Front Page Titles (by Subject) LECTURE 20 - The History of the Origins of Representative Government in Europe
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LECTURE 20 - 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).
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National assemblies of the Franks; their primitive character, and rapid decline under the Merovingians. ~ They regain importance under the Carlovingians; and are held regularly under Charlemagne. ~ Letter of Archbishop Hincmar De ordine Palatii.
National assemblies were held among the Franks long previously to their settlement in the Roman empire, and to the establishment of monarchy amongst them. In these assemblies were discussed, in Germany, all the affairs of the confederation, tribe, or band. All the free men, that is to say, all the warriors, were present; but the authority of these assemblies, like the authority of the kings, was uncertain and precarious. They were formed, not in virtue of the principle of the sovereignty of the people, but in virtue of the right of every free man to have the sole disposal of himself. They were convoked especially to determine on military expeditions. Beyond this, every man acted independently, and was answerable for his conduct to none but the local authorities. TheChamp de Mars, or autumnal assembly, of which we find traces at the beginning of the monarchy, was habitually held for the purpose of dividing the booty which had been gained.
The dispersion of the free men, the increasing inequality of social conditions, and the subordination of the comrades to their chief, soon caused the national assemblies of the Franks to lose their character of universality. They ceased to be attended by any but the large landowners, the Leudes, and the superior clergy. In this state, they appear to have existed under most of the Merovingian kings. Mention is sometimes made of the people in general; but evidently the great majority of the free men neither could, nor did attend these assemblies. Those who possessed power and wealth were almost the only persons who attended; and they regulated the business brought under their notice solely with a view to their own interest. The increasing disorder, and continual dislocations of the kingdom, rendered these assemblies less frequent. They reappear, however, at the establishment of the authority of the Mayors of the Palace. As leaders of the aristocracy of the great independent landowners, they had need of their support. The substitution of a new family of kings, instead of the ancient race, was favourable to the importance of the assemblies. They became, under the first Carlovingians, what they had been under the first Merovingians,—a great council of government, in which all great affairs were discussed. Pepin transferred the Champs de Mars to the month of May; and Charlemagne held these assemblies with a regularity heretofore unknown. In order to form a correct idea of what they were under his reign, you must read the text, and the entire text, of the letter written in 882, sixty-eight years after the death of Charlemagne, by the celebrated Hincmar, archbishop of Rheims, in compliance with the request of some of the nobles of the kingdom who had asked his advice with regard to the government of Carloman, one of the sons of Louis the Stammerer. In this letter, Hincmar, as he himself informs us, does nothing but copy a treatise On the Order of the Palace, De ordine Palatii, written before 826 by the celebrated Adalhard, abbot of Corbia, and one of the principal advisers of Charlemagne. It is, therefore, a contemporary document, and its authority is great.
“It was the usage at that time,” says Hincmar,
to hold in each year two assemblies, (placita,) and no more. The first took place in the spring; at it were regulated the general affairs of the whole kingdom; no occurrence, unless it were an imperious and universal necessity, could alter what had been decreed thereat. In this assembly, met together all the great men (majores), both lay and ecclesiastic; the more influential (seniores), to discuss business and agree on decisions; the less influential (minores), to receive these decisions, and sometimes also to deliberate upon them and confirm them, not by a formal consent, but by the exercise of their opinion and the assent of their understanding.
The other assembly, in which the general gifts of the realm were received, was composed only of the more influential members (seniores) of the first assembly, and of the principal councillors. Here the affairs of the following year were treated of, if there were any which it was necessary to deliberate upon beforehand; as also those which might have occurred during the course of the year which was about to expire, and which required provisional attention without delay. For example, if, in any part of the kingdom, the governors of the frontiers (marchisi) had concluded a truce for any time, the course to be pursued on the expiration of these truces was discussed, and it was determined whether they should be renewed or not. If, in any other quarter of the kingdom, war seemed imminent, or peace appeared likely to be established, it was examined whether the exigencies of the moment required, in the first case, that incursions should be commenced or endured, and, in the second, how tranquillity might be insured. These lords thus deliberated long beforehand on what the affairs of the future might require; and when suitable measures had been agreed upon, they were kept so secret, that before the next general assembly they were no more known than if no one had paid any attention to the matter, and no decision had been arrived at regarding it. The object of this was, that if it were necessary to take, either within or without the kingdom, any measures which certain persons, when informed thereof, might wish to prevent, or frustrate, or render difficult, by any artifice, those persons might never have the power to do so.
