for all kingdoms. Kings were aware that they had a potential interest in other kingdoms and acted accordingly. The evolution of the power structure and public administration resulted in a growth from local to more permanent regional structures. The fragmented anarchistic organization of the beginning of the sixth century began to seek more safety and stability. Coalitions will have become more permanent in time, probably strengthened by family ties. The union of districts under a duke created stronger organizational units, enforcing other regions to do the same. This explains the growing importance of the dukes. This development continued and resulted in the three territorial kingdoms: Neustrasia, Austrasia, and Burgundy in the seventh century. In this analysis the Edict of Paris of 614 is not the forsaking of power by the Merovingian King Chlothar II, forced upon him by the aristocracy, but the other way around: a visualization of the growing stability of coalitions of magnates in regions where kings never had ruled effectively.