By Carla M. Heelan
Journal of the Oxford University History Society, Vol.5 (2007)
Introduction: The eighth century marked a change in the relationship between the papacy and the Frankish monarchs, allying the two foci of spiritual and temporal power. During the many years of the second half of the century, however, when the two rulers did not meet in person, frequent communication and indirect contact maintained and strengthened their bond. Just as in Byzantium, embassies bore written and oral messages between the two men.
In the late eighth century, Charlemagne collected the popes’ correspondence into a volume called the Codex Carolinus, of which one late ninth century copy from Cologne remains. It is unknown whether or to what extent these letters were edited before their inclusion, and these deletions could have considerable consequences for the interpretation of the volume. The significance of what does remain, however, cannot be contested. The letters reveal how the popes addressed the Carolingian rulers, the tone of their communications, and the wide range of subjects, both personal and political, under discussion.
Regrettably Charlemagne did not include his own responses in the volume, but the pope frequently commented on the kings’ replies, and their contents can sometimes be surmised. The Codex Carolinus suggests that the popes and Carolingians themselves were unsure of the nature and strength of their association. The letters do not reveal a rigid and formalized diplomacy as in Byzantium, but rather a relationship that arose organically out of the papacy’s need for aid and the Frankish vacuum of legitimacy, a bond that developed out of pragmatism and matured for the benefit of each party.
This article now turns to this collection of letters in order to examine diplomacy between pope and king by looking at the frequently-mentioned missi, the men who carried their correspondence and in doing so represented them abroad.