Thursday, December 13, 2012

Charlemange and the Capitulare de Villis: "So that none might be reduced to poverty"

Charlemagne (or Karolus Magnus) was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in the year 800 AD by Pope Leo III. The next (and last) 14 years of Charlemagne's life were completely devoted to establishing his family's hold over his vast empire, and solidifying Christianity in the West against the various bands of pagans that constituted the disparate political landscape.

Not only did the emperor seek to revive arts and learning (his efforts resulted in what we now call the "Carolingian Renaissance"), he sought to revive the economy as well. One of the more famous documents to come out of this period was Charlemagne's Capitulare de Villis, or On the Management of Estates.

In this early, chaotic period of the Middle Ages, Charlemagne hoped to revive what he saw as a more stable, Roman villa-based economy. The document lays out Charlemagne's and his court's plans for proper estate management and productivity levels, with these stated goals:

It is our wish that those of our estates which we have established to minister to our needs shall serve our purposes entirely and not those of other men. 
That all our people shall be well looked after, and shall not be reduced to penury by anyone.

The entirety of the Capitulare de Villis can be found here, and in English!

9th-century manuscript depicting the event. The king himself said that the crowning was a surprise, but I surmise that it was awfully hard for the pope to hide a big, jeweled crown and sneak up on a kneeling man without anyone noticing. 

The Captiulare de Villis is an interesting document in the history of Charlemagne's reign. It can be seen as a bridge between the classical Roman economies and the developing manorialism of medieval economies. It can also be seen as a piece of propaganda, pointing out the orderliness of Charlemagne's royal estates and granting some legitimacy to his rule as emperor. 

There might have even been Biblical overtones in the de Villis. M. Dygo draws parallels between the wording of the CV and the books of Kings and Ecclesiastes: "“The inclusion in the Capitulare de Villis of a lavish catalogue of plants, animals, and birds was to testify to the wisdom of the king. … In this way, Charlemagne emulated Solomon.”[1]

Likewise, other documents from the time period, such as Charlemagne's gift of animals from Harun al-Bashad, the “a number of exotic animals: an elephant, a Nubian bear, a lion and monkeys,” all of which emulated down to a T Solomon's own royal menagerie.[2]

A 15c-manuscript showing Charlemagne starting his famous Spanish campaigns. 
Charlemagne included in the CV a section on gardens, as well. I will post it in its entirety!

70. It is our wish that they shall have in their gardens all kinds of plants: lily, roses, fenugreek, costmary, sage, rue, southernwood, cucumbers, pumpkins, gourds, kidney-bean, cumin, rosemary, caraway, chick-pea, squill, gladiolus, tarragon, anise, colocynth, chicory, ammi, sesili, lettuces, spider's foot, rocket salad, garden cress, burdock, penny-royal, hemlock, parsley, celery, lovage, juniper, dill, sweet fennel, endive, dittany, white mustard, summer savory, water mint, garden mint, wild mint, tansy, catnip, centaury, garden poppy, beets, hazelwort, marshmallows, mallows, carrots, parsnip, orach, spinach, kohlrabi, cabbages, onions, chives, leeks, radishes, shallots, cibols, garlic, madder, teazles, broad beans, peas, coriander, chervil, capers, clary. And the gardener shall have house-leeks growing on his house. As for trees, it is our wish that they shall have various kinds of apple, pear, plum, sorb, medlar, chestnut and peach; quince, hazel, almond, mulberry, laurel, pine, fig, nut and cherry trees of various kinds. The names of apples are: gozmaringa, geroldinga, crevedella, spirauca; there are sweet ones, bitter ones, those that keep well, those that are to be eaten straightaway, and early ones. Of pears they are to have three or four kinds, those that keep well, sweet ones, cooking pears and the late-ripening ones.
I've been keeping tabs on this list for quite some time on what to plant in the spring. When you've tried the rest, why not try the best? 

[1] Dygo, M. “Capitulary de Villis and the Bible: On the Economic Programme of Charlemagne,” in Acta Polonia Historiae. Vol. 80. Instytut Historii PAN (Warszawa, Poland), 1999. p. 13.
[2] Ibid. p. 11.


  1. Marshmallows? Who knew:) I love this blog!

  2. Really nice.

    May be worthwhile to enlarge that last image.