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Did Charles the Bald help create the West – by accident.

What is the post Roman West? How does it differ from the Roman Empire?

Well, for example, under the Roman Empire the army was a professional force – it was the state.

The warbands of the Germanic chiefs were not the world of the Middle Ages either – the armies of the Middle Ages were Feudal, the King called upon his land holding vassels and they brought their men to his aid (if they were loyal).

They came from their castles – which were neither the state fortresses of the Roman Empire, or the strongholds of independent rulers.

They were something else – privately owned castles. And a King who tried to take land away from such lords – risked (indeed invited) revolt. But it was more than that – a ruler who took land from those who had inherited it invited contempt (people were outraged by what he had done – he was regarded with disgust) – it was a different world from the late Roman Empire.  So the land went down over the generations (over hundreds of years). And other property (including coin) was also held more securely than under Roman law (at least as it was under the late Empire). A ruler in the Middle Ages might rob Jews with impunity (indeed he might win praise for robbing Jews – but Jews had been robbed and slaughtered by Roman Emperors also) – but to rob other Christians (even though they were Merchants, craftsmen or free peasants) invited contempt and open hatred – something that rival rulers might well use against him (or that the, armed, common people might take revenge for themselves).

Jews often did not even carry weapons (rather like Roman “citizens” under the Empire had not carried weapons – because they were not allowed to) – so they were beneath contempt. But however vile the commons were – they (0r at least the free ones) did carry weapons.
Roman Emperors were not limited in what land they could take by Feudal law – Roman law was whatever the Emperor said it was. The Emperor (the state) had a whim – and the intellectuals duely justified it and made it formal law. Roman legal philosophers reconised the concept of natural law (they even accepted that natural law forbad slavery) – but, to them, it had no practical force in the real world (the will of the state trumped it).

And the feudal landholders who led their men to the aid of the King – how did the travel and how did they fight?

On horseback – they were knights. They looked rather like Roman heavy cavarly of the late Empire – but their weapons and armour were not made in state arms factories (they were privately made), and their horses did not come from state stud farms – they were privately bred and owned horses.

Nor was there one great universal Empire – for all the claims of the new “Holy Roman Empire”.

On the contrary there were various Kingdoms, and Grand Dutchies and…… Not the temporary holdings of strongmen, but Kingdoms (and Princedoms and ….) that formally recognised the right of each to exist and to govern themselves.

Certainly they might invade each other – but they were, formally, at least under the same natural law (made by God – not by man). Another King (or Prince or ….) had rights. To put them to death in some savage entertainment would invite outrage.

One had to work hard to invent a good legal reason to invade somewhere else (and it is not automatic that one would come up with something) and if the case was bad then this would have an effect – the Church (an independent force – not a branch of the state as under the Roman Empire) might denounce you, your own lords might decide you had spat upon their honour (by involving them in an unjust war) and on and on.

Certainly wickedness and the slaughter of the innocent continued – but their were risks (and not just the battlefield risks that Roman Emperors understood) there was the risk of practical consequnces from inciting disgust with your conduct (even if the conduct was successful).

Not all Kings (and ….) only pretended to be honourable and uphold the natural law – some actually thought that their sworn word (on the Bible – or not) meant something (in a way that would have astonished someone in the late Roman Empire) – and even those rulers who were utterly cynical (rotten to the core) had to at least pretend to be men of honour upholding the universal law (the true law that they did not write) – and putting on a convincing performance needs certain pratical actions and inactions.

A strange hybid of the old warrior honour code of the barbarians – and the idea of formal law and government of the Romans.

When Papa Franz – the Emperor Franz Joesph last Hapsburg ruler before the First World War refused to go along with hate campaigns against the Jews – because he had given-his-word to treat all subjects equally,  he was dealing with a concept (honour) that his ancestor riding out of Hawk Castle (from which the word “Hapsburg” comes) a thousand years before would have understood.

And his kin – both Habsburg and Bavarian Wittelsbach, risked their lives in the 1930s and 1940s – for people with whom they had nothing in common and whom aiding gave no advantage of power.

The highest ideal of chivalry – the service of the great (service till death) for the weak and helpless, and (the greatest leap of all – and so often failed) service to the alien, to the “other”.

Do I have to explain that a Roman ruler (even after the formal conversion of the Empire to Christianity) would have been utterly baffled by all of this?

