The Illusion of Royal Power in the Carolingian Annals

The Illusion of Royal Power in the Carolingian Annals

By Rosamond McKitterick

The English Historical Review, Vol. 115, No. 460. (2000)

Synopsis: Medieval and modern commentators on events in Francia in the middle of the eighth century have thus disagreed both about the role of the Pope and the nature of Carolingian kingship. Their readings, like those of Einhard, Gregory VII and Hotman, quite obviously have been influenced by their own constitutional preoccupations and determination of prerogatives; they serve incidentally to remind us how often history can be drawn on and distorted in new political arguments.

Certainly the use of Frankish history to this end deserves further investigation. Yet precisely because they were so influential, the events of the mid-eighth century merit closer examination. It is the Huguenot lawyer Hotman who provides the cue in his warning that caution should be used in reading these records. ‘Since it seems likely’, he wrote, ‘that both Pippin and his sons incurred much envy for seizing the kingdom from Childeric, they sought out men of ingenuity to exaggerate the inactivity of Childeric and the slothfulness of the earlier kings’.

It is with Hotman’s ‘men ofingenuity’ that I shall be concerned in this article. One of them, of course, was Einhard, writing seventy years after the event and in very different political circumstances. He has been used, quite incorrectly, as if he were a reliable political commentator on what happened. But the same criticism might be levelled at the later eighthcentury accounts on which all subsequent commentaries, from Einhard onwards, have depended. The narratives of the political changes of the eighth century, most notably the Annales Regni Francorum (Royal Frankish Annals), construct a version of events that all subsequent historians, until recently myself included, have accepted as more or less accurate.

I should affirm at once that I do not doubt that Pippin did become king. What is in question is that it happened in quite the way, with quite the political emphases that are described, or that the Pope was involved in 751 at all. In this article, therefore, I shall assess the validity of the claims in the eighth-century Frankish narrative sources in relation to the attribution of royal power and the Pope’s role,’ and their implications for modern historians’ understanding of Carolingian royal power. Our current view of Carolingian kingship, which in its turn was the foundation for medieval kingship and an inspiration for subsequent rulers in Europe, ultimately rests on developments in the second half of the eighth century.

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