Jean Ehrard


1His name is by itself the title of a chapter of The Spirit of Law (XXXI, 18), a rare honor since of the work’s six hundred four chapters, only five in all are thus personalized. The four other names enjoying the same privilege are Childeric, the example a contrario of Germanic continence, who was deprived of his throne for adultery (XVIII, 25); Gelo of Syracuse, the magnanimous and humanitarian conqueror (X, 5); Charles XII of Sweden (X, 13 [14]), and Alexander (X, 14 [13]), in a diptych that contrasts a warlike ambition unaware of the limits of its means and the wisdom of a conqueror able to win the hearts of conquered peoples by preserving their civil laws and way of life. Thus featured, the figure of the Frankish emperor draws the reader’s attention all the more that it also stands out by the number of mentions it received in The Spirit of Law: eighteen, concentrated (with two exceptions) in the last four books, after a half-dozen in the Considerations on the causes of the greatness of the Romans and their decadence and the Reflections on universal monarchy, with eighteen others in My Thoughts and one in the Spicilège. Modest figures to be sure, but ones to be interpreted in function of the limited role which the author of Romans attributes to great men in the movement of history.

2A complementary indication of Montesquieu’s interest in Charlemagne is the solidity of the documentation he had at hand at La Brède, and which one cannot doubt he put to use. To be sure, to judge from the catalogue of his two libraries at La Brède and in Paris, he did not own the capitularies published by Étienne Baluze in 1677, yet he was quite familiar with them, since he twice refers to them with precision (XXVIII, 4, note g ; ibid., 8, note d). The Catalogue does however reveal the presence at La Brède of another unidentified compendium of the Carolingian capitularies (1603, no. 821), and a third (1617) by Friedrich Lindenbrog (no. 820). From the same period, a work of Hincmar, archbishop of Reims, furnished Montesquieu with the Constitutiones Caroli Magni (no. 2317). He also owned the work of Eginhard, the emperor’s companion and biographer (n° 2015), as well as Pierre Pithou’s compendium called Annalium et historiae Francorum [… ] scriptores which, from 708 to 990, covered the entire Carolingian era (1588, no. 2900). Finally, a scholar from the beginning of the seventeenth century, André du Chesne, provided him with another important compendium, Historiae Francorum sriptores coaetanei ab ipsius gentis origine ad nostra usque tempora (5 volumes, 1636, no. 2932), to which The Spirit of Law refers with precision (XXVIII, 4, note a). Also worth mentioning, and by the same author, is a scholarly and useful bibliography published in 1618, Bibliothèque des auteurs qui ont écrit l’histoire et topographie de la France (no. 2542).

3Thus armed, the philosopher historian did not disguise his admiration, not so much for the warlord as for the politician and statesman. To be sure, Montesquieu evidently did not seek to make of the bearded emperor, the inventor of the school, as in the student manuals, a sort of medieval Jules Ferry. Nor does he speak yet of the “Carolingian Renaissance”, but he is not so far removed from that when he notes in his Thoughts (no. 1392): “Charlemagne’s continual victories, the moderation and justice of his government, seemed to found a new monarchy. He avoided squabbles and often assembled the nation. Arts and sciences seemed to reappear. It seemed that the French people was about to destroy barbarianism.”

4A somewhat similar judgment is developed in the substantial chapter already mentioned of The Spirit of Law (XXXI, 18). In it, Charlemagne’s personality and action are presented very favorably from a triple viewpoint. A prince attentive to the balance of powers as to the diversity of the components of imperial society, he did not seek to divide in order to rule, but strove on the contrary to be a unifier: “Everything was unified by the force of his genius.” Even wars helped him to unify and control a turbulent nobility that tended toward factionalism.

5For a political thinker obsessed by civil wars (Ehrard 1998, p. 95-107), a philosopher who looks for unity in the multiple and believes he has established, against the usual forces of skepticism, the rationality of the “moral world”, discovered in the tangle of relations that structure it (“Everything is extremely interconnected”, EL, XIX, 15), for a sage whose pacifying mind shies away from whatever separates (Ehrard, 1998, p. 159-160), Charlemagne’s unifying action is not his least merit. It was moreover daily on display in the administration of the empire, where one sees in action “a spirit of foresight that takes in everything and a certain power that carries everything along”. Unity and movement interact and are mutually reinforcing. We understand that the components of a well-governed empire are like the balance of the three powers in the English constitution: “[…] inasmuch as, by the necessary movement of things, they are required to move, they shall be forced to move together” (XI, 6).

