Source Translation: The Last Carolingian Capitulary

 The Capitulary of Ver (March 884, Ver)

In the name of the holy and indivisible Trinity. Carloman, by grace of God king, to all the venerable bishops, abbots, counts, judges and all those faithful to the holy Church of God and Us.

When, in the year of the Lord’s Incarnation 884, the fifth year of Our reign, in the second indiction, in the month of March, We and a group of Our followers with Us had convened at the palace of Ver, it was pleasing that certain statues of the sacred canons and certain capitularies of Our ancestors should be renewed. For We deeply and solemnly grieve that through the impediment of sin and the abounding malice of wicked men they have become worthless beyond measure and are nearly destroyed, especially those which were promulgated against the evil of robbery and plundering by the holy fathers and confirmed with royal authority by most Christian kings.

Indeed, so far and wide has this poison been spread and dispersed everywhere that now everyone, infected and corrupted in body and soul, quite freely takes advantage of this disease which is so very sinful and deadly, not acknowledging that which Paul said – or rather God Almighty through him – ‘Nor thieves shall possess the kingdom of God’ [1 Corinthians 6:10], nor that which the apostle said elsewhere, because if we bite and devour one another [see Galatians 5:15] (that is, if we plunder), we ill quickly fall. Therefore it is fulfilled in us – through us, even! – that reproach cast by God Almighty through the prophet Isaiah, saying ‘they shall eat every man the flesh of his own arm’ [Isaiah 9:20], that is, lay waste the possessions of their brother. For he devours the flesh of his arm and drinks the blood of his arm who takes the possessions of his neighbour, from which he should get his sustenance.

It is not surprising if pagans and foreign nations have dominion over us and take from us temporal goods, since everyone takes from their neighbour by force their means of subsistence. Therefore that which God Almighty threatened through Isaiah the prophet justly applies to us, saying ‘Woe to thee that spoilest, shalt not thou thyself also be spoiled?’ [Isaiah 33:1]. We despoil our brothers, and therefore the pagans deservedly plunder us and our possessions.

How, therefore, can we securely proceed against the enemies of the holy Church of God and us, when the spoil of the poor is in our houses [Isaiah 3:14]? And not only is it kept in the house, but also it often happens that some people march off to battle with a belly full of spoil. And how can we defeat our enemies when the blood of our brothers drips from our mouths, and our hands are covered in blood and our arms are weighed down with the burden of miseries and robberies, and all our strength of soul and body is crippled? God receives not our prayers, because the clamours and wails and heavy sighs of paupers and orphans, wards and widows come before and forestall our prayers, which are weighted down with the bloody flesh of our brothers and so become hoarse, having none of the full, rich sound of virtue.

There are many who are seen to give alms from this spoil, not understanding that Isaiah says this of such acts: ‘Whoever offers the Lord an offering from spoil, it is as if he slaughters a son before his father.’ (*). There are no few people who seek counsel and penitence for murders, adulteries, perjuries, and arsons and think nothing of the evil of robbery, not understanding that as often as someone robs the poor and puts them in danger from hunger and nakedness, he perpetrates that many murders, for he kills his neighbour when he takes from him their means of subsistence. We know from the saying of Paul the apostle that ‘no murderer hath life in the kingdom of God’ [see 1 John 3:15], and ‘adulterers God will judge’ [Hebrews 13:4].

Because, therefore, ‘no thieves shall possess the kingdom of God’ unless they return that which they took and do penance as well, let us flee this great evil, from which so many and such terrible other evils come forth; and let us love our neighbours as ourselves, fulfilling the Law, which says ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s goods, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.’ [Exodus 20:17], because otherwise we can neither resist our enemies nor possess the kingdom of God.

Cap. 1: And thus We wish that Our palace should be established in the custom of Our predecessors and the worship of God and royal honour, as well as the habit of religion and the concord of unanimity and the order of peace; and that the peace preserved in Our same palace by the enactments of Our predecessors should be brought forth to be followed throughout the realm.

Cap. 2: Therefore We decree that everyone dwelling in Our palace or coming to it from any place should live in peace. But if anyone violates the peace and commits robbery, let them by Our royal authority and the command of Our representative be brought to an audience at the palace so that they might be punished by a legal judgement, in accordance with what is contained in the capitularies of Our ancestors, with a threefold fine and the royal ban.

Cap. 3: If anyone without a lord either within the palace or living near it does the same, let Our representative approach him, and by Our command order him to come to the palace. But if they rashly spurn coming, let them be brought to Our presence by force to be subjected to the enactments of Our predecessors. But if they spurn both Us and Our representative and do not want to come to Us and is killed there while defending himself, and any of his relatives or friends want to begin a feud against Our followers who killed him, We will authoritatively make them swear not to, and We will help Our followers in the matter by royal authority.