In the same assembly, if any measure were necessary either to satisfy absent nobles, or to calm or excite the spirit of the people, and such measure had not previously been taken, it was discussed and adopted by the consent of those present, and it was executed in concert with them by the orders of the king. The year being thus terminated, the assembly of the following year was arranged as I have said.
With regard to the councillors, both lay and ecclesiastic, care was taken, as far as possible, to select such persons as, from their condition and duties, were filled with the fear of God, and animated, moreover, by unalterable fidelity, so as to consider nothing superior to the interests of the king and kingdom, except eternal life. Men were sought who could be turned aside from the path of duty neither by friends, nor enemies, nor relatives, nor gifts, nor flatteries, nor reproaches; men were sought who were wise and skilful, not with that sophistical skill and worldly wisdom which are so opposed to God’s will, but with a just and true wisdom that might enable them not only to repress, but also fully to confound the men who place all their reliance in the tricks and stratagems of human policy. The maxim of the councillors thus elected, and of the king himself, was, never to confide, without their mutual consent, to their domestics or any other person, what they might have said familiarly to one another, either upon the affairs of the kingdom, or about any particular individuals. It made no difference whether the secret ought to be kept for a day or two, or more, or for a year, or even for ever.
It invariably happens that, if the conversation held in such meetings, with regard to any individual, either by way of precaution, or in reference to any other public interest, come afterwards to the knowledge of that individual, he cannot but feel great anxiety, or be driven to despair thereby, or, which is a much more serious matter, be stimulated to in fidelity; and thus a man who might perhaps still have done service to the State, is rendered useless,—which never would have happened if he had not known what was said about him. That which is true of one man may be true of two, of a hundred, or of a greater number, or of a whole family, or of an entire province, unless the greatest caution be observed.
The apocrisiary, that is, the chaplain or keeper of the palace, and the chamberlain, were always present at these councils; they were therefore chosen with the greatest care; or else, after having been chosen, they were furnished with such instructions as should render them worthy of being present. As to the other officers of the palace (ministeriales), if there were any one who, first by gaining instruction, and afterwards by giving advice, proved himself capable of honourably occupying the place of one of these councillors, or fit to become one, he received orders to attend the meetings, giving the greatest attention to the matters discussed thereat, correcting his erroneous ideas, learning that of which he was ignorant, and retaining in his memory that which had been ordained and determined. The object of this was, that, if any unforeseen accident occurred, either within or without the kingdom; if any unexpected news arrived, in reference to which previous provision had not been made (it rarely happened, however, that in such cases, profound deliberation was necessary, or that there was not time to convoke the councillors already mentioned); the object of this, I say, was that, under such circumstances, the officers of the palace, with the grace of God, and by their constant habit of both attending at the public councils and deliberating upon the domestic affairs of the realm, might be capable, as need was, either to advise what had best be done, or to point out how matters might be arranged without inconvenience, until the next meeting of the council. So much with regard to the principal officers of the palace.
In reference to the inferior officers, properly called palatines, who had not to do with the general affairs of the kingdom, but only with those in which the persons specially connected with the palace were concerned, the sovereign regulated their duties with great care; in order that, not only might no evil arise therefrom, but also that if any disorder were manifested, it might at once be repressed and extirpated. If the affair were urgent, but might nevertheless without injustice or wrong to any person be deferred for decision until the meeting of the general assembly, the emperor expected the palatines to indicate the best means of delay, and to imitate the wisdom of their superiors in a manner pleasing to God and useful to the kingdom. As to the councillors whom I first mentioned, they were careful, when summoned to the palace, not to occupy themselves with private affairs, or with the disputes which might have arisen with regard to the possession of property or the application of the law, until they had arranged, with the help of God, everything that concerned the king and kingdom in general. This being done, if, in obedience to the orders of the king, there remained any affair which could not be settled either by the Count of the palace, or by the officer under whose cognizance it fell, without the assistance of the councillors, they proceeded to investigate it.
