The Significance of the Treaty of Verdun and the Emergence of the German Reich

Published: 2012-07-31

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The Franconian Empire was the most significant development toward centralized government of the medieval period. In this early Reich, which included both Romanic and Germanic peoples, foundations were laid for the political, social and cultural evolution of Western Europe. This was particularly true of France and Germany. The significance of impulses emanating from this early cultural and political center can hardly be overstated. The convergence of Franconian kings and Kaiser with the papacy had far-reaching consequences not only for the subsequent history of Franconia, but all Europe. “The alliance of Franconian emperor and the Papacy was of major significance for the whole world.”[1]

I. Introduction and History

Meyer’s Encyclopedic Lexicon says this about the significance of the Franconian Empire:[2]

“The Empire of the Franks provided a basis for the cultures and institutions of all the countries of Europe. It preserved and adapted the remnants of classic culture; and in the chaotic period of continuing migrations of nations, it created a tendency to stabilization by forming a lasting accommodation between Romanic and Germanic elements. It caused the principal stage of political events to shift from the Mediterranean to northwestern Europe.

According to Brockhaus:[3]

“In Charlemagne’s empire, the remnants of classical culture were preserved and combined with Germanic-Christian concepts to form the Western culture of the medieval period. Here the Romanic and Germanic elements of the population were reconciled.”

Under Charlemagne’s rule, which lasted from 768 until 814, the Greater Franconian Empire reached its zenith in the formation of a Western Imperium. This marked the high point of the empire’s power and expansion. For hundreds of years thereafter, the knowledge and science of the Middle Ages continued to emanate from the schools that Charlemagne founded. Instability and early tendencies to dissolution first appeared under Charlemagne’s successor and lone surviving son, Ludwig I (The Pious), who reigned from 814 – 840. The primary characteristic of Ludwig’s reign was the struggle to maintain unity in the realm, which was threatened with divided sovereignty resulting from Germanic concepts of inheritance.

“In medieval times, sovereignty was dependent on land ownership. The principle of land inheritance came to be applied to other areas; so the right of land inheritance became the right of dynastic inheritance.”[4]

“In the ‘Ordinatio imperii’ of 817, an imperial ordination which opposed dynastic partitioning, Ludwig the Pious proposed, at the assembly in Aachen, a solution which clearly favored the principle of indivisibility over partitioning of the realm.”[5]

Nevertheless, in a new proclamation governing succession in 831, which favored his son from his second marriage, Karl (later called Karl the Bald), “…he abandoned for all time the principle of indivisibility, in favor of the older tradition of partitioning. He thereby restricted son Lothar’s portion of the Reich to Italy. In 817 Lothar had been elected and crowned as co-Kaiser and heir. The area north of the Alps was divided between Pippin, Ludwig and Karl.”[6]

During Ludwig’s lifetime there were numerous quarrels and struggles (See notes 1 and 2, “Struggles Between the Sons”) over possession of territories. Following Ludwig’s death these developed into open warfare between the brothers over the issue of indivisibility of the realm. The Strassburger Oaths of Feb. 14, 842, culminated in a coalition of Ludwig the German (reigned 843–876) and Karl the Bald (reigned 840–877) against Lothar. However, the Treaty of Verdun in August of 843 led to partitioning: Kaiser Lothar I shared the Franconian Reich with his two brothers.

II. The Consequences of the Treaty of Verdun

Under the Partitioning Treaty, carried out according to the principle of equal distribution among brothers, the western portion of the Franconian Empire went to Karl the Bald and the eastern portion to Ludwig the German. Lothar I received Italy with Rome and the original territories of Aachen, a middle portion of the empire (the so called “bowling alley”), and the title of Kaiser. In spite of partitioning, “ideally and nominally, unity of the Empire was retained.”[7] This unity was accomplished ideally through “the institution of brotherhood” and nominally by “the effort for a common policy.”[8] The old Empire was still considered as existing “in its old boundaries, still under the common administration of the Carolingian House. Conferences of the three rulers (the Franconian Assemblies) established guidelines in the spirit of brotherly love (caritas fraterna). On one occasion, there was a closed and secret conference (amicitia). These conferences, combined with family ties of the imperial aristocracy, determined policies and bridged over the dual-vassal status and ‘inner boundaries’ of the borders which existed in 843.”[9]

