Carolingians at the Doorstep? The Maturing Limited-Access Order of Early Medieval Europe


North et al. (2009) argue that accounting for different development outcomes requires understanding how different societies manage violence. Almost all societies have been limited-access orders where elites constrain violence to preserve their rents. Alternatively, in open-access orders, violence is constrained by a government characterized by widespread political participation. Open-access societies were the first cases of sustained economic development; almost all of them have been Western European or offshoots. Understanding why is important. North et al. elaborate on three necessary conditions for achieving open access: (1) rule of law for elites, (2) support for perpetually-lived organizations, and (3) centralization and consolidation of violence. These constitute the “doorstep” to an open-access order. I argue that significant progress towards this doorstep was affected by the Carolingians of the early medieval era. I emphasize their large-scale distributions of confiscated/conquered lands to vassals, cultivation of bonds with the Church, and regularization of assemblies. The Carolingians introduced governance innovations that impersonalized relationships between elites and encouraged their enforcement under the rule of law.

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  1. 1.

    Solow (1956) is, of course, the seminal work on neoclassical growth theory; for comprehensive treatments of new and unified growth theories see, respectively, Aghion and Howitt (1997) and Galor (2011).

  2. 2.

    According to NWW and North et al. (2012 and 2013), there are only about two dozen developed countries that today can be characterized as open access orders.

  3. 3.

    van Bavel et al. (2017) provide a mathematical formalization of the NWW framework. Within their model, they emphasize the role of organizations. Support for perpetually lived organizations is one of the NWW “doorstep” conditions.

  4. 4.

    An exception is Young’s (2019) study of constitutional bargains between Carolingian monarchs, the nobles of their realms, and the Church in Rome.

  5. 5.

    As discussed in section 3.5 below, NWW (pp. 61–62) claim that the Carolingian Empire did not support perpetually lived organizations outside of the state.

  6. 6.

    A Carolingian vassal was not part of the state. He provided such services to his Carolingian lord only as the quid to the latter’s quo of the voluntary and reciprocal obligations of vassalage.

  7. 7.

    The emphasis on the nation-state as a necessary condition for approaching an OAO doorstep fits comfortably with other commonly received notions in political development. An example is the claim, originating with Max Weber (1968 [1922]), that: what set the early modern West apart from other great civilizations was the combination of a distinctive kind of polity—the exceptionally penetrative sovereign, territorial state—and a dynamic market economy which permitted a breakthrough to self-sustaining growth (Ertman 1997, pp. 3–4).

  8. 8.

    How one defines a state and whether certain agents are or are not part of it is a murky matter. I have no intent to provide such definition and determination here. My position, however, is that that the political elites who were the source of Carolingian violence services were reasonably outside of the “murkiness” on the side of not being part of the state.

  9. 9.

    Gray (2016, pp. 54–55) notes that NWW’s “claim to originality rests on their understanding of the role of violence and their rejection of the Weberian idea that the most important characteristic of modern states [...] is a collective agreement that the state alone holds legitimate control over violence.” It is important to note that Weber acknowledged that the capacity for violence was diffuse in historical societies: “In the past, the most varied institutions [...] have known the use of physical force as quite normal” (p. 78). However, he immediately continues: “Today, however, we have to say that a state is a human community that [successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” Despite Weber’s emphasis on the legitimacy of (rather than capacity for) violence, scholars today often conceive of states as de facto violence monopolies. NWW, however, insist that their framework is useful for analyzing not only historical cases but also many societies in the developing world today; see also North et al. (2012).

  10. 10.

    Indeed, the raison d’être of the dominant coalition is to ensure that only elites who are members have access to the rents. If non-members could be excluded costlessly, there would be no need for the coalition. The dominant coalition pursues its collective interests via the consolidation and control of violence. This modus operandi is similar to that of the armed retinue/stationary bandit organizations described by Young (2015, 2016, 2018). In particular, Young (2016, 2018) emphasizes that when a roving bandit organization becomes stationary (a la Olson 1993), the group interest in the constraint of violence by individuals with the capacity for it becomes heightened.

  11. 11.

    His sobriquet is associated with the Battle of Poitiers (732) where he “hammered” an army of the Umayyad Caliphate, halting any northward ambitions of the Caliphate and expanding Charles’ power in southern Gaul. In the modern era, Charles’ victory came to be recognized as decisive in Latin Christendom’s struggle against Islam and the beginnings of the Reconquista.

  12. 12.

    When Pope Gregory III wrote to Charles in 740, he treaded lightly between acknowledging his de facto royal status but also accepting the fact that he was a usurper, addressing Charles as subregulus (Koziol 1992, p. 31).

