How programmatic is the Programmatic Capitulary?

(Attention Conservation Notice: this post has a strong Cambridge connection, but it’s more for the historians than the librarians among the readership).

My book on Carolingian masculinity has been accepted by CUP (after passing through numerous committees) and they are now getting to the exciting part, like asking what cover image I would like. But there are still issues raised by the CUP readers, and one particularly dicey one is what I call capitulary no 33 from 802. While true capitulary enthusiasts know every individual capitulary by its number in Boretius’ edition, the rest of us tend to use conventional or handy titles for them. It was Francois-Louis Ganshof who coined the term ‘programmatic capitulary’ for this 802 text: the first specific reference to the phrase I know of is François-Louis Ganshof, ‘The impact of Charlemagne on the institutions of the Frankish realm’, Speculum 40 (1965), 47-62 at p. 49, although he almost certainly also used earlier Dutch, French or German versions of the term. (For example, it’s in François Louis Ganshof, ‘Charlemagne’s programme of imperial government’, in The Carolingians and the Frankish monarchy (London: Longman, 1971), pp. 55-85, which is a translation of a French paper from 1963).

Ganshof’s label has been accepted for more than 40 years, but has recently been challenged in Rosamond McKitterick’s Charlemagne: the formation of a European identity. Rosamond argues (pp. 236-237) that it is the pre-800 capitularies collectively that should be seen as ‘programmatic’; in contrast, she sees no 33 as largely administrative (p. 257). Is there a reason for still sticking to the traditional label?

One immediate issue is whether you can talk about a ‘programme’ when looking at a collection of documents that spans 30 years (769-799)? Given the arguments by Jennifer Davis and others that Carolingian government was largely reactive it’s very hard to claim that there is a ‘programme’ visible unless you’re looking at clusters of similar documents within two or three years of each other. Having consistent objectives or desires is not the same as having a programme, after all: I’ve spent a decade or more wanting to be able to speak French better, but minus a plan to do something about this, it’s just velleity.

The pre-800 capitularies tend to be largely spread out chronologically, in contrast to, for example, the cluster of capitularies and councils in 811-813, so I don’t think we can see them collectively as a programme. That doesn’t mean to say, however, that any individual one can’t be seen as having a programme. But what it is that makes a capitulary programmatic? Rosamond’s stress is that many specific issues dealt with by the capitularies are first raised in the pre-800 texts (p. 236). She also points out that some of these capitularies are known from a large number of surviving manuscripts, while we have only one (rather mangled) copy of capitulary no 33.

I’m not convinced, however, that we can judge the contemporary importance of capitularies simply by how many copies survive of them. And I’d also argue that a programme involves more than a capitulary’s list of decisions/decrees. I’d say that it involves explanations, the linking together of different aspects into an ideological statement. Which of the pre-800 capitularies do that?

One of the more obvious statements of reform ideology from the period isn’t actually a capitulary, even though it gets included by Boretius as no 29: Karoli epistola de litteris colendis (On cultivating letters). A number of the pre-800 capitularies are intended to apply to specific regions (like the two Saxon capitularies), which hardly seems suitable for a general programme of reform. Others, such as the Capitulare primum (no 19), which Rosamond argues is authentic (pp. 237-238), are relatively short and lacking in substance, even if they do contain themes which re-appear later. The three major pre-800 reform capitularies are the Capitulary of Herstal from 779 (no 20), the Admonitio generalis from 789 (no 23) and the Capitulary of Frankfurt from 794 (no 28). Rosamond sees the Frankfurt capitulary largely as reiteration and amendment of earlier decisions (pp. 240-241). The Capitulary of Herstal is important in terms of content, but it has only a minimal preamble and it’s overwhelmingly practical in nature.

The Admonitio generalis, in contrast, is programmatic. It has a long preamble on the need for the clerical and secular elite to ensure the salvation of the Frankish people, and Charlemagne also makes the famous comparison of himself with the reforming Old Testament king Josiah. As Rosamond points out (p. 240) it ‘underlines the conscious formulation of a policy and vision for a Christian Frankish kingdom’. The Admonitio then has a string of moral regulations deliberately extracted from the canons of previous church councils (c 1-69) and follows this with further moral demands derived from Biblical texts. It ends (c 82) with a statement of the doctrines that priests must preach, and then a prayer.

