Threat and menace for stability: on the use
of sanction clauses under the early Carolingians[1]

Shigeto Kikuchi


Despite the trend in the diplomatic studies to analyze source materials in terms of communication, sanction clauses have not been given due consideration. This paper attempts to reconsider various meanings of sanction clauses in royal documents at a time when those clauses were not fixed as an integral part of royal documents, focusing on their use in Charlemagne’s royal diplomas, compared with those of his predecessors and successor. The analysis of source materials shows his peculiarity in the use of sanction clauses, especially those in his diplomas of immunity. Charlemagne’s use of pecuniary sanction clauses in individual immunity privileges culminated in his general legislation of 803. This process was parallel with his other effort to avoid the risk of immunities hindering his royal government. Charlemagne’s introduction of pecuniary sanction clauses was a part of his politics to stabilize the institution of immunity.


Analyzing sources from the aspects of “communication” is now one of the indispensable approaches in diplomatic studies of medieval documents.[2] Diplomas and charters were issued and used not solely to guarantee legal rights, although it was the primary purpose. On the one hand, the issuing process of a diploma or a charter itself, for example, as to a diploma from a petition to its issuing out, is understood as communication, which was not only established between an issuer and a recipient, but also involved an intermediary and eyewitnesses.[3] On the other hand, texts of diplomas and charters are read as media or as communication tools. Diplomas, in particular, were equipped with various elements, which could convey political and ideological messages of the issuers across to their recipients, such as intitulatio,[4] arenga,[5] narratio,[6] epithets,[7] dating clauses,[8] as well as visual elements and graphical symbols.[9] If diplomas were issued and handed out ceremonially and read out in regional assemblies at the time of conflict concerning the rights described in them, those messages could reach a wider audience.

Despite this tendency in the medieval diplomatics, studies of sanction clauses (or penal clauses, lat. sanctio, Germ. Poenformeln) in early medieval charters are still few. Like other topics of medieval diplomatics, basic research on early medieval sanction clauses has been conducted in the golden age of the diplomatics during the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century.[10] A sanction clause is a term referring to one of the formulaic parts of a charter. In sanction clauses, issuers of charters threaten potential trespassers (including the issuers of the charter themselves!) of rights confirmed by these charters with various kinds of penalties. It was purposed with such clauses to guarantee charters more firmly and to prevent infringements on them. Diplomatic studies have defined two types of sanction clauses in early medieval charters, both of which had their origin in the ancient Mediterranean world. The first type is poena spiritualis, which threatens violators of rights with the wrath of God, angels, or saints, as well as anathema and temporary excommunication from the Church community. The second one is poena saecularis. In this case, the penalty for infringement was defined more concretely — fines in gold or silver, how much, to whom, in what ratio, etc. These two types of sanction clauses could be used together or separately. As details of penalties varied according to time, space, and categories of charters, one can gain an insight into a Urkundenlandschaft[11] as well as some aspects of the society of a specific region by analyzing sanction clauses.[12]

Though some scholars have dealt with poena spiritualis,[13] for example in the cultural context of cursing,[14] and others have reinterpreted sanction clauses in private charters,[15] we still lack studies on those in royal diplomas. This is not without reasons. In contrast to private charters, which recorded various transactions between two parties, and those documents issued by popes and bishops, which quite often had poenae spirituales, early medieval royal diplomas rarely contained sanction clauses: so rarely that later copyists interpolated such clauses or that later forgeries of early medieval charters were provided with sanction clauses because these clauses became much more common in the course of the Middle Ages.[16] Therefore, Fritz Boye, whose detailed study on early medieval sanction clauses is still one of standard works, states that in the early Middle Ages, sanction clauses showed their cardinal importance in the sphere of private charters.[17]

In comparison with private charters, sanction clauses were used in early medieval royal diplomas rarely and only gradually. However, it is still worth dealing with a scanty number of testified examples of sanction clauses in royal diplomas to question how we can interpret such an exceptional use of those threatening clauses in the contemporary political or social context. This paper focuses on sanction clauses in royal diplomas and mandates from the early Carolingian age,[18] especially because we now have new editions of diplomas of the Merovingian kings, the Carolingian mayor of the palace, and Louis the Pious, which give us a more reliable basis for research than older editions did for earlier works.