The Partitioning of the Carolingian Empire by the Treaty of Verdun (843)

The Treaty of Verdun was primarily an administrative partitioning within the royal family, not a legal partitioning. Nevertheless, it led to the dissolution of the Carolingian Empire. After Verdun, “permanent reunification of the various portions of the Empire was no longer possible. The Franconian population itself was divided.”[8]

Under Karl III, who reigned from 885–887, there was a brief reunification; after he was deposed in 887, however, final partitioning of the Reich took place. From this developed the kingdoms of France and Germany, as well as the duchies of Burgundy and Italy. By the Treaty of Verdun those parts of the realm which had heretofore been united as part of the Franconian Reich, now gathered the momentum which allowed them to became autonomous. This momentum led to the subsequent developments.

The basis was thus created for the development of the German and French nations in the eastern and western parts of the Franconian Reich.

“In the treaty, the brothers guaranteed each other ownership of their respective realms and the right of succession of their sons. The great leaders all swore to abide by it as each one had played a large role in bringing it about.”[10]

Thus the Treaty of Verdun “assured that the kind of nationalism which had prevailed during the first half of the century, that is, indivisibility under a kaiser, was finally put to rest.”[11]

The Partitioning of the Franconian Empire by the Treaty of Verdun (843)[12]

III. The Regional Empires

“The partitioning accepted the holdings of the brothers – Italy, Bavaria, and the land between Maas and Seine – as they existed before the death of the father.”[13]

The boundaries of the new realms were determined by the victory of the brothers who favored partition (Ludwig and Karl) over the brother who favored a unified empire. Thanks to territorial self-containment and linguistic and cultural uniformity, conditions were auspicious for independent consolidations of power.”[14]

A) The Middle Empire (843–875)

Lothar’s realm included the original Carolingian territories with Aachen and Italy (inclusive of Rome) joined by a corridor. This regional corridor included Friesland in the North and was bordered on the East by the Rhein and the Alps, on the West by the Schelde, the Maas, the Saone and the Rhone. In addition Lothar was able to wrest the area between Maas and Schelde from his brother Karl.[15] Bosl describes the “intermediate realm of Lorraine” as “a heterogeneous realm extending from Holland to Provence and including Italy. It became a battleground between Germany and Italy, but it nevertheless continued the traditions of old Burgundy, by and large.”[16]

Zimmermann remarks:[17]

“This peculiar middle Reich was intended to symbolize continuity of imperial indivisibility. However, it was not designed to allow the head of family and Reich to intervene authoritatively in the realms of his sovereign brothers situated to his east and west.”

B) The Empire of West Franconia (843–987)

The realm of Charles II (Charles the Bald) contained the major part of the Romanic nation. However, Charles II “had to contend with his firmly entrenched nephew, Pippin II in Aquitane.”[8]

C) The Empire of East Franconia (843-911)

The realm of Ludwig the German included most of the German-speaking countries. In Löwe’s words:[8]

“Ludwig the German made certain that he got the dioceses of Mainz, Worms and Speyer, in addition to the Germanic regions on the right bank of the Rhein. This was a prosperous region in the heart of Franconia with valuable farmlands belonging to the monarchy as well as a bridgehead which was important for the defense of his realm.”

“It is noteworthy that before the year 843, Ludwig had only German subjects, with the exception of a few Rätoromanen and Slavs in the border areas.”[14]

IV. The Treaty and Its Preparations

The treaty was preceded by long-drawn-out negotiations characterized by great mistrust on both sides:[13]

“An extensive ‘descriptio’ of available farmlands and concessions was prepared in order to assure equal value of its parts.”

Schieffer writes the following concerning the preparation of this “descriptio,” which had been agreed at the preliminary peace of June 842 on Saone Island near Macon:[18]

[…] for the remaining areas, 40 men from each party were commissioned to prepare a descriptio (a kind of financial and administrative inventory.)”

In his reference to the sources, he tells us:[19]

The distribution of the northern Lotharingian territories between the western and the eastern Franconian Empires (France and Germany) by the treaty of Mersen (870, thick black line).