Cap. 4: It also pleased Us and Our followers that whoever robs or plunders anything within Our realm should pay a fine of triple the total value, and pay the royal ban, and in addition do public penance for it, as is contained in the capitularies of Our ancestors. But if they are a cottar or serf, let them similarly pay a fine of triple the total value, or their lord on their behalf, and receive sixty firm blows, and in addition let them do public penance for it, the nature of which should rest within bishop’s judgement in accordance with the magnitude of the deed, because from them come forth fornications and adulteries and murders and arsons, drunkenness and many other vices. If anyone, however, denies the deed, if it not clearly proven, let them clear themselves by swearing an oath with their own hand, except Our royal vassals, on whose behalf their better men should swear the oath. This will carried out in this way with the greatest diligence.

Cap. 5: The bishop in whose diocese anyone who plunders anything lives will by his admonition, canonically, through his priest, summon him once and twice and if necessary three times to make amends or to pay the fine or to penance, so that he might give satisfaction to God and the Church, which he has wounded. If, however, he despises and spurns his admonition and very salutary invitation, let him strike him with the pastoral rod, that is, a sentence of excommunication, that he should be separated from the communion of the holy Church and all Christians until he provides appropriate satisfaction and makes worthy amends. The same bishop ought to notify his lord of this excommunication, and all his fellow bishops, let they receive him before he has made amends.

Cap. 6: Concerning those who do not have benefices and allods within the diocese and are parishioners of another bishop and commit robbery and plundering within a diocese when they go to court or make a journey from place to place, it pleased Us and Our followers that, if it is done sufficiently close to the bishop that their plundering can be made known to him before they leave his diocese, he should send an active and prudent priest who should summon them on his behalf to reasonably make amends, which should be the kind of fine and amends outlined above, if, having been summoned, they wish to come. If, though, they proudly spurn the summons and admonition of the bishop, let them be struck by a similar sentence of excommunication, lest they leave the diocese before what is established above has been carried out. Their excommunication should be communicated to their lord and their own bishops, lest they receive them before they return to where they committed robbery and make full amends there.

Cap. 7: And because the bishops, who are occupied with Us and their people and the common needs of the Church and the whole realm, cannot oversee everything which is perpetrated within the limits of their diocese alone, We establish that, whenever bishops leave their own city, each one should leave such helpers in their city who can carry out everything in that city with the highest degree of prudence, and whom the poor forever redeemed by the blood of Christ might find present in the city, from whom they might receive an answer and some solace. Let each bishop establish in townships and estates far away from the city reverend and careful priests, temperate in the prudence of their habits, who can on his behalf carry out in a disciplined manner what is established above, and let other junior and less careful priests refer their case to them.

Cap. 8: It pleased Us and Our followers, for common advantage and imminent need, that no bishop should gravely sorrow if another bishop excommunicates one of his parishioners due to plundering of this kind.

Cap. 9: And because it is necessary that episcopal authority should be helped by judicial power in eradicating and removing completely such an ill and fixing and establishing such a good, it pleased Us and Our followers in common that royal representatives should faithfully aid them in this matter generally, and the count should order his viscount and his vicars and hundredmen and other officers of the commonwealth and Frankish men learned in the documents of worldly law that, for love of God Almighty and the peace of the holy Church and loyalty to Us, each time bishops or their ministers or also the poor themselves appeal to them on this matter they should help in this, insofar as they usefully can, both by themselves and with ministers of the Church, such that officers of the Church should have the authority of their bishop and officers of the count should have Our authority and that of their count.  

Cap. 10: We also wish that, if anyone staying in a county or making a journey rashly thinks nought of episcopal or royal authority, and spurns making amends legally for what they unjustly stole, and becomes a rebel, if they are killed there, let no-one begin a feud against any of Our followers who killed him, nor should they pay any fine for his death. If any of his relatives or friends wants to begin a feud about this matter, We will authoritatively make them swear not to, and We will help Our followers in the matter by royal authority.

Cap. 11: Concerning Our royal vassals, We command that, if any of them takes spoil, the count in whose power they are should summon him to make amends. If anyone does not want to hear the count or his representative, let them be compelled to make amends by force, as the law teaches, and as is specified in the capitularies of Our ancestors as king, in the same place where the despoiling was committed. If they declare formally that they want to be distrained before Our presence rather than before the count, let him be permitted to come before Us through credible securities or through the oath of a better person, so that pleas of this sort might be resolved there. We concede, certainly, this honour to Our royal vassals, that they should not swear an oath with their own hand like others; but one of their better and more credible men should not delay doing it instead. If they despise, though, what We said above, and do not wish to make amends in any way, and remain in contempt, and are killed there, We will harbour no rage against those who killed them. And if any of their relatives or friends wants to begin a feud about this matter, We will authoritatively make them swear not to, as was said above, and We will help them in this by Our royal authority. If they say that in fact the count has not acted in regard of them in accordance with the law, but has done this out of some rage or jealousy which he previously held against them, let the count make satisfaction to them before Us, in accordance with what pleases Us, that he has acted for no other reason than for the robbery they committed.