1. Merovingian practices

There is no sanction clause in the genuine diplomas of Merovingian kings, as far as extant sources tell us.[19] Ingrid Heidrich notes that “a Merovingian diploma as a royal order or royal words didn’t need such reinforcement.”[20] In fact, the status of a royal diploma was higher than that of the others, as evident in chapter 59 of Lex Ripuaria.[21]

However, it is also known to scholars that in some types of royal documents, kings could threaten disobeyers of their orders with loss of royal favor with a sentence such as “si gratia nostra obtatis habere” (if you wish to be in our grace).[22] Among the extant genuine diplomas, two without corroboratio[23] have such sanction clauses. Both of them confirm the right of the abbey of St-Denis to get 100 solidi from the fiscal revenue in Marseille.[24] Peter Classen calls these documents related to toll-exemption “Frankish tractoria,” which can be characterized as documents between royal diplomas and mandates.[25] Merovingian mandates were also equipped with such sanction clauses, as evident in formularies which include models for royal documents.[26] The formula for royal tractoria in the Formularies of Marculf, which is in its form an order to regional officials about supply and accommodation for royal envoys, is an example.[27] Carolingian kings continued using this kind of sanction clauses in their mandates, as discussed below. A contrast between diplomas as a durable guarantee of legal rights and mandates as royal orders must be emphasized. A mandate must be interpreted in terms of the relationship between a king in person who could reward services for him and a recipient who, as his faithful agent, could expect such reward if he could fulfill the mandate.

By the way, charters of the Pippinids, or Arnulfings, have not received much attention in studies about sanction clauses, though they used sanction clauses in their charters before Pippin’s ascension to kingship. The majority of their extant charters are about donation to religious institutions. Charles Martel and his ancestors used sanction clauses, both spiritual and pecuniary, in their almost all of their donation charters.[28] However, it should be noted that Charles Martel’s protection letter for Boniface, which is written in the form of a mandate, does not contain any sanction clause.[29] This observation can be contrasted with the way referendaries of Merovingian kings used sanction clauses according to the types of royal documents.

However, after the notaries of Charles Martel, especially those of Carloman and Pippin as mayors of the palace, introduced Marculf’s formularies for drafting documents of mayors of the palace, some changes can be observed. It seems that the character of their charters became more and more like royal diplomas. Their charters, except placita[30] and a letter to the abbot and monks of Flavigny,[31] now contain the corroboratio clause, which, generally with the announcement of sealing by the ring,[32] strengthens validity and stability of the document.[33] Before these two brothers, only the above-mentioned protection letter for Boniface issued by Charles Martel contains such a corroboratio.[34] In terms of sanction clauses, both mayors of the palace seem to have not used those formulaic factors for their documents in the same way as their predecessors anymore. None of Pippin’s documents, including donation charters, contained sanction.

In the documents issued in the name of Carloman, however, we can find interesting examples, such as the two documents that were issued in favor of the abbey Stavelot-Malmedy: Carloman’s donation charter, which Ingrid Heidrich dated a little earlier than the second document, and the placitum, which ended the conflict between Carloman and the abbey. Both documents contain a similar sentence in their sanction clauses.[35] In both cases, a future king (expected probably from the Merovingian dynasty)[36] is resorted to as a judge in case of a conflict in the future. This could be because these sentences with a character of sanctio were targeted mainly at Carloman himself and his descendants.[37] As he was (besides his brother) one of the virtual rulers of the kingdom at that time and his descendants would also take the same position later in the future, the one whose authority could prevent them from breaking the concord realized in these charters was a king who, even if theoretically, should be put upon them — that could be the condition agreed between Carloman and the party of Stavelot-Malmedy. Therefore, these sanction clauses in Carloman’s documents differed from those in the Merovingian royal documents and were similar in character to those in private charters in that they resorted to a king whose authority was a deterrent against possible violators of the rights described in the charters.