The dark side of men (our love of seeing the blood of our enemies cover the ground – as their heads roll in the dirt) is well known. Whether Roman or barbarian we all love cutting the throats of our enemies (show me a man who denies feeling joy, or at least quiet satisfaction, at the dying screams of his enemies – and I will show you a liar). But to risk our own throats – and to risk them for those who are no kin of ours (or connection of ours) – that is something else again. As is showing mercy to enemies who have thrown down their arms – and grasping their hands in friendship at the very moment when they expected torture and death. Rare indeed are those who can match the deeds of Alfred the Great – or his warrior daughter Ethelfleda (or Aethelflaed – perhaps if the lady had a less difficult name she would be feminst icon) the “White Lady of the English”, but in our Walter Mitty way we think ourselves heros – the concept had no real meaning in the late Roman world. The great soldier certainly – but not those who would follow justice for its own sake, and follow it in regard to foes as well as friends.

All the above remained, in part (but it was always only in part), till quite recently.

Tanks may have replaced cavalry (not that Alfred and those who came after him really understood cavarly – indeed Tolkien argued that this lack of understanding led to the terrible events of 1066), but the code of honour remained.

Indeed up to the late 19th century so did the idea (in the British army at least) that an officer shoud not profit from military service – indeed that it should cost him and that he should outfit himself (and sometimes troops) at his own expense.

Colonel Blimp is a mocked figure – but he has his good side. There are things he will not do – and, more importantly, things he will die to save others from.

As even the socialist George Orwell admitted (in despair over the alliance of the National Socialists and the Marxists in 1939) “who now will now step forward to defend civilisation – only Colonel Blimp and the old school tie”.

Stepping forward from his (near bankrupt) country estate – or from his job in the City of London (where “my word is my bond” was the basis of relationships till 1986 – for it was a private club, indeed several different private clubs, not the government regulated entity it has been since 1986) to lead his tanks (or his aircraft) into battle with those who had betrayed civilisation and had declared “my honour is loyality” (thus showing they had no undertanding of what either “honour” or “loyality” really mean under the unversal law) – as if they were fighting raiders and invaders (whether Viking of Barbary corsair) centuries before.

“But what has all this to do with Charles the Bald”.

Well this man was the grandson of Charles the Great – Charlemagne.

Charlemagne is an over rated figure – due to his patronage of intellectuals (he paid for their bread, and their ink and parchment, and they praised him – there is some honesty in that relationship I suppose). He was essentially no good.

He did little to oppose the Islamic invaders of Europe. His campaigns aganst the Eastern pagans (such as the Saxons) were marked by brutality and cruelity (even by the standards of war) he plundered endlessly – and used the plunder buy the loyality of thugs. His campaigns against the pagans may have led the Viking age – both as revenge, but also because he had undermined the Fresians (the traditional check upon the Norse – going right back to Roman days). And he not did spare Christian Realms – as Bavaria was to discover in 788.

And why should he spare Christian lordships? After all Charlemagne believed in the old Roman Empire with himself as a new Constantine (another meglomanic), the Church his faithful servants – and the whole world his domain.

In economic policy to Charlemagne was a (late) Roman.

De facto serfdom (the tax policy of Diocletian that peasants not be allowed to leave their area of birth) was a difficult thing for any neo “Dark Age” administration to enforce (lack of written reconds and so on), but Charlemagne would have had no objection to it. And it is more than this.

In the Christian Church there has always been a great conflict over what a “just price” is – indeed over what “justice” is.

Is a just price one that is voluntarily agreed between buyer and seller?

Or is a “just price” what the state thinks is “fair”.

Just as is justice to each their own – or to each the income and wealth the state thinks “fair”?

No prizes for guessing which side Charlemagne came down on in this debate. The side the late Romans had come down on.

The side of tyranny.

Income and wealth went to who Charemagne thought it fair for them to go to (no better than an Islamic Caliph or a late Roman Emperor).

Prices were what Charlemagne (and his intellectual hangers on – that faction of the clergy that he favoured) thought “fair”. Bavarian law (also written by clerics) came down on the other side (that a just price was a price that the buyer and seller  voluntarily agreed to) – so Charlemagne judgment was not automatic (not predetermined) – he made a choice to come down on the side of tyranny.

A good fighter and a parton of the arts and scholarship – but one can say the same of Constantine (or of many Islamic rulers).

In the world of Charlemagne we are not in the West – not as I have tried to describe its spirit above.

However, under Charles the Bald things changed – partly because Charles the Bald was not a very good soldier.

The Bretons defeated Charles the Bald in great battles, where the outnumbered Breton cavalry followed a war of movement – out flanking the Frankish armies and engaging in hit and run attacks, in the end Charles fled his own army under cover of night, leaving it to its fate.

Charles accepted de facto Breton independence and self government – something that lasted from the 9th century to the 16th century.

And it also established a principle – the new “Empire” (already divided under the sons and grandsons of Charlemagne) was going to be a very different place from the Roman Empire – places could, de facto, secede from it (and rule themselves) and Kings and Emperors would recognise their self government.

The Church also had more independence under Charles the Bald than under Charlemagne. The Bishops were (mostly) loyal to him – but then he desperatly needed their loyality.

