One of the many empires to come from the Roman empire, the Frankish Empire was the territory inhabited and ruled by the Franks, a confederation of West Germanic tribes, during Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages.

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In 843, it was succeeded by East, West and Middle Francia which would eventually form the Carolingian Empire. With a size of 1,200,000 square kilometers, it would be the 26th largest nation on Earth, but could it survive? Let's say that for some reason, I want to prevent the collapse of Francia, how can I do it? What is the smallest change I can make to history to allow the continuation of Francia? There are only two constraints,

  1. The change must be realistic, no mind control, no super weapon, etc.
  2. Francia has to be able to remain a superpower through and including modern day.

Either give the rulers hereditary diseases, or put the Empire under siege.

I'm choosing to focus on the later period of Francia, during the Carolingian Empire.

The major issue with states in the 6th to 11th centuries was that the very idea of a state was not at all common. The Carolingians - though, starting with Charlemagne, carrying the title of Holy Roman Emperor - came from societies which had "barbarian" (i.e. non-Roman) origins, dating back many centuries. The "barbarian" cultures were held together through kin-groups and personal loyalty to a particular king, not to some abstract entity like a country. Enduring state-building in Europe was not a result of the Greeks or the Romans, but of later times. States that would survive the reigns of many rulers fully intact were not to be, during the Carolingian Empire (or the Frankish Empire, as you called it).

You might doubt this, given the fact that such an empire was even able to form, but I'd point you to three important dates:

  1. 800 A.D. Charlemagne is crowned Holy Roman Emperor, the head of the new Carolingian Empire. This was mainly symbolic, but it is important that Charlemagne had been able to unite disparate small kingdoms which had been constantly divided up between members of the Carolingian dynasty, comping together and falling apart as people lived and died. 800 symbolizes start of a brief period of unity.
  2. 814 A.D. Louis the Pious, one of Charlemagne's sons, takes full control of the Empire. Charlemagne previously let all his children have positions of power, which could have led to another division of territory, but the deaths of Louis siblings later in life gave him full control.
  3. 817 A.D. Louis the Pious gave his three sons (Lothair, Louis the German, and Charles the Bald) partial control of three separate thirds of the Empire, inadvertently ensuring that when he died, there would be brutal fighting. In fact, the civil wars began much sooner, and lasted intermittently for several decades, even after his death in 840. Only the Treaty of Verdun, in 843, stopped the fighting - but divided the Empire.

In this period, you cannot have a lasting, stable state if your rulers continue to produce plenty of children - which the Carolingians seem to do, at an unfortunately large pace. We saw that Louis the Pious only kept the Empire together because his siblings died. I'd argue that any of his sons could have done the same, had the other two died.

Essentially, you need to have a family tree with only one or two heirs per generation which survive. There are a couple ways you could do this:

  • Disease. Notably, European royal families were stricken by haemophilia, a problem that was exacerbated by continuous intermarriages between different royal houses. "In-breeding" among the dynasty, so to speak, could keep some rare genetic trait within the family, and perhaps could lead to high enough mortality rates to kill of most of the children.
  • Constant external warfare. You can't afford to have a weak, divided state (or states) if there are powerful forces attacking from the outside. Moors were in the Iberian peninsula around this time period; perhaps constant strong pressure by them against Frankish forces could make union the only viable option for survival. Additionally, Slavs were (I believe) creating some problems in the east (although the Huns were not problematic at this time; perhaps if they were still around, you could see some interesting developments).
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    $\begingroup$ "In this period, you cannot have a lasting, stable state if your rulers continue to produce plenty of children - which the Carolingians seem to do, at an unfortunately large pace." You can, you just need different rules of succession in that scenario. $\endgroup$
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 29 '16 at 16:04
  • $\begingroup$ @ohwilleke You do need different rules, but 1) I don't think the Carolingians would be too keen on accepting those, and 2) You'd need a guarantee that those rules would be followed - which I doubt. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Nov 29 '16 at 17:52
  • $\begingroup$ Why not? Primogenitor was not terribly well established at the time, the Romans didn't follow that principle in their not terribly distant fallen empire, and if it was good enough for the Pope why wouldn't it be good enough for the Holy Roman Emperor? Getting the rules to be followed is largely a matter of proclaiming them in advance often and then getting the incentives right to get people to go along. The incentives of people with power to honor the traditional European rule are actually weaker which is why European history has so many succession contests (but admittedly so did the papacy). $\endgroup$
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 29 '16 at 18:26
  • $\begingroup$ @ohwilleke Regarding "why wouldn't it be good enough for the Holy Roman Emperor?" As I stated at the beginning, the connection between the Holy Roman Empire and the actual Roman Empire is like the connection between most fruit snacks and actual fruit. You would need something incredibly strong to change the "barbarian" method that had been in use in Gaul and the nearby regions for centuries. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Nov 29 '16 at 18:54
  • $\begingroup$ Not so sure. Charlemagne was a major innovator administratively and had an empire of unprecedented size. And while I agree the HRE and actual Roman Empire are only mythically connected, the HRE thing was itself a highly innovative new form of rulership that could have justified a continued departure from tradition related to that post. Surely Charlemagne was aware of the risk of the empire's partition. Perhaps he simply didn't consider any alternatives because he didn't know to ask, but would've adopted one if he'd thought about it properly after a trusted advisor posed the issue. $\endgroup$
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 29 '16 at 19:04

