Colloquium Held on Charlemagne’s 802 Legislation

Painting of Charlemagne being crowned by Pope Leo III. Courtesy of

By Russell Blakeslee

Emperor Charlemagne’s 802 A.D. legislation on homicide was analyzed and critiqued on Wednesday by Dr. Jennifer Davis, Associate Professor of History at the Catholic University of America, who recently wrote an essay on the topic.  Dr. Samuel Collins, Associate Professor of History at George Mason University and colleague of Dr. Davis, gave his commentary on the essay, and questions from the audience were taken.

Discussed first was the actual viability of the manuscripts containing the 802 legislation. Davis noted the translation contained a word in Latin that did not exist, leading Collins to propose Charlemagne’s law might be “a kind of record of conversation in progress.”  

This prompted a discussion of who Charlemagne was, and what his legislative goals for the empire he ruled were.  In Charlemagne’s time, Europe was made up of diverse cultures, and was becoming harder to rule. Charlemagne was King of the Franks from 771 to 800, and on Christmas Day of 800, to his surprise, was designated by Pope Leo III to become Holy Roman Emperor.  This was the beginning of the Carolingian dynasty, during which Europe became more morally and socially united.

Charlemagne also became increasingly concerned with uniting the Church and state.  Concerning the 802 legislation on homicide, questions were asked about Charlemagne’s motives for making this law.  First proposed was the idea that Charlemagne was concerned with the unity of his people, encouraging unity in a political-religious sense.  A proposal made by Collins introduced the idea that Charlemagne was much more concerned with the salvation of his subjects and himself, referencing his assumed responsibility as mediator between God and the populace.  A question from the audience introduced the idea that Charlemagne was more passionate in certain parts of the 802 legislation, such as that part discouraging fratricide, because there is a theory Charlemagne may have killed his own brother.  Yet it was pointed out that Charlemagne, during the first years of the ninth century, probably was creating new horizons for the Church and for all of Europe.

Another point of consideration presented was the idea that Charlemagne wanted to make bishops in charge of matters of secular justice, which contradicted other statements by him.

The event was just over one and a half hours, and was held in Room 351 in the Pryzbyla Center.  It is part of a colloquium series run by the University’s History Department. Davis holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University, and is currently working on a project about law developed and put into action by the Frankish kings.  She is the author of Charlemagne’s Practice of Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2005) and co-editor of The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: New Directions in Early Medieval Studies (Ashgate, 2008). Davis also teaches courses here about Charlemagne, the Carolingian dynasty, and medieval times.

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