“The basis for this descriptio (which has not survived) is very probably the Coorland Land Register, and perhaps the Lorscher Register (Codex Laureshamensis) as well.”

Löwe also refers to the Coorland register as a source for the history of the Verdun Treaty.

The partitioning took place along lines which “in addition to general political, geographical and military considerations, closely followed the lines of economic yield.”[18]

“At any rate, both the Lorscher Land Registry (formerly dated at around 830/850) and the Coorland registry (earliest date 830/831) were probably first compiled during the drawing of boundary lines at the Treaty of Verdun, 842/843.”[20]

Ganshof refers to a connection regarding the sizes of the partitioned empires and the partitioning of north Lorraine between western and eastern Franconia (France and Germany) in the Treaty of Mersen (870, thick black line in his map):[21]

“The principle of economic equality for the three regions played a significant role regarding income producing offices, benefices, privileges and farmsteads, in addition to congruencies of interest. To an even greater extent, it was decisive in the composition of the partitioned empires in August of 843. I believe I have also proven that this is explained primarily by each brother’s need to dispense profitable offices, benefices etc. for purposes of patronage and to attract new supporters.”

The treaties which have come to us from the middle ages “primarily from the Carolingian age, give profound insight into the peculiarities of early medieval nations and their dealings with one another. This insight comes from the form as well as the content of the treaties, and the formal provisions are often accompanied by extensive official descriptions.”[22]

Although most important treaties from the sixth to tenth centuries have survived “in legal treatises and annals,”[22] the text of the critically important treaty of Verdun has not survived.

The following sources provide information about the Treaty of Verdun:[23] a) Annales Bertiniani 843; b) Annales Fuldenses auctore Rudolfo 843; c) Regino von Prüm, Chronicon. In addition, d) Portions of the letters of Pope Hadrian II to King Charles the Bald along with letters to the bishops and archbishops in the empire of Charles the Bald; and a letter to Archbishop Hinkar of Reims. All three are dated 27th July 870. Also f) portion of a letter from Pope Johannes VIII (874/75) to the East Franconian Kings Ludwig III and Charles III. In addition to the above, there are references in the Annales Xantenses.

Zimmermann says the following about contemporary historical accounts as source materials for the Treaty of Verdun:[24]

“The partitioning of the Empire is also recorded in the historical writings of the day. The so-called Annals of the Empire end in 829, the year in which the crisis of the Carolingian Empire began. They were continued only in the West, in the Bertinian Annals. For a while the most prominent Metropolitan of France, Archbishop Hinkmar de Reims, who died in 882, dedicated himself to this work. In the East, the above mentioned Fulda Chronicles continued a fairly exact report of historical events.”

The Coronation of Charlemagne; Christmas 800.[25]

According to Jakob/Hohenleutner, the Bertinian Annals provide, as a West Franconian continuation of Reich annals, “precious information important for German history,”[26] while the Fulda Chronicles are “a genuine history of the Reich as seen from the point of view of the court.”[27]

The chronicle kept by the head abbot of Prüm offers “essentially only annalistic ordering”[28] or “a sketchy picture of the destruction and dissolution of the Carolingian Empire.”[29]

The Bertinian Annals provide the following information about the Treaty of Verdun:[30]

 “Charles (the Bald) departed for the meeting with his brothers and met them in Verdun. In the partitioning Ludwig received everything beyond the Rhine, in addition to the cities and districts of Speier, Worms and Mainz. Lothar received the land between Rhein and Schelde all the way to its mouth; in addition the land around Cambrai, the Henne district, the Lomen area (between the Maas and Sombre) as well as Castricia (south of this) and the earldoms left of the Maas all the way to the conjunction of the Saone and the Rhone; and then along the Rhone all the way to the ocean with the earldoms on both sides. Outside these borders he received nothing except Arras, which came to him through the generosity of his brother Charles. Everything else, as far as Spain, went to Charles. After they had sworn oaths of loyalty to one another, they finally parted.”