Give Charles the Fat an ambitious heir early in his life. Have the heir murder him and establish a better succession law. Everything else will take care of itself.

Historical Collapse of Francia

The last time Francia was united was in 884 when Charles the Fat had inhreited control over the pieces of the Empire that were given away to other branches of the family. But it was not to last, because he was incredibly unpopular, cowardly in the face of viking attacks, and also epileptic. Charles died three years after the empire was reunited, and the different lands all went to different people.

How to avoid the historical collapse

Don't split the party. Francia should maintain a single, hereditary Emperor, in the style adopted by later monarchies. This can be accomplished by sufficient brow-beating of the younger heirs (enough to pass a new law and have it be honoured), or having all but one male heir die of disease.

In Charles the Fat's case, he needed to have an heir. Since he died at age 49, he could easily have produced one or more male heirs, and with luck on his side, that man would be a strong enough ruler to suppress the revolt of Arnulf of Carinthia (or assassinate him). Ideally, he would also assassinate his own father before 885, and consolidate power in time to repel the Siege of Paris. Historically, the man who tried to defend Paris (Count Odo) was the one elected King of the Franks after Charles' death, so resisting them (even if unsuccessfully) would have been a huge crowd-pleasing move.

And after..?

Given that it will become increasingly difficult to maintain such a large empire, our hypothetical continuation of the Karling line would be well-served to turn his Francia into an absolutist state like the Russian Empire, where the autocrat's will was law and secession was unthinkable. Consider how many royal dynasties Russia had (two) compared to England or France (loads). Since dynastic change will often mean territorial change at a time when the idea of nation-states does not exist, you really want to prevent it.


Adopt The Saudi Arabian Pattern Of Succession

A Large Pool Of Potential Future Kings Related To The Dynasty Founder

In the Saudi Arabian succession system, all adult male descendants of the founder of the dynasty are eligible to become king someday, and there are lots and lots of descendants (in the Saudi case, due to a combination of polygyny and successive marriages and high fertility for nobles). There are basically basically no "cadet" lines with only a remote chance of succession if lots of unlikely deaths occur no matter how distinguished their own efforts may be.

The King Has Great Freedom To Hire And Fire Royals From Powerful Posts

In the English hereditary monarchy, most of the sub-posts were also hereditary under a primogenitor system, creating many points where incompetent aristocrats could weaken the kingdom. This is not true in the Saudi system.

The sitting monarch can name a Crown Prince and other senior cabinet members from the most trusted, capable and competent of his adult descendants whom he interacts with regularly.

Less trusted, less capable and less competent descendants of the founder of the nation are given posts commensurate with their abilities. One might be given charge of a minor government ministry, another a governorship of a province or a mayorship of a city or village, or an officership in the military as high as the descendant can handle, or a chancellorship of a college. Black sheep might be given an allowance but no responsibilities at all - but denying them any benefits of their royal blood could breed dissent.