At one or other of the two assemblies, and in order that they might not appear to be convoked without reason, there were submitted to the examination and deliberation of the great personages whom I have mentioned, as well as of the chief senators of the realm, and in virtue of the orders of the king, those articles of law namedcapitula, which the king himself had drawn up under the inspiration of God, or the necessity of which had been manifested to him in the interval between the meetings. After having received these communications, they deliberated upon them for one, two, or three days, or more, according to the importance of the matter. Messengers from the palace, going and coming, received their questions and brought back answers; and no stranger approached the place of their meeting, until the result of their deliberations was placed before the eyes of the great prince, who then, with the wisdom which he had received from God, adopted a resolution which all obeyed. This course was pursued for one, two, or more capitularies, until, by the help of God, all the necessities of the time had been duly regulated.
Whilst these affairs were thus arranged out of the presence of the king, the prince himself, in the midst of the multitude who had come to the general assembly, was busied in receiving presents, greeting the most important individuals, conversing with those whom he saw but seldom, exhibiting an affectionate interest in the old, laughing and joking with the young, and doing these and similar things to ecclesiastics as well as laymen. However, if those who were deliberating upon the matters submitted to their judgment desired it, the king went to them, and remained with them as long as they wished; and there they reported to him, with entire familiarity, what they thought of various matters, and what were the friendly discussions which had arisen amongst them.
I must not forget to mention that, if the weather were fine, all this went on in the open air; but if not, in several distinct buildings, by which those who had to deliberate upon the king’s propositions were separated from the multitude of persons who had come to the assembly; and then the less important men could not enter. The building intended for the meeting of the nobles was divided into two parts, so that the bishops, abbots, and superior clergy could meet together without any mixture of laymen. In the same way, the counts and other distinguished personages of the State separated themselves, in the morning, from the rest of the multitude, until the time came, when, whether the king were present or absent, they all met together; and then the nobles above-mentioned, the clergy on their side, and the laymen on theirs, proceeded to the hall which was assigned to them, and where seats had been honourably prepared for them. When the lay and ecclesiastical lords were thus separated from the multitude, it was in their power to sit either together or separately, according to the nature of the affairs which they had to discuss, whether ecclesiastical, secular, or mixed. In the same way, if they wished to send for any one, either to bring them food, or to answer any question, and to dismiss him after having obtained what they desired, it was in their power to do so. Thus proceeded the examination of the affairs which the king proposed for their deliberation.
The second occupation of the king was to demand of each what he had to report or relate to him regarding that part of the kingdom from which he had come; not only was this permitted to all, but they were specially enjoined to make inquiries, during the interval between the assemblies, about what was going on both within and without the kingdom; and they were to seek information from foreigners as well as natives, from enemies as well as friends, sometimes by employing envoys, and without being very scrupulous as to the way in which the information was obtained. The king desired to know whether in any district or corner of his kingdom the people were murmuring or disaffected, and what was the cause of their disaffection, and whether any disorder had occurred which required the attention of the general council, and other similar details. He also sought to know whether any of the conquered nations were likely to revolt, or whether any that had revolted seemed disposed to submit, or whether those that still remained independent threatened the kingdom with any attack, and so forth. Upon all these matters, wherever disorder or danger appeared, his chief care was to learn what was the motive or occasion thereof.
It is evident that these assemblies were considered by Charlemagne as an instrument of authority, order, and administration, much rather than as a national institution rendered necessary by the rights and free spirit of his people. The employment of this means of government, however, does not do the less honour to the genius of Charlemagne. He had perceived that the principal vice of the social system of his time, and the principal cause of the weakness of his own authority, were the absence of concentration, the isolation of individuals, and the independence of his agents. Periodical convocations gave a centre to all. The efforts of a great man in a barbarous age have as their especial object the creation of a nation, for therein lies his power; Charlemagne sought to find his nation lower than among the great land-owners and the great beneficiaries. He wished to rally together the entire mass of the people, in order to increase his own power, and to have at his disposal everywhere potent means of action. His was a skilful despotism. Despotism, in barbarous times, sometimes announces the presence of a man who is before his age, and who has necessities and views in relation to the future. Despotism, in the midst of an advanced state of civilization, indicates the presence of a man who may be great and even necessary to society, but who cares only for himself, and for the times in which he lives.