The Fulda Chronicles report:[31]

“When the nobles took possession of the Empire and divided it into three parts, the three kings assembled in Verdun in August and partitioned the Empire: Ludwig received the eastern part, Charles the western part, and Lothar, the eldest, received the middle part. After they had made peace and strengthened their accord by oaths of loyalty, they all returned home so that each could secure and put in order his part of the Empire. Pippin, Charles’s nephew, became a problem for him because of Aquitaine. Charles claimed it was lawfully part of his empire but Pippin attacked on numerous occasions, often with heavy losses to his own forces”

V. The Significance of the Treaty of Verdun for the Emergence of the German Reich

To what extent was the Verdun Treaty a step toward the development of independent countries? Do we hear the voices of emerging nations? The Strassburg Oaths (Feb. 14, 842) are the oldest surviving documents in the Old French and Old High German languages. In these Oaths, which “represent the earliest evidence of linguistic differentiation between Eastern and Western Franconia,”[32] Ludwig the German and Charles the Bald each rejected the claim of being emperor of the entire realm. In order to be understood by the vassals of the other side, Ludwig swore the oath of alliance in the Romanic language while Karl swore it in the Germanic language. Schieffer, however, referring to the vernacular oaths as recorded by the chronicler Nithard, cautions that “just because of the fortuitous circumstance of having been handed down in the vernacular, does not mean that they should be interpreted historically and politically as the voices of evolving separate nations.”[18]

In the same vein, he cautions that the “partitioning of the empire into lesser realms was most certainly not considered irreversible. This was not the establishment of three equal, independent and self sufficient nations. This should not be considered an event which foretells the future.”[11]

Schieffer does not perceive a genesis of new nations here, although such a genesis subsequently became necessary for ethnic reasons. Rather, he comes to a sequential explanation of the entire event:[11]

“Charlemagne’s empire of western and middle Europe was a unique phenomenon whose historical functioning would have been unimaginable outside Western medieval development. Its long term survival, however, was hopelessly beyond the administrative, military, economic and technical potential of the age. Furthermore his empire contradicted existing legal concepts. It is precisely here that Charlemagne’s grandiose program for imperial unity produced a novel theoretical construction.”

Steinbach formulates the critical language question as follows:[33]

“The question of whether close linguistic relationships facilitated the formation of decisive military groupings by the brothers against Lother touches on an unsolved puzzle of Western history. The beginnings of Romanic and Germanic self-determination in conjunction with the development of linguistic boundaries and conflict with Neustrien and Austrien have been evident since the 7th Century. They were politically suppressed by the first Carolingian rulers. During the reign of Charlemagne they were culturally strengthened in the Christian realm, however.

Thanks to the independence movements emanating from Bavaria and Aquitaine since 829, these (efforts at Romanic and Germanic self-determination) grew until they were unequivocally expressed in the Strassbourg Oaths of 842. Was this nationalist grouping of forces in the war between Carolingian brothers a mere coincidence or an inevitable historical event which developing along diverse paths? Historians have been divided over this issue for hundreds of years.”

Schieffer and Steinbach see the precursor of the German Reich in the Eastern Empire. The latter expresses this idea quite precisely:[34]

“Political consolidation and the spread of cultural awareness among the Germanic tribes in the Franconian realm became a powerful movement as early as the Merovingian period, manifest in linguist self-awareness as well as promotion of Germanic self awareness among the Anglo Saxons. One became aware of fraternal feelings among the Germans within the Empire, as opposed to those outside. In the Merovingian and Carolingian periods, development toward individual German states and a German nation became firmly established. During the decline of the Franconian Empire after 829, this development accelerated.

In the realm of the Eastern Empire following the Treaty of Verdun in 843, Ludwig the German assiduously disseminated Franconian political and cultural heritage throughout the community of German tribes, which were now separated from the West.”

Following the Treaty of Verdun, Ludwig the German “politically fostered German cultural awareness in the Eastern Empire.” One could say he “politically activated his realm.”[35]

Both the Treaty of Verdun and its prehistory are “unmistakably an expression of the evolution of separate nations in the East and West. In 843 these separate nations protected themselves against the Emperor’s policy of indivisibility by resorting to power politics.”[14] However, significant development of genuine German nationalism in the East was never officially acknowledged, either before the treaty or in it. One still adhered to Franconian traditions of rule, although:[36]

“Political terminology had not yet begun to use the name ‘German.’ The Eastern Empire continued to be officially called ‘Regnum Francorum’ or ‘Francorum Orientalium.’ Ludwig referred to himself as ‘Rex Francorum,’ occasionally ‘Germanorum’ or ‘Germaniae Rex.’”

