Germanic Assemblies in the Post-Roman West
A parenthesis about Clovis in a passage I wrote here inspired this article. I outlined how Clovis’ appointment as consul by Anastasius formed a bookmark for when the cards of Roman norms were reshuffled in favour of Frankish ones. It was one of the last times a major western leader (north of the Alps) would accept a Roman honour (that framed him as a loyal agent of the emperor in Constantinople). Instead of communicating in vague terms about Frankish and Roman mores, however, let’s pin down a major change in the West. Namely the rise of the assembly (conventus/concilium/placitum) as a tool of government.
The nearest Roman equivalent had perhaps been the city-councils (curiae) but they had died a long, agonising death and had largely disappeared by the mid-sixth century (except for eccentric survivals in the Loire valley). Early medieval assemblies mark a break because they expected the whole political community to convene semi-regularly and witness justice or legitimate a ruler. It came from an impulse that was Northern and Germanic rather than Mediterranean and Roman; it claimed political practice was at base collective.
The Visigoths had assemblies, as when King Thorismund was elected king after the death of his father Theoderic in the battle of Chalons (451). King Wamba, too, deposed Paul in 673 in the presence of a great assembly. So did the Lombards. Paul the Deacon noted how they ratified kings “congregatis in unum.” Indeed, assemblies covered the entire post-Latin West which held even village-level concilia. Some of the terminology can get a little confusing because while chronicles refer to the “cunctus populus,” it might typically be a vague or symbolic way of saying the real constituent was the exercitalis (soldier) thanks to the Germanic notion that soldiers were synonymous freemen (who bore the right to bear arms: the “people” were literally the “nation in arms”).
In Northern Italy there’s evidence across the eighth century for assemblies, mainly for deciding legal matters. Indeed, the big players appear to have been iudices (often called scabini [magistrates] in the Carolingian period) who were lawyers cum aldermen who helped arrange them. Litigants sometimes preferred to hold assemblies with a religious tincture, however, as when the monastery of Bobbio suffered the alienation of some of its lands by wayward lords. Insisting he could not risk upsetting his principes, king Hugh advised the monastery to bring the body of St Columbanus to Pavia when Hugh “conloquium cum suis princibus ageret” (held a placitum there) so the impact of his body might make them regret their rapacity. The holy ruse appears to have worked as two villains fled the scene and two others suffered being thrown from a horse and the descent of madness.
Ultimately folk assembled for as many reasons as there were social occasions. While the Franks tried to put a bureaucracy in place with the rachineburgii (lawspeakers) whose job it was to inform audiences of the Salic law, hagiographers also record that crowds rushed counts to demand summary justice (Dotto of Tournai, for instance, complied and hanged a man before St Amandus resurrected him). Other assemblies mourned the death of bishops such as Bonitus of Clermont’s (from gout?) in 705. Still others demanded that oaths be taken in their presence. These might be summoned by royals who required the allegiance of important figures. Queen Fredegundis, for example, demanded an assembly swear an oath to her son Chlotar II in 585. Later, the Queen Regent Nantechildis (with son Clovis II) called the seniores of Burgundy to Orleans so they could unite behind her chosen maior, Flaochad.
These assemblies were rarely the stilted, sterilised show-pieces the modern mind tends to envisage. At the Field of Lies (833) for example Louis the Pious rather dramatically watched his assembly melt away to join Lothar on the other side of the field where they appeared as “unus populus.” Worse, the (Rhineland) Franks sought war with the Saxons and when refused by Chlotar at an assembly he found himself assaulted (and taunted with death-threats) while his tent was torn to shreds.
England too possessed assemblies. There were lots of terms floating around for their constituents but ninth century nomenclature settled on witan (wise men or counsellors) AKA sapientes. They assembled in a group also known as witanagemot (often shortened to the witan though that was more properly the title of its members) on a kingdom-level but more properly a gathering was known as a gemot (the usage of which went back to Bede). Even the grandest gemot was attended by thegnas/milites making them quite large affairs. And these gemotas extended down the scale to assemblies of shires and even hundreds so that “eal sio scir” (all the shire) might witness an important oath. While at the top of society, a witan could even act independently of a king as when one recalled Aethelred II on the condition he rule rightly (rihtlicor) in 1014.
The Scandinavians were similar. An assembly there was known as a thing. As with elsewhere it was used as a place where one could impress, persuade or dissuade one’s peers from a particular action, political or otherwise; a junction where networks of power or loyalty were made transparent. Anskar, for example, who went to convert the Swedes in the 840s was met by the king Olaf at Birka where the latter convened a conventus deorum. Rather comically, part of the assembly thought adding Christ to their pantheon might not be a bad thing as “an extra god might help against dangers at sea.”
To conclude, let’s loop back to the Franks whose leader, a rascal known as Charles “the Great” opened up an assembly dressed in Frankish costume (habitu francico) according to the Annales Bertiniani. Fascinatingly he closed it dressed “Grecisco more paratus et coronatus” to reflect the imperial title that a junior member of the Roman hierarchy (known as the “pope”) had deemed fit to bestow in a fit of absence of mind.