Treaty of Verdun

The Treaty of Verdun provided rough lines of territorial demarcation within Charlemagne’s empire and established a temporary measure of stability for nascent France and Germany.

Summary of Event

More than almost any event of early European history, the Treaty of Verdun of 843 is intriguing because it not only established the broad boundaries of modern France and Germany but also gave political and legal recognition to an area that became a matter of tension and dispute between the two nations ever after. [kw]Treaty of Verdun (843)
[kw]Verdun I, Treaty of (843)
Verdun, Treaty of (843)
France;843: Treaty of Verdun[0920]
Diplomacy and international relations;843: Treaty of Verdun[0920]
Expansion and land acquisition;843: Treaty of Verdun[0920]
Government and politics;843: Treaty of Verdun[0920]
Laws, acts, and legal history;843: Treaty of Verdun[0920]
Mūsa ibn Nuṣayr
Ṭārik ibn-Ziyād
Julian, Count

The Treaty of Verdun temporarily resolved the dispute among the heirs to the Frankish empire, resulting in three kingdoms: France in the west, Germany in the east, and a corridor between that included northern Italy.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

The Treaty of Verdun, however, did not provide for the resolution of national rivalries. In 843, neither France nor Germany, as such, existed. What happened at Verdun was, rather, a temporary settlement of a family feud of some twenty-six years’s standing, in which each of the major parties was supported by a sizable following with vested interests in the land.

Louis the Pious Louis I the Pious (Holy Roman Emperor) , Charlemagne’ Charlemagne sole surviving son, succeeded him as king of the Franks and Italy, and as emperor of the West. Father of three legitimate sons when he took over the throne in 814, Louis made immediate provision for two of them. Although neither of the boys was old enough to rule the territory granted him, Lothair Lothair I (Holy Roman Emperor) was named king of Bavaria and Pépin Pépin I (king of Aquitaine) was named king of Aquitaine. Louis, the youngest son, known later as Louis the German Louis II the German (king of Germany) , was not assigned a portion of the empire at this first division.

Three years later, Louis the Pious modified this arrangement. By the Division Imperii
Division Imperii (817) of 817, Lothair was made coemperor with his father. Louis the German received Bavaria, which had been Lothair’, and Pépin added Gascony, Toulouse, and some Burgundian counties to Aquitaine, his original holding. On the death of Louis the Pious, the rest of the empire was to go to Lothair. Although each of the sons was sovereign in his own domain and was recipient of its revenues, the emperor’s supremacy was ensured by the requirements that they consult him on all occasions of importance, that they obtain his consent before waging war or making treaties, and that they seek his approval for their marriages. A further provision required the brothers to attend the emperor’s court every year to confer with him on public affairs. Finally, disputes among the brothers were to be settled by a general assembly of the empire.

The first test of the 817 arrangement came not from one of the sons but from the emperor’s nephew Bernard Bernard (king of Italy) , king of Italy. Seeing his own position threatened, Bernard crossed the Alps and staged an abortive revolt against Louis. After the revolt was crushed, Louis retaliated by having his nephew blinded. Bernard died a few days later. Louis’s remorse led him to make a public confession and penance at Attigny in 833. The public humiliation that followed put Louis under the power of the ecclesiastics who supported Bernard and whose loyalties changed with the conflicting ambitions of Louis’s sons. Meanwhile, Louis’s wife died, and he married Judith, the daughter of a Swabian magnate. In 823, Judith bore Louis a son, Charles the Bald Charles II the Bald (Holy Roman Emperor) , a key player in the power struggle that was temporarily resolved by the Treaty of Verdun.

In 829, after an assembly at Worms, Louis issued an edict giving Charles a portion of the empire that had belonged to Lothair. Lothair was sent to Italy, and charters ceased referring to him as coemperor. What followed was a struggle between Louis’s three sons by his first wife and the party of Judith’s son Charles.