  13. 13.

    A distinctive feature of Francia was the wealth of its leading nobles, the richest of them possessing greater lands than their European counterparts elsewhere (Wickham 2016, p. 36).

  14. 14.

    For many practical purposes in discussing medieval governance hierarchies, the Carolingian beneficium and the fief of the High Middle Ages can be treated analogously. However, there are differences and West (2013, p. 206) makes the summary statement: “a number of changes can be observed in patterns of aristocratic landholding. [...] the fief-holder’s rights were somewhere between the Carolingian benefic-holder and allod-holder, explicitly reflecting political relations; [...].” One notable difference is that, in the case of the Carolingian benefice, the property originated in the lord; starting in the twelfth-century, alternatively, allod-holders would sometimes maintain usufruct while surrendering ultimate ownership to a lord, hence creating a fief. This came to be known as “reprise en fief” or, more simply, “to feudalise” land (West 2013, p. 203; pp. 200–206 generally).

  15. 15.

    The heritability of benefices was often a de facto convention, and increasingly so throughout the Carolingian era. Lords faced a tradeoff in allowing this convention to become institutionalized: on the one hand, it helped to ensure continuity of the governance hierarchy in the event of a vassal’s death; on the other hand, it effectively decreased range of rights over the land in question (Ganshof 1964, pp. 37–38 and 46–49). The latter was part of general concern on the part of Carolingians. For example, Charlemagne disapprovingly observed: “We have heard that counts and other persons who hold benefices from us treat these as if they were their own allodial possessions” (Ganshof 1964, p. 37).

  16. 16.

    Innes (2000, p. 88) handles the concepts of vassalage and benefice with care, emphasizing the lack of any “general, legal template” in which to interpret the relationship between the two; still, he acknowledges that “[b]y the second half of the eighth century, tenure of royal or ecclesiastical land in benefice was widespread, and an important feature of the relationship between the king and the powerful.”

  17. 17.

    Even Reynolds (1994, p. 113), in her famous critique of the concept of European feudalism, acknowledges that “it is certainly possible to connect the rise of the Carolingians with new bonds of loyalty in so far as Charles Martel and his successors clearly achieved unprecedented success in marshalling their subjects to fight for them and run their government”; she adds that “while it is not clear that the relation between the king and his counts or those who were now called his called vassi was new in the sense that that it drew on new ideas or values. What was new was the ambition and success that made it work.”

  18. 18.

    Imperial office holding was a hallmark of the senatorial class, something by which its members defined themselves. The hierarchical structure of the Church was in many ways modeled after the imperial government. As such, the Church offered aristocrats opportunities to hold the sort of offices that the Empire no longer offered them (Mathisen 1993, pp. 93–94). Sidonius Apollinaris, a Gallic senator, wryly observed: “our nobility has decided [...] to give up either its homeland or its hair” (p. 89).

  19. 19.

    Though officially impermissible, the heritability of Church offices became increasingly the de facto case during the Early Middle Ages. Not only, then, could bishops not alienate Church property; it tended to be consolidated by episcopal dynasties (Mathisen 1993, pp. 91–92).

  20. 20.

    See also Stephenson (1941) and White (1962). For criticisms of the Brunner thesis, see Bullough (1970) and Fouracre (2000, ch. 5). Wood (1994, 1995) provides an even-handed review of the textual evidence though ultimately critical of the Brunner thesis in its strong form.

  21. 21.

    The eighth-century sources are the Vita Eucherii (Life of [Saint] Eucherius), a letter of Saint Boniface to King Æthelbald of Mercia (in England), and a passage in the continuation of Fredegar. The relevant part of Boniface’s letter was likely inserted by another author but probably still dates to the eighth-century (Wood 1994, p. 280). The continuation of Fredegar refers to chapters added to the seventh-century Chronicle of Fredegar in the eighth-century. The ninth-century sources are the Gesta abbatum Fontanellensium (Annals of Fontenelle), the Chronicle of Ado, and a letter from Hincmar, archbishop of Rheims, to the Carolingian kings, Louis the German, and Charles the Bald. For examples, the Vita Eucherii states that Charles Martel exiled its namesake, the bishop of Orléans, so that he could expropriate his church’s lands; the letter by Hincmar claims that “of all the kings and princes of the Franks [Charles Martel] was the first to take property away from the church and divide it up.” Hincmar referenced Eucherius and added an account of him (allegedly) having a vision of Charles tormented in hell, having been dragged by a dragon from his tomb for his sins against the Church (Fouracre 2000, pp. 123–122).

