Throughout European history there was a desire to replicate the former Roman Empire. The Byzantines, (rightly), viewed themselves as Romans; the Russian emperors styled themselves as Tsars, (from Caesar); the Renaissance heavily involved 'rediscovering' Latin and Roman knowledge; and we saw in western Europe an empire which almost resurrected the western half of the Empire. Today we shall look at this metaphorical successor of the Western Roman Empire: Charlemagne. Often called the 'Father of Europe' Charlemagne is often seen as someone who almost reformed the Western Roman Empire, and his legacy formed the Holy Roman Empire. Today we shall look at Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire.
Europe before Charlemagne
Charles the Great, Charlemagne, who became king in 768, was born within the boundaries of Francia, and was the eldest son of Pepin the Short. Francia was one of the many kingdoms which slowly emerged to prominence following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476. Politics, society, and religion was very different in this world compared to the Europe of today, and the Europe which Rome ruled over. Unlike the moderately centralized Roman Empire these kingdoms were very decentralized and feudalism was widespread. Feudalism is a system of governance where a king rules over many landowning nobles who would allow people, (vassals), to live and work on their land, (fiefs). The vassals would offer some service to the noble or lord in return for living on the fief and for military protection. The nobles were subservient to the ruling monarch who offered the lords military protection in return for their taxes and loyalty. This feudal system was universally applied across Europe, (it did not exist in some areas), and the feudal system could look very different in different areas.
Religion was extremely important during this time period. The primary religion was Christianity although many Jews and pagans could be found throughout Europe. As an example, the Saxons, from modern day Germany, remained polytheistic until the seventh century. For many people religion was the most important aspect of their life in many ways other than the obvious ones. The Church collected alms to be given to the poor, the Church was a center for learning, (literacy was highest in monasteries etc.), bishops helped educate the nobility, and women had the chance to rise in the Church through becoming nuns. Christianity was a blessing and a bane for rulers as well. The Divine Right of Kings, (where it was God's will for kings to rule), helped greatly secure their position, but the authority of the Church acted as a counterweight to the Crown's authority. In the eighth century Islam spread to western Europe under the Umayyad Caliphate and rapidly spread across Iberia. Only at the Battle of Tours in 733/4 did the Umayyads fail to spread further into Europe. In 751 Pippin III usurped the Merovingian throne in Francia and almost twenty years later his son Charles came to power, something which we shall now focus on.
The Reign of Charlemagne- Conquests
|Bust of Charlemagne at Aachen|
Pippin III died leaving his sons, Charles and Carloman, an area consisting of most of modern day France, Belgium, the southern Netherlands, and parts of Germany. In Francian custom Charles and Carloman split the empire between the two of them to rule as co-emperors: the older Charles got the more important northern half, while the younger Carloman got the southern half. At times relations between the two brothers broke down and only through intervention from their mother Bertrada, who became a nun after Pippin's death, prevented relations from collapsing. When Charles broke off his marriage with a Lombard princess, Desiderata, in 770 the Lombards almost made an alliance with Carloman. The alliance failed due to the fact that Carloman died in 771 of natural causes, (often cited as a nosebleed). When Carloman's wife and son fled to the Lombard court Charles was granted rule over his brother's kingdom uniting Francia again. After Charles started his wars of conquest earning him the title Charles the Great, or Charlemagne.
The first conquest was Lombardy. In 772 the newly crowned pope, Adrian I, demanded the Lombard king to return several cities; in response the Lombard king took over several Papal cities and marched to Rome. Adrian sent a message to Charlemagne for help and eager for a boost in legitimacy from aiding the pope he went to war against Lombardy. By 774 Lombardy's capital of Pavia was under siege, and later the same year the capital fell. The Lombardy royal family, and his brother's family who had been residing there, were then sent to religious institutes. Throughout the rest of his reign he would lead wars to conquer land, or create dependencies. Bavaria was conquered in 782, Saxony between 772 and 798 (which we shall get to later), and northern Netherlands between 784 and 785. Despite a serious defeat at Rancesvalles in 778 against the Spanish Muslims he managed to establish the Spanish March in 795, which he expanded in 812. In the east he made dependencies in Croatia, Friuli, Dalmatia, and in present day Bosnia. By the time of his death in 814 the Carolingian Empire, (his empire), and its dependencies stretched from northern Spain to Bosnia, to northern Denmark to southern Italy. In a lifetime he had conquered most of western Europe.
