World History: Ancient and Medieval Eras

World History: Ancient and Medieval Eras
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Considered the greatest king of the Middle Ages, Charlemagne forged a powerful empire
during his long reign from 768 to 814 and left an indelible mark on his age and the
generations to come. The son of Pippin the Short, the first Carolingian king, Charlemagne
inherited an important political and military legacy from his father. He used that inheritance
and expanded upon it, creating a political ideal that would influence European history for
the next thousand years.
Also known as Carolus Magnus or Charles the Great, Charlemagne is believed to have
been born on April 2, 742 to Pippin and Bertrada. Charlemagne was physically and
personally imposing, towering over his contemporaries, according to his biographer
Einhard. He had long hair and large eyes, and his face was cheerful and full of laughter. In his biography, Einhard
describes a man who was most personable and who often had many guests to dinner, where he indulged in food
but drank only in moderation, while German epic tales were told or pages from the works of Saint Augustine of
Hippo were read. He took great pains to educate his children and often took them riding and hunting, pastimes at
which he excelled and which he enjoyed greatly. He was also deeply religious, according to the climate of the
age; attended mass regularly; and honored the pope, bishops, and abbots.
In accordance with Frankish tradition, at his death in 768, Pippin divided the realm between his two sons,
Charlemagne and Carloman. In some ways, the division was more favorable to the younger Carloman, whose
kingdom was compact and easier to manage than the territory given to Charlemagne. Moreover, Charlemagne
received territory that had only recently been fully incorporated into the kingdom and was more susceptible to
revolt at the change of leadership. In the opening years of his reign, Charlemagne did face a serious revolt in his
territory, which he suppressed with great difficulty. The situation was made worse by Carloman's unwillingness to
come to his brother's aid. Tensions ran high between the brothers, who were on the point of war when Carloman
suddenly died in 771, leaving Charlemagne as the sole Carolingian king.
Having survived his brother and a potentially disastrous civil war, Charlemagne was then able to make his mark
as king. His success as king rested on his indomitable will and his ability as a warrior, and one of his first actions
was the conquest of Saxony, a process that began in 772, lasted more than 30 years, and had important
consequences for later medieval history. Charlemagne, determined to convert the pagan Saxons to Christianity,
sent armies of warriors into Saxony to impose Frankish political authority and armies of priests to spread the
Christian faith. The Saxons, however, refused to accept becoming subject to the political and religious power of
the Franks and resisted mightily.
Charlemagne's activities as a warrior found other theaters as well. In 788, he annexed Bavaria after its duke,
Tassilo III, failed to honor an oath he had sworn to attend the court of the Frankish king. As a result of the
annexation, he was forced to secure his southeastern frontier. He sent his armies against the remnants of the
Hunnish tribes that had plundered Europe savagely and smashed the central stronghold of the Huns. Huge
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wagonloads of treasures were taken from the Huns, and a good portion was diverted to the pope in Rome.
Great conqueror though he was, Charlemagne's military record is not without failure. In the last years of his reign,
he was unable to respond successfully to the attacks of the Danes, whose lands abutted the Carolingian Empire
as a result of the conquest of the Saxons. He also suffered a serious defeat in 778, when he allied with the
Muslim leader of Barcelona and invaded Spain. He found his allies in disarray and was able to accomplish little in
Spain, but worse was to come. As he crossed the Pyrenees back into France, his rearguard was attacked, and it
and its commander, Roland, were destroyed. The memory of the event later provided the foundation for one of
the most enduring epics of the Middle Ages, the Song of Roland, but it could provide little consolation for
Charlemagne, who left Spain early to respond to unrest in the kingdom and to another in the series of Saxon
revolts. Indeed, the great king not only faced the occasional military setback, but he also faced a number of
revolts during his long reign.
Despite the occasional failure and revolt, Charlemagne was a warlord to be reckoned with. He did suppress the
revolts he faced, and he extended the boundaries of the empire with the creation of the Spanish March, a
militarized border region that included territory on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees. His most important military
campaign, besides the conquest of Saxony, was his conquest of the kingdom of the Lombards in Italy during
773–774. It signaled a dramatic reversal of a Carolingian policy of close ties with the Lombards that had been in
effect, in some ways, since the time of Charlemagne's grandfather, Charles Martel. Moreover, it was a dramatic
change in the personal life of the king himself, who repudiated his wife, Desiderata, the daughter of the Lombard
king in Italy, Desiderius. Charlemagne broke with the Lombards, preferring to ally himself with a far greater power:
the pope in Rome. His invasion quickly brought about the defeat of the Lombards and the capture of their capital
at Pavia. His invasion also brought much new territory to the growing empire, as Charlemagne not only defeated
Desiderius but also deposed him and usurped his crown.
One of Charlemagne's most important legacies was his idea of kingship. His father before him had been crowned
and anointed by the pope, an act that consciously recalled the ceremonies at the crownings of the ancient kings
of Israel. The influence of the Hebrew Bible on the Carolingians was great, and the biblical king David was the
model king for the new Frankish dynasty. Charlemagne himself, inspired by his court scholars, saw himself as a
"new David" ruling a new chosen people and was given the nickname of David by those at court. He saw himself
as God's anointed, with responsibilities over God's church and people, a belief that manifested itself in his
relations with the church in his kingdom and in Rome.
In his capitularies, he instituted moral reform of the clergy, encouraging them to know the mass, to live a chaste
life, and to avoid frequenting taverns. He also reformed the organization of the Frankish church. He introduced
liturgical reforms, appointed bishops and abbots, and employed ecclesiastics in the highest levels of his
government. He felt an obligation to defend the faith from heresy and moral corruption and to extend the
boundaries of Christendom. His conquests accomplished the goal of extending the faith, and he presided over
church councils to protect the faith from internal enemies. At his most famous council, at Frankfurt in 794, he and
the assembled clerics denounced the Spanish heresy of Adoptionism (teaching that Jesus of Nazareth was the
son of God by adoption), struggled to find the appropriate response to the Iconoclastic Controversy in the
Byzantine Empire, and instituted a series of organizational and disciplinary reforms.
Charlemagne's sense of responsibility as an anointed Christian king was perhaps the source of inspiration for his
promotion of what is called Carolingian Renaissance. Although not the decisive break with an earlier "dark age"
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that it has traditionally been considered, the renaissance did see a quickening of intellectual pace and a dramatic
increase in the use of writing in government and the church. Charlemagne's goal was to create an educated
clergy who could properly say the mass and teach to the people such fundamentals of the faith as the Lord's
Prayer and the Apostles' Creed. He attracted some of the best minds of his day, including Theodulf of Orléans,
Paul the Deacon, Peter of Pisa, and the great Anglo-Saxon scholar and teacher Alcuin of York. Those scholars
brought with them a devotion to Charlemagne's reforms and a devotion to Christian learning, which they shared
with their students, who then contributed to the increasing sophistication of Carolingian government and society.
The chain of events that led to Charlemagne's elevation to emperor began in a crisis early in the reign of Pope
Leo III. Elected pope in 795 after the death of the powerful and well-connected Adrian I, Leo faced the challenge
of ruling the church with significant enemies in Rome, especially relatives of the former pope who were
dissatisfied by the election of Leo. On April 25, 799, Leo was attacked while leading a religious procession
through the streets of Rome. He was dragged from his horse and, according to some reports, was blinded and
had his tongue cut out. He was then imprisoned in the monastery of Saint Erasmus, and his attackers alleged
that he was corrupt and guilty of adultery and perjury. He escaped from the monastery and was escorted to the
Frankish court by one of Charlemagne's dukes in Italy, where he regained the powers of sight and speech. He
was welcomed by the king and returned to Rome, where he awaited the arrival of the king to resolve the dispute.
In November 800, Charlemagne and a sizable entourage ventured to Rome to determine the fate of the rebels
and the pope. After several weeks of meeting with the pope and the nobility, a great council was held on
December 23 where the rebels were found guilty and condemned to death, a sentence that was commuted to
exile at Leo's request. Leo himself swore an oath of his innocence, which was accepted by all. On Christmas day,
Charlemagne attended a mass presided over by the pope, who placed a crown on the king's head when he rose
from kneeling at the altar. The assembled crowd then arose and proclaimed Charlemagne emperor and
The coronation opened the final phase of Charlemagne's career, a period of diminished activity for the emperor,
during which the strains of empire began to show. The emperor was less active on the military front and faced an
increasing Viking threat, one that his armies had difficulty stopping. He was also less peripatetic than he had
been earlier in his reign, settling primarily at the palace at Aachen (in present-day Germany). He continued to
pass new laws, however, including a capitulary that restated the religious and political program he had long
promoted, now presented as the program of an emperor. In 813, Charlemagne crowned his only remaining son,
Louis I, emperor in a great ceremony at Aachen, which was attended by members of the secular and religious
aristocracy but not the pope. Having settled his affairs, dividing his wealth among his children and the church,
Charlemagne died on January 28, 814.
Although the empire dissolved in little more than a generation after his death, Charlemagne left an indelible mark
on his age and the later Middle Ages. His model of Christian kingship remained the ideal for much of the rest of
the Middle Ages, and the imperial dignity he created was regarded as the ultimate expression of political power
into the modern era. The close ties he forged with the popes in Rome influenced political events long after his
death, and his reform of the church in his kingdom revived a sagging institution. The efforts at cultural and
religious renewal that created the Carolingian Renaissance established an important foundation for later cultural
growth in the Middle Ages. Indeed, Charlemagne's achievement was unsurpassed in the early Middle Ages, and
he is widely considered the greatest king of the entire Middle Ages.
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Further Reading
Bullough, Donald, "Europae Pater: Charlemagne and His Achievement in the Light of Recent Scholarship,"
English Historical Review, 1970; Collins, Roger, Charlemagne, 1998; Dutton, Paul, ed., Carolingian Civilization: A
Reader, 1993; Einhard and Notker the Stammerer, Two Lives of Charlemagne, trans. by Lewis Thorpe, 1981;
Fichtenau, Heinrich, The Carolingian Empire, trans. by Peter Munz, 1979; Frassetto, Michael. Encyclopedia of
Barbarian Europe: Society in Transformation. Santa Barbara, CA : ABC-CLIO, 2003; Ganshof, F.L. The
Carolingians and the Frankish Monarchy: Studies in Carolingian History. Translated by Janet Sondheimer.
London: Longman, 1971; Halphen, Louis. Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire. Translated by Giselle de
Nie. New York: North-Holland Pub. Co., 1977; McKitterick, Rosamond, The Frankish Kingdoms under the
Carolingians, 751-987, 1983; Sullivan, Richard E. Aix-la-Chapelle in the Age of Charlemagne. Norman: University
of Oklahoma Press, 1963.
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"Charlemagne." World History: Ancient and Medieval Eras. ABC-CLIO, 2014. Web. 19 May 2014.
Entry ID: 593544
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