  22. 22.

    Riché (1993 [1983], p. 57) comments on the de jure policy that Carolingians employed to expropriate Church lands for distribution as benefices to vassals: “A compromise was reached by introducing ‘precarial’ tenure. This system, which had existed for centuries, was based on a request for tenure over a fixed term (precaria) made to the property owner by a private person. Precarial tenure thus resembled the lifetime tenure of a benefice granted to a vassal by his lord. As a confirmation of the property rights of the church, the layman who held the land paid an annual quite-rent of twelve denarii for each church or monastic holding.”

  23. 23.

    It is unclear whether the nona originated under Pippin or his son Charlemagne. However, a 779 capitulary by the emperor indicates that, if the nona existed beforehand, it was surely made general across the Frankish realms at that time (Constable 1960, p. 224–226).

  24. 24.

    See Asbridge (2004, pp. 5–11) on the religiosity of medieval Christians generally. Though from later on in the eleventh century, there is to my mind no scene that better reflects the medieval fear of God than the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV (r. 1056–1105), kneeling for three days and nights outside of a northern Italian castle; during a blizzard and while wearing a hair shirt; all because he was seeking from the excommunication that Pope Gregory VII pronounced on him in 1076.

  25. 25.

    Bishops and other high-ranking clergy were themselves also often great lords with vassals, by means of which they could raise armies.

  26. 26.

    Poor Childeric III was tonsured and sent back to his monastery in St. Bertin; he died a few years later. At the time of Pippin III’s election, Childeric had already bore a son, Theuderic. He was sent off to a different monastery in Fontanelle.

  27. 27.

    The Great Schism between the Western and Eastern Churches would not occur until 1054. However, even in the early medieval period, the competition between the Roman papacy and patriarchy of Constantinople for spiritual authority was an important one. On the relationships between early Carolingians and the Church see Pirenne (2001 [1937], pp. 221–224), Riché (1993 [1983], pp. 293-295), and Wickham (2009, pp. 376-377).

  28. 28.

    For example, in 1790, there were 91 members of the US Congress representing a bit under 4 million people. Transportation and communication technologies were not radically better at that point; yet to discount US state capacity would be to entirely neglect the state-level governments.

  29. 29.

    It should be noted that Stasavage is not discussing Carolingian governance in relation to the NWW doorstep conditions. This second point, then, cannot be taken as a critique of his view.

  30. 30.

    The scabini likely predated Charlemagne’s assumption of the title of King of the Lombards in 774 (Ganshof 1965, p. 65).

  31. 31.

    Capitularies issued by Charlemagne in 789 and 802 also addressed the counts directly: they were prohibited from accepting bribes from powerful men and missi were to monitor the counts and enforce the prohibition (Ganshof 1965, p. 60).

  32. 32.

    These assemblies had antecedents in the tribal customs of Germanic barbarian groups that succeeded the Western Roman Empire (Downing 1989; Barnwell and Mostert 2003; van Zanden et al. 2012). See Young (2015) for a discussion of these early Germanic institutions circa 50 BC–50 AD and how they were influenced by Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul.

  33. 33.

    In the later Middle Ages, Salter and Young (2018) argue that countries whose assemblies evolved to have chambers with mixed representation of ecclesiastical and lay elites (e.g., England) were more likely to provide an effective check on absolutism and produce policies furthering general rather than special interests. While mixed representation may have also facilitated a speedier transition to an open access order, one can interpret the NWW framework as suggesting that the provision of collective bargaining and credible commitments to the separate components of a dominant coalition is necessary prior condition.

  34. 34.

    A key support provided to the trade networks was Charlemagne’s reform of the currency, including increasing the silver content of coins while leaving their face values unchanged, encouraging the coins to serve as a medium of exchange across the empire (Hodges and Whitehouse 1983, pp. 109–110).

  35. 35.

    NWW cite McCormick (2001) to this extent.

  36. 36.

    In addition to Western European nations, the OAOs are the USA, Canada, Japan, and perhaps South Korea (North et al. 2012, table 2). Even the historical cases (according to North et al. (2009)) of societies who reached the doorstep of open access—but did not walk through the door—were all European (i.e., ancient Greece and Rome; Italian city state of the late Middle Ages).


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Young, A.T. Carolingians at the Doorstep? The Maturing Limited-Access Order of Early Medieval Europe. Int J Polit Cult Soc 34, 1–19 (2021).

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  • Medieval economic history
  • Comparative economic development
  • Medieval constitution
  • State capacity
  • Political property rights
  • Polycentric governance

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  • O52
  • P50
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