The Reign of Charlemagne- Saxon Wars
|Conversion during the Wars|
Charlemagne is referred to as the 'Father of Europe'. One thing that Charlemagne did do which continued throughout European history was brutal, bloody conquest. The Saxon Wars were a serious of brutal, protracted wars from 772 to 798. Saxony is an area in north-west Germany, and during the eighth century it was made up of various Saxon tribes, (also showing how feudalism did not exist in all parts of Europe), who were Germanic pagan. In January 772 Saxons burnt a church in Deventer which gave Charlemagne the opportunity to invade. Before he fought Lombardy he fought the Saxons and periodically he would return to crush Saxon resistance. During the wars he started forcibly converting the Saxon tribes from Germanic paganism to Christianity. One of his first acts in Saxony was to burn the sacred symbol of Irminsul. He imposed capital punishment on those who refused to convert, issued decrees to break Saxon resistance, and had shrines destroyed. His harsh actions earned him the title 'Butcher of Saxons'. His religious advisers, such as Alcuin of York, urged him to be more tolerant saying that you could not forcibly convert someone through the point of a sword, but he did not listen. In 779 a Saxon leader called Widukind started leading resistance to Frankish rule including wiping out an entire army in the early 780s. In response Charlemagne in 782 had 4,500 Saxon pagans executed in what has since been called the Massacre of Verden. Saxon resistance started to drop when Widunkind was baptized, and slowly through exile and force Saxon resistance ended.
The Reign of Charlemagne- Rule, Empire, and Renaissance
|Charlemagne crowned emperor|
Charlemagne's rule saw strong ties with the Church. Early on as king he fought for the Papacy, in the Lombardy war, and he gave clerics key roles in administration. Being deeply pious he ensured that Christians in his kingdom had sufficient welfare and support. There were many reforms under his rule which included strengthening the orthodoxy of the Church, something which pleased the clergy as it ensured that the people were more pious. Corrected canon laws, Bible text and ecclesiastical laws were made, and monasticism was supported. Charlemagne was a deep admirer of the liberal arts and had his family become well-educated as a result. Starting under Charlemagne's reign we have the Carolingian Renaissance bringing information from the Muslim world, Germany, Italy, England, and Francia together, (his court had figures from all across Europe). Without Charlemagne's revival and expansion of the arts the later, more famous, Renaissance may not have been able to happen. His capital of Aachen became the center of western European culture. Surprisingly, despite his hostility to Germanic pagans he was tolerant to Jews believing they would be an economic benefit. His currency reform created a standard currency throughout the empire. Many of the things made possible in today's Europe had their roots in Charlemagne's reign.
Christmas Day, 800 saw a revolutionary event in European history. Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor of Rome while he was praying. The story that Charlemagne had no idea of this is very unlikely but it is still important. Charlemagne was perceived to be the successor of Rome. For all intensive purposes Charlemagne had reformed the western half of the empire. However, this event deeply upset the Byzantine who viewed themselves as the emperors of Rome, (which they were). The East/West divide between Rome and the Byzantines had started to germinate again. The next fourteen years of his life was not too drastically different from his pre-imperial days. He had stopped campaigning, and had to defend against Viking raids, (something for another World History post). Two of his sons died before he did so by his death in 814 his last remaining son, Louis the Pious, inherited a united empire and the title of emperor. However, Louis would later divide the empire as in traditional fashion.
The Holy Roman Empire
|The flag used through most of its history|
Some historians see Charlemagne as the first Holy Roman Emperor. Following the death of Charles the Fat in 888 East Francia splintered into several duchies, and all who were crowned emperor only ruled in Italy. That is until 962. In 936 Otto of Saxony was elected King of Aachen and he started winning battles against those who opposed him. Eventually he managed to marry Adelaide of Italy allowing him to become king of Italy. In 962 the pope crowned Otto Emperor of Rome and Adelaide Empress of Rome. The Holy Roman Empire had been born truly. Over the next centuries the Holy Roman Empire would cease to be the Holy Roman Empire in everything but name. Instead of being hereditary the position of emperor would become elected by the Imperial Diet, (although it would later become hereditary once more), power shifted from Rome to Germany, and the piousness of Charlemagne would be a long distant memory. It is key to note that the Protestant Reformation originated in the Holy Roman Empire. Instead of being one standardized, state it was instead a collection of free cities, kingdoms, duchies, and various other states with various cultures, languages, currencies, and religions. It did survive for a long time though. The Holy Roman Empire ceased to exist only in 1806 with the invasion of Napoleon.
Charlemagne was integral in forming the institutions of today. Creating a standard government, administration, and currency over large tracts of disparate land helped shape European states in the future. Looking at the Carolingian and the Holy Roman Empires also shows us how potent ideas of history are to society. There was a clear desire to become the new Romans; something which never really went away throughout European history. The division of Charlemagne's empire under his son would greatly shape Germany and France: West Francia remained unified and would become the Kingdom of France, while divided East Francia became a conglomeration of states often referred to as the First Reich. Thank you for reading and the next World History will take us to the other side of the world to look at Japan during the Taika reforms, Heian period, and the rise of the samurai.
The sources I have used are as follows:
-The New Cambridge Medieval History, Vol. 2, c.700-c.900 edited by Rosamond McKitterick
-Charlemagne by Roger Collins
-The Penguin History of the World by John Roberts
-The Times History of the World by Richard Overy
For a list of other World History posts please see here