The political and economic center of Ludwig’s empire also changed following the Treaty of Verdun. According to Steinbach:[36]

“Although the establishment of Ludwig’s Empire took place in fits and starts coming from the direction of Bavaria, the economic and political center of his empire lay in Mainz and Frankfurt, which, along with Regensburg, was the preferred royal residence after 843.”

Jordan says this regarding the significance of the Treaty of Verdun for the emergence of the German Reich:[37]

“The German Reich was not created by a single specific act. Rather, it emerged over a period lasting almost a hundred years. [He means the period 843–936, the period of the evolution of the doctrine of the ‘Indivisibility of the Reich’ with the rise of Otto I.] This doctrine begins with the Treaty of Verdun.”

According to Zimmermann:[24]

“This was the consequence of the Treaty of Verdun: France developed from Franzien and Germany developed from the Carolingian East.”

Bosl too considers the Treaty of Verdun the “genesis of the French and German nations.”[16]

“The three brothers had not partitioned nations, but rather royal farmlands, churches and privileges; but nevertheless they initiated the political development of Western and Central Europe with its two principal nations of France and Germany.”

The realm of East Franconia can not yet be considered a complete German state or empire. This is evident from an investigation along national political lines and analysis of the constitutional law of the Franconian Empire. Hermann Eichler says:[38]

“In a little-read work, Sickel states with great clarity that ‘A country which was nothing more than a partially Franconian land can not be a German nation; its very nature rules this out.’”

Concerning the effect which the Treaty of Verdun had on the formation of the German Empire, Meyer says:[39]

“The Treaty of Verdun was not the first attempt to partition the [Carolingian] Empire; several such plans and proclamations had preceded it. In contrast to these, however, the Treaty of Verdun was actually put into effect. That is the reason why the year 1843 was celebrated as the thousandth birthday of the German Reich.”

King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia subscribed to this version of the foundation of the Reich, as did the historians G. Waitz, J. G. Droysen and others (some consider the years 911, 919, or even 936 as Reich Foundation year.) Verdun marks the beginning of a hundred-year political development, and thus is correctly considered as part of the comprehensive German tradition. Nevertheless “the emphasis should not be on the partitioning of the original Carolingian empire, but rather on the formation of the German and French Empires, to which we can also add Italy, in other words, the nation states of the Western world.”[40]

In support of this assertion Meyer states the following:[41]

“Thus the partitioning was undertaken in such a way that in the West as well as East, a unified national realm came into existence, in which I do not include small nationalist splinter formations. […]

The Treaty of Verdun was a preliminary step. In 843, nobody could have known how history would turn out. Legislatively, the three parts of the original empire still constituted an entity. Politically, however, three independent realms developed which seldom pursued a common policy, but much more often opposed each other.”


First published as “Der Vertrages von Verdun und die Entstehung des Deutschen Reiches” in Vierteljahreshefte für freie Geschichtsforschung 7(1) (2003), pp. 68-73; translated by James M. Damon.