Needed it because his kinsman Louis the German invaded his domians and Charles could not raise an army to oppose him (because Charles was an unpopular ruler).

The intervention of the Bishops saved the rule of Charles and he and his kinsman were eventually reconciled (various late Roman heads are exploding at this point – priests preventing a conquest [?] a power struggle not being to the death [?], does not compute – head explodes….). But there was a de facto price for the loyality of the Bishops – if one depends on their independent authority one has accepted that they have independent authority.

Nor were they the only people that Charles the Bald needed – especially as the Viking raids got worse and worse.

In his Edict of Pistes Charles the Bald did conventional things – such as ban trade with the enemy (especially in weapons and horses – selling them to the Vikings was punisable by death). But he also tried to develop his cavalry arm – for only cavalry could move fast enough to oppose raiders (and withdraw fast enough to avoid destruction if they found they were overmatched).

But how to raise this cavalry?

Charles could have tried the late Roman way – paid troops, given equipment from state arms factories and horses from state stud farms.

However, he simply did not have the resources to do that – so he tried something else.

Any private person who had the money to own a horse had to come and fight on horseback – or send someone to fight for him.

This was actually a return to the Classical world (including the old Roman Republic) where rich men had made up the cavarly – either directly, or by paying (personally) for the horse and horseman.

About a thousand years of French chivalry can be dated from this.

True in the 18th century the sacred Blue Cordon (once a group of knights who has sworn that the King would be unharmed till the the blue sashes they wore were turned red by their own blood) had turned into a glorified dining club (translate “cordon blue” into French and you will understand) – part of the general degeneracy that led to the French Revolution.

However, some ghost of the “old France” still remains, even the idea that a bad life can be redeemed by an honourable death that prevents some terrible act of wickedness, and in an intensely personal sense of honour and achievement that can be seen in extreme sports and in exploring.

Charles the Bald tried to ban private castles – but the effort was absurd.

He did not have the resourses to build (and maintain) enough castles of his own (although he did build fortified bridges that may have saved Paris, some years after his death, by holding up the Vikings) and castles were desperatly needed.

So local land holders (one can argue about whether they were officially land “owners” – but they were de facto private landowners, indeed far more so than landowers under Roman Imperial law) built, maintained and manned the castles. They were the first (and often the only) line of defence against raiders – both Viking and Muslim Corsair.

Estate management is a vital skill or any landowner (otherwise the family will go bankrupt – and the land pass to someone better at estate management) – but for centuries in France (and elsewhere) how to ride and how to fight were also vital skills.

It was not till the reign of Louis XIV that the nobility of France became painted toys, with absurd hairdos living in his vast (and rather absurd – its water supply did not work) palace (so different from where Kings of France had traditionally lived – compare Versailles to the Chateau De Vincennes on a visit to Paris). The noblity of France (unlike the nobilty of Britain) lost power and they lost their basic link to the land – they became toys of the Kings (and Louis the XIV aped the Roman Emperors – he was the Sun King) and fell with them. This is, in part, unfair some French noble families resisted the corruption of Versailles – but not enough.

And private castles had long been targeted by the Kings of France – and made useless by the age of gunpowder.


The private landownship (or de facto private landownership), on which everything else (from the idea of limited government to a spirit of personal honour) is based, where did it come from?

It came from the same source – the weakness of Charles the Bald.

He accepted that fiefs of land were hereditary – and not even a King of France could justly take the land of one person and give it to another (this is the foundation upon which modern Western civilisation was built).

It is fashionable to downgrade the importance of the Edict of Quierzy (877).

Modern historians (the same sort who regret the Ottomans not taking over all of Europe centuries later – because the Ottoman despotism was a much more “tolerant” and “progressive” civilisation than the landowner dominated European realms) downgrade the importance of the Edict of Quierzy.

Either they say it was just a restatement of an old principle (as if that makes it less important) or they say it was for selfish motives – to protect the allodial lands of his mother from Louis the German and to win over the support of lords against Louis the German.

That is like saying the Great Charta in England in 1215 was not important – because the basic motivation was to protect the property of barons from the King.

Of course the motivation was selfish. If Charles the Bald could have protected the lands of his mother (without having to call on the aid of others) he would have done so (by the way – where in asiatic despotism, sorry I mean in progressive social justice, is there concern for the large scale private property in land of a women?).

As for winning over Lords by a formal declaration that even a King can not steal their land – or steal it from their children….

It remains a formal declaration that a King can not justly take land – either from adults or their children.

All liberty (including civil liberties) is based upon private property rights – and if the property rights of the great are not respected what hope is there for the property rights of ordinary folk?

The slow (and vastly painful) process of building civilisation – of establishing liberty, depends on such foundations.

Even if they were (in part) built (unintentionally) by the weakness of a 9th century ruler by the name of Charles the Bald.