Cap. 12: To remove any excuse for robbery, We wish that priests, who should provide a good example of charity to everyone, should be hospitable, as the apostle says: ‘use hospitality to one another without grudging’ [1 Peter 4:9], and let them offer hospitality to those making a journey, because some people pleased God through being hospitable when they gave a warm welcome to His angels.  

Cap. 13: It pleased Us and Our followers that priests should admonish their parishioners that they should be hospitable and deny hospitality to no-one making a journey, and – to remove any excuse for robbery – sell nothing to passers-by more dearly that they could sell it in the market. If they want to sell something more dearly, let the passers-by refer this to the priest, and let them sell to them ethically by his command.

Cap. 14: We wish that priests and comital officers should order the villeins that they should not form the organisations which they call in the common tongue ‘guilds’ against those who rob anything. Rather, let them refer their case to that priest who is the bishop’s representative, and to those who are the count’s officers about this in these places, so that everything may be prudently and reasonably corrected.

* Isaiah says nothing of the sort; the line has vague parallels to Isaiah 66:3.

Capitularia_ _Lex_Salica_ _[...]_btv1b10548477k
Picture of a king in state from one of the manuscripts in which the capitulary is preserved, BNF Lat 9654, probably from Metz. Image from Gallica.

It’s really hard to find people writing about the Capitulary of Ver, which is odd, because it’s a very rich text. To put it in perspective, Monday’s charter, short and weird as it is, has more in-depth scholarly commentary than this lengthy bit of lawmaking. But look how interesting it is! Not least, it’s got the sermon conveying the rationale for this particular bit of legislation bundled in with the chapters themselves, which illustrates just how pragmatic a response to Carloman’s problems this is.

We’ve been mostly looking at internal Carolingian politics these last few weeks, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that this is all taking place to the background of incessant Viking raids. I don’t think anyone, either now or then, thought that there was a serious chance that the Northmen would conquer Gaul or Germany outright, but at the same time there just didn’t seem to be any hope that things would get better. This is admittedly an impression gained from the thoroughly miserable Annals of Saint-Vaast, but we saw it in Monday’s charter as well and this capitulary too makes it clear that the king’s circles don’t think that as matters currently stand they can fend off the Vikings.

It’d be nice to know who wrote this. One scholar said it was Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims, which would be an impressive achievement as he’d been dead for a couple of years at this point. (The scholar in question knows that perfectly well; what it reads like is a slip of the pen on the assumption that if it’s grandiloquent, hectoring and late ninth century it must be Hincmar’s…) Hincmar’s successor Fulk is not particularly close to the royal court at this point, although we can’t rule him out necessarily. In any case, there are enough Francian bishops around who could produce something like this we can’t narrow it down.

What are they saying? On Monday, we saw that Carloman was trying to build up support for a renewed attack on the Vikings in autumn 884, and this is a key part of it. God’s favour cannot be won for the Franks as things currently stand because rampant theft has despoiled the poor to such an extent that He cannot hear their prayers for victory: ergo, to defeat the ‘pagans and foreign nations’, theft must be suppressed. This rings, to my ear, quite Anglo-Saxon, less in the language than in the priorities. Later, in the tenth and early eleventh centuries, King Athelstan’s law codes would be remarkably punitive towards thieves; and Æthelred the Unready responded to Viking attacks in his time not least with attempts to win divine favour. So this is very much a document of 884.

Is it addressing real problems? I’m inclined to think not. Theft was a perennial problem for earlier medieval lawmakers (although it’s interesting that here it’s theft rather than, say, orthodoxy or runaway slaves). This isn’t quite a Patrick-Wormald-esque case of law-as-royal-performance: I don’t think Carloman is simply mouthing empty platitudes to look appropriately kingly. This is fairly comprehensive legislation, aiming to address the causes of theft as well as the act itself – hence chapter 13, forbidding gouging travellers. (When we brought Ver up on the blog before, it was in the context of Geoffrey Koziol using it as an example of ‘unpragmatic’ Carolingian lawmaking – that seemed wrong then and seems bizarre now.)

Certainly, it was taken as an authoritative bit of rule-making over the course of the next century. I remember reading somewhere someone claiming that it wasn’t received, and certainly I don’t know how it compares to the manuscript tradition of other capitularies, but Ver shows up in three manuscript collections from the tenth and early eleventh centuries, one from as far away as southern Germany.

With that said, I’m not sure it’s a healthy sign for West Frankish politics. Some historians have suggested that, had Carloman lived, he would have proven particularly effective; and certainly he appears to have been an energetic and able ruler. But this kind of hyper-moralising response to military defeat is uncomfortably reminiscent of Louis the Pious and particularly Æthelred – I can’t help feeling that, had Carloman kept on ruling, West Frankish political culture would have ended up with a case of perpetual hysteria in the face of their inability to deal once and for all with Viking raids (the causes of which were, after all, out of their control). In that regard, the accession of Charles the Fat was probably a much-needed cooldown of West Frankish politics.


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