Germanic Kingship and Law [from Perry, 3rd edition]

The Germanic peoples' traditions of government and law differed from those of the Romans. The Germans gave loyalty to a tribal chief, whereas the Romans belonged to an impersonal state that ruled citizens of many nationalities. Roman law was written and applied to all citizens throughout the Empire, regardless of nationality. At the time of the invasions, Germanic law consisted of unwritten tribal customs that applied only to people of a particular tribe and permitted blood feuds and trial by ordeal.

The duties of the Germanic kings varied from nation to nation; all were expected to be effective warriors, but few seem to have been law-givers like the Roman emperors. The powers of Germanic kings were limited by tribal custom and by their need to win the consent of the assembled leaders of the people for any new policy affecting people's lives or property. The kings were subject to the customary law, and their role in law enforcement was quite limited compared to the police powers exercised by Roman emperors. The right of people to settle disputes among themselves by blood feud was generally recognized.

Germanic ideas of kingship and law underwent slow modification under the influence of the Christian church and Roman imperial traditions. The church promoted a new model of kingship, that of the biblical Hebrew King David. In the eighth century, to Christianize the traditional religious character of Germanic kingship, the church began to anoint and inaugurate the Germanic kings in liturgical ceremonies similar to those used to consecrate bishops and priests. In time, the secular Germanic practice of selecting kings was combined with new liturgical ceremonies, through which the chosen king was given sacral dignity. According to church theory, the king was chosen for royal office by God; he was called upon to uphold divine law, to defend Christianity, to protect the weak, and to rule justly.


In this passage from the chronicle Rerum Gestarum Saxonicarum ("On the Deeds of the Saxons"), a German historian, Widukind of Corvey (d. @ 1004), describes the coronation of the Saxon Otto I (the Great, 936-973), as monarch of the Germans. (The last of the Carolingian kings had died in 911.) The account shows the mingling of the traditional Germanic practice of designation of a chosen heir by the previous king, the successor's subsequent election by the leading nobles and acclamation by the people, and the church ceremony of anointing and crowning the new king.

After the death of Henry (936), the father of his country and greatest and best of all kings, the Franks and Saxons (1) chose as their prince his son Otto, who had already been designated king by his father. They ordered the coronation to be held at the palace in Aachen, the place of universal election . . . .

And when they had arrived, the dukes and the great lords with a force of the chief vassals gathered in the portico of the basilica of Charlemagne. They placed the new ruler on the throne that had been constructed there, giving him their hands and offering fealty; promising their help against all his enemies, they made him king according to their custom.

While this part of the ceremony was being carried out by the dukes and other magistrates, Archbishop Hildibert of Mainz awaited the procession of the new king with all the priestly order and the commoners in the basilica. The archbishop awaited the procession of the king, holding the crozier (2) in his right hand and wearing the alb, the pallium, and the chasuble (3). When the king came forward, he advanced to meet him, touching the king's right hand with his left. Then he led the king to the middle of the sanctuary and turned to the people standing about them (ambulatories (4) had been constructed above and below in that round basilica so that all the people might have a good view).

"Lo," Hildibert said, "I bring before you Lord Otto elected by God, formerly designated by Henry, now made king by all the princes. If this election pleases you, signify by raising your right hand to heaven." To this all the people raising their right hands on high loudly called down prosperity on the new ruler.

The king, dressed in a close-fitting tunic according to the Frankish custom, was escorted behind the altar, on which lay the royal insignia-sword with sword-belt, cloak with bracelets, staff with sceptre and diadem ....

When the question of who should crown the king arose, two bishops besides Hildibert were considered eligible: the bishop of Trier because his city was the most ancient and had been founded by St Peter, and the bishop of Cologne because the place of coronation - Aachen - was in his diocese. But both of these men who would have enjoyed the honour deferred to the pre-eminence of Archbishop Hildibert.

Going to the altar and taking from it the sword with sword-belt and turning to the king, he said: "Accept this sword, with which you may chase out all the adversaries of Christ, barbarians, and bad Christians, by the divine authority handed down to you and by the power of all the empire of the Franks for the most lasting peace of all Christians."

Then taking the bracelets and cloak, he clothed him saying, "These points (of the cloak) falling to the ground will remind you with what zeal of faith you should burn and how you ought to endure an preserving peace to the end."

Then taking the sceptre and staff, he said: "With these symbols you may be reminded that you should reproach your subjects with paternal castigation, but first of all you should extend the hand of mercy to ministers of God, widows, and orphans. And never let the oil of compassion be absent from your head in order that you may be crowned with eternal reward in the present and in the future."

After having been sprinkled with holy oil and crowned with a golden diadem by the bishops Hildibert and Wikfried (of Cologne) and all legal consecration having been completed, the king was led to the throne, to which he ascended by means of a spiral stair case. The throne of marvellous beauty had been constructed between two marble pillars, and from there the king could see and be seen by all.


1. The Saxons were members of a Germanic tribe that lived in northwestern Germany between the Elbe and Rhine rivers.

2. A crozier is a staff shaped like a shepherd's crook. It is carried during liturgical services by bishops and abbots as a symbol of their pastoral office.

3. The alb, pallium, and chasuble are liturgical vestments worn by Christian clergy.

4. An ambulatory consists of aisled spaces around the sides and the east end of the central chamber of a church, usually separated from the central portion by columns.


1. Who participated in the making of a Germanic king?

2. What ideals did the church promote through its ceremony of royal anointing and coronation?

3. What limitations on the king's power were implicit in the coronation ceremony?