The Medieval Review 09.11.21

Busch, Jörg W. Vom Amstswalten zum Königsdienst: Beobachtungen zure 'Staatssprache' des Frühmittelalters am Beispiel des Wortes administratio. Monumenta Germaniae Historica Studien und Texte v. 42. Hannover: Hahnsche Buchhandlung, 2007. Pp. xxx,155. $30 978-37752-5702-2. .

Reviewed by:

Micahel H. Gelting
Danish National Archives / University of Aberdeen

This book is really a longish article that has swollen into a small book through its author's desire to document every statement by full references to, and quotations from, every single relevant source. Not a few pages have only two lines of text; the rest is footnotes. The book's focus is correspondingly narrow: the short-lived reappearance of language associated with the exercise of delegated authority in a number of early charters of Emperor Louis the Pious, and the subsequent disappearance of such terms. The terms studied are the word administratio and its derivatives (administrare, administrantes, etc.). A substantial appendix (114-40) deals with the decline of the use of the word publicus through the eighth and ninth centuries, helping to bring the text up to book-length.

The narrowness of the focus does not mean that the book is without interest. Busch argues that a certain amount of notions of "public administration" had survived from late Antiquity in Merovingian and early Carolingian Aquitaine. As sub-king of Aquitaine during the last years of the reign of his father Charlemagne, Louis the Pious became acquainted with this sub-Roman culture, and when upon Charlemagne's death in 814 he acceded to imperial power, Louis brought his chancery staff from Aquitaine with him to Aachen. As the man responsible for introducing elements of the Roman "language of state" into Louis's charters, Busch identifies his first chancellor, the Aquitanian Helisachar (chancellor until August 819).

Since practically no charter material survives from Aquitaine from this period, Busch builds his argument for a continuing familiarity there with the "abstraction" of the exercise of delegated power upon an analysis of the Visigothic handbook of Roman law known as Alaric's Breviary, and of its several epitomes from the Merovingian centuries. The author observes that even though these texts show an increasing propensity for replacing abstractions with concrete examples, they all contributed to the survival of some rudimentary knowledge of Roman terminology of public administration. This analysis is one of the most rewarding parts of the book.

Busch further notes that whereas the word administratio and its derivatives were originally used by Louis's chancery exclusively about men exercising delegated authority on behalf of the king-emperor, in the 820s it began to be applied also to the emperor himself, who was depicted as "administrating" on behalf of his lord, God. Busch suggests that this new concept contributed to enabling the Frankish bishops to constitute themselves as judges over the emperor when Louis's power began to crumble, because they were the privileged interpreters of the will of the emperor's lord, God.

Ultimately, however, Busch concludes that the introduction of this sub-Roman "language of state" was bound to fail because the culture of the Germanized northern part of the Frankish Empire was unable to grasp such abstractions. Here lies the problem with this book. On the one hand, Busch's conclusion is well-argued and convincing. On the other hand it is much too crude. Behind all of the author's interpretation seems to lie an implicit judgement of value: the northern Franks were illiterate and intellectually inferior; the Aquitanians, because they still held on to some fragments of late Antique traditions, were sophisticated and intellectually superior. The author's prejudice comes out most clearly in footnote 138, where he quotes the statement in Thegan's Life of Louis the Pious that Charlemagne had his sons instructed "in the liberal arts and the secular laws." Busch tersely dismisses this: "this sounds too beautiful to be true." Why? The Carolingian intellectual elite was certainly small, but they were learned. It is actually largely thanks to their efforts that Classical Latin literature survived, and that Latin was developed into a learned language distinct from the vernacular. Would the emperor not have ensured that his sons received the best teaching available? It looks as if Thegan's words were incompatible with Busch's preconception of the nature of northern Frankish culture, and therefore he dismissed the source.

Instead of speaking of the inability of the northern Franks to grasp abstractions, it might be more useful to see the matter in the light of contemporary conditions of exercising power. Power was based on interpersonal relationships of lordship, loyalty and service. In such a world, concepts of "the state" or "public administration" had no relevance, and as intelligent and practical men, the learned elite among the northern Franks did not adopt them. It was not because they were unable to think in abstract terms. They just had no use for these particular abstractions. If they thought in terms of lordship, loyalty and service, were those terms not abstractions too?

Of course Busch is aware of these contextual factors, but by bogging them down in a postulated cognitive deficiency on the part of the northern Franks, he confuses rather than clarifies the issues involved. Nevertheless, despite its flawed interpretative framework, this book makes a useful, if small, contribution to the intellectual and legal history of the Carolingian period.

In his appendix on the word publicus, Busch suggests that the decline of the use of that term in the early Carolingian period, and its residual transformation into meaning rather "royal" or "secular" as opposed to "ecclesiastical," paved the way for the replacement of a late Antique dichotomy between "public" and "ecclesiastical" matters by the dichotomy between "secular" and "clerical" that was to be so crucial to the remainder of the Middle Ages. This is a pointer that might well be worth following.