In this phase of the struggle, the emperor succeeded in wooing Louis the German and Pépin away from Lothair by promising them additional territories. Soon, however, the emperor had to face Louis and Pépin in separate battles. Aquitaine was wrested from Pépin for Charles, but the Aquitanians refused to accept the new arrangement and drove the emperor’s forces out in 833. In his next bid, Lothair found an ally in Pope Gregory IV Gregory IV , who crossed the Alps on Lothair’s behalf but returned disillusioned by the opportunism he witnessed on all sides of the struggle. Louis the Pious’s fortunes reached a low ebb in 833, when he was again subjected to public penance and for all practical purposes was deposed, only to be restored to power in 835.

In 838, Pépin died and Aquitaine went to Charles, but again, partisans of Pépin resisted in favor of Pépin’s son, Pépin II. When Louis the Pious died in 840, he could have had small consolation in knowing that he had succeeded in having Lothair proclaimed emperor once more.

It was after the death of his father that Lothair attempted to press vigorously the provisions of the Divisio Imperii of 817. He was supported by ecclesiastics but not by a large enough number of lay magnates and therefore was doomed to lose. With all these personal feuds, it is impossible to interpret the complicated struggle as a nationalistic one, although Louis the German’s followers were predominantly residents of what was to become Germany, and Charles’s followers were from what was to become France. Both Louis the German and Charles found themselves opposed to the imperial claims of Lothair.

When Lothair failed to appear at Attigny in 841 for peace negotiations, his cause was for all practical purposes finished. Although there was a major battle at Fontenoy that proved indecisive, it was fatigue rather than military action that brought a willingness to talk peace late in 842. The division was concluded in 843, after consideration by 120 representatives selected to arrange the partition. Lothair was able to hold out for the middle portion of the old empire, a territory including northern Italy and a narrow corridor, about 150 miles (240 kilometers) wide, running to the North Sea. Louis the German received the territories east of the Rhine River and the dioceses of Spires, Worms, and Mainz on the west side. Charles received all else as far as Spain. The brothers swore to secure one another’s shares, a promise that was to be honored only when convenient.


With the exception of Lothair’s “middle kingdom,” which was geographically and culturally unnatural, the divisions established at Verdun have essentially lasted throughout the course of European history. It is significant that in the later phase of their struggle and in the presence of their followers, Louis the German and Charles swore oaths in each other’s languages. These are the famous Strasbourg Oaths Strasbourg Oaths , which provide one of the earliest examples of the emerging German and French languages. In this incident there is a reminder that what can be seen primarily as a war ending in the temporary settlement by Verdun was a struggle colored by cultural differences so deep as to be reflected in diverging languages.

Further Reading

  • Brown, Warren. Unjust Seizure: Conflict, Interest, and Authority in an Early Medieval Society. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001. Covers religious and political disputes between the Carolingians and the emerging German nation.
  • Cantor, Norman F. Medieval History: The Life and Death of a Civilization. New York: Macmillan, 1963. The author’s section on Europe in the eighth and ninth centuries places the Treaty of Verdun in perspective.
  • Deanesly, Margaret. A History of Medieval Europe: 476-911. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1962. Argues that only Charlemagne could command a united Frankish effort. Neither Louis the Pious nor Lothair could prevent the internal disintegration of the empire.
  • Ganshof, F. L. The Carolingians and the Frankish Monarchy: Studies in Carolingian History. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1971. This scholarly and readable account presents some brief observations on Charlemagne’s failure, Louis the Pious’s intellectual strengths, and the origin and importance of the Treaty of Verdun.
  • Innes, Matthew. State and Society in the Early Middle Ages: The Middle Rhine Valley, 400-1000. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Discusses social and political conditions of the middle Rhine valley in the time preceding the Treaty of Verdun and up to the year 1000. Includes a chapter on the “zenith of Carolingian politics” in the area.
  • Previte-Orton, Charles W. The Shorter Cambridge Medieval History. Vol. 1, The Late Roman Empire in the Twelfth Century. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1952. The author argues that the Carolingian Empire weakened because it was too large, its agrarian economy was unable to produce the necessary leadership, and its “Frankish custom” of dividing an estate among all sons amounted to self-destruction.