2. Mandates in the early Carolingian age

With regard to the royal documents of Pippin the Short after his enthronement of 751, there is no evidence that they were issued with sanction clauses. A change can be observed in the time of Charlemagne. First, in some mandates, Charlemagne threatened violators of royal orders with the loss of royal favor.[38] Joachim Studtmann notes that Charlemagne and Louis the Pious used the sanction clause threatening with the loss of royal favor continuously in the tradition of the Marculf’s formularies.[39] However, some changes concerning sanction clauses can be observed in these mandates.[40] Sometime between 774 and 776, Charlemagne issued a mandate and ordered royal agents not to hinder agents of the abbey St-Denis from collecting customs in the pagus of Paris during the market of St-Denis. This mandate contains the sanction clause with which Charlemagne threatened those who violated the right of the abbey with a summons to the royal court, for which royal missi or counts were responsible. However, the ones who are threatened with the loss of royal favor in this mandate are these agents of the king. This double threatening in a sanction clause can be regarded as novel.[41] Furthermore, this mandate resembles a Merovingian “Frankish tractoria” mentioned above, but the former contains a corroboratio clause differently from the latter.

The other example is the so-called Epistola in Italiam emissa. This litterae (its self-definition found in its text) was a circular letter addressed to the secular officials, written in the form of a mandate.[42] According to its sanction clause, anyone among the officials who did not follow norms given by Charlemagne and was not willing to mend his manners promptly should be summoned to the royal court.[43] Hubert Mordek concludes that this epistola had its validity not only in Italy, but all over the kingdom. It is not easy to imagine that such Italians could have been sent or taken from Northern Italy over the Alps to the royal court in Francia. However, if we follow Mordek, who dated this mandate in late 780, i.e., shortly before the king departed for Italy,[44] it would be convincing that disobedient Italian officials should be taken in front of the king who was in Pavia, Rome, or another Italian city. Regarding disobedient officials in Francia, they could be summoned after the return of the king, if not before his departure. In this sense, therefore, this threatening with the summons to the royal court was realistic. Furthermore, this mandate was corroborated by the royal seal, too.[45]

In the first decade of his sole rule of the Frankish kingdom after his brother Carloman died in 771, Charlemagne seems to have extended, or attempted to extend, the use of sanction clauses in his mandates. With this context in mind, further documents are analyzed in the next section.

3. Changes under Charlemagne:
sanction clauses in privileges of immunity

Now we turn our attention to royal diplomas of Charlemagne. While the majority of diplomas do not contain any sanction clauses, there are some exceptions. It must be emphasized that all extant diplomas of Charlemagne which accompany sanction clauses are concerned with the immunity of religious institutions. The first document was issued on April 1, 772 for the church of Trier in the form of a mandate: royal agents are addressed in the second person, while the document is corroborated with a royal seal.[46] Its sanction clause threatens a violator of the immunity with the loss of royal favor, like other mandates, but also contains the poena spiritualis.[47] This combination was novel as far as we know from extant sources.[48] This type of immunity-privilege with the double sanction clause was issued again for the church of Metz on January 22, 775.[49] It should be noted that both of them were issued to confirm the immunity-rights of those churches given by earlier kings: they were written with preceding examples in hand, but with a newly introduced formula.[50] It must also be taken into account that Charlemagne’s diplomas were generally not standardized in the 770s yet.[51]

