“What If … Charlemagne’s Other Sons had survived?” Charlemagne’s Sons and the Problems of Royal Succession

“What If … Charlemagne’s Other Sons had survived?” Charlemagne’s Sons and the Problems of Royal Succession

By Elke Ohnacker

Historical Social Research, Vol.34:2 (2009)



Abstract: The article is concerned with the problem of Early Medieval royal succession in different circumstances: the death of two of Charlemagne’s designated heirs in 810 and 811, the succession of Louis the Pious in 814 and the conflicts between Louis and his sons resulting in Louis’s deposition in 833 and the division of the Carolingian Empire. Counterfactuals are employed in the interpretation of the events surrounding and leading up to the central political and legal problems of royal and imperial succession. Asking questions like “What if … event x would not have taken place?” and – if possible – developing likely and less likely scenarios proves to be a valuable tool of historic research, especially with regard to the Early Middle Ages’ grave lack of written sources. The overall effect of a methodic use of counter-factuals in this form is a deconstruction or what still may be seen as a “logical succession” of events.

Introduction: On January 28th 814, Charlemagne died at the age of 72. His son Louis the Pious succeeded his father into kingship and empire. Long before Louis died in 840, the kingship had been contested amongst his sons. This conflict peaked in the deposition of Louis 833 and, later, in the division of the Frankish empire formulated in the treaty of Verdun, in 843. But, taken the collective mentality of Early Medieval Elites, Louis the Pious’s sons were neither particularly greedy nor exceedingly belligerent. Rivalries between brothers, fathers and sons, the offspring of women married to or allied with the same king, etc. were omnipresent in these times. Conflicts were violent and frequently resulted in war, political assassination, the disfigurement of opponents, banishment into monasteries and exile, etc.

Amongst Charlemagne’s sons, four were treated as potential successors, Pippin the Hunchback, Karl the Younger, Karlmann/Pippin and Louis. Apart from Pippin the Hunchback’s revolt, the written sources do not mention conflicts between these brothers, them and Charlemagne’s other sons, or between father and sons. But the written sources we have got are few and often biased. In historical situations which are but sparsely documented by sources of any kind, it is necessary to analyse these sources closely. Comparing the issues in question with what happened before and after can lead to a more detailed view.

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Furthermore, questions which are capable to break open the often fragmentary chronologies of events which are typical for the Early Middle Ages, like the question “What if … event x would not have taken place?” or: “… would have taken place at an earlier or a later date?” offer a wide range of possibilities to analyse certain phenomena more closely. The development of alternative scenarios can as well reduce the risk of being trapped in teleological interpretations suggested by a chronological succession of events. In the perspective of the historian it is imperative to keep in mind that a given succession of events need not be the result of causality. Thus, in order to answer the question “What if … Karl and Karlmann/Pippin had survived their father?” we have to include two preliminary steps: analysing the characteristics of the written sources and the information they give and comparing characteristical problems of kings, their sons, and the conflicts about royal succession reaching back into Merovingian times.

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