Front Page Titles (by Subject) ESSAY XIV.: ON THE PRIMITIVE MEANING AND EXTENT OF THE TITLE OF KING, A PROPOS OF THE WORK ENTITLED, ON ROYALTY, ACCORDING TO THE REVEALED DIVINE LAWS, NATURAL LAWS, AND THE CONSTITUTIONAL CHARTER, BY M. DE LA SERVE. - The Historical Essays and Narratives of the Merovingian Era
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ESSAY XIV.: ON THE PRIMITIVE MEANING AND EXTENT OF THE TITLE OF KING, A PROPOS OF THE WORK ENTITLED, “ON ROYALTY, ACCORDING TO THE REVEALED DIVINE LAWS, NATURAL LAWS, AND THE CONSTITUTIONAL CHARTER,” BY M. DE LA SERVE. - Augustin Thierry, The Historical Essays and Narratives of the Merovingian Era 
The Historical Essays, published under the Title of “Dix Ans d’Études historiques,” and Narratives of the Merovingian Era; or, Scenes of the Sixth Century, with an Autobiographical Preface (Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1845).
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ON THE PRIMITIVE MEANING AND EXTENT OF THE TITLE OF KING, A PROPOS OF THE WORK ENTITLED, “ON ROYALTY, ACCORDING TO THE REVEALED DIVINE LAWS, NATURAL LAWS, AND THE CONSTITUTIONAL CHARTER,” BY M. DE LA SERVE.
Amongst the singular things which ought, yet do not astonish us, perhaps one of the most singular, is the prejudice which attaches an universal signification to the Latin word king, and the absolute idea of the destruction of all liberty for men into whose laws this fatal word has once been introduced. Yet if we seek the real meaning of this word in the language which has created it, we shall find that in itself, and according to its primitive destination, it in no way implies the idea of the annihilation of all independence for the sake of a single person, and that it simply and vaguely means the conductor, the one who leads, the one who goes before. This is proved by the Latin locutions, rex gregis, rex avium, rex sacrorum. When amongst nations of whose idioms they were ignorant, the Romans saw a man enjoying a pre-eminence over other men, either as a leader of war, or a magistrate of peace, they qualified him in their language with the vague title of rex; or the equally vague one of dux, by which they did not pretend to translate exactly the titles of the foreign language, or to express a precise degree of authority, but only the general fact of pre-eminence and command.
The emigration of the Gothic, Germanic and Saxon tribes into countries speaking the Roman language, was the accident which attached the Roman names of reges or ducas to the chiefs of various grades and variously limited power, who guided these tribes during the conquest or governed them after their establishment. These two words continued to be used indifferently by the conquered Roman population, which also indifferently designated by the ancient word regnum and the modern word ducatas, the lands possessed or governed by the superior chiefs, or the subalterns of the conquering nation. If those words, then, had in the mouths of those who spoke Roman a more decided signification, it was because they designated to them an enslaved nation, the magistracy or jurisdiction of their conquerors and masters. But this new authority added to the titles of rex and dux by the fact of the conquest, was a real one only for the conquered; for the conquerors nothing had changed. The chiefs of their various tribes, dreaded as masters by the men whom the sword had brought down to the rank of subjects, were not on that account placed over the victorious society; and when a member of that society, a Frank for example, or the son of a Frank, pronounced in Gaul one of those Latin words which to the sons of the Gauls expressed the domination of the conquest, he did not attach more meaning to them than to the words of his own language, which designated to him the social authority of the magistrates whom he had consented to or chosen.
In order, therefore, to discover the measure of the authority of those who, after the dismemberment of the Roman empire, were called reges or kings in Western Europe, we must set aside the Latin language, and have recourse to the Germanic ones.
These languages, which are little more than the diverse dialects of one same idiom, amid several titles of command peculiar to themselves, present one common to them all, perhaps because more expressive and more conformable to the idea these nations entertained of social authority; it is the word koning or kœning, now corrupted in high German into the word kœnig, and in English into that of king. This title, constantly rendered in the Latin chronicles by the word rex, and therefore translated by the word roi in our semi-Latin language, was nothing more than the generic name which expressed the fact of command, without distinction of degree or attributes. The director of every enterprise of war, the president of every commission of the public peace, was called koning; this name was applied to a great many chiefs of various orders and functions; there were the superior kings, oberkoning; the inferior kings, unterkoning; the semi-kings, half koning; kings for maritime expeditions, seekoning; kings for the army, heereskoning; and kings for the people, folkeskoning. This variety of applications of the same word will not astonish, when it is known that this title of koning, now absolute in the north, as mal à propos as the name of rex or roi is in the south, is probably nothing more than the active participle of a verb which signifies knowledge or power, and that consequently it signifies in itself nothing but an able or capable man, whom the others obey from their conviction of his recognized ability. Such is the idea which presented itself to the mind of the Franks of Gaul, when they pronounced the words Frankodo koning* in Latin, rex Francorum; such was the authority of the Chlodowigs and Karls, chiefs of the Franks, whom our modern historians, at once laming proper names and titles, call Clovis and Charles, kings of France.
The man whom the Franks called chief or king, even in the first rank, never acted without their advice, and submitted to their judgments upon his actions. Several kings of the first and second race were degraded from the supreme command on account of inability or bad conduct. But since the election of Hugh, surnamed Capet, the race of Franks finding itself invincibly established on the Gallic territory, indolently relaxed the bonds of its ancient discipline; it isolated itself, and allowed its chiefs to become isolated from it, to perpetuate themselves at pleasure in their command and transmit it without control to their sons. It is true that this command itself then became nothing more than a mere title without real rights; but the public likewise had no longer any command over him who possessed this title. Freely quartered like each member of the victorious nation, in the portion of territory which belonged to himself, he was able, with the assistance of his personal authority, to machinate the slavery of his companions, and the ruin of their social state. This is what the kings of the Franks undertook; and this plan, pursued by them for several centuries, was crowned with entire success. They strengthened themselves in their hereditary domain, by bribing, through a better condition of servitude, the men of whom the division of the conquest had made them possessors. The desire of similar concessions procured them a sort of confidence from all the conquered nation, and by the help of that confidence and their own strength, they attributed to themselves the exclusive possession of this nation, declaring as an axiom of ancient law, that the conquered territory belonged to the king. In the space of a few centuries, the men subjects of all the Franks, became nominally and legally the subjects of the chief of the Franks alone.
Too weak or too timid to shake off the name of servitude which the conquest had given them, they in revenge laboured to make the men whose fathers had conquered their fathers, share it; they assisted the king to subjugate the sons of free men; and those, in their turn conquered, descended ignominiously into the slavery which their ancestors had imposed. Thus the name of subjects became in French, the sole correlative of the name of king. The correlative of this title, in the language of Frankish liberty, had been the simple name of men, leudes or of companions, ghesellen, which the Latin transformed into two barbarian words, leodes and vasalli. To these names was also added that of the descendants of the free race, gentiles homines. This title, preserved by the men in whom perished, for the advantage of the chief, the ancient liberty of their fathers, served only to render their degradation more shameful. It pointed them out from all others as a degenerated race, more cowardly than the rest of the subjects, to whom their ancestors at least could make no reproach. Thus the name of king has signified in our language, a man for whose advantage the liberty of other men is abolished, only by the chance of an armed conquest, made first by nations over other nations, and then by the chiefs of the conquering nations upon the conquering nations themselves. This accident was unable logically to alter the primitive meaning of a word which existed long before it. In itself the word king signifies nothing more than it did originally, that is to say, a director, a chief, or a magistrate: to examine the question of royalty, is not therefore treating of a special, precise, and determined authority, it is treating of authority in general. This settled, it will be more conformable to the rigour of logical principles to substitute the clear and universal terms of social power or authority, for the barely intelligible ones of king and royalty. Instead of endeavouring to prove that a king never has been the master of men, which is both true and false, according to the manner in which it is viewed, it would be better to declare plainly that a society of men has never had masters or absolute rulers but by violence and with unwillingness, which is in every way true. The real power of M. de la Serve’s book lies in this demonstration. He proves the fact that despotism has nowhere been exercised without men’s consciences protesting against it, and that in law, every man who freely and without constraint should submit to an irregular authority, would be guilty of having himself violated his conscience: that no society has the right of alienating itself to one or several of its members; and that historically, when similar alienations have appeared to take place, it has not been willingly, but by violence, not at the foundation of societies by human reason, but at their dissolution by conquests; that the French magistrate, to whom the constitutional charter gives the name of king, has for the inviolable limits of his power, the sacredness of individual liberties, which are the basis of French society, logically anterior and superior to the French government; that the power of raising armies, declaring war, executing the laws when made, and of proposing the laws which are to be made, by whatever title it is expressed, extends only to the point where the respect of rights and civil liberties ceased.
From the moment that any authority whatever has violated any one of these rights, by destroying the securities which protected them, from this moment society acquires the right of constraint and resistance to it. Let power reflect on this well; if human compassion consents to restrain itself in presence of the misery of the men whom jailers sequestrate, and the executioner seizes in the name of the law, it is not simply because the jailers and the executioner act in virtue of the decision of certain men called judges rendered on the authority of certain books called codes, it is because there is in every man a reason which pronounces that whoever has violated the sacred right of another, either in his person or in his property, is guilty and worthy of punishment. It is before this reason, and not before a certain judiciary formula, that human pity is silent; this is the law which sanctions laws; if we obey it when it commands us to abandon to the vengeance of authority whoever amongst us has injured another, shall we rebel against it when it commands us to abandon to the chances of public indignation those who have injured all, by endangering the rights of each? There is nothing inviolable except these rights and the reason that proclaims them; whoever attempts their destruction and despises this reason, the supreme judge of human actions, excludes himself from humanity, and destroys with his own hands his title to the protection of men in his sufferings and distress. Such is the idea which predominates throughout M. de la Serve’s work. We shall not follow it in its logical developments. We dismiss the reader to the book itself, and leave him the care of making the applications of the principle. M. de la Serve has especially brought out in a new and striking manner, the advantages of that law of elections, which our statesmen wish to bring as a criminal to the bar of the chambers which voted it. This apology, written previously to the attack, is remarkable for a strong dialectic, and that warmth which conviction inspires. The author belongs to that young school of politics, the simple and honest dogmas of which abjure fanaticism and interests, which alone urge to changes of government. This school disdains the vain question of forms; it attaches itself only to pure liberty and its immediate securities. It will accept every thing with liberty, without it, nothing. Retrenched in this principle, alone immutable in the perpetual movement of the world, it will see all the sophisms of false thinkers and ambition split against it: as to force, its only dangerous adversary, this school is likewise preparing to oppose to it courage as energetic as its views are upright and its hopes pure.
[* ] Poems of the monk Otfrid in the ninth century.