What are capitularies?


The decrees of the Frankish rulers are known as capitularies because of their subdivision into chapters (lat. capitula). They are amongst the most important sources for the history of the Frankish kingdoms that covered large parts of Western and Central Europe from the 6th-9th century. They are instructions similar to laws, ordinances or provisions, regulating political, military, ecclesiastical, social, economic and cultural matters.

Capitularies shed light on Frankish rulers’s attempts to govern their extensive realm. Specifically they provide information about their efforts to reform church, society and empire, about mechanisms for dealing with political crises, and about rulers interacting with their officials.

Definition according to Mordek: Capitularies are “royal – that is, initiated by the Frankish rulers – statutes and announcements of legislative, administrative or religious-exhortative character, usually divided into chapters, with the magnates of the realm often involved in their drafting and/or promulgation” (Mordek 1996b, p. 488).

… but in fact it’s more complicated than that:

“What were the capitularies?” – François Louis Ganshof raised this question in his classic introduction (Ganshof 1961). His answer was brief and to the point: capitularies were “decrees of state authority [Staatsgewalt]”. Ganshof’s position has met with fundamental criticism from various sides since its publication. In particular, his application of notions connected with modern bureaucratic state administration to the early Middle Ages is a major source of irritation today.

Nevertheless his introduction has still not been replaced by a new comprehensive account. In part this is probably due to scholarship having cast doubt on several assertions concerning capitularies that were previously taken for granted. Back in 1986, Hubert Mordek, who had been preparing a new edition of the capitularies and knew the subject intimately, already noted in regard to the state of research that nothing was “as uncontentious as the divergence of opinions” (Mordek 1986a, p. 25).


In brief, unanimity exists on the following issues:

  • Capitularies are peculiar to the Frankish empire. Building on Merovingian precursors they had their apogee during the time of Charlemagne and his son Louis the Pious, a period spanning roughly 50 years. The tradition was mostly discontinued under Louis’ successors, with the sole exception of Charles the Bald in Western Francia, and stopped for good in the 10th century.
  • Their designation stems from their division in capitula. Usually numbered successively, these form sections which may sometimes consist only of keywords or fragmentary sentences, but may also present longer, fully composed texts. From 779 onwards sources occasionally refer to a collection of such capitula as a capitulare.
  • However, this kind of subdivision is not unique to capitularies – other legal texts, e.g. acts of church councils or diocesan statutes, are also grouped into chapters. The defining trait common to all capitularies is their issuer, the Frankish ruler or, in a broader sense, the royal court.

Room for debate

The problem of content

Going by modern legal concepts, it is somewhat problematic to refer to capitularies as laws or as secular legal sources (in contrast to contemporary law emanating from the church). For starters, there is the vast range of topics mixing “secular” and “ecclesiastical” aspects. Additionally, a single capitulary may thus contain additions to a law code (lex; chiefly dealing with penal tariffs for certain crimes) alongside general admonitions for a more godly Christian life, recalling in their style more a sermon than a sober legal text (cf. Buck 1997).

Finally, the various regulations recorded in the capitularies differ significantly in their claim to validity. More general provisions sit right next to very specific instructions for the royal missi on how they should act in a certain case. These directions were only valid for a limited time and became obsolete as soon as they had been carried out.

Diversity of form

Capitularies are heterogeneous in their form. Some pieces are very elaborate, with formulaic passages opening and closing the text proper (e.g. the so called Admonitio generalis, ed. Glatthaar 2013a). Others are hardly more than a list of keywords, devoid of any reference to either their date or the ruler by whom they were issued. This lack of concern for outward form indicates that, for contemporaries, factual content was more important than authentic wording (Mordek 1996a, p. 37).

In any case, the formal heterogeneity of capitularies does not result from a deformation induced by transmission but is a specific trait of the genre. Recent scholarship links this trait to different phases of drafting or the involvement of different individuals therein. There need not always have been an “official” text (Mordek 1996a; Patzold 2007, pp. 349-50).

The problem of transmission

Describing what constitutes a capitulary is made all the more difficult by the complete lack of extant originals. All texts that have come down to us are exclusively transmitted as copies within collections. Sometimes these copies differ considerably, making it very hard to reconstruct a potential original.

These collections were compiled individually by royal agents according to their interests and needs. There never was an “official” collection produced by and kept at court. Even the royal court has been shown to use the collection assembled by Ansegis, abbot of Fontenelle/St-Wandrille, on his own initiative (ed. Schmitz G 1996). Whether there was ever a centrally directed production of manuscripts with secular law, as suggested by some scholars (e.g. McKitterick 1993), has been cast into doubt (Mordek 1996; Ubl 2014).

Besides Ansegis there were further anonymous collectors whose activity can be traced via the manuscripts. The number of 300 extant manuscripts illustrates the wide dissemination of these texts across the Frankish empire. One aim of the project will be to analyse the collections in order to find an answer to the question of how contemporaries received and transmitted capitularies.

The context of production

Many capitularies were drawn up during the course of a royal assembly. They provide insight into the deliberations and preliminary drafts in the run-up to the meeting. Some are also the result of discussions and policy amendments that came about during an assembly. The transmission of those texts was carried out by the agents in attendance, missi, bishops and counts. They either produced their own notes on what was discussed or copied an official text, and went on to communicate the assembly’s decisions in their respective areas.

The idea popular in earlier scholarship about capitularies having been invested with legal power at a royal assembly by being formally passed and officially proclaimed by the ruler is no longer universally accepted. Capitularies could also originate outside the context of an assembly, e.g. on the ruler’s initiative or in order to regulate a concrete case (Schmitz G 2011).

The question of legal validity

The question of whence capitularies derived their legal validity from, and whether this required a written text or an oral proclamation is another relic from the 19th century based on modern ideas of statehood.

Today scholars no longer consider a ruler’s Banngewalt – the authority to issue orders – (Ganshof 1961) as legally constitutive. Instead, the importance of reaching a consensus with the magnates is given more weight (cf. Patzold 2012, pp. 35-6) for eminently pragmatic reasons: Frankish rulers were limited in what they could achieve on their own and therefore depended on the magnates’ willingness to support and implement any royal decision (Schmitz G 2011).

In contrast to earlier tendencies to stress orality and hence to accord more importance to the ruler publically proclaiming his capitularies, the role of the written word in all aspects of the Frankish realm’s administration is now given more weight (cf. McKitterick 1989; Brown 2013).

Further reading


Mordek, Hubert, “Kapitularien”
Schmidt-Wiegand, Ruth, “Kapitularien”
Schmitz, Gerhard, “Kapitularien”

Articles and monographs

Bühler, Arnold, Capitularia relecta – on the transmission of capitularies
Buck, Thomas M., Admonitio und Praedicatio, pp. 1-13 – detailed history of capitulary scholarship
Campbell, Philipp, Die Kapitularien – concise summary from the perspective of legal history
Ganshof, François L., Was waren die Kapitularien? – a “classic”, albeit in several respects outdated
Mischke, Britta, Kapitularienrecht und Urkundenpraxis unter Kaiser Ludwig dem Frommen (814-840), pp. 4-23 – summary of the current state of research, with further reading
Mordek, Hubert, Karolingische Kapitularien – Mordek’s answers to important questions regarding form, transmission and legal validity of capitularies
Mordek, Hubert, Studien zur fränkischen Herrschergesetzgebung – collection of important articles by the authority on capitularies
Patzold, Steffen, Normen im Buch – recent considerations on the claim of validity of capitularies, based on a study of BK 33
Seeliger, Gerhard, Die Kapitularien der Karolinger – old, but still a worthwhile read