Front Page Titles (by Subject) LECTURE 11 - The History of the Origins of Representative Government in Europe
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
LECTURE 11 - François Guizot, The History of the Origins of Representative Government in Europe 
The History of the Origins of Representative Government in Europe, trans. Andrew R. Scoble, Introduction and notes by Aurelian Craiutu (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
General character of events under the Carlovingian Empire. ~ Reign of Pepin the Short. ~ Reign of Charlemagne. ~ Epoch of transition. ~ Reigns of Louis the Débonnair and Charles the Bald. ~ Norman invasions. ~ The last Carlovingians. ~ Accession of Hugh Capet.
I have sketched the general progress of events in Frankish Gaul, under the Merovingians; I have now to give a similar outline of the reign of the Carlovingians. I shall enter neither into an examination of the institutions, nor a detailed narrative of occurrences; I shall seek to sum up the facts in the general fact which includes them all.
The general tendency of events under the Merovingians was towards centralization; and this tendency was natural. At that period, a society and a state were labouring to form and create themselves; and societies and states can be created only by the centralization of interests and forces. The conquests and authority of Clovis, however fleeting and incomplete they may have been, indicate this need of centralization, which was then pressing upon Roman and barbarian society. After the death of Clovis, his dominions were dismembered, and formed into distinct kingdoms; but these kingdoms could not remain separate; they continually tended to reunite, and soon became reduced in number to two, which finally coalesced. A similar process took place in reference to the authority in the interior of each state. The royal power attempted at first to be the centralizing principle, but did not succeed; the aristocracy of the chiefs, the great landowners, laboured to organize itself, and to produce its own government; it produced it, at length, in the form of the Mayors of the Palace, who eventually became kings. After two hundred and seventy-one years of labour, all the Frankish kingdoms were reunited into one. The supreme power was more entirely concentrated in the hands of the king, aided by the concurrence of the national assemblies, than it had ever been previously.
Under Pepin the Short and Charlemagne, this centralization was maintained, extended and regulated; and it appeared to gain strength. New countries, new peoples, were incorporated into the Frankish state. The relations of the sovereign with his subjects became more numerous and regular. New bonds of union were established between the supreme power, its delegates, and its subjects. A state and a government seemed likely to be formed.
After the death of Charlemagne, affairs presented quite another aspect, and assumed a contrary direction. In proportion as a tendency to the centralization, either of the different states among themselves, or of the internal power of each state, had been visible under the rule of the Merovingian race, in just that proportion did a tendency to the dismemberment, to the dissolution, both of the states themselves and of the power in each state, become evident under the Carlovingians. Under the Merovingians, you have seen that five successive dismemberments took place, none of which was able to last; after the death of Charlemagne, the kingdoms once separated do not reunite. Louis the Débon-nair divided the empire among his children, in 838, and made vain efforts to maintain some unity therein. The treaty of Verdun, in 843, definitively separated the three monarchies. Charles the Fat, in 884, made an attempt to unite them again; but this attempt also failed—reunion was impracticable.
In the interior of each state, and particularly in France, the same phenomenon was manifested. The supreme power which, under the Merovingians, had tended to become concentrated in the hands, either of the kings, or of the Mayors of the Palace, and which had seemed to have attained this end under Pepin and Charlemagne, took a contrary direction from the reign of Louis the Débonnair, and tended constantly to dissolution. The great landed proprietors who, under the first race, had been naturally urged to coalesce against the royal authority, now laboured only to elevate themselves, and to become sovereigns in their own domains. The hereditary succession of benefices and offices became prevalent. Royalty was nothing more than a direct lordship, or an indirect and impotent suzerainty. Sovereignty was dispersed; there no longer existed any state, or head of the state. The history of the Carlovingians is nothing but the struggle of declining royalty against that tendency which was continually robbing and contracting it more and more. This was the dominant character, the general progress of events, from Louis the Débonnair to Hugh Capet. I shall now refer to the principal facts of this epoch; in them I shall find proofs of the general fact just stated.