[1]Brockhaus Enzyklopädie, vol. 6, Wiesbaden 1968, p. 463.
[2]Meyers Enzyklopädisches Lexikon, Vol. 9, Mannheim 1973, p. 253.
[3]Brockhaus, op. cit. (note 1), p. 464.
[4]Hermann Eichler, Die Gründung des Ersten Reiches. Ein Beitrag zur Verfassungsgeschichte des 9. und 10. Jahrhunderts, Berlin 1942, p. 7.
[5]Heinz Löwe, “Deutschland im fränkischen Reich” in: Gebhardt, Handbuch der deutschen Geschichte, Vol. 2, dtv, p. 172.
[6]Ibid., p. 175.
[7]Hermann Kinder, Werner Hilgemann, dtv-Atlas zur Weltgeschichte, Munich 1964, Vol. 1, p. 125.
[8]Löwe, op. cit. (note 5), p. 178.
[9]Ibid., p. 185.
[10]Ibid.. S. 179.
[11]Theodor Schieffer, “Das Frankenreich unter der Samtherrschaft der karolingischen Dynastie (843-887),” in: Theodor Schieder (ed.), Handbuch der europäischen Geschichte, Vol. 1, Stuttgart 1976, p. 595.
[13]Löwe op. cit. (note 5), p. 177.
[14]Franz Steinbach, “Das Frankenreich,” in: Leo Just (ed.), Handbuch der deutschen Geschichte, Vol. 1, Konstanz 1957, Section two, p. 76.
[15]Löwe, op. cit. (note 5), pp. 177f.
[16]Karl Bosl, Europa im Mittelalter, Vienna 1970, p. 173.
[17]Harald Zimmermann, Das Mittelalter. I. Teil: Von den Anfängen bis zum Ende des Investiturstreites, Braunschweig 1975, p. 132.
[18]Schieffer, op. cit. (note 11), p. 594.
[19]Ibid., p. 596.
[20]Wattenbach-Levinson, Deutschlands Geschichtsquellen im Mittelalter. Vorzeit und Karolinger, Weimar 1952. Here: 3rd issue: Die Karolinger vom Tode Karls des Großen bis zum Vertrag von Verdun, edited by Heinz Löwe, Weimar 1957, p. 298.
[21]Francois L. Ganshof, “Zur Entstehungsgeschichte und Bedeutung des Vertrages von Verdun (943),” in: Deutsches Archiv für Erforschung des Mittelalters, 12th year, Cologne/Graz 1956, p. 329.
[22]Peter Classen, Politische Verträge des frühen Mittelalters, Germering 1966, p. 7.
[23]Ibid., pp. 22-26.
[24]H. Zimmermann, op. cit. (note 17), p. 133.
[25]Ibid., Vol. VII, third part, p. 31.
[26]Karl Jacob, Heinrich Hohenleutner, Quellenkunde der deutschen Geschichte im Mittelalter (Bis zur Mitte des 15. Jahrhunderts). Vol. I, Einleitung, Allgemeiner Teil, Die Zeit der Karolinger, Berlin 1959 (here: Sammlung Göschen, Vol. 279), p. 122.
[27]Ibid., p. 121.
[28]Ibid., p. 39.
[29]Ibid., p. 123.
[30]Rudolf Buchner, Ausgewählte Quellen zur deutschen Geschichte des Mittelalters. Freiherr vom Stein-Gedächtnisausgabe. Vol. VI, Quellen zur karolingischen Reichsgeschichte, second part (newly edited by Reinhold Rau), Darmstadt 1966, p. 61.
[31]Konrad Fuchs, Heribert Raab, dtv-Wörterbuch zur Geschichte, Vol. 2, Munich 1972, p. 769.
[33]F. Steinbach, op. cit. (note 14), p. 75.
[34]Ibid., p. 81.
[35]Ibid., p. 83.
[36]Ibid., p. 82.
[37]Karl Jordan, “Deutsches Reich und Kaisertum - Anfänge und Aufstieg bis zum Beginn des Investiturstreites,” in: Leo Just (ed.), op. cit. (note 14), 3rd section, p. 4.
[38]H. Eichler, op. cit. (note 4), p. 20.
[39]Theodor Mayer (ed.): Der Vertrag von Verdun 843; Neun Aufsätze zur Begründung der europäischen Völker- und Staatenwelt, Leipzig 1963, p. 5.
[40]Ibid., pp. 6f.
[41]Ibid., pp. 16, 18.

Additional information about this document
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Author(s): Rolf-Josef Eibicht
Title: The Significance of the Treaty of Verdun and the Emergence of the German Reich
Sources: The Revisionist 3(2) (2005), pp. 164-170
  • James M. Damon: translation
Published: 2012-07-31
First posted on CODOH: July 30, 2012, 7 p.m.
Last revision:
Comments: First published in German as “Der Vertrages von Verdun und die Entstehung des Deutschen Reiches” in "Vierteljahreshefte für freie Geschichtsforschung," 7(1) (2003), pp. 68-73
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