6The parallel between Charlemagne’s government and the English constitution is indeed obvious to the reader. The awkward measures taken by Charlemagne’s successors compromised and destroyed the empire in which “the orders of the state balanced each other” (XXXI, 24). From this equilibrium the monarch’s authority had not suffered, on the contrary: “He put such a temperament in the orders of the state that they counterbalanced each other and he remained the master” (XXXI, 18). At its beginnings the Carolingian monarchy owed to its founder this character of moderate government by which it resembles, beyond differences of period and mores, the modern English monarchy or the golden age of the French monarchy before it became absolute and veered off toward despotism. Yet the moderation that results from a healthy distribution of powers is, according to Montesquieu, also an individual and collective virtue (III, 4), a “rare” virtue (XXVIII, 41) indispensable to the legislator (XXIX, 1). That virtue was particularly practiced by Charlemagne as a wise, economical, hard-working man, simple in his ways and style of living, as restrained as firm in the exercise of justice: “He knew how to punish, and also how to pardon” (XXXI, 18).

7There is however a blot in this fine portrait that inspired a whole historiographical tradition, from Eginhard to Mézeray: the emperor did not pardon the insubordination of the unhappy Saxons, and cruelly punished them. Mézeray (t. I, p. 407 ss.), Bossuet (Discours sur l’histoire universelle, part one, epochs XI and XII) justified this severity, whose victims were after all non-believers, pagans who required converting, and which served the designs of Providence. Father Daniel (1696) for the same reasons was no less indulgent. On the contrary, soon after the publication of The Spirit of Law, the fifteenth chapter of the Essai sur les mœurs was to make of the Frankish monarch’s cruelty a charge against a man whom Voltaire, while admiring him, strove to demythify. When he relates the massacre of four thousand five prisoners, the historian is indignant:

If these prisoners had been rebel subjects, such a punishment would have represented horrible severity; but to treat men who fought for their freedom and their laws in this way was the act of a brigand, though famous achievements and brilliant qualities had made him a great man.
It took three more victories to reduce these peoples under the yoke. Blood finally cemented Christianity and servitude. (p. 262-263)

8Yet in 1748 Montesquieu says nothing about this dramatic episode, although the manuscript of The Spirit of Law denounced the exceptional justice instituted by Charlemagne against the vainquished (the remerc, a secret tribunal which caused the accused to be executed before their trial: OC, t. IV, p. 695). As he could not be unaware of what his predecessors had said, and as he could hardly invoke to clear his hero’s name the higher interest of religion and the Church, we must suppose that his silence was dictated by embarrassment and prudence. But this silence was not definitive. For the revised version he prepared of The Spirit of Law – which would constitute the posthumous edition of 1757-1758 – he anticipated adding to his chapter “On the right of conquest” (X, 3) the following final paragraph:

Charlemagne, in order to overcome the Saxons, removed their freedom and ownership of property. Louis the Debonaire freed them; it was the best thing he did during his reign. Time and servitude had mollified their mores, and they remained ever faithful to him.

9Abandoning his silence about the great man’s fault, Montesquieu still tried to minimize it. By what right did Charlemagne pretend to overcome the Saxons? This is the question which Voltaire raises (Essai sur les mœurs, XV, p. 260) and which Montesquieu eludes.

10The reader may entertain other doubts: how did the philosopher who constantly denounces the illegitimacy of all forms of servitude reconcile himself with even the temporary reduction of an entire people? For what sophist will the son’s good dead wipe out the father’s evil one? In fact, the subtle, rigorous, and deep thinker that the author of the Spirit of Law is, does not escape a contradiction that is equal to his admiration which is reserved to the great minds to whom Charlemagne belongs (XXIX, 18). And on this essential point the fundamental divergence between Montesquieu’s judgment and that of his contemporaries is not apparent. Voltaire himself, so foreign to all hagiography, so distrustful of legends too fine, brings his critical mind to bear less on the person of Charles than against the era of his reign: an ignorant, barbarous era that still owed to his authority the “unique” happiness of a half-century of civil peace (Essai sur les mœurs, XVI, p. 81).