Thereafter, Charlemagne issued, as far as we know, four privileges of immunity with pecuniary sanction clauses. With the sanction clause of the charter for the abbey St. Marcel in Châlon on April 30, 779, Charlemagne introduced the concrete penalty of 600 solidi for breaking the immunity. A violator of the right of immunity should pay two-thirds of the fine to the abbey and the rest to the fisc.[52] The amount of 600 solidi is not unusual in the Frankish legislation.[53] Unfortunately, though, we do not know the exact reason of the introduction of a pecuniary sanction clause, especially because we have little information about the situation of this abbey around this time: this diploma is the oldest and its confirmation by Louis the Pious in 835 is the second oldest genuine document about the abbey.[54] However, the diploma for St. Marcel is not a unique one. Three diplomas issued in the following years include similar sanction clauses with a pecuniary penalty of 600 solidi: for St. Martin in Tours in 782 and 796/800[55] as well as for the church of Cambrai, which is, as deperditum, mentioned in the diploma of Louis the Pious for the same church.[56] Charlemagne seems to have attempted to use this type of sanction clauses, offering better security against the violation of immunity.

It is well known that in 803 Charlemagne added a clause about immunity in the leges: should anyone violate an immunity right, he must pay a fine of 600 solidi.[57] Even if the above-mentioned diplomas of Charlemagne in the last few decades of the eighth century may be exceptional with their sanction clauses in comparison with other royal documents concerning immunity,[58] we can esteem these documents as his effort to assure immunity rights of individual religious institutions more stably. It must be emphasized that sanction clauses themselves were exceptional among Charlemagne’s diplomas. This effort would be crystallized into the legislation of 803[59] and here we can observe how a Frankish king legislated generally on the basis of earlier measures made in each concrete case.

Thus, theoretically, Charlemagne and Louis the Pious no longer needed to threaten with a pecuniary penalty in their individual diplomas of immunity anymore. Three of four diplomas of Louis the Pious, which contain the pecuniary sanction clauses, indeed confirm his father’s diplomas of immunity with those clauses.[60] The only exception is the diploma for the abbey Farfa on April 28, 820, whose sanction clause threatens with a penalty of 600 solidi “secundum constitutionem domni et genitoris nostri Karoli imperatoris.”[61] It is not clear why this abbey could obtain such a charter mentioning Charlemagne’s legislation of 803,[62] especially when this abbey had already obtained a diploma confirming its immunity on August 4, 815, which did not contain any sanction clauses.[63] It may be related to the tension between the abbey and the Roman church. The papacy reached an agreement known as Hludowicianum with Louis the Pious in 817. This pactum contained confirmation of the papal rights in the Sabine, where the abbey was situated. As Marios Costambeys argues, “as the first half of the ninth century progressed, the source of interference in Farfa and its estates was increasingly identified with the papacy.” In such a situation, Farfa may have hoped to assert their right more strongly once again by recalling the legislative authority of the Carolingian monarch.[64] Anyway, when Louis sent his mandate to his agents in Provence, Septimania and Aquitania to respect the right of immunity, the emperor threatened, not with a fine of 600 solidi, but with the loss of royal favor. If anyone should violate the right, he should be punished by the local law.[65]

Besides these diplomas of immunity, there are two further diplomas, which Louis issued with sanction clauses.[66] The first one was issued between 814 and 821, maybe around 815, to confirm the inquisitio executed in 804 by the missi of Charlemagne in Istria. This diploma, addressed to patriarch Fortunatus of Grado, bishops, abbots, tribunes, and other fideles in Istria, borrowed its pecuniary sanction clause from the notitia recording the inquisitio of 804.[67] With the second diploma, Louis confirmed a settlement reached between abbot Ingoald of Farfa and bishop Sigoald of Spoleto through the intervention of bishop Heito of Basel, abbot Ansegis of St-Wandrille and count Gerold as imperial missi: the emperor threatened those who broke the contract with a fine agreed between the two parties.[68] Thus, in both cases, it seems not to have been Louis who took the initiative to incorporate sanction clauses into the imperial diplomas.