I. Pepin the Short (752–768). As this monarch had risen to power by the aid of the large landowners, the clergy, and the pope, he was obliged, during the whole course of his reign, to treat with consideration those powers which had supported him. He frequently convoked national assemblies, and frequently met with opposition from them. It was not without extreme difficulty that he prevailed upon his chieftains to make war against the Lombards, at the request of Pope Stephen III. In order to retain the support of the clergy, Pepin ordered the holders of ecclesiastical benefices to perform the conditions annexed to their tenure of them; he lavished donations upon the churches, and greatly augmented the importance of the bishops. It is from Zachary’s answer to Pepin, that the popes have assumed to deduce their historic right to make and unmake kings. Pepin thus favoured the aggrandizement of the aristocracy, the clergy, and the papacy—three powers which had been very useful, and were still of great service to him, which he knew how to manage and restrain, but which, under other circumstances, would assuredly labour to render themselves independent of the royal power, and would promote the dismemberment, after having assisted in the concentration of the kingdom. The moment most favourable for the development of these powers had arrived. They placed themselves at first at the service of the king, who was useful to them, and knew how to make them serviceable to himself; and thus they became able to free themselves from dependence upon him, and henceforward to act alone and on their own account.
II. Charlemagne (768–814). Epochs of transition, in the history of society, have this singular characteristic, that they are marked sometimes by great agitation, and sometimes by profound repose. It is well worth while to study the causes of this difference between epochs which are fundamentally similar in nature, and which do not constitute a fixed and durable state of society, but only a passage from one state to another. When the transition occurs from a state of things which has long been established and is doomed to destruction, to a new state of things which it will be necessary to create, it is generally full of agitation and violence. When, on the other hand, there exists no previous state of society, which from its long duration is difficult to overthrow, the transition is only a momentary halt of society, fatigued by the disorder of its previous chaotic state, and by the labour of creation. This was the character of the reign of Charlemagne. The whole country of the Franks, wearied by the disorders of the first dynasty, and not having yet originated the social system which was destined to issue naturally from their conquest—I mean the feudal regime—stood still for a time under the government of a great man who procured for it greater order and more regular activity, than it had ever known before. Until then, the two great powers which agitated the country—the great landowners and the clergy—had not been able to take a settled position. The royal authority was hostile to them, and they attacked it. Charlemagne knew how to restrain and satisfy them, and contrived to keep them employed without placing himself in their power. This knowledge constituted his strength, and was the cause of the temporary order which he established throughout his empire. In a future lecture, when studying the institutions of his epoch, we shall see what was the characteristic feature of his government. I am speaking now only of the fact itself—of the singular circumstance of the authority of a very powerful king being interposed between an age in which royalty was held in slight esteem, and an age in which it almost ceased to be of any importance. Charlemagne made of barbarian monarchy all that he possibly could. He possessed within himself, in the necessities of his mind and life, an activity corresponding to the general exigencies of his age, which, indeed, surpassed them. The Franks desired war and booty; Charlemagne desired conquests, in order to extend his renown and dominion; the Franks were unwilling to be without a share in their own government; Charlemagne held frequent national assemblies, and employed the principal members of the territorial aristocracy as dukes, counts, missi dominici,1 and in other offices. The clergy were anxious to possess consideration, authority, and wealth; Charlemagne held them in great respect, employed many bishops in the public service, bestowed on them rich endowments, and attached them firmly to him, by proving himself a munificent friend and patron of those studies of which they were almost the only cultivators. In every direction towards which the active and energetic minds of the time turned their attention, Charlemagne was always the first to look; and he proved himself more warlike than the warriors, more careful of the interests of the church than her most devout adherents, a greater friend of literature than the most learned men, always foremost in every career, and thus bringing everything to a kind of unity, by the single fact that his genius was everywhere in harmony with his age, because he was its most perfect representative, and that he was capable of ruling it because he was superior to it. But the men who are thus before their age, in every respect, are the only men who can gain followers; Charlemagne’s personal superiority was the indispensable condition of the transitory order which he established. Order did not at that time spring naturally from society; the victorious aristocracy had not yet attained the organization at which it aimed. Charlemagne, by keeping it employed, diverted it temporarily from its object. When Charlemagne was dead, all the social forces which he had concentrated and absorbed became in want of aliment; they resumed their natural tendencies, their intestine conflicts; they began once more to aspire to the independence of isolation, and to sovereignty in their own neighbourhood.