  1. NickM says:

    I have to disagree on one thing most profoundly in an otherwise fascinating post. I do believe military officers ought to be paid. They ought to be soldiers. The Battle of Britain lads were often grammar school kids. And they were largely kids. No way could they pay their way.

    A Spitfire in 1940 cost about GBP5000. You could buy a very nice house for that. Very nice. I mean mansion. And then there is petrol and bullets and training. So yeah, they were paid. Of course they were. Google Archibald McIndoe if you wanna know why. That is an appalling risk to take. Death is nothing to that. For a young man with a heroic job (and the potential get the girls or boys) terrible disfigurement or disability is more feared than death. Not least because if you survived you’d probs wind-up flying a desk. Can you imagine a crueler fate for someone who had tasted that “lonely impulse of delight”? No, we as a society owe them. And we owe them not to be blown to buggery in the Allah-forsaken shittery that is the ‘stan. This is our fourth Afghan war. Jeezuz! Do we learn?

    No we don’t. I rather like the new Sherlock (I thought I’d hate it being quite the Sherlockian) but what I like (what disturbs me) is that the new Dr Watson doesn’t feel tacked-on. OK, Martin Freeman is always watchable but there is also the fact that he’s a C21st Army doctor who was wounded in the ‘stan and invalided out and that is the same as the original Watson. That is depressing. I’m tempted by the Lt Ripley option. It is the only way to be sure.

    So, battlefield medicine has advanced dramatically. It means you arre much less likely to die but quite possibly with terrible maiming. We have triple amputees with spinal cord injuries and brain injuries. If we send ‘em, we pay ‘em. It’s only fair because these are largely young men and women who are fit and probably know it. And they risk losing that at a drop of an IED. Not death as such but maiming scares them. Essentially they have to take on their greatest fear. Death ain’t scary because you aren’t exactly there for it. Being a fine physical specimen and having that ripped away from you at the speed of sound is and knowing on that C-17 Casevac you’ll never walk or have sex again is a hell of a thing to face for a 20 year old – and some of them are.

    So pay them. And if you’re like me drop some coins in the RBL tin.

  2. Umbongo says:

    “All liberty (including civil liberties) is based upon private property rights – and if the property rights of the great are not respected what hope is there for the property rights of ordinary folk?”

    That’s a very good point. It’s no accident that there are increasingly strident calls for a “mansion tax” and/or wealth tax from politicians of the (present) centre and left (and not much – reported – resistance from those of the so-called right). The “rich” for these purposes are those who might have a higher income or more valuable house than Vince Cable.

  3. Robert Edwards says:

    A nice piece, this, grasping fully the backdrop of political evolution. Personally, I’ve always had rather a lot of time for Charles Martel, Charlemagne’s grandfather, but was weaned on ripping yarns like Charlemagne’s Roland and Oliver, which story, in those innocent days was taught to me as history rather than as myth.

    Once an army seems to shift loyalties, at the plucking insistence of barely-established Nation States (as opposed to fiefdoms) then someone has to pay them. Until Wallenstein and Cromwell (the change was clear – Cromwell carried out a military coup, whereas Wallenstein had failed to deliver the goods FOR HIS STAFF, and so they killed him), then running an army was essentially a protection racket, rather like that bloke in ancient Rome who ran a fire brigade.

    Perhaps the first identifiable organization was the Swedish army under Gustav Adolph during his intervention in the 30 years’ war. Part press-ganged, part professional, part mercenary, they were well-paid, well-fed, well-disciplined and generally content, bar the occasional mutiny. But then, the French were paying a large chunk of the cost, for Sweden could not afford to invade Germany and attack the Imperial forces on her own account.

    But, thank you! The cogs are whirring…

  4. Paul Marks says:

    I agree Nick.

    I pointed out that (till the late 19th century) people paid for their commissions and so on – not that I intellectually agreed with it (emotionally perhaps – but my head says “no”).

    On Watson – the old Basil Rathbone era Watson was absurd, but the the J. Brett era Watson was not.

    Watson is (or should be) the man of common sense – and plain grit.

    One problem I had with the modern Watson – is that Watson would never allow himself to be captured, or to be used to threaten Holmes (with a bomb on himself or whatever). And if, by some ill chance, he was put in such a position – Watson would take the first opportunity to get himself killed (as long as he could take the enemy with him).

    Actually, in some ways, Holmes is less of a serious opponent that Watson – sometimes simple skills trump higher intellect.

    For example, Watson is a crack shot (better than Holmes) – and, in spite of his leg wound, Watson is very strong and fit (and used to unarmed combat). Also he has no fear or doubt – and has abused his body and mind far less.

    Still – now I have the big computer on (for the first time in over a month) I had better sort out my typos. I can not do that on my notebook.

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