The only reason not to call this text the ‘Programmatic Capitulary’ is that it’s already got a sufficient memorable and unique name. But where does this leave the previous ‘Programmatic Capitulary’ from 802? I don’t think it’s intrinsically impossible to imagine two programmes from 13 years apart, which might overlap in themes, but are still distinct. But Rosamond is right that most of the 802 capitulary doesn’t have the same wide scope as the Admonitio generalis. Its preamble is about an institutional innovation, the missi dominici, rather than a more general overview, and most of its clauses are predominantly practical. Only occasionally (such as in c 32 on homicide) does it introduce more generalised moral discussions.

For most purposes, then, capitulary no 33 cannot be called ‘programmatic’. But for the purposes of my book, I would argue that it can be. In chapters 2-9, the capitulary discusses the new oath that is to be sworn to Charlemagne now he is emperor, and it includes a new definition of what fidelity to him means, which those administering the oath are to explain to those swearing it. Fidelity is no longer simply the negative duties of not attacking the emperor, bringing an enemy into the realm or remaining silent about another’s infidelity. Instead, it includes the demand (c 3):

Everybody is personally to strive…to maintain himself fully in God’s holy service, according to God’s command and his own promise

Further, more specific, clauses follow, but for my work this is the key passage. Here is where the personal become the political for Frankish men (the oath was to be taken by all men aged 12 and over). Charlemagne has explicitly meshed together his moral demands on his subjects with his own legitimate rule, and he has demanded that every man, however humble, agree to this. I argue in the book that it is this meshing together of morality and politics that explains the importance of moral instruction within the Carolingian world. Here we see a deliberate mechanism to connect the two in the fullest possible way. For that reason specifically, I think capitulary no 33 still deserves its title of ‘programmatic’.


4 thoughts on “How programmatic is the Programmatic Capitulary?

  1. The debate about the authenticity of various capitularies often troubles me. I’ve written before (for once I won’t link) about the similar debate over early Asturian royal charters, largely forged, from which people occasionally try to save one they need for their personal big idea, arguing that it fits with the known circumstances and ideology of the time. But of course their idea of those circumstances and that ideology has been formed from these texts… Similarly with the capitularies: some of them fit a programme but we’re in danger of circularity if we’re already constructing that programme from the capitularies.


  2. Having read Steffen Patzold, “Normen im Buch. Überlegungen zu Geltungsansprüchen so genannter ‚Kapitularien’,” Frühmittelalterliche Studien 41 (2007): 331–350, (with English abstract at the link) who deals extensively with capitulary no. 33, I find it hard to believe that this particular collection of capitula can be seen as one single capitulary. Patzold argues, rather convincingly, that capit. no. 33 is not a normative text issued by Charlemagne meant as a single legal and programmatic text, but rather a collection of notes, agenda, and some programmatic statements made by various people present at the deliberations in Aachen about the reform. Yet nonetheless, this can still be seen – just as you suggest – as some sort a manifestation of programmatic thinking. So it’s not so much a debate about authenticity, but about what we believe that capitularies actually were: As Patzold says, “Karl, Ludwig und die fränkischen Großen wussten nicht, dass sie Kapitularien im Sinne des mediävistischen Fachbegriffs herstellten.” Sometimes they felt the need to create a formulaic, well structured, well preserved and widely disseminated programmatic document (such as the Admonitio Generalis) and sometimes they might have had the same kind of programmatic impetus, which, however, did not result in such impressive texts.


    • Dear Clemens,

      Thank you very much for telling me about that article – I obviously need to read it ASAP so I can say sensible things about capitularies in my book. You’ll be getting a mention in the acknowledgements as well!


  3. Leeds 2010 Report IIIThe amount of time I have for this is quite small, so this post may be subject to the law of diminishing returns as I try and compress a day at a busy conference into rather fewer lines than I have been doing up till now. On the other hand, I said that…


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