III. Louis the Débonnair (814–840). As soon as Louis became emperor, he lost the success which had attended him as king of Aquitaine. Facts soon gave proof of that tendency to dissolution which pervaded the empire of Charlemagne, and which dispersed the authority which he had been able to retain entire in his own hands. Louis gave kingdoms to his sons, and they were continually in revolt against him. The great landholders, the clergy, and the pope—those three social forces which Charlemagne had so ably managed and restrained—escaped from the yoke of Louis the Débonnair, and acted sometimes in his favour, and sometimes against him. The clergy loaded him with reproaches, and forced him to do public penance at Worms, in 829. An attempt was made, in 830, to make him a monk, after the assembly at Compiègne, where he had confessed his faults; and he was deposed, in 833, by another assembly at Compiègne, in pursuance of a conspiracy into which Pope Gregory IV. had entered. During the whole course of this reign, nothing held together, everything was disjoined; both the states which constituted the empire, and the great social forces, lay and ecclesiatical, in each state. Each of these forces aspired to render itself independent. Louis the Débonnair presents a singular spectacle, in the midst of this dissolution, attempting to practise as a scholar the maxims of government laid down by Charlemagne, enacting general laws against general abuses, prescribing rules for the guidance of all those forces which had escaped from his hands, and even endeavouring to correct the particular acts of injustice which had been committed under the preceding reign. But the kings, the great landowners, the bishops—all had acquired a feeling of their own importance, and refused to obey an emperor who was no longer Charlemagne.
IV. Charles the Bald (840–877). The dissolution which had commenced under Louis the Débonnair continued under his son Charles the Bald. His three brothers,* relying alternately upon the pretensions of the clergy and of the large landholders, disputed with him for the vast empire of Charlemagne. The bloody battle of Fontenay, fought on the 25th of June, 841, made Charles the Bald king of Neustria and Aquitaine, that is, of France. His reign is nothing but a continual alternation, a scene of futile efforts to prevent the dismemberment of his dominions and of his power. At one time, he robs the clergy in order to satisfy the avidity of the great landholders, whose support he is anxious to gain; at another time, he spoils the landholders in order to appease the clergy, of whose assistance he stands in need. His capitulars contain hardly anything but these impotent alternations. The hereditary succession of benefices and appointments became triumphant, and every chieftain laid the foundation of his own independence.
V. The Normans. This is the generic name of the German and Scandinavian tribes, who inhabited the shores of the Baltic. Their maritime expeditions may be traced back to a very remote period. We meet with them under the first dynasty of Frankish kings; they frequently occur towards the end of the reign of Charlemagne, and under Louis the Débonnair; and they continually appear under Charles the Bald. They constituted a fresh cause of the dismemberment of the empire, and of the royal authority. In the ninth century, the Frankish Gauls present the same appearance which the Roman Gauls had offered four centuries before: that of a government incapable of defending the country, and expelled or retiring in every direction, and of barbarians pillaging, imposing tribute, withdrawing on payment of large sums of money, and continually reappearing to levy fresh contributions. Nevertheless, a notable difference is to be remarked between these two epochs. In both, the central government was equally incapable and worn out; but, in the ninth century, there existed within the Frankish territory a host of chieftains, who, though lately barbarian invaders themselves, had become independent, and were surrounded by warriors who defended themselves against the new invaders with far greater energy than the Roman magistrates had done, and who took advantage of the disturbed state of society to consolidate firmly their own individual sovereignties. Among these chieftains, we meet with Robert the Strong, the ancestor of the Capetian family, who became Duke of Neustria, in 861, and was killed in 866, while defending Neustria against the Normans. The Normans definitively established themselves in Neustria, in 912, under Charles the Simple, who yielded the province to their chief Rollo, and gave him his daughter Grisella in marriage.