All lesser officials would serve at the king's pleasure, rather than for life, creating stronger incentives, allowing the king to rotate promising candidates through different parts of the kingdom and different experiences to become qualified, while also preventing any royal from consolidating too much power that could be mobilized against him.

Succession Is Decided By A Council Of Senior Royals

A council of royals who are senior officials in the regime, like a board of directors, would have formal power to appoint a successor king without regard to whether or not that person was Crown Prince, although the Crown Prince would be favored. The size of this council would vary over time based upon the monarch's wishes.

If the Crown Prince position is vacant when the monarch dies, or the Crown Prince has lost support from his kin, the senior members of the ranks of potential heirs choose someone, usually one of their number, to be the new monarch.

If the sitting monarch has chosen wisely, the most qualified member of the royal family will already have been named as Crown Prince and the succession will be seamless.

But, if a demented old man who named a flatterer with a rotten heart to be Crown Prince, the empire is not lost. And, because no one has a true right to be the next king, even the Crown Prince, it will be hard for a disappointed contestant to mount a contest to the pick of the senior eligible heirs and unwise when the disappointed contestants are likely to get some of the most senior posts in the new regime.

Benefits Of This System For Francia

This still provides some of the key benefits of a monarchy to a medieval state:

(1) if you don't have the resources to groom even 1% of the population with the training and opportunities necessary to prepare them to lead the country, by limiting scarce training and education resources to descendants of the founder, you can get a qualified leadership elite (e.g. mostly literate and training in riding horses and war) with a minimum of expenditure of resources in a desperately poor society.

(2) it provides clear lines of authority direct from the king to organize and mobilize the country which fits with the very direct managerial authority that Charlemagne exercised over his vassals in the early kingdom - with a traveling court that regularly visited every place in the domain; he could bring unassigned royals in his entourage to be dispatched to new posts as the need arose in the circuit of his traveling court, replacing incompetent officials who were discovered en route,

(3) it provides for rapid succession that is not subject to dispute and provides a clear outcome (often monarchy is justified on the ground that avoiding civil wars of succession created by uncertainty is more important than the quality of the king), and

(4) it would protect the nation from the mishaps of a purely hereditary succession system with no regard to merit. The selection of a monarch and senior officials based upon merit within the class of descendants of the founder avoids the elevation on monarchs like Charles the Fat who could end a dynasty.

This system also creates a way to reward and incentivize otherwise lazy aristocrats to perform in order to gain more power.

Since 98% of them would have no shot at real prominence and power in the European style primogeniture system, there is a large corps of powerful people who are better trained and educated than anyone else in the kingdom to have a vested institutional interest in supporting this alternative approach and the monarch it selects, even if they don't personally get the top jobs.

Those who come out on the bottom in this quasi-merit based system are the least qualified to mount a regime changing coup.

It also divides up power, in so many ways, among so many people, that no one descendant can consolidate enough power to split the empire and create an independent region if it is managed well by the monarch.

Family Dynamics In A Francia's Version Of This System

In Francia, it wouldn't be necessary to have formal polygyny.

It would be enough to abolish the succession distinction between legitimate and illegitimate descendants of the founder of the nation to get a sufficient pool of eligible descendants to find a few worthy of responsible positions in the empire. Royals would have no trouble producing many descendants if their children, marital and non-marital alike, had such promising futures.

Also, if a woman lied and said her child had a royal father when the father was actually not royal, and was believed, there would be little harm to the kingdom - if the child was competent he would serve the empire well; if not, the cost would be little more than the cost of a modern society to reward the occasional lottery winner who doesn't really deserve the prize. Relying on the royal parent's declaration to determine paternity while ignoring commoner testimony would encourage people to try to win the favor of royals they were in close relationships with, lest their children be disowned.

This system would also provide a means by which promising non-royals could join the dynasty, marrying (or merely mating) a royal family member and having children with them who would be royal descendants too. These marriages might be subject to approval of the monarch, and would provide a means by which the empire could co-opt anybody who might otherwise lead resistance against the regime.

How Would The System Be Imagined?