11As Voltaire also recalls, following Eginhard, this emperor who “did not know how to sign his name” nevertheless protected the letters, the sciences and the arts (ibid., XIX, p. 304-305). A Frankish king, Charlemagne followed the customs of the Francs who did not know a distinction between nobles and commoners: among them all freemen were equal (ibid., XXII, p. 345). This equality of status to which François-Marie Arouet ought to have been attuned depended upon a strong political power. Unlike Montesquieu, Voltaire was inclined to minimize the role left by the emperor to “assemblies of the nation”: “Under him”, he specifies, “his parlements had no will other than that of a master who was skilled at commanding and persuasion” (ibid., p. 297). A master: Montesquieu also, as we have seen, had used that word, but in a different context in which the dominant idea was that of the balance of forces.

12That a master is not necessarily a despot cannot however make one forget the eternal experience of the abuse of power. And if it proves true that “every man who has power is eager to abuse it” (XI, 4), a stronger power necessarily reinforces the temptation, as is confirmed by the chapter already cited in The Spirit of Law (XXIX, 18), “On notions of uniformity”. Even Charlemagne has his place in the long list of princes who have tried to unify weights and measures: a centralizing impulse in contradiction with the habitual practice of respect for the diversity of customs. Where Condorcet will see archaism and prejudice, Montesquieu responds in advance freedom: “Thus, when a man becomes more absolute [a note specifies: ‘Caesar, Cromwell and so many others’], his first thought is to simplify the laws” (VI, 2). By allowing himself to be won over by this ambition – happily not pursued – of petty minds, Charlemagne’s great mind took the risk of appearing to posterity as a harbinger of despotism, a new Caesar, a first Cromwell (Ehrard 1998, XVIII, notably p. 299-306).

13That is not the only blot on his image. A reading of The Spirit of Law suggests a second reservation. But it, even more than the prior one with which in any case it overlaps, presupposes allowing the writer credit for intellectual coherence, and to judge passages devoted to the emperor and his empire only in function of the “entire book”, of “the work’s design” (Preface). The reflections in Book X on “offensive strength” illuminate what is said elsewhere of Charlemagne, even if he is not named: “When the conquest is immense, it supposes despotism” (X, 16). The history of the Roman Empire confirms this adage; the City is still free, in a wise distribution of powers, when all-powerful proconsuls reign arbitrarily over distant provinces (XI, 19): an idea taken up again in chapter VIII of the Universal Monarchy (1734) in the notebook of corrections of Romans which make use of its fragments (OC, t. II, p. 347), and which cites as an example not the Roman Empire, but that of Charlemagne and its dissolution. Condemned to despotism, too extended a state is also condemned to breaking up. The Spirit of Law underscores the real weakening that precariously masks the excessive aggrandizement of a monarchy: “A monarchical state must be of medium size” (VIII, 17). “If a monarchy can act for a long time before growth has weakened it […]”. Among many other conquerors the “great mind” of Charlemagne failed to understand these laws of history; the Carolingian Empire did not survive its creator. For Montesquieu this fall confirms, if such were needed, the lesson first drawn from the destiny of Rome and the precedence in historical development of general causes over particular events. The case of Charlemagne so attests: however great an individual’s personal qualities may be, they remain powerless to counter the perversity of a system.


Étienne Baluze, Capitularia regum Francorum, Paris, 1677.

François Eudes de Mézeray, Histoire de France depuis Faramond jusqu’au règne de Louis le Juste (3 vol., 1643 ss.), Paris: Barbin, 1670.

Bossuet, Discours sur l’histoire universelle, Paris, 1681.

Gabriel Daniel, Histoire de France depuis l’établissement de la monarchie française dans les Gaules, Paris, 1696.

Voltaire, Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations (1756), Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2009, t. II.

Jean Ehrard, L’Esprit des mots:Montesquieu en lui-même et parmi les siens, Geneva: Droz, 1998.

Jean Favier, Charlemagne, Paris: Fayard, 1999.

Jean Ehrard, « Idée et figures de l’empire dans L’Esprit des lois », Cahiers du Centre d’histoire « Espaces et Cultures », Clermont-Ferrand: Université Blaise-Pascal, 2004, p. 41-53.

Bibliographical reference

Ehrard Jean , “Charlemagne”, translated by Philip Stewart, in A Montesquieu Dictionary [online], directed by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ENS Lyon, September 2013. URL: