The ad hoc nobility that had arisen in the European kingdoms during the first centuries of the dark ages was finally organized and given official title by Charlemagne. His grandfather, Charles Martel, had joined land rights to military responsibility a century earlier, but the hierarchy of authority was shallow. Knights extorted the peasantry for taxes on behalf of a lord to whom they were vassals, and the lord bowed to the crown. This system failed to account for differences in power between the lords, and it did not hold them to any duties of leadership beyond simple intimidation and aggressive force. They were expected to maintain a military force and nothing more. Charlemagne went further by charging the landed nobility with administrative responsibilities. He ranked the nobility with different titles, each of which entailed varying degrees of power and separate duties.
Baron (and Knight) – The lowest station of noble rank, barons had title to the land and compelled the peasantry to work their fields and cultivate wealth for the kingdom. The typical baron lived in a manor, and during times of peace, he oversaw planting and harvesting. In times of war, he rode to battle on his own horses, carried his own weapons and fought under the banner of his province’s Duke, to whom he was a vassal. If a baron was too old to fight, as was usually the case, he would send his sons to serve the king as knights. It was expected that in wars of conquest a young knight would win new land holdings which would be awarded to him by the victorious king. In this way, an otherwise errant knight could acquire his own barony to sustain himself and his family rather than having to return home and fight with his brothers for his father’s lands.
Count – Administration of Charlemagne’s empire hinged on the count and the county. The comital title indicated that one was the invested representative of the royal palace. Counts were appointed by the king himself and dispatched to the provinces to see to all areas of governance. They collected taxes, oversaw troop levies, built roads and fortifications, resolved judicial matters, and executed the king’s law. Charlemagne divided his kingdom into dozens of counties and placed a count in each to carry out his will. Often the position was held by a powerful local baron. If Charlemagne doubted the loyalty of his subjects in the precinct, he would send one of his own courtiers. Loyalty of the counts was paramount and, at least during the Carolingian reign, the position carried tremendous power.
Marquis – A marquis is a count whose county lies in the kingdom’s frontier along a march. A march is a contested region bordering another kingdom. A marquis was usually given a sizable army to defend his county , and by doing so, secure the kingdom’s borders. They were trained in warfare and were martial in their rule. The marquis is a higher station than count because of its military rank.
Duke – Termed peers of the king, Dukedom is the highest rank of nobility below royalty. Dukes ruled large duchies which roughly correlate to the regions of Europe we know today (e.g. Swabia, Alsace, Normandy, Holland, ect). Although the king could rule from afar with the counts, the comital mansion was usually based in the city and the counts’ influence did not reach far beyond the activities of the town. It was the dukes who held real power in the provinces since they were lords to all of the barons. This fact was especially important for military matters. The king had to go through his dukes to raise an army from the knightly classes. The Dukes made up the class from which the king chose his generals. They commanded the royal armies in the king’s absence and exercised a great deal of autonomy in deciding whom to fight and when.