The system could be implemented by Charlemagne, perhaps consciously adopting pre-House of Saud Bedouin traditional leadership succession practices he learns about from spies and captives in his war with the Moors (figuring he must copy the techniques that give them an advantage, while adapting them to his own world), and followed by his successors, perhaps with the support of a prescient Pope who sees the perils of the alternative that was actually followed in our world.

Other examples of similar systems might also suggest it.

One would be the Roman Catholic Church's College of Cardinals (a group of Bishops hand picked by the Pope to vote on a successor to him).

Some nominally democratic Northern Italian and Swiss cities states called communes operated on something reasonably similar to this basis from the late middle ages until the 19th century. As Wikipedia explains:

During the 11th century in northern Italy a new political and social structure emerged and the medieval communes developed to the form of city states. The civic culture which arose from these urbs was remarkable. In most places where communes arose (e.g. France, Britain and Flanders) they were absorbed by the monarchical state as it emerged.

Almost uniquely, they survived in northern and central Italy to become independent and powerful city-states. The breakaway from their feudal overlords by these communes occurred in the late 12th century and 13th century, during the Investiture Controversy between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor: Milan led the Lombard cities against the Holy Roman Emperors and defeated them, gaining independence (battles of Legnano, 1176, and Parma, 1248 - see Lombard League). Meanwhile the Republic of Venice, Pisa and Genoa were able to conquer their naval empires on the Mediterranean sea (in 1204 Venice conquered one-fourth of Byzantine Empire in the Fourth Crusade). Cities such as Parma, Ferrara, Verona, Padua, Lucca, Mantua and others were able to create stable states at the expenses of their neighbors, some of which lasted until modern times.

In southern and insular Italy, autonomous communes were rarer, Sassari in Sardinia being one example.

In the Holy Roman Empire, the emperors always had to face struggles with other powerful players: the land princes on the one hand, but also the cities and communes on the other hand. The emperors thus invariably fought political (not always military) battles to strengthen their position and that of the imperial monarchy. In the Golden Bull of 1356, emperor Charles IV outlawed any conjurationes, confederationes, and conspirationes, meaning in particular the city alliances (Städtebünde), but also the rural communal leagues that had sprung up. Most Städtebünde were subsequently dissolved, sometimes forcibly, and where refounded, their political influence was much reduced.

Nevertheless some of this communes (as Frankfurt, Nuremberg, Hamburg) were able to survive in Germany for centuries and became almost independent city-states vassals to the Holy Roman Emperors (see Free imperial city).

In the later stage of the commune system, they started to resemble the political system of the House of Saud. Council members generally served for life and only aristocrats had any political say. Per Wikipedia:

During the 17th century seats in the councils became increasingly hereditary. There were between 50 and 200 families that controlled all the key political, military and industrial positions in Switzerland. In Bern out of 360 burgher families only 69 still had any power and could be elected by the end of the 18th century. However, the aristocracy remained generally open and in some cities new families were accepted if they were successful and rich enough.

A less likely contemporaneous example, but not impossible for him to learn about would be a Hindu joint family:

Historically, for generations India had a prevailing tradition of the joint family system or undivided family. The system is an extended family arrangement prevalent throughout the Indian subcontinent, particularly in India, consisting of many generations living in the same home, all bound by the common relationship. A patrilineal joint family consists of an older man and his wife, his sons and daughters and his grandchildren from his sons and daughters.

The family is headed by a karta, usually the oldest male, who makes decisions on economic and social matters on behalf of the entire family. The patriarch's wife generally exerts control over the household and minor religious practices and often wields considerable influence in domestic matters. Family income flows into a common pool, from which resources are drawn to meet the needs of all members, which are regulated by the heads of the family.

There was trade between Italian states and India during this time period, so it is not entirely far fetched that Charlemagne might learn about this system.

Another more familiar frame for the concept (although unlikely to be an inspiration for Charlemange) would be a family owned business corporation in which all family members in the bloodline own shares that provide them a modest stream of dividends, the CEO engages in lots of nepotism to hire family members for key posts, and a board of directors (de facto appointed by the CEO from the ranks of adult shareholders) chooses a successor CEO, instead of having his CEO post pass by intestate succession (which is essentially what the European hereditary model involves).


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