VI. Charles the Fat. In 884, Charles the Fat, son of Louis the Germanic, temporarily collected under his rule nearly all the dominions of Charlemagne. The maintenance of this new concentration of territory and power was impossible, and it was dissolved even before the death of Charles the Fat.
VII. In 888, Eudes, and in 923, Raoul, made themselves kings. The first, a count of Paris, was the son of Robert the Strong, and assumed the title of king, at the national assembly held at Compiègne. The second was Duke of Burgundy, and husband of Emma, the grand-daughter of Robert the Strong, and sister of Hugo the Great, Duke of France. These kings were not, like the Mayors of the Palace at the termination of the first dynasty, the representatives of a powerful aristocracy. The landed aristocracy of the tenth century had no further need of representation; no power could struggle effectively against them. Every great landowner was absolute master in his own estates, and the kings were only great barons, who, having become independent, assumed the title of kings, with the aid of their vassals. A portion of the lords who had thus become independent, remained indifferent to quarrels which did not disturb their rights and their power. They cared little whether there was a king, or who was king. The descendants of Charlemagne retained for some considerable time a party of adherents, for the idea and feeling of the rightfulness of a hereditary succession to the crown, that is, of legitimacy, were already powerful; but in 987, the conflict ceased, and Hugh Capet became king.
The general fact which characterizes this epoch,—a tendency to dismemberment and dissolution,—is frequently met with in the course of the history of the human race. At first, we see the interests, forces, and ideas which exist in society, labouring to become united, to concentrate themselves, and to produce a suitable form of government. When this concentration has been once effected, and this government has been once produced, we find that, at the end of a certain time, it becomes exhausted and incapable of maintaining it entirely; new interests, new forces, and new ideas, which do not harmonize with each other, arise and come into action; then the dissolution begins, the elements of society become separated, and the bonds of government are relaxed. A conflict commences between the forces which tend to separation, and the authority which strives to maintain union. When the dissolution shall be consummated, then will begin a new work of concentration. This occurred after the fall of the second dynasty in France. The prevalence of the feudal system had caused the dissolution of the government and the state; the government and the state laboured to reconstitute themselves, and to regain their unity and consistency. This great work was not definitively accomplished until the reign of Louis XIV.; the social forces had then become once more concentrated in the hands of royalty. Our own times have witnessed a fresh dissolution.2
What we observe, then, during the years from 481 to 987, is a general phenomenon, characteristic of the progress of the human race. This phenomenon occurs not only in the political history of societies, but also in every occupation in which the activity of man finds exercise. In intellectual order, for example, we find at first that chaos reigns; the most divergent attempts to resolve the great questions of the nature and destiny of man, are made in the midst of the universal ignorance. By degrees, opinions become assimilated, a school is formed, founded by a superior man; it is joined by almost all men of mind. Ere long, in the midst of this very school, diverse opinions arise, contend, and become separated; dissolution begins once again in intellectual order, and will continue until a new unity is formed, and regains the empire.
Such, also, is the course of nature herself in her great and mysterious operations. This continual alternation of formation and dissolution, of life and death, recurs in all things, and under all forms. Spirit gathers matter together and gives it animation, uses, and then abandons it. It falls a prey to some fermentation, after which it will reappear under a new aspect, to receive once more that spirit which alone can impart to it life, order, and unity.
[1. ]Inspectors of the state of the kingdom and of the conduct of the nobles.
[* ] Lothaire, Pepin, and Louis the Germanic, the three elder sons of Louis the Débonnair.
[2. ]For a comprehensive discussion of this theme, see Guizot, HCE, Lectures VII–XI, pp. 119–96.