Patriarchal pieces 1: was Charlemagne the father of the Franks?

(This is the first of a series of short pieces I hope to write for my new project on long-term continuity and change in patriarchal structures. These are intended as initial ways for me to think about the problem rather than as definitive answers and comments or counterexamples are gratefully received).


Some early modern political thought was patriarchal in the most literal sense: the father’s control over his family and household is the model for all political authority. (This is the view of Robert Filmer, for example). The idea seems at once vaguely familiar and subtly distinctive to a Carolingianist and I’m still trying to work out why.

At the moment I can see two differences. One is that although there’s sometimes an analogy made in political writing between the royal household and the kingdom, it tends to be expressed in terms of a ruler’s duties, rather than a father’s. The ruler must rule himself, so that he can then rule his household, and finally the kingdom. This is all put together with the supposed etymology of “rex” as deriving from “regnans”, which is already in Augustine, and probably even earlier. Being a “pater/genitor” doesn’t have the same resonances.

And where the king as father does appear, the direction of the analogy is the opposite way round from the early modern patriarchal one. The king’s household is supposed to be the exemplar for other households, and the king as father for other fathers. Ordinary fathers are “royalised” by the Carolingians, rather than kings being an outgrowth of original family power. After all, the Carolingians knew how kings arose – God had allowed them to do so.

I also wonder whether the vagueness of the Carolingian idea of the king as a magnified pater familias is because the magnates would have found that unacceptable. After all, the kingdom as a family implicitly places them as the king’s children, called to obedience, and subject to his righteous chastisement. In contrast, the metaphor of the body politic, which id developed by John of Salisbury and later medieval authors, makes the other parts of the body subordinate to the head, but without such a steep gradient. A neck or the shoulders and arms are only a little “below” the head and are essential to the body’s proper functioning. Not should the head want to hurt the other parts of the body, but guard them.

In contrast, the fatherly metaphor for rulers separates king and subject more decisively, and subordinates more firmly. Perhaps it’s only in more autocratic times (Roman and early modern) that this particular complex of patriarchal ideas can find acceptance.


3 thoughts on “Patriarchal pieces 1: was Charlemagne the father of the Franks?

  1. As a commenter, (not a medievalist scholar) I hope you don’t mind me offering some immediate thoughts.

    It seems to me there is a dysjunction in this discussion between king, paternalism and subject. In particular, ‘subject’ rather fuses into vagueness and is lost. However, it seems to me the notion of subject/ subjugation is a strong stand alone one. It could be that it is the power core of the political aspect of the structure, which is one major reason why it sustains itself and pertains through the centuries.


    • You make an interesting point about the idea of subjects. The word “subject” (subiectus) is used in some Carolingian texts, but it’s not just used for kings and it tends to have implications of lowly status, so that for example a nobleman can be told to ensure the correct behaviour of “all those subject to you in your household”. In medieval thought, as well as the autocratic idea of a ruler as having subjects under his command, there’s also a less hierarchical idea of the king as being first among equals as regards his magnates (the highest of the nobility). So my suggestion is that in the Carolingian period neither the pairing of king/subject or the parallels of “king is to people as father is to household” are developed in too much detail because powerful non-royal men wouldn’t accept it. (This is at a point where the king can only rule effectively with the cooperation of these magnates, who are quite prepared to revolt if they feel they’re being treated badly.


  2. Hello,

    Thank you for your reply.

    Your latter point is pertinent to any period of monarchical history, and our current times. Substitute ‘king’ for the title ‘Leader’ and you will still have the same political issues and intrigues. With some exceptions, whoever takes the mantle of most senior patriarch, or, matriarch, in particular those with permissions, [votes] will have to accede, or, secede to the machinations of their magnates. It is one of those sublime historical human circularities.

    The most recent fallen dynastic figure that comes to mind in this regard, in the UK, is Edward V111. Globally and politically there have been other [patriarchal and matriarchal) leaders, including, prime ministers and political party leaders who were toppled. It is easy to see the parallels in various spheres of life, for example, groups such as the The Mafia. The one thing they all might have anthropologically in common, dynastic inheritance apart, with some exceptions, is they take the power, then impose their supremacy.

    Where does moral authority fit into any of this, if indeed it does?


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