As this survey of sources shows so far, it was Charlemagne who used sanction clauses more actively than his predecessors and his son and his peculiarity can be found in documents concerning immunity. It is indeed already known that all the extant diplomas with pecuniary sanction clauses before Lothar I are those that are concerned with immunity, but historians seem not to have dealt with this fact properly.[69] We had better understand the development of sanction clauses in Carolingian diplomas as described above in regard to the immunity politics of the early Carolingians, especially that of Charlemagne.[70]

In the legislative activity of Pippin the Short, his effort to stabilize the institution of immunity around the middle of the eighth century is evident, though we do not know the details of his concrete measures.[71] Charlemagne attempted to overcome a disadvantage of the institution of immunity in March 779. In the ninth chapter of the Capitulare Haristallense, he ordered his judices and vassals, threatening them with the loss of beneficium or honor (a sanction clause!): they should bring to comital courts those thieves who fled into areas privileged with immunity rights.[72] It must be noted that just in the following month after this legislation Charlemagne issued the first privilege of immunity (as far as we know) with a pecuniary sanction clause for St. Marcel in Châlon.

The next “parallel” can be identified in 803. We have already seen that with the chapter 2 of Capitulare legibus additum, Charlemagne introduced into the general legislation the pecuniary penalty of 600 solidi for violation of immunity. However, this chapter contains a further measure, which could contribute to the maintenance of public peace instead of the existence of immunities: Should thieves, murderers, or other criminals flee into areas of immunity, counts should tell beneficiaries of immunity or their representatives to send these criminals back. Should they refuse to do so, they should be culpable to pay the defined fines, namely 15 solidi for the first negligence of the comital order, and 30 solidi for the second time. If they should not follow the order three times, then counts could enter in the areas of immunity to arrest the criminals, while the disobedient beneficiaries should be forced to pay the fine which the criminals should pay. If they answer the first comital inquiry that a criminal was within immunity but fled farther, they should swear firmly that they did not intend to let the criminal escape or harm anyone, and that, if any, they would satisfy the victim. Anyone who opposes counts entering in areas of immunity should be sent by the counts to the royal court to be judged. Such a person should pay a fine of 600 solidi, the same as that for violation of immunity.[73]

The Carolingians, like Charlemagne, did not intend to limit their own authority and power in the kingdom by privileging churches with immunity.[74] As Paul Fouracre formulated, “the grant of immunity was a means of exchanging earthly property for supernatural power.”[75] According to David Bachrach, Charlemagne was conscious of “the practical utility of the immunity as a means of assuring the efficient mobilization of resources for military campaigns.”[76] In this sense, it was meaningful and necessary for the monarchy itself to guarantee immunity rights more effectively. For this purpose, Charlemagne seems to have used sanction clauses. This effort was, however, intertwined with the other effort of the monarch to avoid the risk that immunities could hinder his royal government, as the chronologically parallel development of the use of sanction clauses and of legislative activities shows.


Scholars, especially diplomatists, who studied sanction clauses have focused mainly on the development of the clauses as a formulary part of medieval documents. Attempts have been made to describe the history of a formulary sentence, namely, its origin(s), formation, establishment, change, disappearance, etc. However, when we observe uses of such sentences by contextualizing them in various backgrounds from the standpoint of “communication”, we can see some aspects of the past reality more clearly. This paper attempted to reconsider meanings of sanction clauses in royal documents at a time when those clauses were not fixed as an integral part of royal documents. Charlemagne seems to have used this kind of communication in the legal sphere cleverly and effectively, as it can be seen in his politics of immunity. Though Heinrich Fichtenau presumed that both the poena spiritualis and the poena saecularis in royal diplomas could be regarded in many cases as a sign of uncertainty of a period or of the weakness of the ruler,[77] we cannot link his unique use of them with Charlemagne’s weakness.

Sanction clauses are expressions of threat and menace. They were certainly a part of communication between monarchs and their courts on the one side and those under their rule who cooperated or had to cooperate in the government of the kingdom on the other, when the latter could experience monarchical threat expressed in royal documents, now as recipients, or as listeners, if they were read out. Sanction clauses were tools with which monarchs could make people act along the line they directed. As such, they were not meaningless nor banal, so far as the sources discussed in this paper allow us to say. This paper is the first step to understanding the “culture of threats” — if I may think of such a phenomenon — in the Carolingian age.

Aoyama Gakuin University
Tokyo, Japan